Planting Lavender in the Garden

Lavender is one of those magical herbs that seem to invoke images of a more gracious time. Think of ladies walking through cottage gardens with baskets of herbs and flowers, or garden parties on miles of groomed lawn where water sparkles in nearby fountains and stone birdbaths. In these idylls, lavender is everywhere, and attended to diligently by busy bees that never sting.

Growing lavender in your garden can be another matter, especially if you don't have a full time gardener, and the part time gardener in your universe is you. If you want to grow lavender, keep these things in mind, especially if you haven't had much success in the past.

Foolproof Tips for Growing Lavender

English_Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia),Hidcote

Prefer young plants to planting seeds - Lavender seed is slow to germinate (think 2 to 4 weeks, if then), and the sprouts are small and delicate (needy). You'll have much better success choosing a variety you like (there are lots to choose from, but that's a different post), and taking cuttings to create clones. You can do this pretty easily, especially with an inexpensive cloner, and the process is less frustrating than dealing with lavender seed.

Sun and soil - This plant likes full sun and moderately rich soil. It can stand drought conditions, but only after it's established. For the first year, baby young lavender plants by making sure they don't dry out, and if high summer brings punishing heat, provide a little shade.

Dig a big hole - Lavender can send out an impressive network of roots, so give it a large, deep hole. I'm not going to get too specific, but whatever hole you think is large enough, make it half again larger and deeper.

Pay attention to soil depth and consistency - Once you have a few plants, prep your soil carefully. Lavender needs good drainage. Let me say it again for emphasis: Lavender needs GOOD DRAINAGE. Sorry for the yelling, but nothing kills a nice lavender plant faster than wet roots. You can increase your chances of succeeding with this herb by making sure you give it the right soil.

I've written "provide soil that drains well" at least a hundred times on plant posts and in articles, but this time take it as gospel. Most gardens have clay soil, which can be a death sentence for lavender. Add sand, perlite, vermiculite, pot shards, pea gravel or pebbles, but make sure lavender's roots don't stay wet after watering or a good rain. Another option would be to plant on a hill or gentle slope that has good drainage naturally. You will still have to add loosening agents to the soil, but some of the work will be done for you and will act as added insurance.  If you can't easily crumble and flip the soil in the planting hole you're using for lavender, it isn't porous enough.

Wait for warmer weather - Lavender really takes off when the soil warms up in spring. If you're trying seeds or have seedlings from your grower ready to go, keeping them on a heated plant mat will make them happier, as will transplanting them about a week after you install your tomato plants, which should be after the frost free date for your area.

Spanish Lavender (Lavendula Stoechas)  - Also known as French lavender
Air flow can be important, too - Placing plants where there's a breeze but no major buffeting will help insure good air circulation and less chance of mildew growth. You can help this along by keeping plants pruned with a somewhat open shape. Since every part of the plant smells wonderful, pruning shouldn't be a problem. If all else fails, add snipped stems to potpourri.

Give lavender room -  Most lavender varieties can grow to a height of between 14 to 32 inches and reach 14 to 32 inches across. Check the listing on the plants you purchase for a better idea of how large they'll grow. Crowded plants become stressed and are more susceptible to mildew, insect predation and all manner of diseases. Thin seedlings to allow plenty of space between plants: This is important because it encourages good air flow, too.

Humidity can be the enemy - Lavender plants need water, sure, but excess moisture and sometimes even high humidity can be a problem. If you live in a humid location, there are lavender cultivars that are more tolerant of muggy summer days, and your best option is to stick with them. Phenomenal (Lavandula x intermedia, Phenomenal) is one of the more popular, but every year sees new hybrids designed for heat, cold, moisture and pest resistance, so check your seed and plant catalogs for what available this season.

Water wisely - It also helps to water plants in the morning, not in the evening or during the hottest part of the day.

Once established, lavender is pretty hardy, so it won't be a prima donna in the years to come. For the first year or so, though, give it special attention. You'll read that lavender is a pretty indestructible, and that can be true if the above conditions are met. With this classic herb, good prep is the secret to great plants.

Photo Credits

Photo 1 - LavenderField  PUBLIC DOMAIN By Dripping artist (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 - 450px-Lavandula_angustifolia_'Hidcote'_'English_Lavender'_(Labiatae)_flower_Wiki.JPG  By Magnus Manske (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons'Hidcote'_'English_Lavender'_(Labiatae)_flower.JPG

Photo 3 - SpanishLavender_Wiki.jpg By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring Garden Prep and More

Catnip emerging after a few warm days
I'm tending indoor seedlings and laying out the garden -- in my head -- this weekend.  It's pretty amazing how nature managed to surrender itself to an impressive deep freeze and an equally amazing turnaround. Lemon balm, catnip, chives, oregano and peppermint are all up in my garden and looking pretty happy.  I'm not taking any chances, though. I've started more seeds than I have in past years in case of losses from the heavy late winter cold weather.

I've included a photo of my seed starting setup.  This is the first year I've found an incubator with such a tall hood (7 inches). Together with a heated mat, it offers plenty of growing room and the warmer soil temperature roots like: Hydrofarm CK64060 Hot House, withHeat Mat A fluffy towel keeps the soil temp in the safe range

The frost free date for my area is the first Saturday in May (the running of the Kentucky Derby). I'm getting some of my seeds in a bit late for that planting date, but that's partly because of shipping delays from one of my suppliers.

Kitchen Scraps and Spring Planting

A big bag of frozen egg shells
For this post, I thought I'd share some tips for spring planting, starting with what I call lazy composting.  I didn't start a compost pile last autumn, so I've begun saving useful kitchen scraps for the garden, including:

  • Banana peels - potassium
  • Egg shells - calcium
  • Shellfish exoskeletons - crab and shrimp shells mostly, for an organic boost
  • Coffee grounds - acid for azaleas and others

Dry banana peel has a tree bark texture
I started my collections right after Christmas. As I accumulated the above, I added them to freezer bags, one for each type (banana, egg, etc).  When I have a goodly amount, I'll dry them in a dehydrator and grind them up. That way they'll be ready to go.

I'll just place a couple of spoonfuls in the planting hole with some potting soil and fill the rest of the hole with regular potting mix and a lucky seedling. I've done this a couple of times, and it works well. The roots grow into the extra bounty, like a care package from the garden, sometime in June. I alter the mixture for different plants, giving more of the shellfish, say, to heavy feeders. You get the idea.  The process isn't very labor intensive, and it's pretty fun.

I make use of my veggie and herb patch year after year, so a little giving back to the soil is in order. I especially like the idea of replenishing trace elements that aren't well represented in most potting mixes and many other additives. My short-cut composting helps, along with regular composting when I can get around to it.

Chives are up
I also add Epsom salt (hydrated magnesium sulfate) to my tomatoes, peppers and roses. A combination of magnesium and sulfur, Epsom salt is a cheap additive. The magnesium can be particularly beneficial to vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and is easily absorbed when diluted and applied directly to plant leaves (2 tbsp. per gallon of water). Epsom salt enhances photosynthesis, for greener leaves and more robust plants, and helps reduce the occurrence of blossom end rot in tomatoes.

Additives change soil composition, so it's always a good idea to have your soil tested before you start tinkering with it. If you have an overabundance of calcium, for instance, adding egg shells is just silly, same for adding potassium if you have plenty.

Catnip Defense

Rosemary is moving outside after a long winter
Take look at the catnip photo at the top of this post. That tiny mound is my secret weapon against all manner of pests. Fresh catnip smells a little like skunk, and most insects really do not like it. When you plant it downwind of your garden, you'll have fewer insect visitors, and those that do venture in won't be as enthusiastic about staying. Once dried, catnip loses the funky aroma, which is great if you love catnip tea. I have catnip plants all around and through my vegetable patch. If I'm having a particular problem later in the year, I'll even cut long catnip stems and place them around vulnerable plants, or blend fresh catnip and water into a smoothie and pour it on and around plants.

If you have problems with mosquitoes near your deck or patio, a little catnip can help there, too. In some tests, catnip has outperformed DEET 10 to 1 at repelling mosquitoes. Although it can be invasive, and self-seeds readily, I let catnip grow where it wants and just relocate (or discard) any extra. This herb in the mint family doesn't root very deeply and comes up with a simple twist of the wrist.

Here are a few more random thoughts:

  • In a walk around the garden, I took a few photos and have included them. Reemerging plants are pretty beguiling, even for a seasoned gardener.
  • Here's an oldie, but a goodie: Soak your seeds overnight before planting them. They'll sprout faster and may even be more robust, especially if you've hand them over a year.
  • I'm using craft sticks and permanent marker for my plant identifiers (cut in half crosswise) this year. They seem to be working, with fewer ink (running) problems this time around.
  • Calendula seeds after a long soak
  • Oh, I did want to mention that I had some good luck with early tomatoes last season.  The two varieties I tried, Fireworks and Siletz (60 to 65 days, I think), were either open pollinated or heirloom varieties. I liked them so much, I'm using them again.

Have a great week.

Peppermint is just peeking through a drift of leaves