This traditional favorite is a multisensory treasure.
By Ann Wilson, Geneva, Illinois
Lavender, Bluestone Perennials, www.bluestoneperennials.com
You'll always find weeding more of a pleasure than a chore when you grow English lavender. This bluish-purple bloom rises in charming clouds to enrich gardens with heavenly scents.
With the brush of a gardener's hand, the plant's spiky flowers and needlelike leaves release a heady fragrance that is part spice, part floral and all together soothing. Fragrance aside, there are numerous other reasons to give lavender a whirl. The easy-to-grow plant is beloved by bees and butterflies, but shunned by deer and rabbits.
A shrubby, woody perennial, lavender bears silvery-green foliage that provides a pretty foil for colorful flower companions. Its gray leaves also make it a standout in evening gardens designed to shine in the moonlight.
Employed by modern herbalists to wash away one's worries, early Romans used lavender to cleanse their hands and bodies. In fact, the plant's name derives from the Latin word lavare, which means to wash.
Ancient cultures believed that snakes made their homes in clumps of lavender and so deemed the plant a symbol of distrust. Lavender has also been dubbed "Good witch's herb" because its purple flowers were thought to protect against evil.
Out of the Garden
Throughout time, lavender has been considered both calming and curative. People add it to bathwater for a spa-like experience or tuck lavender sachets under their pillows to induce peaceful slumber. Lavender has been used to mend injuries, thwart disease, and reduce the itch and soreness of sunburn and bee stings. And there's a very good reason for tucking lavender sachets into drawers and closets: It's a natural moth repellent.
English lavender requires a sunny site, good air circulation and well-drained soil that is preferably slightly alkaline. When planted in the correct site, the drought-tolerant perennial will thrive on benign neglect. Once established, it will need little extra watering. In fact, too much watering can result in rotting crowns and roots.
In colder zones, plant lavender by early summer so it has plenty of time to set down roots before frost. Gardeners in mild climates can plant lavender into fall.
Lavender won't grow in heavy or clay soils. Create lighter and better-draining soil by amending the planting bed with compost, peat moss or other organic material. Mulch plant bases with a layer of sand or pea gravel to keep plant crowns and foliage dry.
Throughout the summer, cut flowering stems to encourage vigorous plant growth and continued blooms. In spring, after plants begin producing new growth, remove dead growth and cut back old growth by one-third. This will rejuvenate the plants and give them a tidier appearance.
Hang It Out to Dry
English lavender is the most cold-hardy, compact and aromatic of all lavender—numerous cultivars are harvested for their fragrance, flavor and perfectly dried forms.
Lavender is one of the easiest perennials to dry. Harvest lavender stems in late morning after the dew has dried. Turn the bundle upside down, and secure the stem ends with a rubber band. Slide a paper clip through the band to use as a hook.
Hang the bundles upside down from nails, clotheslines or drying racks in a dry, dark space with good air circulation. Leave the bundles in place for a week or so. They'll be ready use in crafts and arrangements when the bundle's innermost stems have thoroughly dried.
Mix It Up
Lavandin cultivars (L. x intermedia) combine the best characteristic of English lavender and spike lavender (L. latifolia) to produce hybrid cultivars with fragrant blooms on long stems. 'Grosso' is a favorite for drying.
Plant lavender in clumps or rows of three to five plants to showcase their flowers and fragrance. Interplant them with herbs, annuals and perennials, such as oregano, rosemary, pentas, gazania, coneflowers, salvias and sedums, that thrive in hot, dry soil.
Tuck them in as specimen plants in rock gardens or in terra-cotta containers filled with a lightweight potting mix. Marshal taller varieties along heat-reflective driveways, sidewalks and concrete patios where you're sure to breathe in their engaging aroma every time you stroll by.