Just saying the word "lavender" evokes memories of its alluring scent and flowers. Lavender (Lavandula) is such a romantic flower that every gardener sooner or later succumbs to the urge to grow it. Undeterred by the fact that it is a native of the Mediterranean and is most at home in dry, sunny climates, we plant it anyway, hoping it will adapt. After all, England can hardly be considered dry or particularly sunny, yet English gardeners are renowned for growing lavender plants. Think of "Hidcote" and "Munstead", two of the hardiest and best-loved lavender varieties.
Tips for Growing Lavender
As with most plants, your success in growing this coveted plant will depend both on what kind of growing conditions you can provide and which varieties you select to grow. Lavender plants will tolerate many growing conditions, but they thrive in warm, well-draining soil and full sun.
As with many plants grown for their essential oils, a lean soil will encourage a higher concentration of oils, so go easy on the organic matter and on the fertilizer. An alkaline or especially chalky soil will also enhance lavender's fragrance.
Although most lavenders are labeled hardy in USDA Zones 5 - 9, while you can grow lavender in USDA Hardiness Zone 5, it is unlikely you will ever have a lavender hedge. More realistically you can expect to have plants that will do well when the weather cooperates, but experience the occasional loss of a plant or two after a severe winter or a wet, humid summer. They are breeding ever tougher lavender plants, so that may change.
Lavender is a resilient plant and is extremely drought-tolerant, once established. However when first starting you lavender plants, don't be afraid to give them a handful of compost in the planting hole and to keep them regularly watered during their first growing season.
Special Considerations When Growing Lavender
It is dampness, more than cold, that is responsible for killing lavender plants. Dampness can come in the form of wet roots during the winter months or high humidity in the summer. If humidity is a problem, make sure you have plenty of space between your plants for air flow and always plant in a sunny location.
Areas where the ground routinely freezes and thaws throughout the winter will benefit from a layer of mulch applied after the ground initially freezes. Also, protect your lavender plants from harsh winter winds. Planting next to a stone or brick wall will provide additional heat and protection.
Unfortunately, even if you do everything right and your lavender plants appear happy, the genus is generally not long-lived and most lavender plants begin to decline after about 10 years. So keep starting new plants to carry you through your rough spots.
Although lavender plants get regularly pruned simply by harvesting the flowers, to keep them well-shaped and to encourage new growth, a bit of spring pruning is in order. The taller varieties can be cut back by approximately one-third their height. Lower growing varieties can either be pruned back by a couple of inches or cut down to new growth.
If you live in an area where lavender suffers some winter die-back, don't even think about pruning your plants until you see some new green growth at the base of the plant. If you disturb the plants too soon in the season, they give up trying. More on the specifics of pruning lavender.
Using Lavender in Your Garden Design
In the garden, lavender makes an excellent companion plant for almost anything from roses to cabbage. It is one of those aromatic, gray herbs that deer avoid, making it a great choice as a decoy in your Hosta or daylily beds.
Growing Lavender in Containers
You can always grow your lavender in pots and move it to follow the sun, or even bring it indoors for the winter. Although lavender has a large, spreading root system, it prefers growing in a tight space. A pot that can accommodate the root ball with a couple of inches to spare would be a good choice. Too large a pot will only encourage excessive dampness.
Ensure that the container has good drainage. Root rot is one of the few problems experienced by lavender plants. Use a loose, soilless mix for planting and remember that container grown lavender will require more water than garden grown plants. How much more depends on the environment and the type of pot. Water when the soil, not the plant, appears dry and water at the base of the plant to limit dampness on the foliage.
Compact varieties make the best choices for containers. Some to try are Lavandula angustifolia "Nana Alba" and Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas subsp. pedunculata).
A major reason lavender is so prized is that the flowers keep their fragrance when dried. For best drying results, harvest the flowers as the buds first begin to open. Hang in small bunches upside down in a warm spot with good air circulation.
Besides being beautiful and aromatic, lavender flowers are also edible. They can be used raw in salads, added to soups and stews, used as a seasoning, baked into cookies and brewed into tea. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way.
Recommended Lavender Varieties
English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8
- "Munstead" is an old-fashioned standard with blue-purple flowers. 18 inches tall
- "Hidcote" is favored for its dark purple flowers. 24 inches tall
- "Jean Davis" produces pale pink flower spikes. 18 inches tall
Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8
- "Provence" dries particularly well. 30 inches tall
- "Grosso" is highly disease resistant and fragrant. 30 inches tall
Fringed Lavender (Lavandula dentata) USDA Hardiness Zones 8-9
- This is a bushy, spreading shrub that produces dense purple-blue flower spikes that are very pretty, but only mildly fragrant. 3 ft. tall
French Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) USDA Hardiness Zones 8-9
- A beautiful Mediterranean native that is compact and bushy with fragrant, dark purple flowers topped by a feathery purple bract. Good cultivars include: "Dark Eyes" and "Silver Frost".
Spanish Lavender (Lavendula stoechas subsp. pedunculata) USDA Hardiness Zones 9-10
- Bears its flower stalks high above the foliage.