Karen Atkins owns Proper Gardens in Grand Rapids, Mich. She designed the Pioneer Entrance Garden for the Botanic Garden of Pittsburgh and the Victorian Garden for the Merrick Art Gallery in New Brighton. Find her knot garden design in ,Superstar Food Gardens: Plans From My Favorite Gardeners by Niki Jabbour (Storey Publishing, January 2014).

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The Beauty of Lavender
by Karen Atkins    

I have to confess something. I almost gave up on lavender. I would repeatedly bring home plants, only to watch them gradually wither, sicken and die—or worse—thrive until they were shapeless woody shrubs with hardly any leaves or flowers. Is this you? It took a lot of trial and error, but I finally figured it out. Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is the princess of herbs. Like any other perfumed lady, she has her demands.


Most hardy lavender survives in USDA Zones 5 through 7. Where winters are severe, you can also grow it as a short-lived, tender plant in summer.

Full sun is an absolute requirement. Choose a site that gets six hours or more of direct sun each day. There is no way around this.

If you plan to harvest the lavender for wands, sachet or food, avoid using pesticides on the plants.

Regular haircuts

In the first year, or on older, well-maintained specimens, prune back any new growth by about one-third in early spring, after the plant completely greens up. It will take a few weeks for it to green up from the bottom. Just watch it closely, and when you see that the existing stems are completely green and new and tender stalks are beginning, shape it back by one-third. I use scissors for this. Prune artfully to lightly shape the plant to its preferred habit—a loose ball.

In older, woody, misshapen plants you can do one of two things: either touch a match to it and start over (my preference) or, if you get joy from saving things, try cutting it back by half each year after it has fully leafed out. This can either rejuvenate it or kill it. At least you know that ahead of time.

Warm, dry feet

Do not put lavender in your existing beds that you have amended with rich compost and manure. Other plants love this rich soil for it’s moisture retention, but lavender hates that. Think about it: Lavender hails from the Mediterranean, where it may only rain a few times a season. Some of the soil there isn’t soil at all, but loose gravel. If you have any doubts that your soil is too rich, you need to establish a raised bed for lavender.

If you have to have it amidst your fussier perennials, build a little raised bed out of stones, just for the lavender. This raises it up so that it drains faster than the rest of the bed. Or, grow it in a large container with a quick-draining, high-quality soilless potting mix.

Edible and Fragrant

I have always associated the scent of lavender with pampering. So I cut and save it in heady sachets for my houseguests, stuffing it into drawers and in between towels for them. But if I really want to spoil someone rotten, I make lavender shortbread and ice cream. Each can be made up to a week ahead, so I can spend less time fussing over preparation and more time enjoying my friends.

And, like eating warm tomatoes in July or crisp apples in October, savoring lavender while it’s blooming brings you right into the moment.

As Winnie the Pooh said, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” I haul tables and chairs right out into the garden when serving these desserts. Fair warning: If you serve these treats, they will be requested again.

Lavender Shortbread Cookies(Makes 30)


2 (8 ounce) sticks of butter, at room temperature

1 ½ cups of flour

Pinch of salt

Lavender-infused sugar: ½ cup sugar mixed with ½ cup fresh lavender buds, allowed to sit for at least a few hours.


Preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat together the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the flour, salt and lavender, mixing until combined.

With your hands, bring the dough together into a ball, and shape into a flat disk. Cover and chill for at least 20 minutes.

Once chilled, roll out the dough to   inch thickness. Cut into small rounds or use a cookie cutter. Allow room between cookies when placing on the baking sheet because they will really expand while baking. Sprinkle with extra sugar.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the shortbreads feel sandy on top and have the slightest hint of color on the edges. Do not let them brown or they will taste burned. Also, please resist the urge to remove them from the sheet until they have completely cooled, or they will break.

Lavender Honey Ice Cream


2 cups whole milk

¼  cup dried lavender buds

⅓ cup of honey

5 egg yolks

¼ cup sugar

1 cup heavy cream

½  cup fresh lavender buds (to stir in just before freezing)


In a heavy saucepan, heat milk, dried lavender and honey over medium-high heat until bubbles begin to form around the edge of pan. Please do not boil or scald the milk. Remove from heat; cover, let steep, then let stand until cool. Pour the mixture through a sieve or strainer to remove the lavender.

Add egg yolks to sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix for two to three minutes, until creamy. At the same time, put the milk mixture back on heat until it reaches a low simmer. 

Add half of the milk mixture to the yolk mixture and whisk until combined. Then pour the yolk-milk mixture into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Cook over low heat and stir the entire time until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and immediately stir in cream.

Place saucepan in refrigerator until cold, about two hours. Mix in some fresh lavender buds; I use about cup. 

Most people pour the mixture into an ice-cream freezer and freeze according to the manufacturer’s directions. I do not have room in my kitchen for one more kitchen appliance so I freeze the ice cream right in the stand mixer bowl. Every thirty minutes, for three hours, I pull it out and give it a quick mix to break up any ice crystals that might try to form, and then return it to the freezer.

You can needlepoint or take naps in between the stirrings, but serve this and they’ll think you slaved all day. (Note: This recipe was adapted from one printed by Martha Stewart Living. I hope my explanations flatten the learning curve for you.)

From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013. Photos courtesy of Dreamstime.com.


Posted: 07/30/14   RSS | Print


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