Lovely Lavender

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Lavender flower spike with pollinatorAs a certified crazy plant person, I enjoy reading about plants, taking pictures of plants, and sharing pictures of plants with like-minded friends and random individuals alike. One thing I’ve noticed: people seem to universally love lavender. For years my parents had a small lavender farm in the Piedmont of North Carolina, and it conferred an assumption of expertise on my part on the growing of lavender, even though I had little to do with my parents’ operation. However, I have tried to live up to that misrepresentation, and I’ve learned a little about growing this wonderful, if somewhat finicky, plant.

Lavandula angustifolia is considered a short lived perennial. A member of the mint family (it has square stems, as do all members of that family), it is native to the dry, alkaline soils of the Mediterranean. Most people have seen the dreamy photographs: acres of glowing purple lavender grown in France, and the scent is synonymous with everything French. However, lavender is grown and used all over the world, and is prized for its soothing and beneficial essential oil. I use lavender oil directly on fire ant bites, quickly stopping the pain and reducing the blistering caused by the bites. I use the leaves in cooking, similar to how rosemary is used, and it is delicious on pork or chicken. There are almost endless ways to use lavender, but of course I love it in the garden. Many people have told me they have a hard time growing lavender, and there are some tricks to growing it in our area.

First, and most importantly, is soil pH. Lavender requires “neutral to alkaline soils”, according to the NC State Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. For us in the Sandhills, that means extensive liming to get the pH up near 7. If you have lavender goals, give yourself the time needed to lime and have it take effect, which may be four to six months, before planting lavender. Lavender hates “wet feet”, which is good for those of us with well drained Sandhills soils. Humidity is a problem, however, and can cause disease and rot, resulting in early plant death. Strive for good air circulation by giving plants plenty of room (typically, plants grow up to three feet wide for standard varieties). Avoid organic mulches such as pinebark or pinestraw if possible; these mulches will hold moisture and raise the humidity within the plant. If mulch is desired, use pea gravel or even oyster shells, which have the added benefit of raising the soil pH slightly over time. Plant lavender in full sun, optimally with good early morning sun to burn off night dews quickly, with preferably at least six hours of sun during the day. Lavender flowers bloom beginning in June, and may stay in flower for a couple of weeks, depending on weather (cool, rainy weather will cause flowers to decline more quickly). Many people harvest the purple, highly fragrant flower spikes, to be used in potpourris, cooking, and crafts. I find it hard to harvest the flowers though, the bees and butterflies love them so. Lavender is one of the few plants that should be pruned with shears, making a nice mound of grey-green after the flowers are removed. Plants are highly deer resistant, making lavender a wonderful addition to a deer-challenged garden. Plants work well in planters, as a low hedge, or planted individually in an herb garden – there are many different ways to incorporate lavender no matter the size of your garden, as long as you have the sun. There are numerous varieties, and one of my goals is to trial some of the more widely available ones to see which are best for our area. Common varieties include ‘Hidcote’ and Munstead. I’m growing ‘Grosso’ in my garden now, and I’m fairly pleased with it. It is the primary variety grown in France for essential oil production. A relatively recent variety, ‘Phenomenal’, developed from ‘Grosso’, is said to be highly resistant to the humidity of the South, and is one to watch for.

Now is not too soon to start planning to plant lavender next year. Start with a soil sample to determine your pH, and watch the sun light. Contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center for questions on gardening at 910-997-8255.