Growing Lavender

Growing Lavender

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Don’t you love how it looks when there’s a repetition of objects that are all the same? School girls (in those cute uniforms) all in a row, a crate of apples, pillows tidy on the bed, jars all lined up in the cupboard. There’s something satisfying about repetition and uniformity—one wave after another. But doesn’t your soul celebrate when a daisy comes up in an unexpected place, when a grasshopper lands on your lapel, and when you see the one thing that doesn’t belong in your orderly perfection!

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Some lavender authorities recommend against growing lavender from seed as the plants will not be suitably standardized. I originally started my field from seed grown plants because I wanted genetic diversity. It made me happy to think about a field of plants that had individuality and health and that were modeled by nature. I’d read that historic lavender farms lost their crops and that the industry was devastated when disease wiped out fields of plants started from cloned cuttings. To me, seed grown genetic diversity made sense.

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When I first started growing lavender, I thought I might be growing it mostly for oil production. I grew English Lavender as that was what I loved. When I learned a few years later that Grosso French Lavender is usually chosen as it produces much more oil, I had a little feeling of disappointment. And then some time later, I learned that French lavender is used because its cheaper to produce but not because its a better oil. English Lavender costs more as it produces less oil but the oil it produces is high quality with therapeutic qualities not found in the French.

il_fullxfull.325946787I grow lavender now mostly for bouquets for my wedding business.  Grosso French Lavender has become one of my favorites as it has long stems, especially fragrant flowers and works so well for tall arrangements.  I’ve planted lots of it in the last few years as I never have enough.

Over time, you learn that some ideas are a very good theory but they don’t work in your life and growing plan–the best ideas are practical–they work in the environment that you’re creating. My garden has been inspired by what I love and what I think might like the conditions there.  My motive for growing lavender has been to have all I want and lots to share with others–I love every aspect of growing lavender as it is beautiful, intensely fragrant, and oh, so useful. The motive for growing lavender influences many decisions down the line. I’d suggest that you try growing some lavender from seed or buy some plants that are seed grown. Do try some cloned varieties too. I think you will love what you get.

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Growing Lavender from Seed

I’d suggest starting with either Munstead or Hidcote English Lavender (lavendula angustifolia) seeds. The image just above is Hidcote. The field in the image at the top of this post is Munstead. From seed to transplant takes months so be prepared to have a plan for care if you are going away even one day when seeds are starting and plants are developing.

Lavender germinates slowly and needs good light to germinate, even moisture, a balanced potting mix, warm growing conditions (68-70 degrees is the optimum germinating temperature,) good air circulation, good drainage, and quite a bit of love and attention. Start seeds in flats in little rows. This is so satisfying as it looks like a mini Zen farm—so serene and calming.

Plant the seeds 1/2 to 1” apart in rows 3” or so apart. Label the flat with the date and variety and check in on it 3-4 times regularly throughout the day. Place the flat in a warm window that gets good light. When watering, attempt to keep the soil moderately moist and not soggy, letting the soil just dry out before watering again. It’s a fine balance of moist to just a little dry. It will take 2-3 weeks for your seeds to germinate.

Once the seedlings have emerged, maintain the watering routine but make certain that the soil is never over watered, especially at night when the temperatures are cooler. Don’t allow them to get too dry either. Keep the seedlings in a bright and light filled space with direct sun ensuring that the plants don’t get too hot. Good air circulation makes the soil dry out faster but keeps the plants healthier. You can use a fan on a gentle setting.

Propagating Lavender from Tip Cuttings

Some lavender varieties like Grosso French Lavender are sterile and cannot be started from seed. These have to be started from cuttings from another plant. You can also start cuttings from plants that were originally grown from seed. Here’s some basic directions.

Choose a lavender plant that is healthy and 2-3 years old. It will have survived a Winter already which is important. You can take tip cuttings anytime of year that there is new growth on the plant but a few months into Spring is optimum.

First prepare a soil mix of 70% potting mix and 30% sterile sand. Fill a plug tray with the potting mix. Water the tray well and leave it to drain.

You’ll want to take cuttings that are about 5-6 inches long from a lavender stem that is not flowering. Carefully cut the stem from the plant with a sharp knife. Do not allow your cuttings to dry out. You’ll want to take the cuttings and prepare them immediately, keeping them out of direct sun and wind when transporting them from the garden to your work area. Carefully remove the leaves from the stem at the bottom of the cutting–I use very sharp gardening scissors. Using a chopstick or similar tool (pencil) make a hole in the middle of each plug of soil in your tray. Place the part of the stem without leaves well into the potting mix and gently tamp the planting medium around the cutting.

Label the flat with the lavender variety and the date the cuttings were started. When you have finished sticking all of your cuttings into the potting mix, gently mist the flat with water and cover with a thin piece of transparent plastic. Place in an environment that is about 65-75 degrees and has ample light but is not too hot. I’d suggest that you are extra careful if you place your cuttings in direct sun as they get warmer and often drier–it’s hard to keep them hydrated–bright light works better. Make sure that your cuttings have good air circulation. You want some humidity around the leaves but room around each cutting for air. If you’re using a domed plastic lid, make sure there is still some air circulation.

You’ll need to make sure that the soil in the flats is just a little moist and that it doesn’t dry out too much. For plant health, keep a nice balance of humidity but not soggy or really wet conditions. After a couple of weeks, pull gently on a few of the cuttings or look under the flat for evidence of roots. It usually takes 3-4 weeks for plants to root fully in plug trays and longer in small pots. If you notice that some cuttings are not surviving, remove and discard those. When roots are fully established in the cuttings, your plants are ready to transplant.

Transplanting

When your seedling plants have 3 sets of leaves or your cuttings have established roots, you can gently transplant them to individual pots. Small and deep rose pots about 2 3/4″ are a good size or multi-packs that have cells that are about 3″ wide by 4″ deep work well. Once your plants are rooted into this size pot and the nights are reliably frost free, you can transplant your lavender directly in the garden.

Choose a place in your garden that gets full sun ALL DAY LONG for the best health and lavender bloom. If your plants don’t get enough sun (at least 6 hours a day is minimal) they will be spindly and weak, they won’t bloom or will bloom poorly and they won’t survive over time.

Lavender is native to windy, rocky hillsides in the Mediterranean climate and prefers a slightly alkaline soil that is very well drained. Acid soils and clay need to be amended for lavender to do its best. You can amend your soil with a good topsoil and add lime and sand to balance the growing environment. Leave room around your plants, especially in humid climates. My field gets a fierce wind almost every morning from up the canyon from us. Plants that get some wind are tougher and develop an extra layer of cells. They survive Winter better too.

Lavender prefers drip irrigation rather than sprinkling. If you don’t have a drip system, water directly in the soil rather than wetting the plant leaves. Too much water makes lavender tender and the roots really don’t like it. When establishing plants, the best practice is to water well and let the plants just dry out and then water again.

Once in the garden, check your plants often–they like the company and you’ll enjoy spending time with them. While there is always weeding to do, just sitting in the garden with the dogs or cat, wind, bees, butterflies or weather brings a deep feeling of peace and contentment. It’s beautiful out there.

Harvesting and Pruning

To harvest lavender, you’ll want to think about the end result first. Make sure you harvest on a dry sunny day after the morning dew has dissipated.  I envisions lots of pretty bunches that I can use for bouquets and other projects but also what the shape of the plant will be when I’ve finished cutting the lavender stalks. You’ll want to take handfuls of blooms in one hand and have a cutting tool in the other. Holding the stems lower on the stalk towards the woody part of the shrub, cut as many stems as you can comfortably hold in your hand. A sharp serrated knife or a lavender sickle tool works best. As I’m right handed, I wear a glove on my left hand to protect against accidental cuts. Imagining that your plant will end up a domed shape, cut the lavender stalks to just above the woody part of the plant–don’t worry–this will be evident as you cut. Evenly shape the entire plant laying aside the lavender stems as you go.

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You can lay the stalks neatly in a cardboard flat or basket until you’re finished cutting. The lavender will retain best color and fragrance when handled correctly at this stage. Keep your flat of stems out of direct sun and prepare your bunches for hanging quickly. Once you’ve finished cutting the stalks, bundle the lavender into even bunches that are about 2-3″ in diameter using rubber bands around the bunches as the lavender stems shrink when drying. The rubber bands will contract keeping your bunches safe. Hang your lavender upside down in a dark, well ventilated place until the entire bunch is well dried. In Montana, it only takes 4-7 days but in a humid climates or during damp weather, it can take considerably longer. I use fans to speed the drying process.

Winter Dormancy

Lavender suspends it’s growth to conserve energy and to survive cold temperatures in Winter. In places that are temperate like Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco, lavender is more greenish gray in the Winter months. My plants here in Paradise, Montana (zone 4/5) are more grayish in color during the Winter–especially Grosso–the French Lavender–as the leaves are more silver anyway.

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I don’t mulch my field although the snow does provide some Winter cover. In climates colder than my Montana garden, I’ve used a mulch of small tree branches and loosely packed straw to keep the plants frozen until the weather is more hospitable. It isn’t usually just extreme cold temperatures that kill lavender although an unseasonable and severe cold snap in fall is capable of that. This happened here a few Octobers ago and many growers lost a lot of their plants. Instead it’s the freeze and thaw cycle of late Winter and Early Spring that more commonly causes stress and plant injury. Keeping plants frozen with mulch helps the plants stay dormant until the weather is reliably hospitable. Drainage is especially important in Winter. Plants do not do well with soggy roots–preparations when planting lead to better health all year.

Most of all, spend time in your garden or field during all times of year.  You’ll notice things and you can enjoy the plants in all of their beautiful forms and growth stages.  Trust me.  xo

Sustainable Stems

Sourcing Environmentally Thoughtful Flowers

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It seems that there’s nothing sweeter than a colorful bouquet in winter. Whether for a wedding bouquet, table arrangement or for celebratory holiday decor, botanicals  brighten up dark days. I always love something floral in my home, especially when the sun and light is lower this time of year. But finding flowers that are beautiful AND sustainable in the off seasons may seem a challenge if you shop in the usual places.

Many of these Winter bridal bouquets and floral arrangements are grown in less than healthy conditions.  80% or so of the flowers grown for the U.S. are imported from other countries like South America using a multitude of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.  The plant products are then packed for shipping with preservatives and other chemical treatments in order to withstand the lengthy transport and to maintain visual appeal.  This adds to the chemical load of the growing environment and the laborers who work with flowers.

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Here are some tips for environmentally conscious Cold Season Botanicals:

• Check out your local farmers market and don’t be shy! Visit with the farmers and chat about what they’re growing.  I find this such a pleasure–and I have such a soft spot in my heart for flower growers.  Sweet doesn’t begin to describe many of them! It means more when you know a little history of the gardener that worked to bring the blooms. Even in winter there are often things of beauty to be had, such as branches pruned from the farm orchard. It’s an opportunity to support your farmer in the off-season but you might need to cultivate your Winter sources. Farmers and Gardeners like to know they have buyers for unusual botanicals before they harvest them.  I’ve found that they are often happy to bring non-traditional farm offerings to the market if they are able to sell them.   I’m always surprised by the Winter Greens, daffodils, tulips and lilies that are available in our Winter Market here in Missoula, much earlier in the season than you’d expect.

winter bouquet• Consider dried flowers. When handled well, dried flowers last for months so one bouquet can replace a series of fresh bouquets. Lavender and other fragrant herbs add scent as well as color.  Dried flowers are air dried and have never been refrigerated.  Dry your own flowers by hanging them upside down in a well ventilated, dark space to preserve the best color and fragrance.

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• Try gilding. I use non-toxic gold mica to gild leaves and seasonal produce. Metallics can enhance the winter palette available to you outdoors and it works so well during the holiday season. Pretty vases and containers of shimmery metals or iridescent glass are particularly welcome in winter.

• Incorporate household items. Wrap bouquets with an heirloom piece like a vintage ribbon, lace or linen. For tablescapes and household décor, mix foraged plants with items from your own shelves. Display cherished domestic pieces. Celebrate what’s already yours!

DSC_2111• Hunt for seasonal sprigs. Find color in unexpected places like Willow or Dogwood twigs, bare branches, and wild grasses. Add other elements like cones, mosses, lichens, small stones or other woodsy finds. Display organic fruit or produce for short periods. Nothing’s prettier than a ripening pear or lush pomegranate. When they’re fully ripe, eat them up and hunt for your next delicious collection. Try a bowl of quail eggs, small onions, or garlic–their skins can appear almost iridescent. I love kale and flowering cabbage–so gorgeous with Winter pansies or unusual primrose varieties.

•Use lighting to add sparkle to winter stems.  Pretty beeswax or soy tea candles in glass votives look lovely nested in sprigs of winter greenery or twigs.  Short strands of LED lights can illuminate a dark area more efficiently than a larger watt bulb and add a decorative touch to larger tree shaped plants like ficus, mini spruce or pines.

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• Ask for Seasonal and Sustainable Flowers.  Be acquainted with your local florist! If you want fresh blooms, see if your favorite florist can stock organic and/or local blooms grown in the U.S.  Try tucking one fresh flower into a dried arrangement, wreath or collection of greenery and mossy twigs. An accent bloom looks striking and brightens up the space. There are almost always American Grown flowers available from growers on the coasts and southern areas.  Here in Montana, we can  get California, Oregon and Washington blooms and flowering plants all Winter long.  If you’re used to buying lots of arrangements in winter, try forcing bulbs like paper whites or amaryllis. Orchids bloom for very long periods of time and are beautiful in Winter.  Herb and green plants are another choice-especially when potted in pretty containers.

DSC_2862Despite all efforts to push consumers toward sustainably grown produce, little attention has been paid to flowers.  Sourcing Winter flowers can be an adventure if you put a little creativity into the search. No matter where you live, there is beauty all around you.

 

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