Growing lavender: A year-round guide | Garden Notes

Barbara Faurot
Posted 10/26/22

“Plant lavender for luck.” – Alice Hoffman, “Practical Magic”

Lavender offers many gifts to the gardener. It offers fragrant foliage and flowers in shades of purple, …

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Growing lavender: A year-round guide | Garden Notes

Each variety of lavender is pruned after flowering and harvesting at Wilderbee Farm. Leave an inch or two of foliage above old wood to help protect new flower buds.
Each variety of lavender is pruned after flowering and harvesting at Wilderbee Farm. Leave an inch or two of foliage above old wood to help protect new flower buds.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Faurot

“Plant lavender for luck.” – Alice Hoffman, “Practical Magic”

Lavender offers many gifts to the gardener. It offers fragrant foliage and flowers in shades of purple, blue, pink, or white. It produces essential oils and attracts beneficial insects, including honey bees, mason bees, and bumble bees. 

The name Lavandula, from the Latin lavare, to wash, comes from its history as a plant used to make perfumes and soaps. In ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia, lavender was used in aromatic teas, crafts, and treatments for various ailments, from headaches to depression to insomnia. 

Lavender is native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East, and it thrives in our maritime climate. As a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, it shares characteristics with basil, rosemary, hyssop, bee-balm, thyme, sage, and of course, mint. They have aromatic oils, square stems, opposite leaves, and asymmetric flowers with upper and lower petal lobes. 

Lavender produces pollen and nectar across a long blooming period, helping to supplement native plants in the garden. According to the nonprofit Xerces Society, lavender is considered one of the most important honey plants; the sugar concentration of lavender nectar results in golden honey with a smooth, butter-like texture.

Most lavenders thrive in our sunny, dry summers, and are good candidates for xeriscape gardens. They are largely drought tolerant once established, and will accept fall and winter moisture as long as they have well-drained soil. They are also pest- and deer-resistant. 

Lavender can be planted in rows to form a low, flowering evergreen hedge. Some gardeners even use a lavender hedge as part of a deer-resistant strategy, helping deter them from other areas of the garden.

There are about 45 species and more than 450 varieties of lavender worldwide. Casey and Eric Reeter of Wilderbee Farm, a family-run organic farm and meadery in Port Townsend, grow eight different varieties. “We choose certified organic varieties that have at least three different ‘offerings’ — those that produce abundant fresh flowers, dried flowers, and essential oils.” 

They’ve found success planting in the early spring to take advantage of spring rains, helping the new plants get established before the summer dry season. New shoots are pruned right away in spring to help direct the plants’ energy towards the root system and encourage new foliage growth. 

At Wilderbee Farm, the pruned foliage is included in the steam distillation process to produce essential oils and hydrosols (water produced from distillate that is used to create other lavender products). 

Once the new plantings are established, Casey advises that they rarely need supplemental irrigation over the summer, since lavender is sensitive to too much water. Most lavenders prefer dry, sandy, loamy soil with good drainage. There is usually no need to add compost, fertilizer, or other amendments, as rich soil may result in floppy stems and less concentrated aromatic oils. 

Flowers are harvested anywhere from April through September or October, depending on the variety. Distinctive botanical characters result in a variety of bloom times, flowers, scents, and oils. “People are surprised that there are so many different choices for ornamental landscaping, aromatherapy, pollinator support, or culinary use,” adds Casey.

Some true lavenders like the narrow-leafed English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) produce a sweet, floral scent, believed to be calming. Examples are “Melissa,” “Sachet,” and “Mitchum.”

Hybrid plants known as Lavendins (Lavandula x intermedia), are larger, with longer, broader leaves. They have up to 7 percent camphor content, resulting in a eucalyptus scent, believed to be more invigorating and energizing. Examples are “Grosso,” “Provence,” and “White Spike.”

Other common species include Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) with a eucalyptus scent, narrow leaves, and pineapple-shaped flowers; Spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia), with high camphor content and spiked flower heads; and French lavender (Lavandula dentata), a small shrub with silvery, serrated leaves and powdery flowers, best in containers since it is sensitive to wet and cold. 

After flowering and harvesting is complete, a recommended approach is to prune plants to an inch or two above the woody stems, since new growth won’t occur from old wood. Eric uses a Japanese-style hand sickle for the first rough cut, then finishes by shaping the plants with a hedge trimmer. Leave remaining foliage in place over the winter to help protect young growth buds. 

“The tighter the plant, the longer they last,” says Casey. “Once more than half of the plant consists of old woody stems, it’s time to replace it.” With excellent care, plants at Wilderbee Farm have lasted 10 years or more, but three to seven years is a typical life span. 

As winter dormancy approaches, rather than using mulch on bare soil surrounding the lavender plants, Casey and Eric use “volunteer vegetation” as a form of living mulch. In spring, these volunteers are tilled under and any weeds are removed by hand. Then the cycle of spring growth begins again.

The Master Gardener Plant Clinic is available online year-round. For complex questions, a one-on-one Zoom consultation can be scheduled with a Master Gardener. Questions can be submitted at 

(Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.)


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