Who can resist lavender growing in an herb garden? The aroma catches our nose and the gray-green bushes covered with stems of purple, lavender, pink, or white capture our eyes. Soon fingers will play amongst the sweet softness of the leaves and flowers. There’s nothing quite like it.
Growing lavender can be a real challenge for the home gardener. Ask any gardener how their lavender is doing and you’re likely to hear a tale of woe. They plant it, pamper it, and pray it survives only to discover one hot summer day that their lavender is dead. I confess I’ve had my share of lavender growing troubles. Few lavenders last beyond one year for me.
Different Lavenders For Different Areas
So what’s the secret to healthy lavender? The first key is planting the right variety. Not every type of lavender will grow in every garden. Our continent spans a wide range of growing zones, soil types, annual rainfall and – most critical for lavender – humidity. What works in the Gulf Coast won’t survive in Tucson.
Gardeners in the drier regions should try varieties of English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). English lavenders don’t do well in the humid Gulf Coast. They are more susceptible than other lavenders to fungal diseases brought on by high humidity combined with high summer temperatures. Few will last beyond one season in that region.
The sterile hybrid lavenders (Lavandula x intermedia) have more compact flower bracts on longer stalks, making them more suitable for decorative crafts. These are not as winter hardy as English lavenders, thriving only as far north as Zone 6, but are more tolerant of humidity in the South. The varieties ‘Grosso,’ ‘Provence,’ and ‘Dutch’ strains have also grown well in the south.
All of the French lavender varieties (Lavandula stoechas) will grow in the moister regions. These lavenders are characterized by the pair of sterile bracts or “bunny ears” they sport at the tip of the dense flower stalk. These are sometimes mis-labeled Spanish lavender. Good choices include ‘Kew Red,’ ‘Peter’s Pink,’ and ‘Blue Star.’ These lavenders are not hardy in dry areas of the Southwest and should be treated there as annuals.
Planting For Healthy Lavender
“High and dry” is the key to proper lavender planting. Pick a spot with good drainage. Water should never puddle near lavender. If there is standing water after a heavy rain, you don’t have good drainage. Professional growers in my part of the country plant lavender in raised beds or mounds so that excess water drains quickly away from the shrub’s root area.
If you don’t have a location with suitable drainage, try planting small varieties of lavender in a container with a pea gravel mulch. A twelve-inch pot is an absolute minimum size – the bigger the better. All lavenders are shrubs and need room for root growth. Containers are also good for gardeners wanting to grow lavenders not winter hardy in their climate. Varieties such as fernleaf lavender (Lavandula multifida), toothed lavender (Lavandula dentata), and wooly lavender (Lavandula lanata) will have a better chance of survival in pots because they can be moved into shade or brought indoors during damaging weather.
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean area and needs conditions that imitate this climate. Lavender likes full sun and a dry, well drained, alkaline soil of pH 7 or higher. Sandy soil or soil that is “gritty” is good for fast drainage. The world-famous lavender fields of Provence, France have rocky soil composed largely of decomposed limestone. Clay soils should be amended with healthy doses of sand, compost, or decomposed granite to improve drainage. If you live in a low pH region try growing French lavenders (L. stoechas) as they are more tolerant of acidic soil.
Lavender plants should be spaced a minimum of one foot apart for hedges and two foot if you want them to reach their full size. After planting, spread an inch or two light-reflective mulches of gravel or decomposed granite. This will help keep water from splashing up on the foliage, reducing the chance for fungal disease. Avoid using bark mulches as they tend to hold moisture near the base of the plant.
The Care and Feeding of Lavender
Lavender needs a little extra water the first year, but once established a weekly watering is fine. It may need occasional supplemental water during summer heat or drought but don’t panic and flood it. Excess moisture is never kind to lavender.
Do not use of sprinklers, whether manual or automatic, to water your lavender. Most growers advise customers to “water the ground, not the foliage.” Overhead watering during the bud formation period can cause the bush to split open and look unsightly. Delivering water overhead also wets the fine, fuzzy leaves and holds the moisture there, inviting fungus to grow and destroy your lavender. You can’t stop the rain from landing on the leaves but you can avoid wetting them between showers.
If watering is the number one lavender growing problem, then pruning is definitely number two. When you’ve labored all year to grow a healthy stand of lavender it can be almost painful to go at it with pruning shears. But you must exercise tough love if you want healthy lavender. A good pruning will promote vigorous growth in spring and a longer plant life. Gardeners should prune all lavenders back each fall after blooming to about half its height. Never cut stems shorter than four leaf nodes from the base.
Lavender needs fertilizing three times a year. A feeding of slow release fertilizer in late spring will aid bloom formation. Fertilize again lightly in the summer after blooming and once again in the fall. Lavenders prefer limestone-based soil so if you garden in a low pH area you may need to add lime in the fall.
Pests and Diseases
Lavender is not bothered by most insect pests. The two exceptions are aphids and mealy bugs. Both can be controlled by application of insecticidal soap or, if the infestation is intense, removing the affected section of the plant.
The biggest dangers to lavender plants are fungal diseases. Fungi attack lavenders that are stressed or overwatered. Symptoms include loss of foliage, large sections of the plant dying, and eventual death of the plant. Fungal spores are spread through the soil and water splashing the soil onto neighboring plants. Once the symptoms are evident, you can combat the invaders with a spray of fungicide. But if the fungus is widespread the only thing to do is remove the infected plant and avoid replanting lavender there.
Lavender growing can be tricky but you can do it. Consult regional experts and select the best varieties for your growing conditions. Plant them in raised beds with gravel mulch. Water the ground without wetting the leaves. Prune with authority to encourage healthy growth. And last, but not least, don’t give up. There is a variety of lavender just waiting for you to grow.
There’s more to lavender than just growing it. This sweet herb has a long and colorful history. Here are some tidbits from that story.
Things You Might Not Know About Lavender
Ancient Rome – The Roman legions were undoubtedly the first to spread lavender across the European continent and into England. Wherever they set up permanent camp the soldiers’ families would reproduce their home life, including the gardens and their herbs. However, they and their plants were only temporary. Lavender seems to have disappeared from England along with the soldiers and was not reported in use or cultivation there again until centuries later in the early Renaissance.
It’s Origins – Lavender is native to the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Palestine. Gathering lavender was regarded from ancient times as a risky business. Apparently it grew where asps were likely to lurk. Tradition says the asp employed by Cleopatra for her dramatic exit was captured in the lavender bushes near her palace. This association with a well-hidden deadly creature may be the origin of lavender’s symbolic association with suspicion.
Lavender as a Symbol – You might be surprised to discover that in the Language of Flowers, sweet smelling lavender symbolized “suspicion.” For many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire lavender was gathered wild in southern Europe. The problem was they often grew in the same area as poisonous snakes so a lavender gatherer need to keep a stout stick handy to check the lavender bushes for unexpected dangers. They needed to be suspicious in order the protect themselves.
On the Dining Table – In the Renaissance kitchen, lavender was used (and still is sometimes) by the French to flavor meat dishes and baked goods. One source says conserve of lavender was served at the table of Elizabeth I by royal command. This would be eaten by the queen and her court for lavender’s stimulating properties and to promote health and prevent diseases.
As Aromatherapy – The inhalation of lavender was regarded as beneficial to the whole body. Patients would sometimes carry a sack of lavender over their upper chest as a pectoral “to open obstructions, to expel melancholy, to cleanse and strengthen the liver and other inward parts” – and no doubt to counteract the bad smells of city life.
In Medicine – Lavender was often part of medicinal formulas. For example, it was combined with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, made into a powder and mixed with liquid. This elixer was used for “panting an passion of heart, prevaileth against giddiness, turning, or swimming of the brain, and members subject to the palsie.”
In Baking – Before the wide availability of the vanilla bean beginning in the nineteenth century, cakes and confections were flavored with essences of flowers (jasmine, rose, carnation, lavender) and the more expensive hard spices of the Far East.