Yet another member of the mint family, lavender has been used to sooth upset stomach, irritated skin, and bad hair days for over 2,500 years.
The essential oils found in lavender have sedative, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties and they smell wonderful! The word ‘lavender’ comes from the Latin verb which means ‘to wash’ or ‘to bathe’.
Sachets, soaps, linen spritz, soup, and even frosting are all made better with the addition of lavender. Flowers can be candied and used to decorate baked goods. Teas, chocolates, and cheeses have all enjoyed the addition of lavender. At the same time, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) does not recommend lavender for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, or to pre-adolescent boys, due to potential hormonal problems. For some people, lavender can cause skin irritation.
This easy to grow perennial can add color to practically any garden. Lavender can also be used as an insect repellent. Simply snip off a stem and rub the leaves on exposed skin - it smells a heck of a lot better than bug spray!
How to grow lavender
Being from a rocky Mediterranean terrain, lavender prefers hot, dry weather. If you live in an area that gets too cold or wet, lavender can be planted in a pot and brought it indoors for winter. A lavender’s root system is significantly bigger than the above-ground portion of the plant, so use a rather large container. Lavender can be grown from seeds, cuttings, layering or root division.
When selecting a site, keep in mind that lavender does best where there is plenty of air flow and good sun, and they can live for 50 years! Sites with poor drainage can cause root rot, black mold, and other fungal diseases. Aged compost can be added to heavy clay soil to improve drainage. Mulching around lavender plants with sand, white stones or oyster shells will reflect light into the plant and help avoid fungal disease. Lavender grows beautifully in rock gardens! Because air is so important to lavender, be sure to work the soil so that it is loose enough to dig into it with your hands before planting. Also, keep in mind the mature size of the variety. Some of them can reach 5’ across! Lavender prefers slightly alkaline soil, with a pH between 6.7 and 7.3, so the Bay Area is a great place to grow it.
Lavender seeds take a long time to grow (up to 6 months to reach transplant size), and many varieties are not viable. If you want to start from seed, I recommend using peat pots filled with seed starter mix. The peat pots allows youngsters to be transplanted into the garden without disturbing their roots. Lavender seeds are very tiny, so only cover them lightly with soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Lavender seeds will not germinate below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so a window sill is a good place to start. As seedling emerge, they must be gently and gradually acclimated to outdoor temperatures. To acclimate young plants, put them in a sheltered area with partial sun for an hour, at first, building up to full days and full sun over the next two weeks. Water occasionally, but allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings.
Lavender loves to eat phosphorus, so bone meal is a good soil addition. Just sprinkle it around the plant and work it into the top inch of soil, or water it in. Mindful weed removal during the first 2 years of a lavender’s life will go a long way toward establishing a healthy, durable plant.
There are over 35 species of lavender, with more than 250 named varieties. Generally, they are categorized as either ‘hardy’ or ‘tender’. Hardy English (or Dutch) lavenders (Lavendula angustifolia or L. intermedia) are the most commonly grown. Both varieties are hardy to Zone 5. Tender lavenders include Spike, Wooly, Egyptian, Spanish, and my all-time favorite, French lavender. Tender lavenders generally cannot handle frost. If an especially cold period is expected, tender lavenders can be protected with a cloth cover for a time. Zones 1-4 are better suited to hardy varieties. When shopping for lavender, be sure to look at the label for the botanical name, so you know what you are getting.
Lavender should be harvested when the first florets open, after the first year of growth. Stalks should be removed just above new stem growth (see photo). Long-stemmed hardy varieties can be bundled and hung upside-down in a dark place to dry. Shorter-stemmed tender varieties, which tend to lose their flowers as they dry, can be threaded and hung in a pillowcase, so none of the flowers are lost (and the pillowcase smells lovely). I hang my lavender in the guest room closet. It stays dark and the aroma is soothing to overnight guests.
Lavender winter care & pruning
Many people think that their lavender has died over the winter, but that is rarely the case. In early autumn, simply cut back the green portion of the plants until only a couple of inches of green remain. This will help your lavender look nicer during the winter and it will stimulate lush growth in spring.
Some lavender plants fall open in the middle, a condition called ‘sprawling’. This happens when the weight of new growth is more than the plant can support. In the wild, this is a great behavior because it allows new shoots resting on the ground to generate new plants. In your landscape, however, it won’t look as nice. You can prevent sprawling by pruning back 1/3 of the plant in spring, then pruning back 1/3 of the new growth. This will create a nice shape and it will help the plant remain upright and full. You may see frothy areas on your lavender plants. These are caused by spittlebugs. Simply spray these pests off with a hose and prune your lavender plants for better air flow.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!