Tips For Lavender Lovers

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Time To Harvest Lavender

If you have not yet gathered in your lavender blossoms, do so now, before the flower heads fall off. Pick stems as long as possible, gather the lavender in loose bunches and stand them flowers-up in tall vases (no water, please). Place them in a cool, dry spot out of direct light and they will finish drying in a week or so.

If you want to make lavender wands or similar craft projects, use the stems fresh, when they are still supple. The best lavender for stem crafting is Fred Boutin, a fragrant form with deep lavender blue flowers and especially long, sturdy stems. Named after an American horticulturalist with a good eye for fine plants, Lavandula Fred Boutin can reach four feet in height, making a handsome informal hedge plant for a sunny spot. The upright, grey-leaved bushes remain shapely into middle age with light annual trimming.

Harvesting The French Way

I love harvesting lavender, which always reminds me of the lavender fields of Provence.  When I was a student in Italy, friends took me to work on a small French farm near Aix en Provence. In summer, we picked cherries and lavender. That fall, we came back and helped with the grape harvest. At that time, both the lavender and the grapes were hand picked. Lavender was bundled and hand tied in the field. It was hot, back breaking work, but the thought of lunch time kept us going.

At noon, the farmer built a small fire against the low stone wall that bound the fields. Over hastily gathered handfuls of wild rosemary, thyme and sage, we grilled fresh sausages which we ate with local bread. Afterwards, we napped in the cool farm house, where the smell of lavender mingled with the herbal smoke clung to our hair and clothing in a magical perfume.

Picking grapes was even better. We sat on upturned buckets and picked into baskets. Small boys ran between the rows, gathering up full baskets and leaving empty ones. The boys loaded the harvest into the larger panniers of two donkeys. Both wore straw hats with holes cut out for their big ears. Black and white magpies flew down to steal grapes (and our hand clippers, if we were careless).

Somehow, I doubt whether the harvest is still quite like this, even in rural France (though it might be, since the French love their own culture, and rightly so). I do know that the smell of lavender is just as enchanting here in the maritime Northwest as it is in the South of France.

Growing and Trimming Lavender

If you want to try growing some lavender yourself, take time to find just the right place. These Mediterranean evergreen shrubs need excellent drainage and as much sun as possible to thrive. Like sage, rosemary, and thyme, lavenders prefer lean, well-drained soils. In richer soils, they often grow too quickly, becoming floppy and open. To avoid this, do not feed lavenders at all and don’t water them once they are established.

To keep lavenders from getting leggy, grow them lean and trim them back a bit each summer. August is an excellent time to do this. Don’t cut back into bare stems, because old wood will not reliably regrow. The idea is to remove about a third of the leafy part of each stem.  Obviously, this removes all the flowering stems. Since so many insects enjoy lavender blossoms, I shear mine on a staggered schedule. Half the bushes get trimmed back every other year, leaving plenty of flowers for all.

Rooting Stem Cuttings

You can often root the stem tips in August as well. Mix potting soil with gritty sand for good drainage. Strip the leaves off the bottom two inches of your cuttings and stick them into the damp soil. Set them where they get lots of indirect light but no direct sun, keep them moist, and leave them alone. Most will probably root by winter.

Best For The West

As noted, my favorite lavender for crafting is Lavandula angustifolia Fred Boutin. Fred’s extra-long internodes and sturdy stems make terrific lavender wands and woven ribbon balls. L.a. ‘Jean Davis’ is a smaller, fine textured grey leaved lavender with soft pink flowers. This compact shrublet does well in large containers, along with showers of black and soft purple petunias.

I like to thread the borders with husky columns of upright ‘Tuscan Blue’ rosemary, one of the hardier forms in the maritime Northwest. I often edge smaller paths with compact Munstead and use chunkier, abundantly blooming Twickle for larger paths or driveways.

Goodwin Creek Grey has handsomely toothed foliage that looks great all year long. It is a long bloomer that will grow happily indoors in a sunny window and makes a sturdy, beautiful border shrub. Grosso is a heavy-headed, generous bloomer with especially fragrant flowers that hold their scent well in pot pourris or dried arrangements.

Best At The Beach

French or Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) has large flowerheads with colorful bracts that make a showy display in summer. Most flower in purple or pink, but white forms are occasionally available. This one is a bit more tender and does best in beach gardens or very sheltered spots with lots of sun and no wind. In my Mom’s hot, exposed garden, Spanish lavender reseeds itself regularly, thanks to the reflected light and heat from the nearby parking lot.

Pine scented green lavender (Lavandula viridis)  has grass green foliage and flowers with an intense, spicy scent. These tender little shrubs often vanish in a hard winter but the seed readily. The seedlings grow quickly into foot-tall replacements that fill the air with penetrating fragrance.

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