How to Grow Lavender
Image by Stephen Head
The luscious lavender herb
How to choose, plant and prune the heavenly lavender herb
Our senses can conjure up vivid memories, and the most powerful of all is smell. The fragrance of lavender instantly brings me back to long, hazy summer days spent on my grandparents’ farm during my misspent youth, to perfumed wafts in the early-morning air and an afternoon frenzy of bees amongst glinting purple-blue flowers.
While we often associate lavender with the English cottage garden, its origins actually go back to the warmer drier climates of the Mediterranean and Africa. This accounts for some of the difficulties we experience growing this resplendent plant in a province pounded by rainfall.
Given the right conditions, lavender is not as hard to grow as a shrub in zones 5 or warmer. It distinctly prefers a well-drained soil, and dislikes its roots being in saturated soils – all too common on the wet coast. Once established, lavender requires little maintenance – just a light topdressing of bone meal and annual pruning to keep looking good.
Selecting the best cultivar out of the many available can be daunting. Some get quite large, reaching 1.2 m (4 ft.) or so with similar spread. Pick a plant to fit your garden. A sizeable cultivar needs room to mature.
For small spaces and containers opt for a compact type such as as the English lavender Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’. Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) makes a wonderful summer-flowering plant in a container or border, but is less tolerant of our winter conditions. If you can’t offer it a warm and well-drained year-round roost, keep it pot-bound and drag it into your greenhouse or windowed garage during the cold months.
Lavender stoechas 'Willow Dale' (Image: Stephen Head)
Consider Your Site
The planting location is very important – think full sun and good drainage. While a sloping site allows free drainage during wet times, it does require more irrigation during the first year to establish the plant, after which lavender is quite tolerant of dry conditions. Wherever you plant, loosen the soil around the planting area – a rule of thumb is to dig a space three times the size of the pot the plant comes in. For wetter soils, add a shovelful of fine gravel to the soil below the root ball, as this helps keep the roots a little drier. When planting, don’t forget to add some bone meal to encourage healthy root development. Also, I shear the top lightly (flowers and all) when planting – this encourages fresh growth from the base of the plant, making it bushier and more robust.
Timing is Key to Proper Pruning
As lavender plants get older, the lower stems often become woody. It is imperative to trim annually to keep lavender bushy and blooms prolific. Don’t be intimidated by this. There is no special technique for pruning lavender. Simply use sharp garden shears to snip off about a third of the growth. The all-important trick is to know when to shear. Prune anytime once the new season’s growth begins, often around late March, right through to mid-August.
The earlier you prune during this growth period, the more time your lavender will have to develop and bloom through the warm months. Prune too late and the plants don’t always recover in time for winter.
Lavender does not tolerate late or winter cropping very well at all, nor will it take pruning into hard old wood. If your plants are old, with tufts of foliage atop half-inch-thick bare woody stems, it is probably best to start over.
Once established, though – and with minimal maintenance – your lavender plantings will provide years of unforgettable delight.