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lavender

The Allure of Lavender

Lavender’s strong fragrance has bewitched and beguiled folk for over 2500 years. According to lore and legend, even Cleopatra of Egypt used it for different (devious?) reasons…

This herbaceous plant, a member of the mint family Lamiaceae, is so famous that its common name is even used to describe a colour. Most of us will associate the term lavender with a gentle shade of light purple that symbolises elegance, refinement, serenity, purity and luxury – the latter two probably due to the Latin word ‘lavare’, which means to bathe and to wash.

One can just imagine how the conquering and decadent Romans bathed in bunches of lavender sprigs and flowers, draped their newly washed togas over the bushes to permeate them with the fresh smell, and stacked dried stems of leaves and flowers in dark corners to repel plague-infested fleas!

It is believed that lavender originated from the Mediterranean, Middle East and India, and in today’s terms it has quite an international footprint since many European countries claim different species and cultivars as their own.

This is why we read about English lavender, Spanish lavender, Italian lavender, French lavender, Dutch lavender and so forth, without really knowing whose is really whose. And not to be outdone, the Australians jumped in and bred ‘The Princess’ range of lavenders from hardy European lavender parentage, the result having fat pink flower-heads topped with twisted electric-pink bracts!

We are fortunate enough to also have a locally bred lavender (with English pedigrees) called Lavandula x intermedia ‘Margaret Roberts’, which in my opinion is the best general-purpose lavender of them all. It is a no-nonsense plant that is never not performing well or in flower!

The best climate for lavender

Lavenders generally prefer warm and dry conditions, and some may experience problems in humid, subtropical regions. They are relatively hardy against cold and will tolerate light frost. They are perfect for dry and windy coastal gardens.

READ MORE: Check out this recipe for lavender and lemongrass cheesecake.

How to grow them

Best location: Plant them in full sun with ample spacing to allow good air circulation between plants. Depending on the type of lavender you are planting, spacing for informal planting should be 45 – 90cm apart. For hedges it can be 60cm apart.

Soil: Lightly alkaline, sandy to loamy soil that drains extremely well is essential. If you have heavy clay soil, work in generous quantities of river sand and coarse compost to improve drainage, or rather plant them in raised beds or pots.

Water: Young plants must be watered regularly until established, and it is best to do this at ground level. Growing plants detest wet feet and this will cause root rot, so let the soil dry out a bit between watering sessions. Due to possible root disease, use a fungal preventative treatment like EcoBuz Root Pro when planting.

Lavender in pots

Use a good-quality potting soil that drains very well, and water daily (in hot, dry weather). Potted lavenders won’t mind a little light shade during the day, so if your balcony or patio is the only place to grow aromatic lavender, do give it a try! Fertilise from spring to autumn with Pokon’s Lavender and Herb soluble fertiliser or use a granular product like Alantic Bio Ocean or Vigorosa 5:1:5 (25).

Pruning

Lavenders can lose condition or even succumb due to either a lack of pruning or a drastic hack. As many lavender types flower in spring and again in autumn, allow them to finish their turn and prune them lightly into rounded bushes to allow sunlight to stimulate new growth down at ground level – this prevents bare spots and leggy specimens and looks much smarter. Never cut into old wood that shows no signs of leaf growth.

If you have slipped up on the pruning side and are left with sparse and sad-looking overgrown plants, try to remove some of the stems by cutting them back to open up the bush to light and air, which should encourage new, overall growth. Remember, lavenders can suffer from shock after pruning so it is better to do some light pruning to get it looking good rather than one hard prune.

Feed and water well afterwards to reduce shock. After a while you can lightly prune and shape the whole plant.

Important to know

Lavenders don’t last forever and need to be replaced every 4 – 6 years, when they can become very woody and lose flowering vigour. It is therefore a good idea to take cuttings of your favourite lavenders every year, and April is the perfect time to do this.

Choices for you

  • Lavandula dentata ‘Elegans’ is a bushy French lavender with dark green leaves and large, deep-purple flowers excellent for the vase. Plant size about 80cm x 1.5m.
  • Lavandula dentata ‘Candicans’ has soft, grey, serrated foliage, grows upright and produces long flower stems with pale purple flowers. Good to use for potpourri. Size about 90cm x 1.5m.
  • Lavandula x intermedia ‘Margaret Roberts’ is a rounded shrub with freely branching lateral branches and greygreen foliage, bearing spikes of light violet-blue flowers on long slender stems all year long. It is the perfect choice to plant along pathways or for an informal hedge. It fits well into any planting scheme. Mature size about 1 x 1m.
  • Lavandula angustifolia ‘Avignon Early Blue’ has the strong fragrance of typical English lavender. The plant is bushy and compact (30 x 30cm) with strong stems topped with deep-blue flowers. It has good heat tolerance and makes a pretty edging for roses or as an insect-repelling hedge.
  • Lavandula stoechas ‘Bandera’ is awesome in spring with another flower flush in autumn. There is a very large variety of stoechas-type lavenders (Spanish lavender), but this one will thrill gardeners with its compact and bushy growth habit, and long flowering period. Available in purple and pink. Size about 23 x 30cm.
  • Lavandula stoechas ‘Anouk’ (also called butterfly lavender) has narrow silver-green foliage with dark purple flowers arranged in vertical rows and topped with luminous pale purple bracts. These are highly scented and perfect for drying. Pink and white varieties are included in this range. Size about 40 x 40cm.
  • Lavandula stoechas ‘The Princess’ is a hardy lavender with grey-green foliage and vivid rich-pink to rose flowers topped with twisted pink bracts. A lovely re-bloomer to fill gaps in rock gardens, gravel gardens and perennial beds. Size about 75 x 75cm.

Lavender in a nutshell

  • Perfect for full sun.
  • Loves well-draining sandy soil. If you suspect the soil is slightly acidic, which can cause the plants to struggle, top dress them with a handful of agricultural lime every spring.
  • Water-wise and very prolific.
  • Great for pots.
  • Pleasant fragrance, with edible leaves and flowers, attractive to bees and butterflies but repellent to damaging insects like aphids.

READ MORE: Take a look at ways to use lavender in your home.

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