Lavender is a well-known and fragrant plant with gray-green foliage, upright flower spikes, and a compact shrub form. It's native to Europe and can be planted the spring after the risk of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up. It will grow at a moderate pace, often adding a few inches to its size each year. 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 beds.
Another major reason lavender is so prized is that its flowers keep their fragrance when dried. For best drying results, harvest the flowers as the buds first begin to open. Hang them 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.
|Botanical Name||Lavandula spp.|
|Plat Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||2–3 ft. tall, 2–4 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic|
|Hardiness Zones||5–9 (USDA)|
Watch Now: How to Prune Lavender Plants
As with most plants, your success in growing lavender 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.
Most lavenders are labeled hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9, though it's unlikely you will even have a lavender hedge in zone five. 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.
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. Keep starting new plants to ensure you have a bountiful harvest for years to come.
Lavender plants thrive in full sunlight, which is the best way to guarantee a lot of buds and big, full bushes. They really can't handle much (if any) shade, so don't plant them in a bed or spot in your landscape where they'll be overshadowed by trees or other large plants.
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 fertilizer. Lavender prefers well-drained soil that is on the drier side, so if you're using a traditional potting mix, be sure to add in some sand for drainage. Additionally, an alkaline or especially chalky soil will also enhance your lavender's fragrance.
Lavender is a resilient plant that is extremely drought-tolerant once established. When first starting your lavender plants, keep them regularly watered during their first growing season
Temperature and Humidity
Lavender can withstand a range of temperatures—rather, 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 airflow, and always plant your bushes in a sunny location. Protect your lavender plants from harsh winter winds by planting them next to a stone or brick wall, which will provide additional heat and protection.
Areas where the ground routinely freezes and thaws throughout the winter will benefit from a layer of mulch applied after the ground initially freezes. Don't be afraid to give them a handful of compost in the planting hole when you are first starting them. Additional feeding is not needed with these plants and can detract from the overall potency of your lavender.
Although lavender plants get regularly pruned simply by harvesting the flowers, a bit of spring pruning is recommended to keep them well-shaped and encourage new growth. Taller varieties can be cut back by approximately one-third of their height, while 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 winter die-back, don't prune your plants until you see new green growth at the base of the plant. If you disturb the plants too soon in the season, they likely won't develop new growth.
Lavender plants are best propagated by either softwood cuttings (the soft, flexible tips of shoots) or hardwood cuttings (segments of shoots with woody stems). Softwood cuttings are available in the spring; hardwood cuttings in the fall.
To propagate, use a sharp knife to cut a three-inch segment of a healthy shoot from the plant. Hardwood cuttings should be severed just below a bump that identifies a leaf node. Remove the leaves from the bottom two inches of the stem, and scrape off the skin from the bottom of the stem along one side.
Fill a small pot with a seed-starting mix, then dip the stripped side of the cutting in rooting hormone and bury it into the seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix with a bit of water, then cover the pot with plastic. Softwood cuttings take two to four weeks to begin rooting; hardwood cuttings take a bit longer.
When you've noticed that roots are established, you can remove the plastic covering and place the pot in a sunny location. Feed the plant once a week with a liquid plant fertilizer diluted to 25 percent strength. After two or three weeks, the plant can be transplanted outdoors or into a larger pot with standard potting soil—commercial potting soil has enough nutrients to nourish the plant without any more feeding.
Potting and Repotting Lavender
Where outdoor planting is not practical, you can always grow your lavender in pots and move it around to follow the sun, or even bring it indoors for the winter. Although lavender has a large, spreading root system, it prefers to grow in a tight space. A pot that can accommodate the root ball with a couple of inches to spare is a good choice, as a pot that is too large will only encourage excessive dampness.
Ensure that your container has plenty of holes at its base for drainage—root rot is one of the few problems experienced by lavender plants. Additionally, you can plant your lavender in a clay or terracotta pot to help wick moisture away from the soil and keep it from getting too wet. 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. A good rule of thumb is to water when the soil (not the plant), appears dry, watering at the base of the plant to limit dampness on the foliage.
Varieties of Lavender
There are many varieties of lavender, each boasting its own benefits and perks. They include:
English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- 'Munstead': an old-fashioned standard with blue-purple flowers that grows to around 18 inches tall
- 'Hidcote': a varietal favored for its dark purple flowers
- 'Jean Davis': a unique blend that produces pale pink flower spikes
Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia):
- 'Provence': a varietal particularly popular for drying out
- 'Grosso': a highly disease-resistant and fragrant standard
Fringed Lavender (Lavandula dentata): a bushy, spreading shrub that produces dense purple-blue flower spikes that are very pretty, but only mildly fragrant
French Lavender (Lavandula stoechas): a beautiful Mediterranean native that is compact and bushy with fragrant, dark purple flowers
Common Pests and Diseases
Lavender plants are fairly trouble-free, but leaf spots and root rot can occur if the soil is too wet. Additionally, many plants will perish if their soil gets too wet over the winter months.