Lavender has been used to sooth upset stomach, irritated skin, and bad hair days for over 2,500 years.
Like other plants in the mint family, the essential oils found in lavender have sedative, antiseptic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. The word ‘lavender’ comes from the Latin verb which means ‘to wash’ or ‘to bathe’.
Lavender flowers are used in sachets, soaps, linen spritz, soup, and frosting. These edible flowers can be candied and used to decorate baked goods, or added to teas, chocolates, and cheeses. Some people swear by lavender as an insect repellent, rubbing the leaves on skin or clothing. I don’t know if it works but I imagine it smells better than bug spray.
That being said, 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. And some people just don’t like it. For those who do, this easy to grow perennial can add color to your landscape. Lavender also provides pollen and nectar for many beneficial insects, especially honey bees.
How lavender grows
Being from a rocky Mediterranean region, lavender prefers hot, dry weather and loose, coarse soil. The root system tends to be significantly larger than the above-ground portion of the plant. These plants can live for 50 years and, being a mint, they will spread using underground runners, or rhizomes.
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. These 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 or an umbrella. Hardy varieties are better suited to Zones 1-4. When shopping for lavender, be sure to look at the label for the botanical name, so you know what you are getting.
How to grow lavender
Lavender can be grown from cuttings, layering or root division. Before installing a new lavender plant, however, you need to select a good site. Lavender does best where there is plenty of air flow, loose soil, and sunlight. Also, these plants will spread, so you may want to put them in large containers. Container planting is particularly useful in areas with cold winters, as you can move plants into protected areas for the winter.
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 mature size in mind. Some varieties can reach 5’ across. Lavender prefers slightly alkaline soil, with a pH between 6.7 and 7.3.
Lavender uses a lot of phosphorus, so bone meal is a good soil amendment if your soil test indicates a lack. [This is highly unlikely west of the Rocky Mountains.] Mindful weeding during the first 2 years of a lavender’s life will go a long way toward ensuring a healthy, long-lived plant.
Lavender pests and diseases
Lavender grown in compacted soil with poor drainage will commonly end up with root rot, black mold, and other fungal diseases. Top dressing around lavender plants with aged compost or wood chips can improve drainage over time. You can also mulch around lavender with light-colored stones or oyster shells, which will reflect more light up into the plant. This will help reduce the chance of fungal disease. [If your soil already contains plenty of calcium, the stones are a better choice.]
You may occasionally see frothy areas on your lavender plants. These are caused by spittlebugs. If spittlebug infestations become troublesome, simply spray them off with a hose. They are not usually a significant problem.
Lavender winter care and pruning
Many people think their lavender has died over the winter, but this is rarely the case. In early autumn, simply cut back the green portion of the plant 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, in a behavior known as ‘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 that follows. This will create a nice shape and it will help the plant remain upright and full.
Lavender should be harvested when the florets first open. Snip off flowers just above a leaf pair to encourage new growth. 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.
I use my guest room closet for drying lavender. It stays dark and I like to think the aroma is soothing to overnight guests.
Lavender is a lovely addition to stumperies, rock gardens, and sensory gardens.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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