Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia), commonly known as English lavender, is a hardy perennial herb with lovely bluish-purple flowers and an even lovelier scent. It grows in a wide range of climates, including the dry western U.S. states and in high elevations, and is a popular choice for water-wise gardens in drought-prone areas. Lavender flowers and buds are widely used for making essential oils, flavoring food, and adding scent to many body and home products.
Best planted as a young plant in the spring as the soil warms up. If planted in the fall, lavender plants should be larger and more established to ensure it will survive the first winter. The plant grows several inches per year and usually flowers in its third year.
While English lavender is the most common type of lavender used in home gardens, there are a few other popular lavender species, including Spanish lavender (L.stoechas), French lavender (L. dentata), and the hybrid lavandin (Lavendula x intermedia). These have some characteristics and care requirements that are different from English lavender.
|Botanical Name||Lavandula angustifolia|
|Common Name||English lavender|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||18 to 36 inches tall and wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||6.7 to 7.3|
|Flower Color||Bluish-purple, lavender, white, pink|
|Hardiness Zones||5 to 8 (USDA)|
How to Grow Lavender
Lavender grows well in open, sunny areas. Its foliage is evergreen in its native Mediterranean climate (and similarly warm areas), but it goes dormant in temperate regions. However, it is a woody plant, so you do not trim it back to the ground in fall like you do with many other perennial flowers. In most cases, the plant needs just a light haircut at the beginning of the growing season.
Lavender is hard to germinate from seed, and it is best to buy established plants from a nursery. Hardy varieties of lavender are available in most locations, and fall is a good time to visit your local nursery to purchase lavender in one- or two-gallon pots. Grow lavender any way you like: thickly planted as a hedge, in individual pots, or interspersed among other plants in your garden landscape.
Plant lavender where it receives full sun, preferably eight hours per day. These heat-loving plants do not do well in a lot of shade.
Lavender likes relatively low-fertility soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline. Most important, it must drain well. Soil that holds water commonly leads to root rot, particularly in winter. If the soil is clay or overly moist, add sand or gravel to promote drainage.
Lavender's water needs fluctuate with the age of the plant and the season. Water new plants once or twice a week, as needed, to keep the soil moist until the plants are established. After that, water deeply and less often, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings. Giving lavender too much water, particularly in winter, commonly causes root rot.
Temperature and Humidity
Lavender likes hot and dry conditions but not hot and humid. In humid conditions, give the plants as much airflow as possible, and use rock mulch instead of organic mulches. Fungus that causes brown leaves is a common indication of excessive humidity.
Typically, lavender will thrive and bloom profusely with no fertilizer or plant food, and adding compost isn't necessary, since the soil does not need much fertility. If desired, you can feed it an organic all-purpose plant food to promote blooming, following the product directions.
Harvest lavender flowers just before they fully open, and they will stay tightly closed and fragrant for many months. You can take advantage of lavender's long-lasting scent and moth-repelling ability by cutting the entire stem and flower to make lavender wands or herb sachets.
There are also many uses for dried lavender buds, which are great for potpourris and sachets as well as lavender oils and many culinary and medicinal uses. To harvest lavender buds, clip the flower stalks from the plant before the buds open. Hang the stems upside down over a sheet or tablecloth, as some buds may drop off as they dry. When the stems and buds have dried—typically about 10 to 14 days—roll each stem between your hands to remove the buds.
Store lavender buds in small airtight containers placed in a dark area; light degrades the quality of lavender's essential oil.
Once lavender flowers have opened, they are no longer as fragrant and are much more fragile than they are in bud form. But open flowers still dry well and can be cut for dried flower arrangements. To cut them for dried flowers, cut the stems cleanly, and hang them upside down to dry, using an elastic band to keep them together. Once dried, their scent will last throughout the winter on display.
Varieties of Lavender
Each of the following species includes several different cultivars; look to the hardiness of the species to find the right plant for your climate:
- Spanish lavender (Lavendula stoechas) grows in zones 8 to 11, so it's an option only for warm climates. It grows 18 to 24 inches tall and has characteristic pineapple-shaped blooms topped with purple flower petals. The foliage is more fragrant than the flowers.
- French lavender (Lavandula dentata) is relatively large and showy and grows to a height of 3 feet. Its foliage has a distinctive scent with a hint of rosemary. Like Spanish lavender, it is suitable for zones 8 to 11.
- Lavandin (Lavendula x intermedia) is a hybrid plant that grows in zones 5 to 11, making is as cold-hardy as English lavender and considerably more heat-tolerant. It grows to 24 to 32 inches in height and has long, deep-purple flower spikes. It is not used for culinary purposes but is prized for its fragrance.