Friday, October 2, 2015

A Look At Lavenders: Colorful, Aromatic and Ancient

Lavender Field Sutton by Kemal Atli
Lavenders, with their powdery blue foliage and sweet scent, deserve a special spot in every garden.  They are easy to grow, colorful, add fragrance and have lots of practical as well as culinary uses. They earn their keep both in the flower bed and in the pantry.

 Place lavender plants in a sunny spot with good drainage for best results. If you have clay soil give your lavender a head start by providing some additional drainage.  Dig a hole double the width of the size of the pot and three inches deeper.  Add three inches of pea gravel to the bottom of the planting hole.  Mix a good soil, some of the excavated soil and additional pea gravel for the fill.  Rest the bottom of the plant on the pea gravel and gentle pack the soil mixture around the sides.  Don’t drown the plant when you install but do give it a gentle watering to settle the soil around the roots.  If you mulch use a “reflective” mulch such as gravel or shells.  Avoid shredded bark mulch or other organic mulches that may cause rot around the plant’s base.

Remember:  lavender is really a shrub so give it a light trim after the flowers fade.  Save the clippings to make sachets or other natural home products.  Over time, with consistent trimming, a lavender shrub will become woody with beautiful gnarled branches that add additional interest to the garden, particularly in winter.   Think of the beautiful old olive trees of Italy and Spain.  Then think of your lavender as a bonsai of these ancient trees.  Trim only the soft material.  Leave the woody branches untouched unless there is dead material that must be removed.
Within the lavender family there are lots of cultivars and hybrids.  There are even “white” lavenders.  In fact there are over thirty types of lavenders in the family though only three varieties are in common use in modern gardens.  Some links are provided below so you can see the vast choices available.  There’s one for everyone, even the lavender hater.  If you run into one please let me know.  I want to call the folks at Guinness.  Ok, Maybe grumpy Uncle Hollingsworth from Cincinnati.   But he hates everything anyway. Remember that Christmas he went on and on about Julie Andrews?


Lavendula Angustifolia – English Lavender, I Say.

lavandula angustifolia in variety.  Photo by Sten Porse.
English lavenders bloom a bit earlier than their French cousins with flower spikes shaped a little more like a small barrel.  They are very high in essential oils so make a good choice for cooking and perfumes.   They look a bit more ragged in winter than the French varieties but are all excellent garden plants.  Despite their winter look they actually cope with humidity and winter wet better so they are often the first choice for gardeners.  Popular varieties include hidcote and munstead.  Those are named after of two of the finest estate gardens in the UK.

Lavendula  x Intermedia – French Lavender, Bien Sur

lavender intermedia.   Photo courtesy
of High Country Gardens.

Commonly called lavandin,  French lavender produces a large amount of essential oil infused with camphor, creating a powerful aroma when the plant is touched or brushed by. Place it near a path so you can enjoy the fragrance as you pass by.  It is the most common variety used for commercial lavender production.  Since they are hybrids they have an extra dose of hardiness and look a little better in winter than angustifolias.  They are sterile so there will be no unwanted seedlings.  Propagate from cuttings.  Flower stems are tall and spiky.  Some of the most popular cultivars are Provence, Grosso and Phenomenal.  Grosso lives up to its name.  It can easily grow to three feet and makes a really impressive specimen in the garden.  Lots of extra cuttings too!

Lavandula Stoechas  -- Spanish Lavender, Como No
lavender stoechas growing wild in its native Spain. 
Spanish lavenders make up in beauty what they lack it hardiness.  Gardeners above USDA Zone 6 (and probably 7A too) should consider them annuals but they are well worth adding to the annual budget. A lot of garden centers sell them now even in colder regions.  Just be aware that the plant you take home probably won't make it through a tough winter. Spanish lavenders are particularly fetching grown in containers. The blossom is pinecone shaped and range into the violet shades.The foliage has a hint of eucalyptus.  These lavenders are often called butterfly lavenders.  Remove faded  blossoms to keep the plant in flower all summer.
For the Kitchen
Easy Lavender Syrup
Bring six cups of water, two cups of sugar and a half cup of dried lavender blossoms to a boil.  Boil for five minutes.  Turn off heat and let cool completely or for several hours.  Strain into a clean bottle and store in the refrigerator.   Use syrup to flavor cold drinks (lemonade, iced tea, club soda) or add to cake, cupcake or cookie batter before baking.
For the Pantry
Natural Lavender Cleaner
Bring one quart of water to a boil, add two cups dried lavender and boil for 5 minutes.   Turn off heat and let cool completely or for several hours.   Add one quart distilled white vinegar.  Strain mixture into a clean plastic jug for storage.  Lavender cleaner is a natural disinfectant.  Use to clean floors, cabinets, windows and other hard surfaces.  Mixture can be further diluted for minor cleaning tasks.


The best source for plants is a reputable, local nursery where you can pick the plant yourself but there are a number of good sources to buy plants online.  Online may be the best way to shop if you want an unusual variety. Plants purchased online are generally smaller but lavenders grow quickly.  (A 4.5 inch pot is a container that is approximately two inches square so that should provide some guidance to the size of plant you will probably receive.)
High Country Gardens
With plants grown in Denver and Santa Fe, this online nursery has a big selection of lavenders because they do so well in the xeric (low water) Southwest.  
Forest Farm
Located in Oregon, this nursery is one of the finest sources of plants by mail.  They grow a vast number of plants, many of them rare and unusual.  Lavender link is below but no doubt you will leave with more than a few items in your cart.

Greenwood Nursery
Located in Tennessee, this nursery has a fairly large selection of lavenders and a generally good reputation for quality plants and good customer service.  Full disclosure: I have not personally ordered from them.  However, they have good ratings with Dave’s Garden, the online social media site where gardeners share their experience and exasperations too!

Copyright 2015 Lyle Steele Custom Gardens. All Rights Reserved.  For copyright permission please write to   Lyle Steele Custom Gardens is a design and landscape firm based on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC.

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