Growing Lavender

How to Grow Lavender

With the exception of our pruning lavender in Autumn video, everything you need to know to get start with your lavender project is on this page. 

Which variety should I choose?

Hidcote and Munstead are the hardiest, and definitely best for growing outdoors year round across the UK. Unless you live in the sunny South, all our other varieties will be fine outdoors, but they will be attractive and healthy for longer in pots that are taken indoors overwinter, or grown in a conservatory or big South facing window.

In all cases, the issue isn't whether the plants will survive in a cold climate (they will, as long as they have good drainage, sun, and your garden isn't in an Inverness frost pocket), but how long they will look great for: 10 or 12 years is a good run in ideal conditions. You can grow any variety you like in a suitable location (in terms of sun and drainage) anywhere in Great Britain, but in colder regions, Munstead and Hidcote will stay gorgeous the longest.

Which size should I buy?

Starting with the right sized plant makes a significant different to the cost, the speed of establishment and the final structure.

  • For window boxes and other cramped spaces, start with the smallest plants, which come in P9 pots and are a year old. If you plant them outside, do it from the end of May when the soil is nice and warm. They are the cheapest way to buy a lavender hedge, and you will have to wait a year or two longer for them to knit together.
  • For borders, hedges and edges, two-year-old plants in 1 or 2 litre pots are ideal. You get more root and more flower in the first year, and they do not look lost planted at one plant every 13" (33cms). By the end of the first summer, they will have joined up.
  • For specimen shrubs that provide instant impact, buy larger plants in 3 litre pots. We recommend that you avoid pot sizes above 5 litres if you see them around: they are expensive, but the results are often "uneven". If these large plants are on a special offer discount, they may also have outgrown their pot and so are too pot bound to establish well elsewhere.

How to prepare a Lavender bed

It makes sense to plant where you pass by often or sit, so that you can enjoy the fragrance.

Choose your position

  • Like nearly all plants with tough, narrow leaves and small flowers, it loves a hot, open, sunny position, facing south or west.
  • It will tolerate a little shade but needs full sun for most of the day. It does not like being planted under trees, even if they cast light shade.
  • It can tolerate severe cold by British standards, but it hates wet areas. Good drainage is vital: if your soil waterlogs in winter, your lavender will deteriorate quickly. This cannot be overstated. In one garden, we have seen all the lavender comfortably survive an especially harsh winter in one raised area, where the drainage was good, and practically all the lavender die in another area where drainage was poor (and the few survivors looked so terrible they had to be removed anyway). Same variety, same amount of sun, same careful(ish) owner, but totally different results due to the drainage.
  • It thrives by the sea and is quite happy in a windy position.

Preparing the ground

  • The ideal pH is neutral to alkaline, and it does really well on shallow chalk. If your soil is slightly acidic, then adding lime will help increase the pH. A handful per square metre (with an application every spring) is likely to be enough, but always follow the instructions on the packet.
  • Poor, sandy soil with low fertility and great drainage is ideal, so do not add anything to improve it unless you are on close to pure sand, in which case a sprinkle of compost will help them establish. With rich soil, you will get more foliage, fewer flowers, and your plants will age faster, in the sense of getting leggy.
  • Dig it over, remove detritus and thoroughly get the weeds out (much easier now than later).
  • If the weather is cold leading up to planting time, then covering the area with black plastic for a couple of weeks before you receive the plants will help raise the soil temperature.

What to do if you don't have the ideal conditions

It will tolerate clay soil if other factors are right, i.e., it is in a warm, sunny position where water doesn't linger in wet weather. You could, for example, ensure a drier spot for it by planting it at the top of a bank. However, it tends to become woodier at the base in clay and be shorter lived, so soil amendment for clay is advisable.

The idea is to increase drainage and the amount of oxygen held in the soil, but beware of creating a “sump”, where water in the heavier soil surrounding the plants drains into the amended soil and is held there. This tends to happen if you only improve the soil in the planting holes, so spread your amendments over a wider area.

  1. Dig in a bit of low fertility soil improvers like leaf mould, coconut coir, or potting compost, mixed up with plenty of horticultural sand and grit.
  2. Mound up the soil for single plants, or make a ridge for a hedge, and plant into the top of it. 50cms high is plenty.

Growing lavender in containers

This is the safest option if your soil is not appropriate. Use a loam-based compost (John Innes No 3), mixed 50-50 with grit. A small dose of slow-release fertiliser in the spring of the second and subsequent years should see it flowering like mad. Remember: more fertiliser means more leaves, not flowers.

As the plants age, you can avoid repotting them by removing the top layer of soil (if necessary to create space) each spring and replacing it with some fresh, nutritious compost.

How to Plant a Lavender Hedge

It's best to plant in soil that is warming well, which is why we only deliver from April onwards, and we will delay delivery if it is unseasonably cold. There is simply no point rushing it: by the autumn, lavender that was planted in late June will have completely outstripped the same stock planted at the beginning of a chilly April.

Now that you have your well drained, sunny site ready, the question is how close to plant them. There is some flexibility here, depending on what you want.

For a proper hedge, plant them at about half their natural width when grown in the open. In practice, this means three per metre, 33cms apart. Hidcote, Rosea and Alba all reach about 75cm across, so you could plant them a bit further apart at 35-40cm. Munstead reaches about 60cm across, so you could plant them a bit closer in the 30 to 35cm apart range.
At the end of the first summer after planting, they will have 'joined up'.

For a looser row of lavender mounds that are more or less joined up while in flower, but not really a proper hedge, subtract 5 to 15cm from their natural width, and plant that far apart.
After two or three years, your plants will be close to a solid mass in summer, and then have gaps between them after trimming in Autumn.

How to Trim Lavender

Trimming hard once a year is sufficient, but for the plumpest, tightest hedge, twice a year is optimal, plus optional deadheading. The aim is to allow the stems to produce only a couple of centimetres of mature, woody growth each year.
This stops it from becoming leggy, thus making fewer flowers and needing replacing sooner. Restricting its growth effectively keeps it young for longer.

Whichever size you start with, trim new lavender hard after flowering, in August/September. From then on:

1st trim of the Year:
In late February (or early March if the weather has been cloudy), trim your plants lightly. This will encourage them to flower hard and keep them looking tidy.

2nd trim of the Year:
Right after flowering, or by the end of September at the latest, give your plants a very hard trim, as shown in our lavender trimming video.

Cut all the new growth back down to 1-2cms above the older, woody part of the stem, leaving between one and three leaf buds. This little bit of new growth will have time to heal from the wound and harden up before the frosts.
They will look a bit sad for a short time, but they bounce back and look neat all winter.

Deadheading

This is optional but recommended, as you will encourage a stronger second flush of flowers if you cut off the spent flower stalks right after the first flush of flowers around the end of June.
With that said, the seed heads look quite nice, so you could opt to leave them there: the plants will still produce new flowers in late summer.

Renovation Pruning & Replacing Mature Lavender

The consensus about clipping lavender is that the leafy, silver-green stems should be cut down to two or three buds above where it becomes hard and woody (leaving about 2cms of the year's soft growth). Pruning lavender gently each and every year, as described above, will keep it compact and stop it getting leggy before time. Lavender has a limited lifespan of looking great, with the dense foliage and profuse flowers that we love so much. After about a decade, or as little as five years in poor conditions, plants will naturally become sparser and flower less, despite your dilligent pruning. Your best option is to replace them, either by propagating cuttings yourself in advance, or buying new plants in Spring and early Summer. 

In our experience, it is best not to cut lavender back hard: it can be attempted in over four years, but the chances are high that you will create bald patches. You can try to coax new buds from the tough old wood near the base of the plants over three or four years, with a moderate chance of success, by cutting off a quarter of a bush's main branches each year, and tightly trimming the rest to one or two buds of new growth: insulating plants in freezing weather with fleece and straw will help.

You can also try layering branches to root new plants over a couple of years.

Lavender doesn't suffer from replant disease (like roses and fruit trees, for example) when you plant a new one in the same place as an old one, but it can't hurt to remove some soil from immediately around the roots of the old plant and replace it.

Planting Companions

Play to lavender's strength as an evergreen and use it as a low-slung hedge to divide a potager or formal garden into different areas. For a formal look, you could grow any or all of a shrub rose, a small crab apple tree or a weeping silver pear in each divided section, and change the bedding plants as you will.

Munstead associates well with yellow or white roses like Buff Beauty or ‘Jacqueline du Pre’ and ‘Little White Pet’.

The violet Hidcote provides a good foil to pink roses like ‘Nathalie Nypels’, Comte de Chambord or ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. In a potager, lavender makes a welcome change from box as elegant edging for a bed full of herbs, vegetables or cutting flowers.
Both varieties 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 shrubs will grow into curvaceous, scented mounds that can undulate along a path in mass plantings or recur through an herbaceous border to provide year round structure, or make up part of a Mediterranean bed. For these purposes, 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 make the cook happy.

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 heat up the surrounding soil and reflect the sun back onto the plants: a good tactic 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.

The pink of L. Rosea can be a bit insipid when it's planted in small groups, but looks stunning en masse when you mix in Hidcote, which really enhances the pink. The white L. Alba grows taller than Hidcote or Munstead, up to 80cm, so generally plant it behind them for a cavalcade of white flowers to break up the purple hegemony and play with differing heights: no white-themed garden would be complete without it, or its dwarf form, Alba Nana.

When growing lavender in pots, imagine an Elizabethan brick wall with lavender grown in front of it in a worn lead or old terracotta planter, filled with mounds of lavender. For a more up to date look, seek out a bright purple glazed pot and combine the lavender with some zingy red Argyranthemums. Whichever style you plump for, do not overwater!

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 either loosely tie a paper bag over the flowers so that if any fall, they collect in the bag, or just put a bucket under them. 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 you have been meaning to get round to. Lavender also makes a stylish buttonhole or cut flower for a posy or nosegay.

However, you deploy your lavender in the garden, remember the 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, or if you prefer keeping them for architectural interest), and then in autumn do the real chop down to two or three buds of new growth. Never cut into old wood.
If you keep up this regime, your lavender will look bushy and flower generously for about ten to twelve years. After that, even the most assiduous gardener will find that some plants need replacing.

Lavender History & Trivia

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: lavender flowers were used in baths for their scent, with its rejuvenating notes of pine and eucalyptus. Afterwards, lavender oil was massaged onto the skin. Its anti-bacterial properties were remarked upon, along with its power to repel ants and other insects. These properties extend to the garden, where it is unaffected by the pests and diseases that can afflict our herbaceous perennials. No rabbit or deer will eat them, and they are reputed to deter whitefly and greenfly in the vicinity.

British monks carried the torch of Roman knowledge and grew lavender to use medicinally; it had a reviving effect for those prone to dizziness and fainting and was used to soothe vertigo, which doubtless helped the workers who built all of those glorious cathedral spires. It is a member of the mint family, and its leaves and flowers have enormous culinary merit. We tend to associate lavender with sweet fare like biscuits, meringues, ice creams and pastries these days, but the leaves have a wonderful savoury flavour which evokes a 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 used lavender as a strewing herb to mask household and street smells. They noticed how lavender improved symptoms of rheumatism and stiff joints, and relieved tiredness. It has since proven to be effective against such modern ills as the streptococcus and pneumococcus bacteria, not to mention burns and stings.

Lavender are perennial Mediterranean plants that put down deep roots in their first year to cope with the arid, hot summers and to put on growth in mild winters. The thin, silvery grey leaves reflect the sun and have soft hairs to slow moisture loss, but their main sunscreen is the oily, scented layer that gives them their famous fragrance. So, the hotter the weather, the more aromatic the plants. #

All lavenders need sun, and lots of it. South facing is heaven for them, but they can become accustomed to a little shade, where they will flower less exuberantly. Twinned with the heat, they need gritty, free draining, alkaline or neutral soils, and they will survive in close to pure sand. The surest way to kill a lavender 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 (ideally into a raised area), and to bear in mind how much longer clay takes to warm up in the spring, so do not plant too early. The easy alternative is to express your lavender urges in glamorous pots instead.

There are the lavender groups you are likely to encounter in the UK:

  1. Lavandula viridis: this grows wild on the hills of Catalunya and can sport a surprising yellow form.
  2. Lavandula stoechas: known as French or Spanish Lavender in Britain and America respectively, this long flowering plant has mauve, rabbit ear-like bracts above the main flower head. It is highly ornamental, but a bit too tender to leave outside all year in most of the country. Grow it in pots that can move to a greenhouse or shed for the winter.
  3. Lavandula latifolia: Spike or Portuguese broadleaf lavender isn't as pretty as its cousins, but is grown for its strong, camphor heavy oil.
  4. Lavandula lanata: Woolly lavender has felted, almost white leaves that juxtapose sharply with the dark purple flower spikes. It is relatively tender but no less beloved by lavender aficionados for it.
  5. Lavandula x intermedia: the hybrid lavandins are much bigger than the others and combine the pungent oils of L. latifolia with the hardiness and attractive qualities of our final entry (below). It can go straggly and woody quite quickly without careful pruning, but its flower and foliage scent are second to none. It is invaluable to the perfume industry, based in Grasse. Because of the high camphor element and yield, its oil is often used for cheaper soaps and detergents. Vigorous examples that are worth growing are ‘Grappenhall’ or ‘Heavenly Scent’. All 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, which brings us to our stock in trade...
  6. Lavandula angustifolia: So-called English lavender is reliable in British gardens, looks lovely when clipped, and has a sweeter quality to its oil, suitable for both aromatic and culinary use. We especially recommend Hidcote and Munstead for outdoor growing because of their beauty and hardiness, although Rosea and Alba will also be totally fine in the milder South.

Gertrude Jekyll’s garden, Munstead Wood, was made fifteen years before Edwin Lutyens built her a house there, and Munstead Lavender is named in honour of her contribution to gardening. It is the most hardy and tolerant of wet and dry conditions, and also happens to be the most edible.
Both Munstead and Hidcote grow to comparable sizes of between 45-60cm in height and a bit more in spread. 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 terrain and a bit less vigorous than Munstead, but retains its scent wonderfully throughout the summer and after drying. Both are fantastic magnets for pollinators like bees and butterflies, so it's common to plant them near orchards to draw them in.

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