Growing Lavender

Grow herbs and flowers in containers in a small urban garden.
Lavender grows in a large field in Provence.

This field of lavender grows by Senanque Abbey in Provence, France, for which Provence lavender is named. At home, just a few plants are all you need for color and perfume.

In the Garden

The countryside of southern France is legendary for its fields of lavender (Lavandula x intermedia Provence) grown for the perfume industry. In North America, lavender is a shrubby perennial grown for its flowers and fragrance, but it also serves as a landscape item for its beauty and ability to stand heat and drought. In parts of California, is it used in islands of commercial parking lots, which attests to its toughness.

In a formal garden, lavender may be clipped to form a low hedge or an aromatic border along a path. In a rock garden, a single plant or just a few plants may be used to great effect as an accent. And, of course, lavender is a natural choice for any herb garden. The cool, gray-green foliage contrasts nicely with its own flowers, as well as dark green herbs and other plants.

Lavender also grows quite well in containers. In the Deep South, it actually does better in pots, as it benefits from improved drainage and air circulation. While the plants thrive in arid Western climates, they are usually considered annuals in the South.

Soil, Planting, and Care

Purple lavender and orange poppies growing in a rock garden have well draining soil.

Lavender plants have a neat, shrub-like form. This lavender grows alongside orange poppies in a rock garden, an ideal spot since it provides good drainage.

Set out plants 12 to 18 inches apart in an open area with full sun and good air circulation. Plant lavender in well-drained, slightly alkaline soil with a pH between 6.7 and 7.3. You can add builder’s sand to the soil before planting to increase drainage, which is vital because lavender will not tolerate excessive soil moisture or humidity. To further improve drainage, plant lavender in a raised bed, along a wall, or near the top of a slope. In an herb or perennial bed, ensure good drainage by planting lavender on a small mound. Lavender flowers bloom in summer; you can clip faded blooms to encourage continued blooming throughout the warm season. Prune lightly to promote branching, especially in spring once the plants show new growth.

Sprinkle bone meal or other phosphorus-rich fertilizer around each plant in the fall to make it stronger and more winter hardy. Work the fertilizer into the first inch of soil, or let the rain soak it in.

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Troubleshooting

Plant lavender transplants in a pot to start them growing right with well draining soil.

Start your plants in pretty containers, especially in humid climates where good air circulation is a must.

Remember that lavender needs good drainage and good air circulation. Do not over-water, and allow the soil to dry before watering again. When there is a lot of heat and humidity, fungus can attack the plants, turning the leaves brown. To minimize the chance of having such a problem, mulch with pebbles or sprinkle sand around the base of the plant for faster evaporation. If you cut the blooms, trim in a way that thins the plant a bit, leaving it open for better air circulation.

Harvest and Storage

Cut lavender flowers with a long stem attached.

When you cut lavender blossoms, leave a long stem attached for handling.

Harvest lavender stems at any time by cutting them from the plant. However, avoid clipping more than every third stem to keep the plant looking full. Flowers will keep their perfume for months when you harvest just before they are entirely open. To dry flowers, gather a bunch of stems and hang them upside-down in a dark, well-ventilated place to preserve color and keep the stems from molding.

Uses

Hang lavender blossoms upside down to dry them.

You can dry lavender easily by tying the cut stems in clumps to hang upside-down away from direct sunlight.

Fresh flowers may be used in sauces, marinades, and desserts. Handle fragile dried blossoms with care and use them in teas, salts, potpourri, sachets, and crafts.

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FAQs

What is the secret to growing lavender?

Lavender needs full sun and good drainage. It is more likely to die from excess moisture than from cold in winter. A pot is an excellent way to provide drainage, though the plant will be more vulnerable to cold temperatures than it would be in the ground.

Can I grow lavender in a container?

Absolutely! If you live in a moist or humid region, a container may be the only way to give your plant adequate drainage and sufficient air circulation to prevent rot. While lavender thrives in the dry, arid climate of the Provence region of France and in sunny California gardens, it may turn brown from fungal infection as the result of too much moisture in regions with higher rainfall and humidity. A terra cotta pot filled with a quality potting mix is ideal. Also, lavender grows best at a slightly alkaline pH of 6.7 to 7.3. Most potting soils are slightly acidic, so you may wish to mix lime into the soil at the rate of 2 to 3 ounces per cubic foot of potting mix. Also, when fertilizing, opt for timed-release granules or a product providing the nitrate form of nitrogen.

I have never planted lavender before and need some information about its habits. How much is it likely to spread?

Lavender is a small shrub that usually grows 20 to 24 inches tall and wide. The height includes the flower stalks, so when not in bloom, the foliage may be only a foot tall. The plant does not spread as thyme, oregano, and other herbs tend to. Whether the plant will grow to its greatest potential size also depends on growing conditions.

I just purchased lavender. Can I use it in cooking?

Yes. It lends a delicate floral essence to both teas and desserts. In the latter, the flower are usually combined with a liquid ingredient in which their fragrant oil is released. Then the flowers themselves are strained from the cream, honey, or other carrier of the flavor.

My plants look great and are growing but not flowering. Any suggestions?

Lavender is a perennial herb in many areas – that is, perennial if it gets really good drainage. Growing in a pot is an ideal way to provide good drainage. However, if the potting mix is extremely fertile, the plant may grow leaves and stems rather than flowering. Cut back on your fertilizer, especially if it is high in nitrogen. You can try switching to a bloom-booster formulation, or simply stop feeding it for a few weeks.

What is the best way to keep lavender plants over the winter?

Lavender plants are a challenge to grow in areas of high rainfall, particularly in winter. Many gardeners in the Southeast consider lavender an annual. Be sure to plant lavender in a pot, raised bed, or atop a retaining wall. Given sufficient drainage, plants will be winter hardy in zone 5 and areas that are warmer. If grown in a pot, lavender will need some protection during winter in zone 5 and areas that are colder.

Can one lavender plant be split into several in the springtime?

No. Unlike herbs that spread into clumps with underground or above-ground stems, lavender is a woody shrub and does not form a clump.