By Barbara Fahs, Garden Guides Contributor
The Lavandula genus includes at least 30 species of lovely lavenders. Fragrant and attractive, lavender varieties can be annuals, herbaceous plants, shrubs and subshrubs, usually no taller than three feet. They are native to the Mediterranean region, as far south as tropical Africa and the southeast of India. Lavender has been cultivated so widely that it has naturalized in many places.
If you have a warm, non-windy area that slopes to the south, lavender will thrive especially well. It prefers a light soil in a dry, open, sunny location. Soil that is too rich or full of nutrients will not make a good home for lavender. Also, try to plant lavender in a spot where water does not form ponds in the winter and make sure it is protected from frost.
Dried lavender flower spikes are often used in flower arrangements, sachets and potpourris. To dry lavender flower spikes, tie them up in small bundles and hang them in a dark, well ventilated place, such as a garage, until they are dry to the touch. You can then make small fabric pouches, stuff them with flowers and then store them in drawers to keep your clothes smelling fresh and also to deter moths. Lavender oil is used in aromatherapy as a soothing, relaxing fragrance. It is also antiseptic and slightly anti-inflammatory when applied to the skin for conditions such as tendonitis. Lavender is also edible and is sometimes one of the spices used in the herbes de Provence blend, which also contains rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf and thyme.
Choosing a Variety
The most common species is Lavandula angustifolia. However, many varieties of lavender exist because they crossbreed freely. Some of the more common varieties include English lavender, French lavender, Spike lavender, Hidcote blue, Munstead, Woolly lavender and Broadleaf lavender. Check seed catalogs for the best selection of varieties, available as seeds or small plants.
Because lavender seeds have a naturally low germination rate and must be kept in the refrigerator for several weeks before planting, it is easier to purchase young plants or separate older plants by root division or cuttings. Lavender prefers normal garden soil that is loose and well drained.
Mulching with sand helps to keep the soil moist. There's little need to fertilize lavender. As soon as possible after flower spikes bloom, cut them to keep your plants compact and tidy. Lavender needs some watering during dry spells, especially after it is first planted. If you keep the flowers cut back during its first year of growth, in future years your lavender plant will reward you with a bushy growth habit and a profusion of flowers. Optimum flowering usually happens during a plant's second through fifth years of life: after that time, plants can become straggly and might need to be replaced.Lavender is susceptible to some insect pests, especially small caterpillars and similar pests that feed on the leaves. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring soil bacteria that you spray on lavender and other plants. It is safe for the environment,it kills the larvae of pests such as mosquitoes, some caterpillars and other insects through a toxin that the Bt secretes. It's available as a powder or liquid at garden stores everywhere.