I’m going to let you in on a gardening secret… if you want to look like a super-green-thumb garden superstar but you don’t really want to work too hard at it, plant lavender. Okay, I might be a bit biased because lavender is a bit of a “thing” in my life, like so much of a thing that for four years my mother ran a lavender festival on the Gulf Islands. I like lavender, a lot. It is a plant that has inspired many throughout the years, and for good reason. The fragrance and taste of lavender is really like nothing else.
I have seen lavender being used in everything from morning lattes, to evening cocktails, in household cleaners, linen sprays, dryer balls, home fragrance, deodorant, even lavender ice cream. Probably the biggest use is in aromatherapy. Lavender is thought to promote calmness, reduce stress and anxiety (something we could all use a little more of right now). So, adding this plant to your garden can be beneficial in more ways than one.
If you want lavender to perform well without too much work from you then you need to make it happy. To have happy lavender there are only three things you need to remember:
Plant it in the right spot:
Lavender is happy in a hot sunny area with well–drained soil. If you have a shady boggy area then I’d be happy to show you some trilliums, primrose or moss, but not lavender. Consider planting it in a container so you can move it to your most sunny spot in the garden (6 hours of sunlight is best).
Don’t let it drown:
Well drained soil is key, these plants originated in the Mediterranean and North Africa region, so our soggy winters are not to their liking. If planted in a container, make sure it isn’t sitting in a saucer of water or move it under the eaves of the house. When planting in the garden, mix in some sand or gravel to your soil. I’ve seen lavender self–seeding in a gravel pathway, trust me on this one, happy lavender lives in well–draining soil.
Don’t forget to prune it:
Lavender needs to be pruned, this scares some people because they “want it to get big” or “don’t want to lose any flowers”. Which is all fine and dandy but it you don’t prune your lavender it will get woody and be a bare, sprawled mess of knotty wood instead of a lush busy cloud of purple and green (or pink, or silver, or white…). Lavender is what is called a sub-shrub that means it is somewhere between a shrub and a perennial.
Each year it grows lovely new growth from the tips of last years growth. The growth from last year gets old and turns from soft and green to hard and woody. This “old wood” also does not break bud, which means that the older the wood the less likely that new fresh growth will start to grow from it. So hopefully you can visualize that if you don’t prune it will soon be long stems of leaf-less woody stems… not pretty.
But if you just do a little bit of pruning each year then you can keep your lavender young and fresh looking. And it’s not complicated, the best technique I find is to just shear it back (that’s a fancy way of saying cut it without being too fussy) by 1/3 after it has bloomed. I tend to do a small amount of pruning as I harvest the flowers and then when most of the flowers have faded go back and complete the job. Ultimately you want to remove 1/3 of the new stems and have at least an inch above the woody stems.
If you only remember to follow these three rules, then you are sure to be rewarded. Lavender is drought tolerant (but it will appreciate regular watering, it’s just forgiving if you well… forget), disease resistant (there isn’t much that effects it), is good for pollinators (so if you want to do your part for the bees or attract butterflies to your garden), deer resistant (the fragrant leaves are not to the taste of most deer), and is happy with very little fertilization (but a yearly influx of a handful or two of composted soil amendment wouldn’t go amiss). It is a plant that just gives and gives without asking too much.
Full disclosure, the first year you plant a new lavender you need to give it a little bit more TLC, just to get it through the first year. So, try to watch it a bit more closely and err on the side of regular watering. After that your lavender should be well established and able to handle itself just fine.
There are 450 varieties of lavender at last count, but really who’s counting. And if you want to go on a deep dive with learning about the different species then don’t forget to wear an oxygen tank, it can get deep. Even just taking about lavender and making sure everyone is talking about the same thing can be difficult. For example, French lavender can refer to Lavandula dentata or Lavandula stoechas or Lavandula x intermedia. Oh, but Lavandula stoechas can also be called Spanish lavender, but then Spanish lavender can also be Lavandula dentata or Lavandula lanata… Ugg… so really you can be forgiven for not really knowing what to call what.
For most gardeners who are just interested in adding some beauty and fragrance into their life there are two main types, the English lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) and the Stoechas lavenders (Lavandula stoechas) which is frequently called Spanish lavender.
English lavender is what most people think of when they hear the name lavender. Flowers form on tall spikes that are well above the leaves, and it’s the best for eating/crafting/fragrance. This is also the lavender that is best suited to our cool wet climate. Other species and hybrids of lavender can be a bit more challenging to convince them to be happy on our wet coast. It grows in a compact mound and is long lived (up to 20 years).
A few of the best varieties to look out for are:
‘Hidcote’ – Deep purple exceptionally fragrant flowers with beautiful grey/green foliage. This lavender has won a prestigious Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Merit award. Grows 20-30cm tall and spreads 50-60cm wide.
‘Munstead’ – Light mauve, long lasting, highly fragrant flowers contrasts well with the grey/green foliage. Slightly larger it grows to 50-60cm tall and 60-75cm wide.
‘Nana Alba’ – Snow white flowers on top of silver/green foliage, this is another winner of an RHS Garden Merit award. Growing in a compact mount it reaches 30cm tall and 50cm wide.
Spanish/Stoechas lavenders have a more compact flower spike that is topped with sterile bracts, or as my son likes to call them, funny bunny ears. The flowers look like they have little butterflies hovering over them which give rise to their other name (my favourite) butterfly lavender. The flowers are stunning but sadly not as fragrant as the English lavenders, so this plant isn’t recommended for collecting and using the flowers for fragrance/flavour. Butterfly lavender is also not as hardy as English lavender, but you tend to forgive it since it blooms almost continually from spring to fall. You can literally enjoy the beauty of this plant from spring to fall.
The best varieties are:
‘Anouk’ – there are a number of different colour variations of this lavender variety (ranging from purple to light pink). No matter which one you choose you won’t be disappointed, the delicate soft silver foliage alone is enough to consider growing it. The ‘Anouk’ lavenders have the benefit of being slightly hardier than some of the other Stoechas types. It grows 30-45cm tall and 45-60cm wide.
Everyone should find a place to grow at least one lavender plant. It’s a intensely fragrant, long living, has delicate feathery silver or green foliage, grows in dense mounds, is drought tolerant and easy to grow, and rewards you with hazy soft clouds of purple, pink or white flowers. Just remember the three rules and you will have success. Head on down to the garden centre and check out the selection. I consider lavender part of self-care, if you have any doubt run your fingers through the fragrant leaves and flowers, then breath deep.