Gear Up For The Year Of The Lavender - 27 East

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Gear Up For The Year Of The Lavender

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Lavender Sweet Romance has a mounding habit and is about 15 inches tall and 15 inches wide. Like many of the new lavender introductions it’s said to be hardy to zone 5, so it should do well out here.

Lavender Sweet Romance has a mounding habit and is about 15 inches tall and 15 inches wide. Like many of the new lavender introductions it’s said to be hardy to zone 5, so it should do well out here.

On this Lavender Castilliano flower it’s easy to see the corolla (which is tubular) and what we often refer to as the petals and the calix. The two parts are different colors as seen here, where the corolla is purple and the calix is pink.

On this Lavender Castilliano flower it’s easy to see the corolla (which is tubular) and what we often refer to as the petals and the calix. The two parts are different colors as seen here, where the corolla is purple and the calix is pink.

Lavender Deep Anouk Rose actually has a deep pink color and blooms from mid to late summer. It grows 14 to 18 inches tall and spreads just over a foot.

Lavender Deep Anouk Rose actually has a deep pink color and blooms from mid to late summer. It grows 14 to 18 inches tall and spreads just over a foot.

Potted lavender will start to show up in garden centers in May. They are usually available in several sizes from 4-inch pots up to gallon pots. ANDREW MESSINGER

Potted lavender will start to show up in garden centers in May. They are usually available in several sizes from 4-inch pots up to gallon pots. ANDREW MESSINGER

Lavender Super Blue will probably bloom out here in June. It’s fairly uniform at 12 inches tall, making it good as an edger or in pots. It’s touted as being very hardy, drought tolerant as well as heat and humidity tolerant. Sounds like a winter for the Hamptons.

Lavender Super Blue will probably bloom out here in June. It’s fairly uniform at 12 inches tall, making it good as an edger or in pots. It’s touted as being very hardy, drought tolerant as well as heat and humidity tolerant. Sounds like a winter for the Hamptons.

author on Feb 21, 2020

One of the cruel facts of gardening seems to be that the more beautiful, fragrant and useful a plant is, the harder it is to grow. In this category I’d include roses, lilies (as in Asiatics and their relatives), and an all-time favorite, lavender.

So, to complicate matters, one of the horticultural trade organizations has declared that 2020 is the year of the lavender, and we’ll see plenty of promotional material urging us to buy and plant this wonderful aromatic. The problem? As magnificent as lavender is, it’s also one of those plants that can drive you crazy. It doesn’t have to, though.

There are a few things to understand about this plant that will help. While we treat it as a perennial, it really doesn’t fit the definition of a true perennial because it doesn’t die back to the ground every year then return the following spring. That is, of course, assuming that you haven’t planted it in a wet and heavy soil, in which case it will probably make it through the summer then rot out the following winter. In reality, this plant is a small shrub that retains an aboveground shoot system through the winter then grows new stems, leaves and flowers from these overwintered branches. Even in severe winters, the truly hardy varieties seem to leave enough growth on the stems so regrowth takes place.

Another thing to consider with the lavenders is that there are dozens of varieties. But, if you are looking for a variety that will return every year, or just about every year, it has to be one of the varieties that is known — as in proven — to be hardy. And while you may see catalogs and plant tags indicating that a variety is hardy in our climate zone, don’t be so sure. When in doubt, plant only a few and see how they do. When you want lavenders that are reliably hardy, limit your choices to those that we know do well out here. There are only a handful.

The name of this plant comes from the Latin verb meaning “to wash.” It was a favorite ingredient in the herbal baths of the Greeks and Romans, and during the Middle Ages it was considered to be an herb of love. Because of its clean, fresh scent and purported insect-repellent properties, it was also a popular stewing herb. It also became an ingredient in smelling salts and a nasal decongestant, and it was used as a disinfectant for wounds during ancient wars.

While lavender can be found in many areas of the world, all the 20 or so species are members of the botanical genus Lavandula. Most of the lavenders found in our gardens today are hybrids or cultivars that have been selected from only a few of these species, and they fall into two basic groups. The first are all cultivars of the species Lavandula angustifolia and are referred to as the English lavenders. The second group is made up of hybrids between English lavenders and another species, Lavandula latifolia, and are called lavandins. Depending on the variety, these plants grow from 10 inches up to 48 inches tall, but the majority is less than 24 inches.

Both of these groups have gray/green foliage with a habit akin to a small compact shrub, and many are hardy to zone 5. (We are in zone 7, two zones warmer than 5, so most of the hardy species can be grown here). They all prefer full sun and most critically, a well-drained soil. I think most gardeners fail with lavenders when they are planted in heavy clay or organic soils, in spots that receive regular irrigation (from lawn and garden sprinkler systems) or when they are potted and over watered and when they don’t get their early spring sheering. They also require little if any fertilizer, and they’re virtually insect and disease free. All are fragrant, but this can be variable by variety. While the composition of their essential oils does differ, it’s difficult for most people to tell these plants apart based on their scents.

The biggest differences between the two types are in their height, flower colors, size of the flower spikes and their time of bloom. The English lavenders tend to bloom early in the summer while the lavendins bloom midsummer. The darkest flower colors are found in the English group while the tallest plants and longest flower stems and largest flower heads are in the lavandins — something to consider if you are going to be collecting the flower spikes and drying them for use in arrangements or as cuts.

Many people seem to prefer the English (do Munstead and Hidcote ring a bell?) for potpourri, oil production, soaps and making lavender wands (dollies).

It’s important to note that the lavender flower is made up of two parts, the corolla and the calyx, each with a different color. The tubular corollas, what we usually think of as the petals, are most often violet colored, though some are white or light pink. The calyx colors range from a very deep purple to a light violet/green. When lavender flowers dry, the corollas fall out or shrivel up and only the calyx color remains. So, when you choose a cultivar for dried flowers, it’s only the calyx color that matters.

Lavender can be grown from seed that you can start indoors, bought as bare-rooted plants (by mail) and as potted plants where you can buy several varieties in garden centers potted and ready-to-plant. A note of caution, though. Several varieties of lavender can be found in florist shops, supermarkets and greengrocers. In many cases, these are not the hardy varieties. So if you see one that strikes your fancy, make sure to read the tag carefully as most will indicate hardiness only to zones 8 or higher.

The least expensive way to grow lavender is from seed. The seed is generally inexpensive, but germination is erratic. While you may find some “named” varieties from seed, remember that true hybrids and cultivars of this plant can be grown only from cuttings or purchased as potted or bare root plants. Another downside of growing lavender from seed is that if you are using these plants for hedging you will find that the height from one seed grown plant to another can be quite variable. For this reason and for reliable colors and form, most will want to buy cultivars for uniform size and color.

When planting, it’s critical to not plant the lavender too deep or in an area where water collects. Remember, the two worst enemies of this plant will be rich soil and wet feet. Plant in full sun and water in after the initial planting. Water weekly for about a month or until the roots are firmly established, then water only if there hasn’t been rainfall for two or more weeks. There’s no need to fertilize, though an annual application of an organic fertilizer at the drip line of the foliage can be done every spring.

Once the ground has thawed, the snow melted and the growing season begins, the plants are given an annual cleanup. This is usually done in early to mid-April, and consists of thinning out deadwood and giving the plant a light to moderate pruning that encourages new shoots and branching that provide the current season’s blooms. Older stems may still send up blooming spikes, but the most reliable way to produce any abundance of flowers is with annual pruning.

Local garden centers should be stocking potted lavender plants from early spring through early summer. For collections and other choices, you’ll need to buy from a mail-order nursery such as the White Flower Farm (whiteflowerfarm.com) and Bluestone Perennials (bluestoneperennials.com) who are offering 10 or more varieties. However, if you want to do a mass planting and save lots of money, visit mountainvalleygrowers.com, where 24 varieties are offered as well as pages and pages of great growing, harvesting and drying information. If you go to their plug tray page, you can get a tray of 128 plants for a dollar a plant. A trip to the library or online search or a look at any good herbal will also yield lots of great varietal information, culture and uses.

You’ll quickly see that there’s more to lavender than just Hidcote, Munstead and Jean Davis, the most commonly found cultivars. Lavender Oxford Gem is a relatively new introduction from Blooms (marketed in this country by Proven Winners) that has done very well in our trials. It grows to only 12 inches, has great fragrance, makes a great hedger and has survived our coldest winters.

There are few garden plants that provide so many uses and are so easy to grow. So, get some scents, shop for your lavenders and keep growing.

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