How to Grow Lavender for Heavenly Scents and Sensations
Lavender might be the most enjoyable of all herbs. It appeals to almost every sense, with its calming scent, pungent taste, dainty flowers, and velvety gray-green leaves. Bonus points: It is deer-resistant and attracts butterflies and pollinators!
When you see photos of the famed lavender fields of Provence, France, it's love at first sight. Growing lavender flowers, however, is easy only when you analyze your garden soil, location, and climate.
For success with lavender, let's examine each of those components.
Plant Lavender in Well-Drained Alkaline Soil
Most herbs grow best in well-drained soil that easily allows water to pass through it. Lavender might be the most particular in its need for good drainage!
Lavender roots need many spaces between soil particles to breathe and grow, so it is well suited to sandy or rocky soil. If your garden has heavy clay soil that retains moisture, lavender roots simply rot and die. To create better soil structure, you can add plenty of organic material to the top 4 to 8 inches.
Many commercial lavender growers use raised beds to improve drainage, a technique that can be borrowed for the home garden.
Test your soil drainage by digging a 12-inch deep hole. Fill the hole with water. If it fails to completely drain in 30 minutes, your soil has drainage issues. A hole that drains much faster indicates well-drained soil.
Soil pH is also a factor. Lavender grows best in alkaline soil with a pH of 6.4 to 8.2. Test your soil (turn to your local Cooperative Extension Service for assistance) to be sure.
Lavender Plants Need Air and Sun
Always grow lavender in full sun -- spaces that receive at least eight to 10 hours of direct sunlight per day.
Warm, dry climates are perfect for growing lavender. Give each lavender plenty of space to promote good air circulation. Spacing depends on what variety you plant and how big your type gets. The bigger the plants, the more space between plants is needed. Especially in areas of high humidity, air circulation is key to keeping lavender plants happy.
Although lavender likes warmth, excess heat also can cause the plant's growth and blooming to shut down. Lavender is drought-resistant once it is established but needs extra water when grown in hot regions.
Climate and Lavender Care
Lavender is a shrubby perennial (not quite a lavender bush) native to the Mediterranean region where winters are mild. If you live in a cold climate, USDA Zone 4 or colder, lavender plants may not grow back the following spring unless you choose the hardiest varieties and offer winter protection.
Snow cover is one of the best insulators for tender plants. If you don't have a reliable amount of snow, cover lavender plants with dry leaves or straw overlaid with burlap to protect them from drying winds and ice. Remove the covering in early spring to allow the soil to warm and give plants good air circulation.
Growing Lavender in Containers
Gardeners in northern climates or with little garden space may want to grow lavender in pots. Choose a pot with a drainage hole that's just slightly larger than the root ball. Clay pots offer better air circulation and dry out faster than plastic or ceramic pots.
Plant in well-drained soilless potting medium such as one rated for growing cactus or succulents. Water sparingly but don't let the plants dry out completely. If you use a saucer below the pot, always drain off excess water.
Keep the pots in full sun, but recognize that the amount of light inside a house may never be enough to promote growth or lavender flowers.
Types of Lavender
There are many species and hundreds of lavender varieties.
English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) is considered one of the hardiest, with dozens of cultivars to choose from. Easy to find English lavenders include 'Munstead' and 'Hidcote'. They grow well in locations with mild summer heat.
Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) is a cross between English (or true) lavender and spike lavender (Lavendula latifolia). Lavandin is equally hardy, usually to Zone 5. Due to its larger flower spike size, this type of lavender is often grown commercially for essential oils. 'Phenomenal', a 2012 introduction from Peace Tree Farm in Pennsylvania, has been lauded for its exceptional winter survival.
Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) works well in warmer climates (to Zone 7), with large gray-green leaves and a stout, cylindrical flower head. These are often the earliest lavenders to bloom.
Growing Lavender from Seed
Lavender can be grown from seed, but it takes up to three years to grow into a substantial enough size for cutting.
Because they take two to four weeks just to germinate, it's a good idea to start seeds indoors. Plant lavender seeds 1 inch apart, just barely covered with a seed-starting potting mix, and keep the container moist but not waterlogged in a warm (65 to 70 degrees F) location.
When plants reach 2 to 3 inches tall, lavender seedlings should be slowly acclimated to outdoor conditions by slowly increasing the amount of light they receive. Once they are "hardened off," plant them outdoors in sunny, well-drained soil.
Most lavenders, especially lavandin, are started from cuttings instead of seeds. Because lavandins are a cross of two species, they either do not set seeds or the seeds they set are sterile.
Lavender grows best with proper pruning.
After the first flowering, deadheading (removing the spent flower stem) may encourage some plants to rebloom. You can lightly shape the plant at this time but hold off on major pruning until the following spring.
Wait until lavender plants begin growing in spring to prune them. Prune about one third to one half of the plant; if you cut it back so hard that only woody stems show, the plant may die.
Even with the best of care, recognize that lavender plants are short lived, lasting 10 to 15 years at most.
How to Dry Lavender
Lavender is great to cut for fresh bouquets but equally good as a dried flower -- and so easy to do. Cut the stems just before it reaches peak bloom, snipping the stems as long as possible.
Remove the lower leaves along each stem, saving them as potpourri if you wish. Bundle four to six stems together, securing them with a string or rubber band. Hang the bunch with flowers pointing downward in a dark, dry, well-ventilated area. (Exposure to sunlight will fade the color of the lavender flowers.) When they are nearly dry, bundle the stems into the amount you want to display. If you group too many stems together for drying, the outside of the clump will dry but the inside may stay too moist and rot.
To dry lavender flowers, just remove them from the stem and place them on a flat surface in a cool, dark, dry location. Store fully dried blooms in an airtight container such as a glass jar.
How to Use Culinary Lavender
Dried lavender may be used for cooking if it has been grown organically. A little bit goes a long way, so use sparingly. Dried lavender blooms ground into a powder add a special flavor to pound cake, muffins, and quick breads.
Lavender can be an essential part of a blend called herbes de Provence, often used to flavor chicken or other savory dishes. Herbes de Provence often includes marjoram, thyme, basil, parsley, rosemary, and other herbs in widely varying amounts.