How to Plant and Grow Lavender

This popular herb is most loved for its refreshing scent and long-lasting flowers that attract pollinators.

blooming lavender
Photo:

Matthew Benson

When you see photos of the famed lavender fields of Provence, France, it's love at first sight. A shrubby perennial native to the Mediterranean region, 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! Successfully growing lavender, however, depends on your type of garden soil, location, and climate.

Lavender Overview

Genus Name Lavandula spp.
Common Name Lavender
Plant Type Herb, Perennial, Shrub
Light Sun
Height 1 to 3 feet
Width 1 to 3 feet
Flower Color Blue, Purple, White
Foliage Color Gray/Silver
Season Features Summer Bloom
Special Features Attracts Birds, Cut Flowers, Fragrance, Good for Containers
Zones 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Seed, Stem Cuttings
Problem Solvers Deer Resistant, Drought Tolerant, Groundcover, Slope/Erosion Control

Where to Plant Lavender

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 a spot with excellent drainage. Though it is drought-, heat-, and wind-tolerant, lavender doesn't do well in soggy soil or high humidity. Warm, dry climates are the best for growing lavender.

How and When to Plant 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. Surrounding plants with a gravel mulch can help increase heat around roots.

Lavender Care Tips

Light and Temperature

Always grow lavender in full sun, where it can receive at least 8-10 hours of direct sunlight per day. If you live in a cold climate, USDA Hardiness 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, protect your plants from winter damage by covering them 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.

Soil and Water

Lavender roots need many spaces between soil particles to breathe and grow, so this herb 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.

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 is drought-resistant once it is established but needs a little extra water when grown in hot regions.

Potting and Repotting

Gardeners with little in-ground growing space or heavy soil 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 a soilless potting mix such as one designed for growing cactus or succulents to ensure excellent drainage.

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 outdoors. You can grow lavender indoors, but recognize that the amount of light inside a house may never be enough to get flowers.

Pruning

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.

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. Even with the best of care, recognize that lavender plants are short lived, lasting 10 to 15 years at most.

Harvesting Lavender

Gather blossoms when they have just opened. Use individual blooms fresh, discarding the little brown or green caps that hold them to the stems. Or cut entire flower stems to dry for later use. When it comes to culinary uses, usually it's the flowers that are pressed into service in the kitchen, although some recipes from the South of France feature the fragrant leaves.

How to Propagate Lavender

Lavender can be grown from seed, but it takes up to three years to grow into a substantial enough size for harvesting. 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°F) location.

When plants reach 2 to 3 inches tall, lavender seedlings should be acclimated to outdoor conditions by gradually increasing the amount of light they receive. Once they are "hardened off," plant them outdoors in a sunny, well-drained spot.

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 are sterile.

Pests and Problems

Lavender doesn't have any major pests, but root rot and leaf spot can bother this herb. Avoid overwatering and maintain good air circulation to minimize these problems.

Types of Lavender

There are many species and hundreds of lavender varieties. Here are a few of the best to grow in gardens.

English lavender (Lavandula 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 in Zones 5-9 and reach about 2 feet tall.

Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) is a cross between English lavender and spike lavender (Lavandula 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.

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.

Garden Plans for Lavender

French Kitchen Garden Plan

French Kitchen Garden Illustration
Illustration by Helen Smythe

During the Middle Ages, monks in France typically created kitchen gardens with geometrically shaped beds separated by paths and enclosed within a wall or hedge. This French-style kitchen garden plan reflects this aesthetic with a central diamond-shaped bed and four larger raised beds, with wide brick pathways running between them. It calls for 29 Spanish lavender plants.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some ways to enjoy the flavors of lavender?

    Use dried lavender flowers for seasoning desserts, such as cookies, cakes, and ice cream, or as an edible garnish. Lavender blends deliciously with mint and lemon to brew a refreshing tea. Or try blending your own Herbes de Provence mix by combining dried lavender blooms with thyme, basil, fennel, and savory. Use this blend to season grilled meats and other savory dishes.

  • What's the best way to dry lavender?

    Cut stems just before they reach peak bloom, snipping them as long as possible. Remove the lower leaves along each stem, bundle 4-6 stems together with a string or rubber band, and hang upside down in a dark, well-ventilated area until dry. To dry just the lavender flowers, remove them from the stem and place them on a flat surface in a dark, dry location.

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