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growing lavender varieties in the garden

Romance in the Garden: Growing Our Favorite Lavender Varieties

Lavender is perhaps the most iconic of the evergreen perennials and the most widely-embraced aromatherapeutic herb. Once established, it requires little maintenance, but growing lavender from seed is a challenge most gardeners appreciate and enjoy.

Are you looking for a low border plant, or a roundish shape to offset the jagged boulders in your rock garden? Grow "Hidcote" lavender.

Want the showiest flowers, and a potent prospect for essential oils? If you live in a hot, dry climate, "Spike" is the way to go.

"Vera" and "Munstead" are two more popular varieties we offer at Seed Needs, each with its own specialization. Grow them all with our Lavender Variety Pack or pick your favorite to give your yard that "come hither" look.

Fall in Love with Lavender

We can't tell you how many times we see an herb referred to as an aphrodisiac. As we've mentioned in a post about the ethics of marketing herbal remedies, you can't swing a black cat without hitting a plant touted for its bewitching "sex potion" properties.

For years, glossy women's magazines known for articles like, "10 Ways to Make Someone Fall In Love With You" have named lavender as one of the top scents to wear to overcome your media-induced insecurity and misrepresent yourself as a stable non-stalker with a fulfilled life lived outside of your mother's basement.

Lavender does have a verifiable claim to inspiring a little Boom Chicka Wow Wow (or, if you're more rural, "Brown Chicken Brown Cow") in your life. One study reported in 2015 that someone wearing lavender scent is more likely than someone who isn't to be regarded as being more trustworthy.

Perhaps this is why, once upon a time, husbands and parents would sprinkle lavender-infused water on the heads of their daughters and ladies to keep them chaste? Then again, we know one woman who would beg to differ:

Cleopatra, who excelled in using her intelligence, beauty and seductive wiles, wore lavender perfume to help her win the hearts of Marcus Antonius and Julius Caesar.

Interestingly, according to North Carolina State University botanist and lavender Jedi Dr. Joe-Ann McCoy, Ph.D., "Roman superstition persisted that the asp (a dangerous viper) made his nest in lavender bushes which drove up the price of the plant and made it necessary to approach it with caution." Since folklore tells us that Cleopatra used the bite of an asp to end her own life, we probably don't have to ask where she got it.

Lavender's etymology stems from the verb "wash" as translated from Latin's lavare and French's lavandre. Whether used as a perfume, as a bathwater fragrance, or in closet sachets, lavender imparts a fresh, clean, calming, and inviting scent.

Sprigs of dried or fresh lavender sweeten up a room's decor and aromatic ambiance, and in your garden, it attracts pollinating insects and the admiration of your neighbors and guests.

Your Apothecary Cabinet's Top Drawer Herb

Few herbs can compare to lavender's widespread use as an herbal remedy. It's a popular scent for soaps and shampoos, bath oils, and lotions. Bearing the square-shaped stems of the Lamiaceae family, lavender contains many uses and compounds common among its cousins.

Active chemicals

Science is pretty awesome, and it helps us better understand the natural remedies we choose to use in medicinal concentrations.

The oils from English lavender (L. angustifolia) contain, among many other natural active chemicals:

  • Linalyl acetate (up to 40%)
  • Linalool (~25%)
  • Geraniol and its esters.

Spike lavender (L. latifolia) oil is a source of the following:

  • Alpha-pinene
  • Camphene
  • Beta-pinene
  • Sabinene
  • Beta-myrcene
  • 1,8-cineole (up to 33%)
  • Beta-cymene
  • Linaloyl oxide
  • Camphor (~5%)
  • Linalool (up to 25%)

Lavender as an Herbal Remedy

Lavender is commonly used in aromatic teas or essential oils for these purposes:

  • Anxiety reduction
  • Sleep aid
  • Improve cognitive function
  • Aphrodisiac (apparently legit in this case)
  • Migraines
  • Topical antiseptic

Precautions: A study released mid-March 2018 by the Endocrine Society supports a common theory and earlier evidence that lavender and tea tree oil are among many herbal products containing concentrations of organic compounds that may disrupt hormone balances in prepubescent boys. According to the study, symptoms abate when the subjects stop using these concentrated herbal products. We encourage all our customers to use caution and do some homework before using herbal treatments on themselves, their families, and their pets.  

Seed Needs' Lavender Varieties

Lavender, with its Mediterranean origins, loves the heat and requires dry, well-draining soil.

"Wait! What? Then why is lavender such a big hit in English gardens?" you ask. "I mean, "hot and dry doesn't sound like England. Their scones, maybe, but lavender? Really?"

English lavenders are those which have managed to thrive the United Kingdom's cooler temperatures. So, if you live in a northern or cool, maritime zone, simply close your eyes and think of England when you shop for lavender seeds.

We also offer a member of the heat-loving Spike (also called Portuguese) lavenders. As a general rule, any non-English lavender is difficult to cultivate outside regions that don't replicate their native Mediterranean environment.

English lavender is much hardier than French lavender (native to France's southernmost regions), and the L. angustifolia varieties we offer in our catalog should suit every garden, kitchen, potpourri bowl, and apothecary's collection.

Before we forget: Lavender's square-shaped stems give away its membership in the Lamiaceae family!

English Lavenders: (Lavandula angustifolia)

Vera "True English" Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia 'Vera') is the "standard" for English varieties. Growing to 18"-24" tall and 24"-30" wide, there's nothing common about "common English lavender."

Hidcote English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote') Its deep purple, edible and fragrant blooms are only one reason lavender lovers gravitate toward this variety. Hidcote is a more petite lavender (14" to 18" in each dimension) with a more rounded shape and shorter flower stalks which bloom late spring through mid-summer. Hidcote has silvery green narrow leaves and indigo flowers.

We like to think of Hidcote as resembling a large, magical, Burning Man-bound garden hedgehog.

Hidcote lavender, due to its compact shape and size, is a good choice for borders, containers, and formal garden designs. It's very fragrant, and a popular choice among English types for essential oil extraction.

Munstead English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia 'Munstead') is an early blooming (mid to late spring) variety and is the best choice out of all the English lavenders for hotter climates. Munstead is one of the most wildly popular English varieties, bearing violet-purple flowers above the silver-green foliage.

Portuguese Spike Lavender (Lavandula latifolia) is often hybridized with English lavenders to create the widest range of temperature tolerances and the most amazing flowers. Spike lavender is 18" to 32" inches tall and wide with broader, greener leaves (thus the name latfolia; wide leaf) and violet flowers spaced along a larger percentage of their stems than most other lavender varieties.

Lavandula latifolia's aroma is often likened to a cross between lavender, camphor, and eucalyptus, in part because it contains all these oils. Spike lavender essential oils are often used in lip balms and for disinfecting purposes.

Spike lavender is the least cold-hardy of Seed Needs' varieties and is best suited for our customers living in hot, arid climates. It's uncommon in the United States and cultivated in southern Europe primarily for its essential oil.

Growing Lavender

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty, shall we? We recommend starting lavender from seed indoors, in an insulated cold frame, or in a greenhouse for the first few months.

USDA Zones: English lavenders, in general, grow best in USDA Zones 5-9; "Spike" and "Munstead" do best above Zone 6.

Sunlight: Lavender requires full sun...period. Experts recommend picking a site on a southerly slope, away from shaded areas.

Soil Requirements: As you know by now, lavender requires well-drained soil. Add garden sand to compacted soils, and plenty of lime to boost alkalinity. Most lavenders prefer a pH range of 6.5 to 8.0.

While lavender holds its own in poorer soils, your transplants will benefit from a little compost worked into the planting area. Seedlings do well in standard potting soil if amended with a little sand, vermiculite or Perlite. Read on for important germination advice!

If soil froths when placed in a jar of vinegar, then it contains free calcium carbonate (chalk) or limestone and is lime-rich.

Royal Horticultural Society

Workarounds: If your soil is boggy, or you're in a humid or rainy climate, grow lavender in deep, raised beds or large pots with a good base layer of gravel under the soil. Be sure to give lavender plenty of airflow, and water sparingly.

Watering Requirements: Lavender's ideal environment is that which receives about 33 inches annual rainfall. Drip irrigation on timers works well if you need to compensate; be sure to water deeply and infrequently. For wetter areas, plant your lavender in coarse, well-drained soil (or raised beds) away from irrigated beds.

Companion Plants: Lavender is a stunning counterpart to other drought-resistant, sun-loving herbs, and ornamentals. You'll often see lavender interplanted with bright orange Iceland poppies, and the silvery, narrow leaves of English lavender look lovely next to rosemary's darker, shinier, but otherwise similar foliage.

Planting/Starting Lavender

You'll want to get a head start on your lavender plants—like, as soon as you've put your garden to bed in the fall. The whole process, from stratification to transplantation, can take about 6-8 months.

Seed Preparation: Lavender seeds require cold stratification for 30-50 days. Use the methods described in our post titled "The Dirt on Successful Seed Germination."

Germination: At the end of the stratification period, unfold the paper towel (seeds need sunlight to germinate) and place it on a saucer in a sunny window—or under artificial lighting on a heat mat—in temperatures around 70°F. Use a fine mist sprayer to keep seedlings and paper towel damp.

Planting Sprouts: After germination occurs (7-10 days under optimal temperatures) use a wooden chopstick or plastic straw with about a centimeter sliced at an angle from the end to create a "spatula", to gently remove each sprout. Place each one in its own seedling cell (flats or small plastic pots) barely below the surface.

It's extremely important to use fresh seeds, as germination rates tend to be low (70-80% on the optimistic side) for lavender, rosemary, and other woody perennials. Hmmm. Who has the freshest seeds available? That would be us!

Transplanting: Lavender is a woody shrub, with flaky bark at its base. It's a slow grower at first, but once it starts to form a sturdy, tiny "trunk", it's ready to go outside and thrive. Once established, it really takes off. Any surplus lavender starts to make fantastic gifts.

Transplant your starts when your temperatures reach 65-70°F. Once well-established, lavender can tolerate temps as low as -10°F, but you'll want your plants to allow their deep taproot to develop over its first growing season.

Maintaining Your Lavender Plants

Fertilizing: The British Horticultural Society says it best:

Potash will encourage flowering but high nitrogen fertilizers and manure will result in 'floppy' plants.

Pests & Disease: Lavender is generally hardy in appropriate zones if you follow watering, soil, and spacing recommendations.

  • Aphids can transmit alfalfa mosaic virus.
  • Overwatering and lack of proper airflow can cause root fungus.
  • Spittlebugs vandalize lavender's loveliness with frothy white goo. Take advantage of hot weather and give your established plants a vigorous spray-down if you detect signs of aphids or these rude little buggers.
  • Lavender resists deer and rabbits!

Trimming: Trim aggressively, as much as 2/3 of the plant, after flowering for immediate regrowth of healthy new branches. We don't recommend cutting into the woodier part of the plant.

Harvesting Lavender: Invert flowering stems and leaf sprigs, and hang them to dry in a well-ventilated, arid room or shaded patio. Fresh leaves and flowers can be trimmed from established lavender plants throughout the growing season.

Sourcing the Best Seeds & Best Information for Our Customers' Success

Do you have any lavender recipes you'd like to share? We opted to stuff this post with as much cultural info as we could, and hope to add an article on the many culinary uses of lavender at a later date.

The more you know, the better your garden will grow. We do our best to bring you the most accurate growing tips, history, and scientific information we can find because your success as a gardener, home chef, and dabbler in herbal remedies is important to the Seed Needs family. We've provided links to relevant information and sources in the above content so you can continue your own learning experience, and don't worry—each one opens a new window so you won't get lost.

As for the source of the freshest, most viable seeds available, contact us at Seed Needs!
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