Lavender has a long history with mankind. Gardeners have been cultivating and growing lavender plants since Roman times. This genus of perennial Old World herbs provide gardeners with some of our very best garden plants. Combining fragrance with evergreen foliage, resistance to browsing deer and rabbits and showy displays of primarily blue flowers, lavender plants are a cornerstone of any good xeriscape (waterwise landscape).
Growing Lavender plants provides an invaluable source of nectar for honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies. For vegetable gardeners, this mean that having lavender planted near your eatables will ensure pollination and fruit set.
Lavender flowers are also wonderful for culinary use and crafts. Lavender wands, sachets and dried flower spikes help us to preserve the harvest for indoor enjoyment of their fragrant essential oils.
Growing Lavender: Which Lavender Varieties Should I Plant?
Here in the cold, arid high desert of New Mexico I use Lavender in practically every planting and we grow at least 20 cultivars of cold hardy types at High Country Gardens. I enjoy the luxury of having plenty from which to choose. In my USDA Zone 6 climate, I need good cold hardiness and always make it a point to plant both English angustifolia and French Hybrids to extend the season of color to stretch from late spring into late summer.
Within each species there are numerous varieties, each have beautiful variations in the shape, color and size of the flower spikes, color of the foliage and the shape and configuration of the plant itself.
There are so many varieties of lavender, that it can be confusing to gardeners as to which ones are the best for their area. There are three primary species of lavender that are most widely planted:
1. Growing English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
These are the most cold hardy species and typically bloom in late spring/early summer. However, there are now a few "twice blooming" types that will flower in late spring and again in September with prompt deadheading after the first flush of flowers are done. Here are some of my favorites:
'Vera' - an heirloom variety that is also extremely cold hardy (to - 20° F, zone 5a)
'Buena Vista' - a fragrant twice bloomer with nice bi-colored flower spikes.
'Sharon Roberts' - another twice bloomer with attractive elongated flower spikes.
'Thumbelina Leigh' - a compact, small grower that blooms for several months beginning in late spring.
'Munstead Violet' - a selection I discovered as a seedling in a Santa Fe landscape. It has gorgeous violet-blue flowers (with a hint of red), the darkest flowers of any English lavender that I've grown. Outstanding!
2. Growing French hybrid lavender (Lavandula intermedia)
These vigorous hybrids bloom in mid-summer and are typically larger plants than English lavenders. In general, they are at least a zone less cold hardy than English types and are best in USDA zones 6 and warmer. Here are my favorites:
'Gros Bleu' - an uncommon, outstanding newer French hybrid. Excellent sweet fragrance (not too much camphor) on a smaller growing plant. The dark colored flower spikes will re-bloom later in summer with good rains.
'Grosso' - the gold standard of the French hybrids known for its dark flowers, good zone 6 cold hardiness and large mature size.
3. Growing Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas)
Always popular, Spanish Lavender's whimsical, rabbit-eared flowers are endearing. And they are the best choice for mild winter climates (zones 7-10) with hotter, more humid summer weather. They bloom in early to mid-spring, bringing early color to flower beds and container gardens. This one is my favorite.
'Lutsko's Dwarf' - irresistibly cute, this compact grower tops out at about one foot in height. Nice chubby flowers that bloom for a long time. Excellent as an edging plant along paths. walkways and entrances.
4. Growng Hybrid Lavender - a different mix of genetics from the French hybrids.
'Silver Frost' - a superb inter-specific hybrid, introduced by Andy Van Hevelingen of Van Hevelingen Herb Nursery of Oregon, this one is a cross between wooly lavender (L. lanata) and an English parent. Everblooming, it's one of the very best with deep blue flowers contrasting beautifully with its pure silver foliage. Very tolerant of dry heat.
Growing Lavender: Where To Grow Lavender
Lavender plants thrive in full sun, heat and fast-draining, low fertility soils. They are at their very best in the more arid climates found west of the Mississippi where heat, sun, dry growing conditions and poor soils predominate. Humid heat and compost-enriched, water-retentive soils are the enemies of lavender. Back East, look around your town to discover if gardeners in your area are growing lavender successfully. If so, full sun hillsides, sloped and raised beds with sand or gravel soils will offer the best growing conditions for long-term success. Growing them in containers is also a good option.
Lavender plants are actually small woody shrubs, that once established, thrive in dry growing conditions. However, during their first growing season in the ground, they need regular irrigation several times per week to establish themselves. Once established, much less frequent, but deep watering is their preference.
Growing Lavender: Mulching Lavender
Mulching is helpful in dry climates, but not recommended in areas that get more than 18-20" of annual precipitation. An inch thick layer of small crushed (angular) gravel is the best mulch for Lavandula. Other coarse-textured mulches such as pine needles and crushed nut shells are also a good match for mulching these plants. Avoid straw, bark, compost and other water retentive mulch materials.
Growing Lavender: Fertilizing Lavender
Lavender plants need very little fertilizer and will suffer when fertilized frequently with chemical fertilizers, especially when applied in the late summer and fall. This delays them from hardening off for winter and can result in freeze damage or death come next spring. Instead, keep their soil healthy and well drained by fertilizing with natural or organic soil builders like Yum Yum Mix applied once annually in the fall.
Growing Lavender: When to Plant Lavender
In colder zone 5-7 climates, spring and early summer planting is best. These plants love the heat needed for growing deep roots. In mild winter/hot summer zone 8-10 climates of the Southwest and California, fall and winter planting is best. This allows the plants to establish themselves before the extreme heat of the following summer.
Deer Resistant Lavender: Lavender Plants Are A Colorful Deterrent to Deer
Lavender is also a wonder-repellent to keep deer and rabbits from nibbling their neighboring plants. Many rose gardeners always plant Lavender under each rose. I know an expert landscaper in deer-plagued Spokane, WA who plants several lavender plants alongside all of her Clematis vines. Beauty and functionality: who can quarrel with that!