Growing Lavender

Lavender, a member of the mint family, is found across Europe, the Mediterranean, north and eastern Africa, southwest Asia to southeast India and fits right into our similar environment. Everybody has their favorite type. Mine happens to be a compact English variety called Hidcote but there are hundreds available including a new, tough, variegated one called ‘Meerlo’. Here’s how to grow yours so it flourishes and doesn’t end up woody and spindly.

Lavender farm on Whidbey Island in Washington.

Lavender needs good drainage. Incorporate organic matter if necessary to make the soil loose and friable. Compost is the best amendment because it is fertile and the uneven particle sizes create better air spaces and give the roots better anchors to attach themselves to. Check the soil’s pH (potential hydrogen) to make sure it falls somewhere between 6.5 and 7.5. If the soil is too acidic the lavender will not thrive. If the soil is too alkaline, the nutrients are “tied” up in the soil and the plant cannot use them. Yellowed growth can be indicative of a soil that is out of balance. Adding compost can help to balance the pH.

Mulching with a fine mulch or compost after planting helps with the weed control. Avoid mulching right up to the stem of the small plant. Instead, leave a collar about two inches wide around the plant.

In the ground or in a pot, full sun is a must. In hot areas, some late afternoon shade can be tolerated without effecting flowering. Lavender in the field rarely needs fertilizer, especially if compost is applied as a mulch. More often, problems arise because the soil is not healthy. Avoid chemicals in pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that kill or starve the beneficial organisms in the soil.

While Lavender is extremely drought resistant once established, they grows larger and produce more blooms with occasional deep watering depending on your soil type. This means that when the soil is dry several inches down, water thoroughly, then let it dry before soaking again. Often I see older foliage that has yellowed due to lack of moisture.

Lavender plants should be pruned every year immediately after bloom. Pruning should not be confused with harvesting. Pruning is necessary to extend the life of the plant. Cut back not only the flower stem, but also about a third of the gray-leaved stems as well. If the plant has been neglected, it can be cut back further, but avoid pruning back to only woody stems with no leaves showing. A plant pruned into the wood may push out latent (sleeping) buds or it may die.

It’s possible to have a lavender blooming in your garden most of the growing season. Here are my favorites.

Spanish lavender starts blooming early to mid spring. These do best with a good pruning about four or five weeks into the bloom cycle, which discourages these large bushes from becoming untidy and sometimes encourages a second sweep of blooms. Spanish lavender is sometimes referred to as French lavender since it grows wild in France.

French lavender has the more traditional gray leaves but with serrated edges. This large, fast growing shrub is sometimes referred to as everblooming lavender. French lavender does best when kept at no more than three feet, including blooms. Goodwin Creek lavender is a hybrid of French Lavender with a shorter growth habit and a darker purple flower head that is held on a longer wand. It makes a nice border or edging plant.

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolias), like Munstead and Hidcote start flowering in mid to late spring. They look great when they flower, and after pruning, remain a compact ball or hedge with exotically fragrant leaves the rest of the year. Hidcote is famous for its dark purple flower.

The English hybrids come in third in the bloom cycle and continue into mid summer. These are the workhorses of the lavenders. Provence and Grosso are the best known and are the ones to line the drive or border the garden.

Ceanothus: The Most Valuable Plant in your Garden

Those of you who read my column regularly might have noticed I often write about plants that are valuable to the birds and the bees as well as butterflies and wildlife in the general. I have 10 bird feeders around my house. Four for the hummingbirds and the other six have black oil sunflower seed and hulled chips. At this time of year when there are so many young the extra food is much appreciated. I provide water and nectar plants for the bees and butterflies as well. If I had to choose one plant to grow that would provide the most benefit for all the critters it would be ceanothus. Hands down, it’s the best and here are some of my favorite varieties.

Ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’
Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’

The groundcover varieties I have in my landscape are Anchor Bay, Carmel Creeper, Heart’s Desire, Centennial and Diamond Heights. If deer frequent your landscape you should stick with Anchor Bay, Heart’s Desire and Centennial but the others are great in protected areas.

One of the upright types I grow is ceanothus thysiflorus. It’s one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. I also grow Julia Phelps with those electric blue flowers and Ray Hartman.

A new variety I’ve recently learned about from my friend and fellow Press Banner columnist, Colly Gruczelak, is called Celestial Blue. She planted several 2 years ago from 4″ mail order sleeves and they are now 3 ft tall and 4 ft wide. In her sandy garden, home to her personal deer population, the flowers look like blueberry sherbet. With a light fragrance, described as grape tart, it makes a good screen or accent. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that’s been selected specifically for gardens. Celestial Blue flowers 9 months a year especially in the summer when it explodes with rich purplish blue flowers.

A great variety I often use when designing a garden is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ because it will accept summer water more forgivingly than most and tolerates clay soil more than other species.

Joyce Coulter ceanothus also tolerates clay, summer irrigation and shearing better than other cultivars. It”s a good bloomer, drought tolerant and is covered in spring with wildly fragrant blue three-inch flower spikes.

Ceanothus is often said to be short lived. Most varieties need good drainage, little summer water and don’t need soil amendments. In their wild conditions ceanothus plants have a natural life cycle of 10-15 years although some live longer.

Diamond Heights ceanothus

Several members of the ceanothus family can form a symbiotic relationship with soil micro-organisms and fungi, forming root nodules which fix nitrogen. This is a reason why fertilizing is not normally recommended. Adding fertilizer mights kill off the good micro-organisms. Ceanothus are better left fending for themselves.

Ceanothus provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silkmoth. Ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds. Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.

Early California Indians used the fresh or dried flowers of some varieties for washing, lathered into a soap. it has been said to relieve poison oak, eczema and rash.

The Cutting Garden

Bringing flowers indoors, whether displayed in a simple mason jar or a crystal vase, brightens my day. I wish I had more flowers growing in my own landscape.

A mixed bouquet of fragrant roses and carnations with quince and gerbera daisies.

The secret to a fabulous bouquet is not just the flowers but the interesting foliage and that is something we all have in our gardens. I’m still going to plant more perennial flowers that are good for cutting but I’ll use them as accents in bouquets and concentrate on more foliage.

Great foliage plants come in all shapes and sizes. In shady gardens, fragrant variegated daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub for both flowers and foliage. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub with apricot scented blooms. Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ will add white with a hint of lime to your bouquets. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets during the summer and the leaves turn red in fall as an added bonus. Our native shrub philadelphus, also called mock orange, has flowers that smell like oranges and will grow in some shade as well as sun.

For sunny spots grow penstemon and kangaroo paw. Coreopsis attract butterflies and are long lasting in bouquets.
Perennial coneflowers, dahlias, gloriosa daisy, delphinium, foxglove, scabiosa, aster, shasta daisy and yarrow also make good cut flowers. Self-sowing annuals that have a long vase life are bachelor buttons, clarkia, cosmos, flax, love-in-a-mist, nasturtium, cleome and calendula.

A deconstructed bouquet of peonies.

Native flowers that last for a week or more include clarkia and sticky monkeyflower. Yarrow and hummingbird sage will last 4-6 days.

To make cut flowers last, pick them early in the morning before heat stresses them. Flowers cut in the middle of the day will have difficulty absorbing enough water. Cut non-woody stems on a slant for maximum water absorption. Woody stems can be cut straight across but smash the ends. Plunge immediately in a bucket of tepid water. Indoors, fill a container with cool water and re-cut each stem under water so an air bubble doesn’t keep water from being absorbed.

Pull off any foliage or flowers that will be below the water level in the vase. Fill a clean vase with 3 parts lukewarm water mixed with 1 part lemon-lime soda, 1 teaspoon vinegar and a crushed aspirin. Another recipe for floral food is 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 tablespoons white vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water. The sugar helps buds open and last longer, the acid improves water flow in the stems and the bleach reduces the growth of bacteria and fungus. Change the water and re-cut the stems every few days to enjoy your bouquet for a week or even longer.

While just about any plant material that strikes your fancy will work in a mixed bouquet there are four types of plant forms that naturally look good together: Spires for height and architectural properties with flowers like liatris, snapdragon, gladiola, salvia, Bells-of-Ireland as well as the strappy leaves of flax or cordyline. Round flowers such as roses, dahlias, long-stemmed marigolds and peonies provide focus. Lacy flowers are fillers- ferns, baby’s breath, dill. Foliage from shrubs such as abelia, breath of heaven, California. bay, ornamental grasses, grapes and other vines, herbs, woody tree branches like smoke tree and Japanese maple which also look handsome in a bouquet.

A deconstructed arrangement separates each type of flower into their own vase or container instead of grouping them in a mixed bouquet. Vary the size and shape of the vases and containers and group them together to create a unique vignette. All bouquets are beautiful.

Harvesting, Drying and Preserving Herbs

Now that you have an assortment of herbs growing nicely in your garden what do you do with them? Mine seem to be growing more exuberantly than I anticipated and if I don’t keep up with snipping them often some will go to seed or get leggy and unproductive. Then what would I do when I’m putting together my favorite nectarine-caprese salad with fresh basil and mint leaves?

Chives and Tuscan Blue rosemary

Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom when leaves are at peak flavor and oils are strongest. Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Harvest on a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated. To fully harvest annual herbs such as basil cut all stems back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves. Perennial herbs like sage should be cut back to about a third of their height just above a set of leaves. As you collect your harvest, keep them out of the sun or they will quickly wilt.

To store, wash herbs lightly with the leaves on the stems in cold running water to remove soil, dust or bugs, Drain on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down until the water evaporates. Then hang to dry thoroughly in small bunches in a dark, warm, well ventilated room. You can also lay them in a shallow basket or on a screen. if drying on a screen or basket remove large-leaved herbs from the stems before spreading them out. Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on the stem to dry.

Herbs with a high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark or by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags.

Those herbs with a high water content like tarragon, basil, chives, lemon balm, mint and dill freeze well. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike dried herbs whose flavor is more concentrated when dried, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh.

Herbs are dry when they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Strip them from the stem and pack in labeled jars as they tend to look alike when dried. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils so don’t do that until you use them.

Here are some herbs that do double duty in the garden:
Basil- repels flies and mosquitos. Plant with tomatoes to improve flavor.
Catnip- deters flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Also repels mice.
Chamomile-improves the flavor of cabbages, onions and cucumbers. Accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. Also a host for beneficial hoverflies and good wasps and increases the productions of essential oils in herbs.
Chives- improves growth and flavor of carrots and tomatoes. Keeps aphids away from mums and sunflowers. When planted by roses, helps prevent black spot.
Coriander/cilantro- repels aphids, spider mites and potato beetle. Coriander tea is a good spray for spider mites.
Dill- improves the growth and health of cabbage and lettuce. Plant by tomatoes to trap the tomato hornworm. Attracts many beneficials. Do not plant by caraway or carrots.
Lemon balm- deters many bugs, especially mosquitos and squash bugs.
Mint- deters cabbage moths, ants, rodents, aphids and fleas. Attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps. Attractive to earthworms.
Rosemary- plant with cabbage, carrots, beans, and sage, Deters cabbage looper and bean beetles.
Tarragon- beneficial to plants throughout the garden as is thyme.