Growing Lavender

In his 1597 treatise the Historie of Plants herbalist John Gerard advised "to seek relief from love, steeping cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves with lavender ‘doth help the panting and passion of the heart". Americans love affair with lavender suggests that our passion is actually heightened by its presence in our gardens and homes. On a warm June day the heady, penetrating, clean fragrance of lavender can conjure up images of long ago childhood memories, the purple fields of Provence, or the English countryside, and its easy growing nature is a delight to busy gardeners.

Undoubtedly, lavender is one of the finest landscaping plants for our California climate. Once established it is very drought tolerant, surviving on as little as 12 inches of rain a year. Most lavenders do very well with long dry summers and wet mild winters, although some are hardy enough to withstand occasional snow. Whether it is one plant growing in a pot or a mass planting on a hillside, lavender is a magnificent landscape element. It adds scent, color and texture, the lavender color creating a cooling haze and refreshing the eyes on a hot summer day,

Lavender (the botanical name is Lavandula sp) is native to the Mediterranean, Middle East and India. It was dearly loved by the Romans, who used it to freshen their bath water – the name comes from the Latin verb “lavare”, or “to wash”. The Romans carried it to England, where it became a staple of the monks' physic garden, useful for practically everything from warding off the plague to cleaning teeth and easing the pain of childbirth. It was used to prevent and relieve fainting spells experienced by melodramatic Victorian ladies. Because of its proven antiseptic qualities, lavender was known as the herb of war, carried into many battles as an essential first aid herb. It is used to soothe headaches and hysteria. Lavender flowers are used in sachets, perfumes, potpourris, wreaths, soaps, teas, jellies, desserts, cosmetics and aromatherapy.

Growing lavender is actually very easy. The three main requirements are sunny conditions, excellent drainage, and dry conditions. Providing a lavender plant with 8 hours of sun or more a day is very easy for many Vacaville gardeners, but soils in our areas tend to contain a large amount of clay, giving very dense soils that do not drain easily. Compost is always our friend, so mixing 3 to 4 inches of compost into the top foot of soil and building up a small mound to plant lavender on top will greatly increase drainage around the root zone. Although plants must be watered more frequently when first planted, once the roots are established, summer watering can be once a week or even less, especially if plants are watered deeply. Lavender plants would love to receive about one gallon of water a week, so if you had two ½ gallon drip emitters at the drip line of your plant it would be best to water 1 hour a week.

Lavender is a long lived perennial – many lavenders will be beautiful and productive for 7 to 10 years. Pruning is critical for plants to look their best.  Proper pruning of lavender can look a little shocking, but it is best to cut most lavenders back by 1/3 to 1/2 in size. Leaving a few green leaves is needed, but most lavenders can be pruned far back into the wood. Pruning should occur after flowering, so depending on the type of lavender it may need to be done more than once a year, and could be anytime from May to November.

The exciting part of growing lavender is the many species, flower colors, fragrances and colors. In late winter and early spring, Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) come into full bloom. Flowers with tall "butterfly wings" may grow flowers from pure white to deep purple. French lavender (Lavandula dentata) is big and robust, tending to bloom any time of year, even the winter.  Both of these species are used mostly for early bloom. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) begins to bloom May through early July, and again in mid fall if properly pruned. It has the truest, sweetest fragrance, and comes in colors from pure white to pink to deep blue. English lavenders are usually shorter growing, ranging from 8 inches to 2 feet. Excellent for cooking, especially for desserts and teas, the essential oil is far superior. While there are several hundred named varieties of English lavender, 'Hidcote Blue', 'Munstead', and 'Folgate' are all very popular.  Lavendins (Lavandula x intermedia) are part English lavender; growing larger, up to four feet, with long flower spikes and a heavy lavender fragrance. Lavandins bloom later in the year, usually June through August. With a bit of a pine scent, lavandins are used for sachets and cooking savory foods. The most popular varieties are 'Grosso' and 'Provence'.

Besides being a great gardening plant, lavender has many uses in the home, kitchen and medicine cabinet. It is fun to craft with, and the wonderful fragrance is calming and helps to promote sleep. The flowers are edible, and are now found in all kinds of recipes, both savory and sweet. Lavender wreaths and sachets are fun to make, and great as fragrant gifts. Lavender is widely used for herbal body products and aromatherapy,

With so much to learn and enjoy about lavender, it is not surprising that lavender merits its own books, festivals and classes. To learn more about lavender, join us each year at the Lavender Festival at Soul Food Farm on Pleasants Valley Rd. Come out and enjoy a day in the country when Morningsun Herb Farm and Soul Food Farm will host a fun day out on the farm – learn to make lavender crafts, enjoy strolling through lavender fields and learn about growing and enjoying lavender.