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Whether you’re looking for something low-maintenance and waterwise, need an aromatic plant to fill your garden with a sweet scent or want a pollinator magnet to bring life to your backyard, lavender is the plant to look for.
In general, growing lavender successfully starts with warm temperatures and relatively dry soil. This Mediterranean native needs very little attention to thrive, tolerating lack of moisture and poor quality soils well. Once established, occasional trimming and supplemental watering over winter will keep the plant lush and aromatic year-round. They can also be propagated to fill your garden, looking best en masse to replicate views of lavender fields in your own backyard.
Lavender, scientifically plants of the Lavandula genus, are related to a number of other popular garden herbs in the Lamiaceae group. This overall family is home to many beloved aromatic herbs, including mint, rosemary, and sage – even commonly referred to as the mint or sage family.
The name comes from the Latin verb lavare or ‘to wash’. It moved through French lavandre into the English language in the 13th century as lavender, which it remains today. This origin gives us an idea of what the plant was used for throughout history.
Like related herbs, lavender is native to the Mediterranean. To me, it immediately conjures up images of glowing purple fields in a Spanish or Italian countryside. Given their Mediterranean origin, lavender plants are accustomed to warm, sunny environments with gritty soil. They also come from winter rainfall areas, having an important influence on their care depending on the climate in your region.
The classic silvery foliage and decorative purple blooms not only add color to your garden, but also provide a wonderful scent that’s impossible not to enjoy. Every time I pass my lavender bed I like to crush a couple of leaves to really release the calming fragrance. Plus, it sticks around on my fingers for a little while too.
Different species of lavender have similar needs, but grow better in slightly different environments. They also have different looks and uses, so make sure you choose the one tailored to your desired purpose.
- English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Probably the most popular species and the one I keep in my garden, it’s known for its scent and vibrant flowers. While it has a wide range of uses, this is the one to grow for use in the kitchen.
- Spanish Lavender (Lavandula stoechas): Has a unique bloom structure with vivid purple colors, used mainly for ornamental purposes.
- Portugese Lavender (Lavandula latifolia): This variety is appreciated for its intense scent, often used to make essential oils. It is also great for attracting pollinators to your garden.
Lavender can be planted from seed if you’re really patient. But seeds can take a long time to germinate and require some care to achieve healthy growth.
I far prefer starting from nursery-grown plants to get them in the ground as soon as possible. Look for the strongest plants at the nursery with plenty of leaf growth and no signs of damage or disease. Don’t worry if there are few flowers at first – they will take off once they’re in the right spot in your garden.
Where does lavender grow best?
Across the different species, lavender is quite versatile and can grow in most USDA Zones. English lavender has a few cold-hardy varieties to choose from, while French lavender usually prefers warmth more.
Check which variety grows best in your region before deciding what to plant. You can also grow any variety as an annual, but you’ll get far more out of these plants when you keep them in the ground or containers for a couple of years.
One of the most important environmental considerations to take care of is sunlight. Lavender needs a full day of direct sun to thrive, or it will become leggy and not flower. Also, choose a location with well-draining soil where water does not collect after rain. They prefer dry and well-draining soil over excessive watering, especially in summer.
I pay particular attention to drainage as I live in a summer rainfall area. This can quickly lead to rot and the development of fungal diseases, so I like to amend the soil well before planting or keep them in containers where I can protect the plants from excessive rainfall. If you live in a winter rainfall area, you’ve already got one component of care well-covered.
How to plant lavender
The ideal time to plant lavender is in spring after the threat of frost has passed. They can also be planted in early fall in warmer regions.
If you’re using a pot, ensure it has adequate drainage holes and is large enough to support the extensive root system. When planting in the ground, don’t worry about making too many amendments as long as the soil is slightly sandy and drains well.
Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball of your lavender plant. Place the plant in the hole, making sure the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Fill the hole with soil, firm it gently, and water thoroughly to help the roots settle.
Once established, lavender is notoriously low maintenance. The trick is to replicate the conditions in their native habitats as much as possible while avoiding ‘loving them to death’ as my mother has done a few times.
Lavender is a sun-loving plant that struggles in anything less than a full day of direct sun. Aim for a minimum of six hours each day, although more sunlight is always appreciated.
Insufficient sunlight can lead to weak growth, fewer flowers, and even a decrease in fragrance. When planting lavender, choose a spot in your garden that gets plenty of sunshine throughout the day. Avoid growing these plants indoors where light is not ideal, unless you’re happy with leggy stems and few blooms.
While lavender is a hardy plant that can tolerate some drought, it does require regular watering soon after planting and in winter if it is dry for extended periods. But more importantly, you need to avoid overwatering at all costs as it can be detrimental to the health of the plant.
If you’re unsure when to water, it’s better to err on the side of underwatering, as lavender is more likely to suffer from too much water than too little. In particularly hot or dry climates, a deep watering once or twice a week may be necessary, while in cooler, more humid areas, less frequent watering is preferred.
Lavender needs well-draining soil to prevent the roots from becoming waterlogged. If your garden soil is largely clay, you’ll need to do some serious amending or stick to growing in containers or raised beds. Choose a potting mix suitable for succulents (I use a combination of equal parts potting soil and sand) to ensure adequate drainage.
Pruning promotes bushier growth and a higher yield of flowers throughout the year. They can handle quite a drastic cutback and often come back much stronger than if they were just left alone.
In early spring, when the plant begins to show signs of new growth, prune back about a third of the plant. Avoid cutting into the older woody parts of the stem. Instead, make your cuts above the green, leafy growth. Pruning annually stops the plant from becoming woody and sparse.
Lavender is best propagated from cuttings, which can give you new plants genetically identical to the one you’ve got. It does take a while for new plants to grow into something resembling what you have out in your garden, so be prepared to wait for your desired results.
Choose healthy stems to cut. Look for fresh, new shoots that are green and not woody. Ideally, you should take cuttings in spring or early summer. Each cutting should be about 5 inches long and taken just below a node.
Once you have your cuttings, remove the leaves from the lower half of the stem. To further boost rooting success, dip the cut end into a rooting hormone powder. While this step is optional, it can significantly increase the chances of your cuttings taking root. When taking softwood or hardwood cuttings, I always use rooting hormone to protect the cuttings and establish strong plants from the start.
Fill a pot or seed tray with a well-draining soil mix. Make holes with your finger and insert each cutting, firming the soil around them to ensure they stand upright. After planting, water the cuttings and place the pot in a sunny, warm location.
As an extra boost to root growth, cover the pot with a clear plastic bag or place it in a propagator to create a humid environment. If you’re using this method, remember to ventilate the cuttings daily to prevent mold growth.
The cuttings should start to form roots in under a month. Gently pull at a cutting to check for resistance, which indicates that roots have formed. Once the cuttings have rooted, they can be transplanted into individual pots filled with a well-draining soil mix. Once they have grown larger and stronger, they can be moved to their final location in the garden.
How to harvest lavender
If you’re growing lavender to enjoy it in the garden, that’s about where the story ends. But if you want to use your lavender blooms indoors for their edible benefits or aromatherapy, you’ll need to harvest the flowers first.
Lavender flowers in late spring to early summer. Simply cut the stems above the foliage, ideally early in the morning when the essential oils are strongest.
Lavender has a distinctive taste that can be quite controversial. It is very floral and potent, so it’s best used in moderation, either fresh or dried. Flowers are often used in desserts, and not just as decoration. I have tried making lavender cheesecake and lavender ice cream (although ice cream takes forever to make – would not recommend).
But lavender is most well-known for its soothing scent. It’s widely used in aromatherapy for relaxation and stress reduction. Make your own essential oils to use in diffusers, bathwater, or on your pillow to promote a good night’s sleep.
Interestingly, while people find the smell of lavender pleasing, many pests do not. Planting lavender around your garden is believed to help deter some garden pests while attracting beneficial ones like bees and butterflies.