Ask A Master Gardener – Soothing Lavender


Lavender (Lavandula) is a lovely herb with a multitude of uses. It has been used for flavoring, perfumes, and pest deterrents since early Roman times.  The scent is well-known to have a calming effect; in fact, commercial growers give their employees time for an afternoon nap because of the sedative effects of the landscape.

Lavender is an evergreen perennial that grows one to three feet tall with needle-like blue-green to gray foliage. The flowers are generally purple, but can also be white or pink. Those flowers are full of nectar and attract bees and other pollinators.  However, the essential oils in lavender are not appealing to rabbits and deer, so they avoid it.

Lavender is easy to grow as long as the correct variety is chosen and proper growing conditions are provided. The two primary types of lavender are French (lavandula intermedia) and English or true (lavender angustfolia), although there are some lesser known and lesser grown varieties.  Despite the name, lavender is native to the Mediterranean. English lavender is the most cold hardy and will fare best in south/central Wisconsin’s zone 5a.  Specifically, Munstead and Hidcote are reliable performers for the home landscape.

Healthy lavender depends on two very specific growing conditions: full sun and well-drained soil. Without extremely well drained soil, lavender will develop root and stem rot and longevity will be adversely affected. Do not pile organic mulch around the base of the plant and retain moisture in this area.  This plant is quite drought tolerant once established.  If heavy clay soil is a problem in the landscape, consider planting lavender in a raised bed and thereby increasing soil drainage

Fertilization is not necessary for this easy-going plant. Instead work some compost gently into the soil surface.

Good air circulation around the plant is essential. Do not crowd it among the rest of the landscape plants, but allow room for the foliage to dry rapidly.  Since excess moisture is detrimental, covering it during the winter is unadvisable.  If the lavender is in an open location that requires some protection, use a covering of evergreen boughs or straw rather than something that packs down and holds in moisture.

Pruning is not a significant task. Simply cut any dead stems and leaves back to live wood in the spring.

To harvest lavender, cut the stems just as the flowers start to open, preferably in the morning. Either spread the stems on a tray or screen and allow to sun dry for a few days, or bundle and hang upside down to dry.

Once harvested, the uses are varied. Lavender can be used as scents in potpourri, candles, and soaps.  Dried arrangements not only beautify homes and spread a calming scent, but they deter flies, moths, and mosquitoes.  And, lastly it can be used culinarily.  Lavender flowers are a beautiful topping for ice cream, enhance cookies, can be mixed with chocolate, and can be mixed with other herbs like thyme to make a seasoning for chicken or for dressings.

Despite the best of care, lavender is not a long-lived plant usually lasting less than 10 years. But, it will be well worth the 10 years of enjoyment and there is always another one available to plant.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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