When we walk by lavender in the garden, we can’t help but run our fingers over it to release its sweet, pungent fragrance. Lavender is a great plant for cooks, perfumers, crafters, and anyone who loves a tough, good-looking, drought-tolerant plant.
This native of the Mediterranean likes it hot, dry, and lean, like the cliffs of Greece or the hills of southern California. It can struggle in our humid summers and cold winters, so good cultivation is important.
Plant lavender in full sun in extremely well-drained soil. If you can, mound the soil and plant on top of the mound to improve drainage. Established lavender is drought tolerant, so don’t overwater it. Nothing kills lavender faster than wet feet.
If you’re seduced by French or Spanish lavender at the nursery, grow it as a tender perennial. You can plant it in a pot and take it inside in winter. If you want it hardy, though, choose English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) or a lavandin (Lavendula x intermedia).
English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) is also called “true” lavender. “Angustifolia” means “narrow-leaved,” and these plants have narrow silver leaves and strong fragrance. They are particularly good for perfumes. Some of our favorite cultivars for Indiana include ‘Hidcote’, ‘Lady’, and ‘Munstead.’
Another good choice for Indiana, especially if you want lavender for crafts, are the long-stemmed lavandins (Lavendula x intermedia). They are also tolerant of high humidity, which makes them a good choice for our Midwestern summers. They bloom about a month after English lavender. Our favorites are ‘Grosso’ and ‘Provence.’
Harvest when the buds are fat and have developed color, but before the blooms open. Cut the stems near the leaves, then bunch them together and hang them upside down. Shape up lavender by either harvesting the buds or by shearing back to the leaves after they finish blooming.
To keep lavender from getting too woody and unproductive, cut it back by about one-third in early in March. Only cut into the green growth, though; lavender has a hard time coming back from a cut into the wood.
Even when you take great care of it, lavender is pretty short-lived in our climate. Expect to replace lavender every three to five years. With good pruning and proper cultivation, we’ve kept lavender alive for seven or eight years.
We like to use lavender along paths where you can release its fragrance as you brush by. It’s a traditional companion for roses but looks equally lovely with grasses and other more drought-tolerant plants.
You can use lavender to make potpourri, sachets, and bouquets. It’s often used in French cooking, and it adds a little spark to baked goods. And folklore suggests that lavender brings luck, especially when planted by the garden gate.