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February 2008
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Growing lavender

The Lavenders Lavandula are a genus of about 25-30 species of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae, native from the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and to the southeast regions of India. The genus includes annuals, herbaceous plants, subshrubs, and small shrubs. The native range extends across the Canary Islands, North and East Africa, south Europe and the Mediterranean, Arabia, and India. Because the cultivated forms are planted in gardens world-wide, they are occasionally found growing wild, as garden escapees, well beyond their natural range.
Lavenders are widely grown in gardens. Flower spikes are used for dried flower arrangements. The fragrant, pale purple flowers and flower buds are used in potpourris. Dried and sealed in pouches, they are placed among stored items of clothing to give a fresh fragrance and as a deterrent to moths. The plant is also grown commercially for extraction of lavender oil from the flowers. This oil is used as an antiseptic and for aromatherapy.
Lavender plants will tolerate many growing conditions, but it thrives in warm, well drained soil and full sun. Like many plants grown for their essential oils, a lean soil will encourage a higher concentration of oils. An alkaline and especially a chalky soil will enhance lavenders fragrance. More realistically you can expect to have plants that will do well when the weather cooperates and to experience the occasional loss of a plant or two after a severe winter or a wet, humid summer. It is dampness, more than cold, that is responsible for killing lavender plants; with excellent drainage being important because any excessive wetness around the roots will lead to root rot. It is for this reason that growing lavenders on clay is not recommended. If you have clay soils, grow this plant in a container or in a raised bed with sandy soils in the raised bed.
Lavender is a tough plant and is extremely drought resistant, once established. However, when first starting you lavender plants, don’t be afraid to give them a handful of compost in the planting hole and to keep them regularly watered during their first growing season.
Although lavender plants get regularly pruned simply by harvesting the flowers, to keep them well shaped and to encourage new growth, a bit of spring pruning is in order. The taller varieties can be cut back by approximately one-third their height. Lower growing varieties can either be pruned back by a couple of inches or cut down to new growth. If you live in an area where lavender suffers some winter die-back, don’t even think about pruning your plants until you see some new green growth at the base of the plant. If you disturb the plants too soon in the season, they give up trying.
You can always grow your lavender in pots and move it to follow the sun or even bring it indoors for the winter. Keep in mind that although lavender has a large, spreading root system, it prefers growing in a tight spot. The main things to consider are size of container, adequate light, drainage, water, pruning and feeding. First of all, your container must be adequate in size. A pot that can accommodate the rootball with a couple of inches to spare would be a good choice. Too large a pot will only encourage excessive dampness. As lavender is a Mediterranean herb, it deals well with tight root spaces in well drained soil. Though the root ball is usually much larger than the plant itself and you must allow for this in a container, lavender’s roots do prefer to be fairly crowded. Therefore, the container should be proportional to the size of the rootball, i.e., not more than an inch or two larger than the rootball. Too much soil and few roots can cause excessive wetness to linger in the soil, which is death to lavender.
Locate your lavender containers in a very sunny location. Your lavender containers need as much sun as is recommended for lavender planted in the garden, about 8 hours a day. Make sure there are adequate drainage holes in the container you select. If not, make them by drilling additional holes. It might be advisable to add an inch or two of gravel to the bottom of the container, to insure adequate draining of water and drying of the soil between waterings. Some people prefer a lighter weight filler material, especially if the container is to be moved around throughout the season. Soil should be a light and “fluffy” mixture, well aerated, not heavy to allow for good drainage. Insure that the pot has plenty of drainage. Use a loose, soilless mix for planting and remember that container grown lavender will require more water than garden grown plants. How much more depends on the environment and the type of pot. Water when the soil, not the plant, appears dry and water at the base of the plant to limit dampness on the foliage. Compact varieties make the best choices for containers.
Like all container plants, lavender will deplete the nutrition from the soil more quickly than plants planted out in the garden. Lavender likes to be repotted yearly, and this is a good time to mix a time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote into the potting mix. This is an excellent way to provide nutrients, slowly and on a regular basis. Container grown lavender will benefit from a light pruning in the spring, before budding and a light clean up again in the summer. This keeps the lavender from becoming scraggly and leggy. It also keeps air circulating well.
Commercial growers find that a plant lasts approximately 5 years before it starts to “run out” and decline in health. They take cuttings and propagate the plant so that there are always new ones coming along to replace those that die. Some garden experts say that you can expect a garden plant to last up to 10 years before it starts to die.

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