Lavender is one of the best-loved herbs in the garden, and for good reason. Not only is it attractive and scented, this versatile plant thrives in some of the toughest of garden conditions.
Lavandula angustifolia, the English lavender, is very hardy – so much so that it thrives even in my exposed Scottish garden! In order for it to grow well, lavender has three basic growing requirements – very good drainage, relatively poor soil, and lots and lots of sun.
Where to Grow Lavender
In her Diary of a French Herb Garden, Geraldene Holt describes the preferred habitat of the wild lavender best: "Tracts of thin earth on the limestone terrain of the Midi support the scrubby flora known as the garrigue. Lavender and thyme grow wild on these steep, craggy slopes. They develop small, intensely scented leaves, as they struggle against the elements, pushing and threading their wiry roots into crevices between the rocks."
These are the growing conditions that the domesticated lavender craves. My own lavenders are grown against a south-facing wall open to the prevailing wind, in a patch of light, stony, unimproved soil that many other plants would struggle to survive in. Lavender will tolerate quite a wide range of soil conditions as long as they're not waterlogged, but for best results well-drained, moderately fertile soil is ideal. It copes very well in containers.
Due to its tolerance of windy positions, English lavender makes an excellent low informal boundary hedge or windbreak – the compact variety 'Hidcote' is a good choice. In cottage gardens a lavender hedge running down both sides of the path to the front door, where the scent and colour of the plants can be fully appreciated, is traditional. For the same reason, growing lavender next to seating areas is also a great idea.
Lavender is a popular choice for growing alongside roses as it hides leggy rose stems during the winter months – famous cottage gardener Gertrude Jekyll, who developed the popular 'Munstead' lavender, loved this combination. In more modern gardens the subdued color and informal habit of lavender is perfect for softening hard landscaping. If the classic bluish-purple varieties don't fit your colour scheme, you can also find white-flowered versions such as 'Alba' and its smaller sibling, 'Nana Alba' (great for border edging), and pinks such as 'Hidcote Pink' and 'Loddon Pink'.
How to Grow and Care For Lavender
Lavender can be started from seed, but it does take some patience as germination can take many months. An easier way to propagate lavender is by cuttings, which provides a mature plant much earlier and ensures that it will be identical to the parent plant. Read our article on How to Successfully Take Cuttings of Herbs for more information.
Pruning lavender in cool climates is a two-step process, whether for individual plants or for hedging. The flowering stems can be harvested while in bloom or snipped off after the flowers fade to keep the plant tidy. Leave the foliage over the winter to protect new growth from frosts, then in spring trim the plants fairly hard to prevent them from becoming leggy and bare at the base. It's important not to cut back into old wood however, as it won't regrow from this.
In warm climates, all pruning can be carried out in the autumn.
The downside to lavender is that it has a limited lifespan. Annual pruning as described above is a must to keep it bushy, but even with the most judicious care the plants will likely need to be replaced after 5-10 years. It's a good opportunity to try out a different variety however – I recently dug out an old tired lavender of uncertain parentage from my garden and replaced it with 'Munstead', which has slightly more greenish leaves. It's settling in nicely, despite a recent dry spell.
How to Harvest and Use Lavender
Lavender, of course, is most famous for its perfume. Harvesting and drying lavender is simple – simply snip off the stems just before the flowers open and when you've gathered enough for your needs, tie the stems together and hang them up to dry somewhere sheltered. After a few weeks the flowers will have dried fully, and can be shaken gently from the stems into a container.
Store them in a lidded jar somewhere cool and dark, or pop them straight into a sachet to keep towels, sheets or clothes smelling sweet and to repel moths. If you suffer from insomnia, try inserting the sachets into a pillow so the calming scent can help you drift off to a restful slumber.
Although edible, lavender is little used in recipes. It's occasionally included as a constituent of Herbes de Provence mixes, and leaves can be chopped and added sparingly to some sauces or used in shortbread biscuits – if you have any great lavender recipes, feel free to share them in the comments below.
But, you don't have to harvest lavender. It's beautiful to look at, smells great when you sit next to it or pass by it, and the bees drawn irresistibly to it will do a great job of pollinating your garden!
By Ann Marie Hendry.