I worked at Cooperative Extension when the area was seeing an unusually large influx of new home owners from NYC. It was nice to see how many of them were intent on getting their gardens started immediately. The majority of the questions were vegetable related, but the one ornamental that really stood out was lavender. Everyone wanted to know the best lavender variety for the area. Some even wanted to start lavender farms and wanted to know which varieties had the best scent, or the most oils and which dried well while keeping their fragrance.
While lavender does grow in our area, we are not Provence. We aren’t even England. We have cold, wet winters and harsh summers. Many of us have acidic soil, which lavender does not like. And the chance of a drought during summer is very high.
Since that’s not enough to deter a lavender lover, here’s some advice for successfully growing lavender in the Hudson Valley.
Which Lavender is Best?
Best is subjective, but the lavender considered to have the best scent is English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). English lavender is also known as true lavender or common lavender. These are the compact, mounding plants with tall, slender spikes of purple flowers that bloom for weeks in mid-summer. English lavenders are all hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8.
The 2 most popularly grown varieties are ‘Hitcote’ and ‘Munstead’. ‘Hitcote’ has rich, deep, purple flowers and a particularly long lasting fragrance. It grows to about 2 ft. tall, with very attractive blue-gray foliage.
‘Munstead’ was introduced in the early 1900s by English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. It is not a tall plant, but the scent is intense and you may even get 2 flushes of flowers, one in spring and another toward the end of summer. It reaches about 18 inches tall.
For the unusual, ‘Jean Davis’ is a pale pink lavender. (Can you call a pink flower lavender?) ‘Royal velvet’ is almost navy blue. This can be a tall plant, topping out at 3 ft. It is also fragrant and, better still, tolerant of wet winters. It’s hard to find, but definitely worth testing out.
A contender in the best scent department is Lavandula x intermedia, known as Lavandin lavender. Lavandin is a cross between English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and latifolia lavender (Lavandula latifolia). These are the lavenders grown commercially for their oil, but that is just because they produce so much of it. English lavenders have the strongest lavender scent, but none produce the quantity of oil that Lavandin can. Lavandin plants tend to be taller than English lavender and they can handle dry growing conditions better, but in general they are not as hardy and don’t tend to thrive in our region.
If you’d like to give Lavandin a try, two good ones are ‘Provence’ has thick, 3 inch, pale lavender, flower heads with true lavender fragrance. The fragrance holds up well when dried and the plants can handle our summer humidity.
‘Grosso’, is best known for its 6 inch, rich violet flower stalks. It has excellent fragrance and is also highly disease resistant.
What Lavender Needs
The 3 most important things to provide your lavender plants with are:
1. Full sun. They will need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight if you are going to expect them to produce lush, fragrant flowers.
2. Alkaline soil. While lavender will grow in slightly acidic soils, it will thrive in soils with a pH of 7.0 or higher. If you make a habit of adding lime to your lawn, you do not have alkaline soil. I recommend testing the soil pH in the bed you plan to plant your lavender in and amending it with lime, as needed. It’s worth the effort.
3. Excellent drainage. Lavender plants will rot in damp soil. That includes winter soil, too. We forget that as the snow slowly melts and seeps into the soil, the cold temperatures prevent the soil from draining. To get around this, try to plant you lavender on a slope or in a raised bed. And don’t use a bark mulch around the plants. It retains too much moisture.
Keeping Your Lavender Plants Alive and Attractive
As with most perennials, it takes lavender plants 3 years to mature. Don’t be tempted to just let them fill our and grow. They will be healthier and live longer if you do a little judicious pruning every year. If you don’t prune, the plants become woody and slowly stop flowering.
Year 1 – Don’t go overboard here. Just prune look for where the stems go from woody to soft, green growth and prune about 2 – 3 inches above that transition. All you are doing this year is reducing the top growth so that there is more energy being put into the roots. You’ll have a bushier plant as a result.
Year 2 – With luck, your plants are starting to bloom more profusely. This year, prune while the plants are in bloom. Just grab a handful of flower stalks and cut them off about 2 – 3 inches above that transition from woody to soft, green growth. If you can’t bare to cut off all the flowers or if you simply want to leave them blooming in your garden, that’s fine too. Prune them right after the flowers start to fade.
To get a more natural shaped plant, don’t shear the flower stalks off at one level. Follow the mounding contour of your plant and prune up and around.
Year 3 – Your plants should be hitting there stride in year 3. This time, prune when the flowers are just starting to open. Don’t worry, they will continue to open after you cut them and you’ll have that much longer to enjoy them in bouquets.
Continue to prune along the contours of the mound. If you plants are lush and full, you can forsake the pruners and use a curved scythe for cutting. I love these tools for deadheading and cutting grasses. They’re faster and much kinder on the hands and wrists.
You will probably need to shape and clean-up your plants after winter. Don’t prune in the fall, because you don’t want to encourage a lot of tender, new growth that will be killed off at frost. Besides, the top of the plant will serve a good insulation for the plant crown and roots.
If your plants have a second bloom in late summer, it’s okay to cut the flowers. Yes, you will probably cut back some of the foliage too, but the damage that might occur to new growth is offset by not leaving the top heavy flowers on all winter, to flop over and prevent the plant from getting any air circulation.
The best time to prune in the Hudson Valley is generally when the tulips start blooming. The plants will be just hinting at new growth, but won’t have grown enough that you will be cutting developing flower buds.
At this point, you can either prune them hard, if they have outgrown their spots, or just do some winter clean-up, removing any dead branches and leaves.
Care and Feeding – For the most concentrated oils, go easy with the water and fertilizer. (This is true of most Mediterranean herbs.) Water when the ground is parched and during droughts. If you have a moderately rich soil, you shouldn’t need any fertilizer. Some annual compost is a good idea, but the health and vigor of your plants should tell you if they are happy or if they need a little food.
Whether you are harvesting as you prune or later, the following tips will give you flowers that dry better, have the strongest fragrance, and last the longest.
Cut when the first few buds start to open. The flowers will last longer and you won’t have that shedding that occurs when you try and prune flowers that are fully open.
Cut while the flowers are dry. That includes waiting until the morning dew dries.
Cut the flower stalks off near the base of the plant, being careful not to take all the foliage or any developing buds with them.
For the strongest fragrance, harvest when the oils are most concentrated, in morning and early evening.
If you want to dry your lavender, bundle them with rubber bands and hang them in a room that is cool, dry, and has some air circulation. Damp lavender will mold.
Store fully dried lavender in air tight containers, away from heat, light, and humidity. The fragrance should keep for up to one year, depending on how you use them.
What to Plant with Lavender
Lavender doesn’t need other plants to make it look good, but since we don’t really have the ideal conditions for growing lavender hedges, here are some ideas of plants lavender mingles with well.
Lavender and roses are a natural. They bloom about the same time and lavender hides the gangly legs of roses.
For other pairings, consider that lavender will not do well with excessive water. Look for drought tolerant plants, so you won’t be tempted to drag out the hose. Artemisia, saliva, yarrow, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans will all compliment your lavender plants.