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Growing Lavender: Lovely Aromatic Flowers

People have been growing lavender for centuries. Many are familiar with the use of lavender essential oils for cleaning, relaxation, and bug repellant. Back in Roman times, lavender was used in religious ceremonies. Today, people even enjoy lavender as a culinary accouterment. 

Possibly the best thing about lavender is how easy it is to grow. Lavender plants thrive in a garden, raised beds, or even indoors. You can grow lavender in pots, making it easy to protect from the cold. Or you can make it a part of your perennial gardening practice, and let it die back in winter. 

Aromatic herbs are a great addition to a garden for pest control. Lavender in particular produces lovely blooms that you can incorporate into a flower arrangement. With so many lavender varieties, you can choose a cultivar adapted to your area and try another not as suited as an experiment in gardening. You can start growing lavender almost anywhere!

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Quick Care Guide

Growing lavender
A healthy, growing lavender plant is quite beautiful. Source: Jean et Coco
Common Name(s)Lavender
Scientific NameLavandula spp.
Days to HarvestUp to 3 years for maximum harvest, but small harvests can be taken in their first year
LightFull sun
WaterSparse
SoilModerately fertile, well-drained
FertilizerSlow-release, low nitrogen 1-2 times per growing season
PestsWhiteflies, aphids
DiseasesRoot rot, alpha mosaic virus, lavender shab

All About Lavender

Lavender plant
Whether using it as an accent plant or centerpiece, lavender stands out. Source: Shelley & Dave

These plants cover a wide range of species all relegated to the Lavendula genus. This guide covers English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and French lavender (L. dentata). There are other famous cultivars like Dutch lavender, spike lavender, and the hybrid Lavandula x intermedia (Lavandin). We’ll get into the details of each of these in the next section. 

These plants are upright with gray-green foliage and white to deep purple flowers. Leaves are arranged opposite one another on square woody stems. Like other aromatics, lavender is slow-growing and often doesn’t flower in the first year of growth. Healthy plants that are several years old grow up to 3 feet tall. Bruise a leaf or flower, and fragrant oils are released. This is what lavender is known for best: its light fresh floral scent. 

In cooking, lavender flowers are a star of delectable baked goods, teas, and meat rubs. Outside the kitchen, people use lavender in aromatherapy for relaxation, and homemade bug sprays and cleaning agents. It has been used for ages medicinally as a headache soother, nervine, and digestive aid. The root of the word “lavender” comes from the Roman “lavare” which means “to wash”. Those who know the plant know just how clean the scent can make one feel. 

Types of Lavender

The most well-known of the lavender species are French lavender (L. dentata) and English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). The main difference between the two lies in the climate they are suited to. English varieties are cold-hardy, whereas French lavender thrives in temperate, humid climates. English species also live longer than French lavender, at 15 years compared to about 5 years respectively. English lavender also tends to grow up to 20 inches tall. French lavender grows taller at a maximum of 36 inches. 

While most of the lavender species you can buy at a nursery are one of the two aforementioned, the hybrid Dutch lavender (Lavandula x intermedia) is prized for its essential oil. It’s a cross between English and Portuguese lavender and produces tons of flowers that have that essentially lavender fragrance everyone loves so much. 

Planting Lavender

Wait until the last frost has passed in late spring to plant lavender transplants in the garden or a pot. It’s possible to transplant in fall, but French varieties most appreciate springtime and summer months. English varieties can survive winter more easily, so they are a better candidate for fall transplants. 

Select an area of your garden that has full sun. If you’re not sure about the sun content in the spot you choose, try growing lavender in pots at first. This way you can move your plant around as the season progresses to find the best place. Give lavender plants mildly fertile well-drained soil. This goes for growing lavender in pots and in a garden bed. 

It is possible to plant lavender seeds, but they can take up to three weeks to germinate. If you are starting your lavender growing journey this way, start seeds indoors in a potting mix or seed starting mix in early spring or late fall. Make sure the area you start them in has ample sunlight or UV radiation from a grow light. A heating mat helps with germination. Most of all, be patient. It will take at least three months for viable seedlings to grow. 

Care

Pollination in process
Bees and other pollinators are drawn to lavender flowers. Source: starmist1

With an established plant, growing lavender is easy. If you give a lavender plant what it needs from the start, you can almost ignore it and it will thrive. 

Sun and Temperature

Grow lavender in an area with at least 6 hours of full sun. Lavender is hardy to zones 5 to 8 and thrives in median temperatures of 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. English varieties are cold hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. French lavender can take lows down to 10 degrees. French lavender is more likely to take on cold damage than English lavender. If you are expecting temperatures below either of these, provide a frost cloth covering during that time. Both subsist just fine in high triple-digit heat up to 113 degrees. 

Water and Humidity

Lavender plants don’t need much water. Give them water in the morning or at dusk every two to three weeks once they’re established. When buds form, increase water to once or twice per week to promote healthy flower spikes. The best way to water when you’re growing lavender is to irrigate at the base of the plant using drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Avoid getting leaves and flowers wet. These plants do not need water in rainy seasons. Lavender is drought tolerant and doesn’t appreciate wet feet which can rot its roots. 

Soil

Grow lavender in slightly alkaline soil that has good drainage. A potting mix or potting soil amended with builder’s sand is great for a lavender plant. Avoid adding organic matter to the mix at first which retains more moisture that lavender doesn’t need due to its drought tolerance. Remember, good drainage and slightly alkaline soil at a pH of 6.7 to 7.3 is key. This rule applies to garden beds and pots. Annually, add a little compost around the plant base in spring to replenish some of the soil nutrient content.

Fertilizing

Lavender does not need fertilizer throughout its life cycle. Applying too much fertilizer could stunt blooms and promote the development of foliage over lavender’s prized flowers. However, slow-release granular fertilizer in early spring at planting time will support new growth. Find a fertilizer with an N-P-K of 7-9-5 to apply when you plant your lavender in spring. Do not fertilize in fall, early summer, or during winter months. That would promote new green growth that will die in a freeze. Since cold damage can spread, leave the granules for planting time. This goes for plants in a pot, in the garden, indoors, or outdoors. 

Pruning

Gardening with perennial plants like lavender requires that you prune stems to help them grow. 

Prune off the first flowers of your lavender plants to promote more blooms in subsequent flowering periods. Use garden shears and cut the flower spikes just above the area where new growth appears to about two-thirds of the height of the plant. Prune again in the same manner after the first set of blooms are spent. 

Avoid pruning before your plant has flowered unless you need to remove damaged foliage. To help your lavender plants bloom luscious, fragrant flowers in summer, prune two times per year. Do not cut the woody part of the stems, as this can damage the plant. Instead, prune only the green parts of the stem. 

Propagation

Lavender plants can be propagated by planting seeds or rooting clippings. Stems can be rooted in water or directly in soil with rooting hormone. Powdered root hormone can be applied to soil in a pot, or mixed in with water. To propagate by cuttings, snip the soft green tip of the stem in a temperate season. You will not be able to propagate by cuttings in winter, as lavender is in a dormant state at that time. Remove any bloom that exists on the stem, and the bottom sets of leaves up to 2 inches from the bottom. Then dip the stem in powdered hormone and insert the naked stem in a pot with soil slightly amended with organic matter. In two to four weeks, you’ll have lavender plants with strong roots. The same goes for clippings rooted in water. After roots have formed in the water, transplant the sprig into soil.

To propagate by seed, gather stems with a bloom that holds spent purple flowers. Within each fragrant purple bloom lies a lavender seed. Collect these by shaking the stem lightly, and plant them in a seed starting mix in a starter pot. Use a heating mat, and give the seeds plenty of sunlight or supplemental light. Expect at least two weeks from planting time for the seeds to germinate. Roots are sometimes slower to form from lavender seeds. Once each stem has several fringed lavender leaves, they are ready for transplanting. 

Harvesting and Storing

Lavender farm
Commercial lavender farms can be stunning. Source: Chris Gin

Fragrant lavender flowers are great for making aromatic oils, cosmetics, and foods. Collect them at harvest time, and you’ll have that clean smell and flavor all winter long. 

Harvesting

You can harvest both lavender flowers and leaves. Wait until late summer as flower buds form, then snip the stems just before the woody part. Then dry them somewhere with good air circulation. Do this by tying the stems together, and hanging them upside down. Alternatively, you can lay them out on a drying rack, or parchment. Any of these methods take at least a few weeks. The better the air circulation, the faster the drying process. 

Storing

You can use fresh lavender in a hot bath or to make an alcohol-based tincture, but dried buds are great in soaps, candles, and cooking. This is because the potency of lavender increases as it dries in an area with good air circulation. Place your dried harvest in a sealable plastic bag or airtight container. It will keep for longer than a season (up to 3 years) but after a year, the potency of the fragrance decreases. 

Troubleshooting

Lavender field
You can grow a single plant or a whole field of lavender. Source: Coanri/Rita

Truly, lavender doesn’t have many issues due to its concentrated oils. There are a few things to keep an eye on, though. 

Growing Problems

A lavender plant that has not been properly spaced can have developmental issues, like a lack of flowering or stunted growth. To prevent improper spacing, put at least 3 feet between the center of the plant and the plants growing beside it. Divide and move other plants as necessary if the planting process is already complete. 

Plants that are grown in soil that retains too much water will develop rot. If your soil is too wet consistently, remove the lavender and plant it in a pot to keep indoors while it dries out, or move it to a drier area of your garden. 

Pests

Lavender keeps most pests away. However, it is susceptible to sapsuckers like whiteflies and aphids.

Whiteflies are from the insect family Aleyrodidae, comprising over 1500 individual species. They tend to swarm on herbs. Insecticidal soap or horticultural oils are effective against whiteflies.

Aphids are small congregating insects that feed on the leaves of lavender. They tend to collect on the undersides of leaves and if they get bad enough they feed on stems. They can be knocked off and killed with a strong stream of water. Insecticidal soap is also effective here, as are horticultural oils. For severe outbreaks, consider an insecticidal soap and pyrethrin combination, but only when the situation is dire as lavender can be sensitive to pyrethrin.

Diseases

Root rot occurs when lavender has too much moisture and warmth in the soil over time. In these conditions, fungal pathogens rot roots and cause wilting leaves. Avoid watering your plant too much or avoid fertilizing to prevent root rot. If the rot has already set in, stop watering your plant. Remove any dead foliage, and carefully remove the plant from its planting area. Then use clean garden shears to snip off rotted roots. Replant it and make sure it has plenty of sunlight to dry out the soil. 

Lavender shab is caused by the fungus Phomopsis lavandula. You know your plant has shab when it wilts suddenly even though there isn’t a drought. There is no treatment or cure for this disease. Plants suffering from shab should be removed and burned or thrown away. 

Alfalfa mosaic virus causes leaf curl and deformity and can be spread through infected garden tools, insects, and even your hands. If you determine it is present, remove and dispose of the plant. Unfortunately, there is no treatment or cure for the alfalfa mosaic virus. Sterilize your tools and wash your gloves to prevent spreading the virus.

Frequently Asked Questions

Closeup of lavender flower
A closeup of a lavender flower. Source: Dittmeyer

Q: Does lavender come back every year?

A: Yes! It blooms mostly in summer and dies back in winter.

Q: Is lavender an easy plant to grow?

A: Once it’s established you should have no problem with it. Don’t water too much, though. 

Q: Where should I plant lavender in my garden?

A: Give it full sunlight and well-draining, slightly alkaline soil.


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