Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Love Affair with Lavender– Part 1

 Capture the essence of summer while you can.

There are certain plants which I just can’t imagine a garden without; you can read about a few of them in my earlier post ‘Ramblings of a Romantic Gardener’. Now that summer is here and the garden is coming into its full glory I realize that there was one glaring omission; lavender.

In our last garden I grew several hedges of the billowing  pale blue ‘Provence’ lavender using it to  line the pathway to our front door and also wrap around a semi-secluded patio. As I am re-designing the landscape for this home I have several areas in mind which will be perfect for lavender. The question is, which one?

With so many to choose from you can be sure to find the perfect variety for your garden. Flower color is not limited to shades of blue as there are white, pink and even yellow cultivars to choose from. Sizes range from the petite and orderly to the wild and woolly! Foliage may be green, blue, silver, or variegated and the scent can range from heavenly to hospital-like (think antiseptic).

In this post I’m going to focus on the different types of lavender most readily available to help you navigate the options at your local nursery.
The rabbit ears identify this as a Spanish lavender
Photo courtesy Mountain Valley Growers

Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) is characterized by its intriguing pinecone shaped flowers topped with ‘rabbit ears’. It typically grows low and wide and is one of the earliest to bloom. Native to Mediterranean areas it seems to do better than most in very hot and humid climates. I find these are more suited to the landscape or as solo plants in a container. They do not seem to play well with friends in a mixed container design since they spread so wide.  ‘Otto Quast’ is a popular variety, hardy in zones 8-9 (7 on a good day)  with all purple flowers and light green foliage.

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) such as ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ is the species I usually recommend when a client wants something compact. Both have foliage approx. 12-18” tall and wide with flower spikes adding another foot so these make perfect short hedges. Munstead is hardy to zone 5.
I love it when lavender farms label their plants - a 
great way to compare varieties side by side.

English lavender hybrids or lavandins  (Lavandula x intermedia) are my favorite for their sheer exuberance. Actually it is here that I have a confession to make. For years I have referred to these as 'French lavender' but I now realize my plant genetics are embarrassingly rusty; I can only apologize to my French friends! These bloom mid-late summer and are the big boys of the lavender world. ‘Provence’ and ‘Grosso’ are two fabulous, well known varieties, 'Grosso' being a deeper blue and the lavender of choice for oil distillation. 'Provence' on the other hand is used in pot pourri and other dried preparations. The variety ‘Fred Boutin’ is a little shorter, was discovered in 1980 and has beautiful silvery leaves and a fine perfume. Now in self defense I think you can understand my confusion as to their heritage.. Hardy to zone 5

French lavender (Lavandula dentata) on other other hand has beautifully serrated leaves but otherwise have a similar growth habit to the lavandins. Goodwin Creek Grey (Lavandula x ginginsii)  is a French lavender hybrid and one of the prettiest with deep purple flowers held on long spikes and a little shorter than some of its relatives. Hardy to zone 7.

The yellow and French lavenders
bloom at the same time so make
striking companions.
Photo courtesy Mountain
Valley Growers

Yellow lavender (Lavandula viridis) will be a head turner for sure. Big and bold, the chiffon yellow rabbit ears of this rare lavender will definitely get noticed. 3’ tall and hardy to zone 8.

'Hidcote pink' lavender is 
an unusual English variety.
Photo courtesy 
Willow Creek Gardens

Cultivation basics
  • Well drained soil is essential
  • Soil pH 6.5-7.5
  • Full sun
  • Occasional water. Lavender are drought tolerant once established but for the first few years and for best performance a through deep watering once or twice a week is best. 
  • No fertilizers are needed if the soil has some organic matter such as compost added.

Of course there are many more and indeed there are whole books dedicated to the subject of lavenders. This is my favorite;

Lavender: The Grower's Guide
By Virginia McNaughton
192 pages, 187 photos
May 2000 

In Part 2 I’ll look at how best to harvest and prune lavenders as well as a few recipes to try using this special herb. Meanwhile look to see if there is a Lavender Festival near you this summer. For those in Western Washington don't miss the  Sequim Lavender Festival July 15-17th


  1. Wow I would love to have lavender like yours. I have planted some from seed and am looking forward to planting it out when the weather gets better.

    1. Growing lavender from seed-I've never tried that. You have more patience than I do!


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