Success with lavender

By Andy McIndoe

We plant lavender in vast quantities in our gardens every year.

Partly because we love it, but also because it dies and needs replacing. For those struggling to establish lavender in their gardens the sight of old, woody lavenders that seem to thrive on neglect and last for years is frustrating. We fed, we nurtured, we watered and still it died!

Choose the right variety

Some lavenders seem to come through the winter unscathed, others keel over at the first frost. This is influenced by the growing conditions (read on) but also by type. The French lavenders, cultivars of Lavandula stoechas and the like are just not as hardy as the English and Dutch lavenders.The English lavenders, Lavandula angustifolia cultivars, have narrow leaves that have the characteristic aroma of lavender. Go for name cultivars: ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’ or ‘Imperial Gem’ that have been raised from cuttings and grown in a cool, airy environment.

Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote'

For taller lavenders look to the Dutch lavenders, varieties of Lavandula x intermedia such as ‘Vera’ and ‘Grosso’. These are equally hardy and some would argue that they are the most fragrant and long-blooming. For something different try the long blooming Lavandula x intermedia ‘Edelweiss’: the bees love it.

Lavandula 'Edelweiss'

Lavenders for pots

The French Lavenders and other more tender types still have their place. They are earlier into bloom, free flowering and make great subjects for pots and containers. In sheltered gardens against a sunny wall they may thrive in the border for years. The foliage has a different smell: a distinct fragrance of menthol and eucalyptus.They bloom for weeks and are worth growing even if they do not survive for next year. They are more rewarding than many seasonal bedding plants and cost little more.

Lavender in pots

The right growing conditions for lavender

Growing conditions have the greatest influence on survival of lavender. These are Mediterranean plants that like sunshine and good drainage. They hate heavy wet soil, particularly in winter. They like good air movement and dislike being overcrowded by other plants.Lavender is particularly successful on dry chalk soils, it prefers the ground to be mineral rich than full of moist organic matter.

Lavandula 'Papillon'

Wet soil splashing onto the base of the plants in winter and sticking on the foliage is often a cause of death. Therefore if gardening on clay or any heavier soil dig in grit prior to planting and cover the surface of the ground around the plants with grit or gravel. This reflects light and warmth and helps to prevent soil splash onto the foliage in wet conditions. Also, avoid planting too deeply: plant with the surface of the compost just above the soil surface.

Lavenders are good alongside paths and paved areas because they enjoy the warmth and solid surface of the stone.

Pruning lavender

The other secret of success is pruning. Right from the first year after planting cut back lavender as soon as the flowers fade.The flower stems are cut back just into the mound of foliage. Do not leave parts of them sticking up like spines on a porcupine.It is true that finches take the seeds in winter, however lavender hates a mass of soggy flower stems lying on its foliage through the winter months.

If pruning old lavenders never cut back into the bare wood, they will not regenerate. You can cut back to wherever you see signs of growth.

Other secrets of success

Buy good quality plants with fresh compact foliage. Avoid any with blackened or soft, drawn up foliage. Buy 2l or 3l plants. Specimen size lavenders will make an instant impact, but these are not long-lived plants and the big ones are just closer to death!

Lavenders at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Buy named varieties from a reputable supplier.Many lavenders sold are seed raised species that may be less reliable and variable in colour and habit.

Avoid too much organic matter in the soil and feed annually with a balanced slow-release fertiliser.

New varieties of lavender are released every year. Many have interesting variations in flower form and colour. Try them in pots or in small numbers in the border, but avoid these for mass planting.

Plant lavenders in groups or drifts if you want to attract the most bees and butterflies. A block of lavender really brings the summer garden to life!

Andy McIndoe

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