All About Lavender
Vita Sackville-West, chatelaine of Sissinghurst, suggests in her Garden Book that all gardeners should have “the good sense to grow lavender along paths or in a clump by your front door so that you can pinch the leaves as you go past”.
It is hard to gainsay such good advice. Lavender epitomises the English summer garden between June and September almost as much as roses and this has been so since at least Tudor times. Native to the Mediterranean, India and the Canary Islands, the Romans (it is always the Romans!) brought them to England as an essential part of their toilette. The etymology of lavender is from the verb lavare to wash – and lavender flowers were used in baths for their scent, which can incorporate rejuvenating notes of pine and eucalyptus, and for their antiseptic properties. Afterwards lavender oil was used to massage onto the skin. Even then lavender’s anti-bacterial properties were remarked upon, along with its power to repel ants and other insects from clothes, kitchens and such like. These properties extend to the garden too because lavender remains unaffected by all of the other pests and diseases that can afflict our herbaceous perennials; no rabbit or deer will eat them and what is more they are reputed to actually reduce the amount of whitefly and greenfly in the garden by repelling them.
English monks learnt from the Romans and grew lavender in monasteries to use medicinally; it had a reviving effect for those prone to dizziness and fainting and was even meant to help with vertigo – presumably discovered when building all of those vast abbeys! Lavender is a member of the mint family and its leaves and flowers have enormous culinary merit which the monks also exploited. Now we tend to associate lavender with sweet fare like biscuits, meringues, ice creams and pastries. But lavender leaves have a wonderful savoury flavour which evokes a truly Mediterranean umami when mixed with sage, oregano, rosemary, thyme and other mints. Infuse oils and vinegars with lavender leaves and any of these herbs to make marinades and dressings.
The Tudors saw lavender as a strewing herb to mask household and street smells. It was at this time that people also noticed how lavender markedly improved symptoms of rheumatism and stiff joints and relieved tiredness. It is fascinating to note that lavender has since proved to be effective against such modern ills as the streptococcus and pneumococcus bacteria, not to mention burns and stings. But intriguing as all of that is you will be reading this more for horticultural know-how and there is much to say on lavender.
Lavender comes under the Mediterranean bracket of flora. They are perennial plants that survive by putting down deep roots in their first year to cope with the drought of arid, hot summers and to put on growth in damp, mild winters. The leaves are a thin and silvery grey to reflect the sun and are covered with soft hairs to prevent moisture loss but the main sun screen is an oily, scented layer that covers the leaves making them aromatic and pungent when stroked, sniffed or even pinched a la Vita. So, the hotter the weather the more aromatic the garden. All lavenders need sun, and lots of it. South facing is heaven for them but they can become accustomed to a little shade given that they may then flower less exuberantly. Twinned with the heat, they need gritty, free draining soils that can be chalky, neutral or alkaline and they will survive in even quite undernourished soils. The surest way to do away with a lavender however is to leave its feet wet over winter. If you are gardening on heavy clay you need to add masses of grit when you plant and to bear in mind how much longer clay takes to warm up in the spring so do not plant too early. The alternative is to express your lavender urges in glamorous pots instead.
There are three main types of lavender: Spanish lavender grows wild on the hills of Catalunya and can sport a surprising yellow form. French lavender or Lavandula stoechas, is a long flowering plant with mauve rabbit ear-like antennae or bracts above the main flower head. While French lavender is highly ornamental for the garden, it is a little tender for most of us to leave outside all year without qualms. Grow it in pots that can move to a greenhouse or shed for the winter. We therefore specialise in what can reliably work in our gardens and so we can supply two forms of English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote and L. a. Munstead because we consider them to be the most useful and beautiful varieties for the garden.
What we regard as old English lavender, Lavandula intermedia grows to a height of a metre or more and so is much larger than most English lavenders. It is a cross between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia (broadleaved). It can veer towards straggly and woody quite quickly without careful pruning, although its flower and foliage scent is second to none and is consequently invaluable to the perfume industry based, ironically, in Grasse. Having said which its scent can be more like camphor; and so its oil is often used for cheaper soaps and detergents. Vigorous examples that are worth growing are L. intermedia ‘Grappenhall’ or ‘Heavenly Scent’. All of the intermedias are good for clipping into topiary but the result can be uneven and gawky so lavender breeders concentrated on producing a variety that was more compact and more floriferous. The most successful aesthetically and commercially have been two varieties of L. angustifolia, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’. Gertrude Jekyll’s garden Munstead Wood was made a full fifteen years before Edwin Lutyens built her a house there. It is in honour of her contribution to gardening that this lavender was named L. a. ‘Munstead’. It is the most hardy, reliable and tolerant of both wet and dry conditions of all lavenders and also happens to be the most edible. Both ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ grow to comparable sizes of between 45-60 cm height and spread but differ in their colouring: ‘Munstead’ has a paler mauve-blue flower with grey green leaves while ‘Hidcote’ has a slightly smaller flower that is a more imperial, deep purple with silver washed leaves. ‘Hidcote’, named after Lawrence Johnston’s famous Arts and Crafts garden in Gloucestershire, is marginally fussier about its terrain and grows at a more sedate pace than ‘Munstead’ but retains its scent wonderfully throughout the summer and even after its flowers have been dried (for all those pot pourris and embroidered muslin bags that you are planning to make….) Both are fantastic pollinators for other plants in the garden because they are irresistible to bees and butterflies so you can often see a miasma of whirring wings above them and, as with all lavenders, neither mice nor deer can abide them.
Play to lavender's strength as an evergreen and use ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ as a low slung hedge to divide a potager or formal garden into different areas. The leaves look and smell good all year round so the flowers would almost the icing on the cake. For a formal look you could grow any or all of a standard or shrub rose, a small crabapple tree or a weeping silver pear in each divided section and change the bedding plants as you will. ‘Munstead’ associates particularly well with yellow or white roses like David Austin's Charlotte or ‘Jacqueline du Pre’ and ‘Little White Pet’. The violet ‘Hidcote’ provides a good foil to pink roses like ‘Nathalie Nypels’,Brother Cadfael or ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. In a potager, lavender makes a welcome change from box when used as elegant edging for a bed full of herbs, vegetables or cutting flowers. Both lavenders also make a good front to an herbaceous border to soften the boundary between border and grass, gravel or path as the flowers and leaves spill out over and soften any hard, delineating edges.
If left to their own devices these compact lavenders will grow into curvaceous, scented mounds that can undulate along a path in mass plantings, or recur through a herbaceous border to provide year round structure or make up part of a Mediterranean bed. When planting them out, always plant in groups of three or five. Other contenders for the Med Bed would be some of the many varieties of sage with different coloured and shaped leaves; ‘Tricolour’ has purple, green and white leaves, Common sage has its own felt-like grey-green leaf and then ‘Purpurascens’ morphs to plum purple when the thermometer rises. A muddle of these sages with any lavender and some creeping or ordinary thyme would look and smell wonderful all summer – and be invaluable for the cooks in the family.
A more designed arrangement might include rock roses such as Cistus x argenteus or C. x purpureus, Santolina chamaecyparissus (Cotton lavender), any of the silver wormwoods but Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Silver Queen’ is one of the best, and a Cordyline australis. Surround them with slate pebbles or dark, grey stones to create a gravel garden that will also heat up the surrounding soil and reflect the sun back onto the plants - a good trick in a slightly colder or shady situation. Lavenders are an essential part of any purple and silver scheme which might include any of the Nepetas or catmints, Rabbits Ears- Stachys byzantina, Perowskias and Verbena bonariensis. Or use lavender to contrast with some of the brightly coloured Achilleas for a clash of form and colour – ‘Walther Funcke’ is my favourite. Another idea is to mix and match ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ with other lavenders.
It feels like an oxymoron but there are pink lavenders out there. Try L. a. ‘Rosea’ or ‘Jean Davis’ and the pink ‘Hidcote’ lavender is stunning planted en masse. The colour can be a little insipid if there is not enough heft in the planting so mix it up with the violet flowers of L.a. ‘Hidcote’ or plant it seriously en masse. The white L. a. Alba grows fractionally smaller than English lavender but taller than ‘Hidcote’ or ‘Munstead’ to reach up to 80 cm with a cavalcade of white flowers to break up the purple hegemony and play with differing heights. It goes without saying that no white garden would be complete without a white lavender in its large or dwarf, L. a. ‘Alba Nana’, form. Lavandula lanata – woolly lavender – has felted, almost white leaves that juxtapose sharply with the dark purple flower spikes. It is relatively tender but for lavender aficionados is one of the most desirable varieties around.
If you are thinking of growing lavender in pots then imagine an old Elizabethan brick wall with lavender grown in front of it and an old lead planter nearby and you will know that terracotta or lead (fake if you must!) pots and planters will look tremendous filled with mounds of lavender. Anyone desiring a more up to date look might seek out a bright purple glazed pot and combine the lavender with some zingy red Argyranthemums that will need dead-heading through the summer. Whichever style you plump for, do not overwater and remember to remove the top layer of soil each spring and replace it with some new, nutritious compost.
However you decide to deploy your lavender in the garden there are some essential rules to observe to maintain it at its best. In spring, lightly trim the lavender to shape, an essential measure if they have taken a battering over a cold winter. In late summer after flowering, snip off the flowering stems back down to the leaves (unless you live somewhere very cold where the spent stems can act as a protective insulating layer) and then finally in autumn perform another light trim in preparation for some winter growth but always leave some of the current year’s new foliage intact. NEVER cut into old wood because the chances are the lavender may not re-generate from there so you end up with bald patches. If you keep up this regime your lavender will still look bushy and flower generously for about ten years. After that even the most assiduous gardener will find that some plants need replacing.
Once you have billowing lavender throughout the garden, harvest some of the flowers on a dry day. Strip any leaves from the stem and hang them out of direct sunlight to stop the sun fading the colour and tie a paper bag over the flowers so that if any fall, they collect in the bag. Stick a few tablespoons of the dried flowers into a jar of sugar to sprinkle over strawberries, macerate some in your bath or get on with those muslin embroidered bags that we talked about earlier…. Alternatively lavender makes a stylish buttonhole or cut flower for a posy or nosegay. With its abundance of nectar for bees, multitude of uses for you and year round beauty if asked the question,"Lavender in the garden?" You will know it makes sense and why!