Lavender is one of the most popular fragrances in the world, and many people long to enjoy it in the garden. Whether along a sidewalk, by a mailbox or in a sunny garden, you can learn how to properly plant it for years of enjoyment.
Lavender is very drought tolerant once established, and spring is a perfect time to plant this lovely and oh-so-fragrant herb. There are hundreds of varieties of lavender that grow throughout the world. There are a proven dozen that grow well in the piedmont of North Carolina where our farm is situated, and we're still trying to find more.
In my experiences growing lavender, I have faced many challenges. Clay soil, humid conditions, drought, long periods of rain, clouds, wind, hail... the list goes on! I have also answered many questions from gardeners throughout the United States. The questions go something like this: "I have attempted to grow lavender many times and it either dies soon after planting or it lives for a while and eventually dies out. What does lavender need that I am not providing?"
The basic answer is lavender needs properly prepared soil, adequate space and proper trimming so it will have abundant blooms for many years.
In much of the Southeast, our native clay soil and humid conditions are a challenge for lavender. Select a garden location with full sun (at least six hours) and take the following steps to help you successfully grow this delightful herb.
The Right Variety
There are many lavender varieties that grow well in our area. Typically those offered in local garden centers thrive when planted and cared for properly. Just look at the tag to make sure the lavender you have chosen is hardy in your USDA Hardiness Zone. The Lavandula x intermedia varieties are good choices -- 'Grosso' and 'Provence'. So are 'Dutch', 'Hidcote' (Lavandula angustifolia) and some Spanish (Stoechas) lavenders. If in doubt, ask your favorite nursery which varieties grow well for them.
Lavender requires well-drained, lean soils. You can achieve this by amending with stone or gravel. Raised beds, banks, slopes and containers work well, too. Too much fertilizer will cause the foliage to grow lush, however, the lavender may never bloom. Soil pH should be 6.5 to 7.5
If lavender is container grown, the temperature will be 15 degrees colder than when planted in the ground. With this in mind, winter protection is needed. It is best outdoors in a buried pot, covering the pot with burlap, straw or some other protective covering. Tucking it close to a building will also allow it to stay warm. A corner is a good spot so that it is protected from winter winds. Lavender does not enjoy being an indoor plant since it can rarely get enough sun to satisfy it.
Remember the saying, "Dig a $10 hole for a $5 plant"? This holds true more than ever for lavender.
Visualize mature lavender that has a root system of about 1 foot in diameter to the plant, which can reach 4 to 5 feet for some varieties. Dig about 12 to 18 inches deep and aerate the soil well. Mix in a shovel full of well-composted manure. Place in the bottom of the hole either a layer of gravel or any rocks or stones discovered on your property. Five to seven fist-sized rocks serve well as a drainage system for the lavender roots.
During Sunshine Lavender Farm’s annual Lavender Harvest Celebration, Annie teaches how to properly plant lavender.
Then fill the hole and mound the soil 18 to 24 inches high above the soil line, amending the soil first with a mixture of 50 percent 1-inch rounded stone to 50 percent native soil. Blend into that stone/soil mix 1/2 cup total of equal parts of bone meal, lime and well-composted manure. The stone will allow the soil to drain well, the lime will improve the pH, and the bone meal and compost will give it a healthy start.
Using a trowel, dig a hole just deep enough for the plant in the top of the mound. The mound will settle to 6 to 8 inches over time. It will look volcanic at first, but when planted properly you will see nearly instant results as lavender grows very fast.
Water your lavender well in its nursery pot and let it sit for an hour before planting, or overnight is even better. If the young plant is uneven or leggy, trim the top of the plant to even it up and encourage a nice, bushy, productive plant.
Remove most of the planting material from the root, loosening the root system, so that the plant will be placed in the ground nearly bare root. Lavender likes getting down into the native soil.
Toss a bit of un-amended soil in the very bottom of the hole. Place the plant in the hole, preventing the roots from touching the lime/bone meal/compost blend and pull the soil up around the base of the plant.
Depending on the lavender variety, space plants 4 to 6 feet from one another for good air circulation, since they will grow quickly and fill in the space. It is fine for the blooms to touch, just prevent the foliage from touching since the lavender will kill one another out over time when crowded. Leave a minimum of 8 to 12 inches between plants.
Lavender sleeps its first year, creeps the second and blooms at its peak in its third year, producing about 1,000 stems.
Gardeners gather in the field to learn about lavender’s benefits and the different types of lavender grown on the farm.
Herbs thrive on neglect once established. Care for young lavender as you would any new perennial, watering deeply (rainfall counts) for the first month every five days, or more often if temperatures are above 80 F. Deeply water every 7 to 10 days after that if 1 inch of rainfall does not occur. Lavender prefers infrequent, deep watering versus frequent shallow drinks.
When well rooted, lavender is tolerant of heat and dry spells. Water if there is a drought. Overwatering leads to root rot, which will cause lavender to die. If the lavender has been planted properly with the drainage system in place, then root rot is much less of an issue.
Prevent weeds by mulching with light-colored mulch such as coarse sand, gravel or shells. Do not use hardwood mulch since wood shavings hold moisture in the soil and lavender prefers to be high and dry. The sun will reflect light, keeping the plants dry (which is critical in the humidity), and help deter disease and enhance bloom and fragrance.
In our region, pruning can happen in a number of ways, and this is good since it is sometimes a challenge to remember what every plant requires in the garden. You may wish to trim the lavender when you cut the blooms to enjoy indoors in June. As you are cutting the blossoms, just give the lavender a good shaping, trimming away stragglers running along the ground and dead limbs. Leave about 1 to 2 inches of foliage all the way around.
I have been taught to prune in late fall as well, and this is fine if you are in tune with your garden and the microclimate of your planting zone. Clearly, when our summers are especially hot and dry, trimming the lavender in late fall can shock the plants, so you will want to wait until late winter, after the garden has experienced regular moisture and is dormant. Around Valentine's Day, or at least in the month of February, after the coldest part of the winter is behind the garden, trim away 1/3 of the foliage. Remember the rule of thumb and leave 1 to 2 inches of foliage all the way around.
It is critical to prune lavender annually to provide the best scenario for a long, happy life in the garden. If the lavender is not trimmed every year, the plant will open up from its center weighed down by the foliage. The heaviness of the branches will cause the main center stem to split and/or break and moisture to enter, resulting in stress and disease, and unfortunately the lavender will not be long for that great compost heap in the sky.
When pruning annually, toss a handful of the bone meal/lime/compost blend around the base of the plant just before rain, or water afterwards. This is the only feeding needed. Remember, that lavender prefers lean soil.
(Photos by Annie Greer Baggett)