There’s nothing quite as intoxicating as tearing off a little piece of lavender or rosemary, rubbing it between your hands and breathing in the plant’s elixir. Bruise a few leaves and add them to your favorite drink or dish and voila, flavors are transported from ordinary to sensational.
Herbs and the oils that fill their leaves have become big business. It seems not only have these essential oils come back into favor for aromatherapy and culinary use, but now many Americans are re-discovering their healing properties as well.
One of the most popular and multi-used oils is from the lavender plant. Lavandula is actually a flower native to the Mediterranean region that thrives in dry, sunny, rocky habitats. Because of its renowned ability to smell good even when dried, French and English gardeners have adapted some varieties that produce in more moist conditions and can do well in our American soil.
Whether you are interested in the graceful purple flowers atop gray-green foliage, the peaceful properties from aromatherapy or the skin calming qualities of the oil – lavender is a wonderful addition to any garden.
While some herbs are annuals that can easily be grown from seed – like basil – others are perennials and can be divided because they spread into clumps - like oregano. Lavender, however, is a woody shrub and does not form a clump. It is hard to grow from seed and it does not like to be divided. The easiest way to get started is to buy starter plants from the garden center. If you have your own established plant (or have access to a friends ;) there is a method that can help you propagate or start your own plants from the original – it’s called rooting.
To “root” lavender, prepare a shallow container (such as an eggshell carton or milk carton chopped in half) with potting soil first. Teracotta pots soaked overnight work best because of "breathability," but any clean container should work.
Next, take cuttings from a healthy plant. Use a clean sharp implement, not scissors which can crush the stem. New wood will grow fastest. Cut the stem of the plant below a node on the stem. You will need a least 2 nodes and cut at least 5 inches. (A node are the clumps on a branch from which the leaves sprout).
Take off lower leaves, at least a few, if not all. Dip the cutting into some rooting hormone (not necessary if your cutting is new growth). Place the stem in just far enough to keep it steady. Ensure that the soil is moist and keep it in a warm place.
After the initial soaking, only water the cuttings when the soil begins to dry out, not when it is still moist. Overwatering is a common mistake for new lavender cuttings.
The roots will begin to form over the coming days and weeks. In two - four weeks, the lavender can be transplanted to a container to grow strong. When strong, place in the garden as desired.
Unlike vegetable and fruit bearing plants, herbs thrive in lean soil. It will encourage a higher concentration of oils. You may even want to add builder’s sand to the area you plan to establish your lavender.
Root (v) – establish deeply and firmly. Have you ever noticed how pervasive the roots of a weed can be? You go to pull and there’s more below the ground then above. Weeds know something about survival that we could take a lesson from: the key is below the surface! As Christians we are encouraged to be rooted and grounded in love: God’s love. If someone or something were to tug on us, they should find love and grace coming up. Take some time today to work on your roots – spend time in prayer and worship allowing the Holy Spirit to establish you in truth. I love this promise from Proverbs 12:3 – "A man is not established by wickedness, but the root of the righteous cannot be moved."
Lavender plants will tolerate many growing conditions, but they thrive in warm, well-drained soil and full sun. (At least six hours a day.) While you can grow lavender in USDA Hardiness Zone 5, it is unlikely you will ever have a lavender hedge. More realistically you can expect to have plants that will do well when the weather cooperates and to experience the occasional loss of a plant or two after a severe winter or a wet, humid summer.
Lavender is a tough plant and is extremely drought-resistant, once established. However when first starting you lavender plants, don't be afraid to give them a handful of compost in the planting hole and to keep them regularly watered during their first growing season.
It is dampness, more than cold, that is responsible for killing lavender plants.
Dampness can come in the form of wet roots during the winter months or high humidity in the summer. If humidity is a problem, make sure you have plenty of space between your plants for air flow and always plant in a sunny location.
Areas where the ground routinely freezes and thaws throughout the winter will benefit from a layer of mulch applied after the ground initially freezes. Also, protect your lavender plants from harsh winter winds. Planting next to a stone or brick wall will provide additional heat and protection.
Although lavender plants get regularly pruned simply by harvesting the flowers, to keep them well shaped and to encourage new growth, a bit of spring pruning is in order. The taller varieties can be cut back by approximately one-third their height. Lower growing varieties can either be pruned back by a couple of inches or cut down to new growth.
If you live in an area where lavender suffers some winter die-back, don't even think about pruning your plants until you see some new green growth at the base of the plant. If you disturb the plants too soon in the season, they give up trying.
Lavender grows quite well in containers. In the Deep South, it actually does better in pots, as it benefits from improved drainage and air circulation. While the plants thrive in arid Western climates, they are usually considered annuals in the South.
Any place that the winter is too severe, lavender can be grown in pots and moved indoors in a nice, sunny spot.
Although lavender has a large, spreading root system, it prefers growing in a tight space. A pot that can accommodate the root ball with a couple of inches to spare would be a good choice. Too large a pot will only encourage excessive dampness.
Insure that the pot has plenty of drainage. Root rot is one of the few problems experienced by lavender plants. Use a loose, soilless mix for planting and remember that container grown lavender will require more water than garden grown plants. Water when the soil, not the plant, appears dry and water at the base of the plant to limit dampness on the foliage.
Compact varieties make the best choices for containers. Some to try are L. angustifolia ‘Nana Alba’ and Spanish lavender (L. stoechas subsp. Pedunculata).
Harvest, Storage and Uses:
When you cut lavender blossoms, leave a long stem attached for handling. If you are not cutting all the blooms, trim in a way that thins the plant a bit, leaving it open for better air circulation.
Harvest lavender stems at any time by cutting them from the plant. Flowers will keep their perfume for months when you harvest just before they are entirely open.
To dry flowers, gather a bunch of stems and hang them upside-down in a dark, well-ventilated place to preserve color and keep the stems from molding.
Fresh flowers may be used in sauces, marinades, salads and desserts. They can be baked into cookies. Handle fragile dried blossoms with care and use them in teas, salts, potpourri, sachets, and crafts.
Lavender makes an excellent companion plant for almost anything from roses to cabbage. It is one of those aromatic, gray herbs that deer avoid, making it a great choice as a decoy in your Hosta or daylily beds.
Unfortunately, even if you do everything right and your lavender plants appear happy, the genus is generally not long lived and most lavender plants begin to decline after about 10 years. So keep rooting new plants to carry you through your rough spots.
English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8
'Munstead' An old-fashioned standard with blue-purple flowers. 18" tall
'Hidcote' is favored for its dark purple flowers. 24" tall
'Jean Davis' produces pale pink flower spikes. 18" tall
Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8
'Provence' dries particularly well. 30" tall
'Grosso' is highly disease resistant and fragrant. 30" tall
Fringed Lavender (Lavandula dentata) USDA Hardiness Zones 8-9
This is a bushy, spreading shrub that produces dense purple-blue flower spikes that are very
pretty, but only mildly fragrant. 3' tall
French Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) USDA Hardiness Zones 8-9
A beautiful Mediterranean native that is compact and bushy with fragrant, dark purple
flowers topped by a feathery purple bract. Good cultivars include: ‘Dark Eyes’ and ‘Silver
Spanish Lavender (Lavendula stoechas subsp. pedunculata) USDA Hardiness Zones 9-10
bears its flower stalks high above the foliage.
Tips from the Bonnie Plants website:
1) A dab of honey can be used on the cut end of the cutting in place of root growing hormones.
2) Cuttings grow best in spots which are shielded from afternoon sun and excessive wind.
3) To increase your success, put a clear plastic bag around the pot and tie at the top. This will increase the moisture and heat.
4) Use a mist sprayer to increase the moisture on the leaves since one third of the moisture of most plants is absorbed through the leaves.
5) Cuttings will grow best in times of low "stress" - such as early spring, or early autumn. This allows the cutting time to establish roots and settle before times of excessive heat or cold, or low moisture.
6) Commercial root growing hormones, such as "Rootex", can be obtained from most nurseries. These provide an excellent booster for the cutting.
7) You should cull out failed cuttings after two to four weeks. The failures will be obviously dead. If the cuttings have remnants of green after this period of time, they will probably succeed in growing into a healthy plant.