Those fortunate enough to have walked in a field of lavender and inhaled the heady aroma emanating from the purple waves of the flowering plants will most likely never forget the experience. It could be the beginning of a passionate love affair with this wonderful herb. Spring is the ideal time to plant lavender, and you don’t need fields of this magical herb to enjoy it. Add a few plants to your herb garden; plant lavender beneath your rose bushes to hide the rose’s scraggly legs; put lavender in a window box near the entrance to your home so all who enter can enjoy the heavenly fragrance, or simply pot up several lavenders and place them on your patio or in your kitchen on a south-facing window sill. You’ll soon become captivated by the lure of lovely lavender and enjoy its many uses.
Lavender is a perennial herb that, given the right conditions, can flourish and produce flowers for a decade. In most areas of the US, lavender produces dozens of fragrant flowers on a single plant in early summer. A second, less abundant flowering may occur in the fall. There are many varieties of lavender available today. Two popular varieties that may be used for culinary purposes as well as for craft-making are English Lavender (Lavandula agustifolia officinalis) and Provence (L. x intermedia). These should be planted directly in the garden, as lavender has deep, spreading roots and will soon become root-bound when confined to pots. The more compact varieties of ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ can be grown successfully in deep, wide pots.
Two very important needs of lavender should be taken into consideration when selecting a planting site: sunshine and drainage. Lavender thrives in full sun; eight hours a day will make it happy. Lavender must have good drainage; it does not like wet roots. Plant it on a gentle slope or in a raised bed in a south-facing, full-sun location. The soil must be loose—not compacted—and neutral to alkaline (6.0 to 8.0). Add lime if your soil is too acidic. If you don’t have a sandy loam, add a little sand (not builder’s sand) and small gravel to help with the drainage. When planting, add bone meal; afterwards, no fertilizer is needed.
Other needs to consider are air circulation and mulch. Space your plants so that when they are grown and flowering their branches will not touch; they need plenty of air around them, especially in humid climates. After the plant has reached a good size, remove a few branches from the interior to open it up. Don’t use bark or pine straw for mulch; sand or pea gravel is best. They will reflect heat and light up to the plant.
Lavender plants are fairly drought resistant after they are mature and well established. However, during the first year, they need to be watered regularly, especially during the hottest summer days. Don’t forget to keep watering into the fall if you encounter a dry spell.
Pruning lavender is not an option—it is necessary to ensure a good production of flowers and to keep the plant from falling open in the middle. Although lavender plants are pruned regularly by harvesting the flowers, to keep them well-shaped and to encourage new growth, prune lightly in early spring and cut back aggressively in late fall. Leave approximately 1″ of green foliage on plant when fall pruning.
Harvesting and Drying Lavender
Timing is important when cutting lavender. When your lavender has blossomed, the flowers can be picked for many uses. For a fresh bouquet, pick the blossoms when half of the flowers on the blossom head have opened. If you are picking to dry the bundle for culinary uses, crafting or making a sachet, pick them when the bottom three-quarters of the blossoms are open. Check each plant and cut them daily because not every stem is ready to be cut at the same time.
Wait until all dew has dried from the plants in early morning before cutting. Cut the stems down near the base of the plant. If you’re going to dry the lavender, remove all of the leaves from the stem, leaving the bare stem on the bottom and the flowers on top. Bundle a handful of stems together and secure with a rubber band or twine, about an inch from the bottom. Hang the stems upside down in a dark, dry place with plenty of air circulation. A small oscillating fan will help to move the air around the hanging stems. Darkness preserves the color of the flower heads. Put a clean cloth underneath to catch any buds that may fall.
The lavender flowers will be dry in about 8 to 10 days. They may now be used for making crafts, in potpourri, or for culinary uses. Many recipes using lavender can be found in herb cookbooks or by entering “cooking with lavender” on internet search engines.
To preserve your dried lavender for cooking purposes, separate the buds from the stems, rub the flower heads gently between your hands over a clean cloth or plate. To remove any dried leaves from the flowers, sift them through a sieve. Store your culinary lavender buds in a dark-colored glass container out of light. The buds will maintain their flavor for several years and enliven many of your food dishes with a fresh, enticing hint of lavender. By grinding lavender buds in a spice grinder when you’re ready to add them to a recipe, you’ll release more essential oil, which will increase the lavender flavor in the dish.