Easily one of the most recognisable plants, lavender is a go-to perennial shrub for many. The fragrance is renowned for its relaxing properties, the flowers last for days when picked and it is a good cut-flower option for drying, too.
With a history that dates back centuries, it is a plant that has stood the test of time. Hailing from the Mediterranean, where summers are hot and winters are dry, lavender is at its best in a position that matches its heritage; full sun with excellent drainage. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need any water, it certainly does, especially for the first few months after transplanting out into the garden or planters.
Bees and butterflies love lavender as much as we do. Bees will gorge on the flowers from sunup to sundown, often hanging mid-air on a flower, almost drunk-like after their fill, resting for a few hours only to suck some more nectar once they wake up again. Be mindful of bees when planting masses of lavender around outdoor living areas. In places where children or people will be frequenting, the bees may not always be as welcome.
Four main types of lavender are grown
English lavender – Lavandula angustifolia
This neat mound-forming plant flowers once in late spring and covers itself in pungent dark purple, blue, pink or white flower spikes. It is an ideal low hedge plant, for a sunny, hot dry position in the garden. Prune after flowering in summer or autumn. It is this type of lavender that is often used in potpourri and for oil production.
French lavender – L. dentata
This type can almost flower all year round. With a large open habit, the pale purple-blue flowers sit above the serrated, soft grey-green leaves. Reaching about 1m by 1m with a loose habit, it is a good idea to trim this variety once a year in autumn to help the plant maintain a compact growth habit. This variety dries particularly well as it has a longer stem to pick.
Italian lavender – L. stoechas
The most popular lavender, if sales at garden centres are to go by, L. stoechas – or winged lavender – has brightly coloured ears (or wings) on the end of each stem. The plants often flower twice or even three times within a season if trimmed regularly. Flower colours vary from intense purples and blues to shades of pink, mauve, dusty grey and white.
Australian lavender – L. pinnata ‘Sidonie’
A unique hybrid, which originated in Australia, it features the same rich, dark purple-blue flowers of other lavenders, but with little or no foliage fragrance. This mid-sized shrub looks the part and is a lovely choice as a filler shrub in a sunny border. It is not as tolerant to frost as the others, so best suited to warm, sheltered coastal gardens.
Pick of the bunch
Plant breeders worldwide are endeavouring to come up with better strains of lavender. Some become new favourites, others disappear.
NEW ‘Sweet Romance’
This sturdy little number has all the attributes of other English lavenders, but where it differs is in its ability to flower on very young growth, which means you do not have to wait a season or two to enjoy a flurry of blooms. Its intense deep blue-purple flower spikes sit nicely above the solid silver-grey domes of foliage from late spring well into autumn. The heady perfume simply adds to this plant’s appeal. This one is an excellent low hedge option. Planted en masse it will add structure and charm to driveways and garden borders. It is a brilliant cut flower, too, drying well and holding its shape. It would be suitable for container growing, but make sure the pot is at least 10 litres in capacity – that’s the size of a kitchen bucket. Twice the size would be better as it will allow the plant to last longer.
When released a couple of seasons ago, this superb, compact Italian variety took gardeners by surprise with its sugarplum-pink frilly flowers. Mine have survived two droughts, neglect and being backed over by a trailer, so I can testify wholeheartedly to its ability to perk up each spring with an array of flowers that seem to appear continuously for about six months. A superb option for tubs and mass plantings, and lovely if you want a touch of pink in the garden as opposed to purple.
With a name of such strong connotations it is no surprise this Italian lavender hybrid sits at the top of the popularity list. The dark rich-purple flowers appear from mid-spring and last through until early summer. Then, if given a light haircut, more flowers will appear in autumn. A top choice for those who want a knee- to hip-height lavender, it generally gets a little too big for tubs and planters, unless the container has a wide diameter and depth of 50-70cm. A slightly smaller and more compact one to look for is ‘Avonview’. This has a similar habit with slightly darker flowers. ‘Bee Brilliant’ is a beauty, too, with its showy deep-purple flowers topped with soft purple wings and a more compact habit than ‘Major’.
L . dentata
For those who like a pale shade of violet, and are looking for a softer look, the French lavender is a wonderful option. This plant is rarely without a flower. However, it won’t cope with the same amount of frost as the Italian and English jobs, so give it some protection.
‘Hidcote Blue’ and ‘Hidcote White’
These two English hybrids are sought after for their clean, crisp colours and large flowers. The flower stems are longer than most other English types, adding to the appeal of the plant. When the flowers are in bloom the stems sway gently in the breeze.
Dos and Don’ts
Lavender is one of those wonderful shrubs that can give so much joy for such little care. However, there are a few tips and tricks to ensuring it maintains its shape and vigour over the season.
Full sun is a must. Don’t consider planting it in a shady damp position, it needs full sun and excellent drainage. It looks spectacular planted in groups, en masse in gardens, down banks and in hedges. It blends well into numerous garden styles, making itself at home in both modern and old-fashioned settings.
Lavender can live a happy life in a container, but what is critical to ensure its success is to choose a large pot (ideally twice the size of a kitchen bucket). Even though it has a shallow root system, it flowers best in a larger pot. Don’t be tempted to put a saucer under the pot either, it hates wet feet and the roots will rot and die if left standing in water.
Regular haircuts are required to keep plants fresh and tidy. The trick is to cut back the plants while they are actively growing (not in winter), after the main flurry of flowers in late summer or autumn. You may need to forgo a few flowers to do this, but timing is critical. Pruning at this time helps maintain shape and promotes a new set of flowers. Cutting back lavender into old brittle wood is a recipe for disaster. It usually doesn’t regenerate and, if cut back too hard, it can cause the plant to die.
Lavender hates having its roots disturbed or dug in and around. Essentially, it is a little ticklish! So, avoid planting anything under lavender, not even bulbs. In the wild it rarely competes with anything else in the same spot , so try not to upset it when planting it at home.
Roses and Lavender
These two plants look fabulous together, but essentially they differ dramatically in what they prefer in terms of ideal growing conditions. Roses love rich, moisture-retentive soil and plenty of water through hot periods, while lavender loathes wet feet and moist foliage. Food-wise, roses are greedy beggars and lavenders thrive on the smell of an oily rag. So, if you wish to marry these two plants together, you need to clearly manage them differently. This can be done by allowing plenty of space between the roses and the rows of lavenders, in order to feed and water plants independently of each other.
Less is More
To get the best look when planting lavender, choose your favourite and mass plant it. This is better than planting a number of different varieties. Bold blocks of flowering lavender are a sight to behold. For hedges, space 30- 50cm apart (depending on the variety).