Growing, Harvesting, and Preserving Lavender
“The air was fragrant with a thousand trodden aromatic herbs, with fields of lavender, and with the brightest roses blushing in tufts all over the meadows.”
—William C. Bryant, American poet and writer (1794-1878)
A member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family, lavender is a perennial evergreen shrub best known for its sweet, calming, and uplifting fragrance. A staple in cottage gardens around the world, the lavender plant is easy to maintain, drought tolerant, and thrives in many climates. This beautiful and heavenly-scented herb holds a special place in my family’s heart. We have planted lavender near the front entrance of every home we’ve ever owned and have fond memories of family day trips to Washington’s incredible lavender fields when our children were very young. Lavender has woody branches with upright, straight leafy green spikey shoots. The leaves are a beautiful cool-toned gray-green color with small dark purple (or sometimes violet, white or pink) flowers on the tips that give the herb is heavenly scent. It can grow up to three feet tall, however most shrubs are closer to 24 inches. English lavender is the most common species used culinary and medicinal purposes, and is my personal favorite as well.
Because growing lavender from seed is rather difficult, I recommend either growing it from cuttings or purchasing lavender as a small shrub from your local nursery. (If you wish to grow it from seed, keep in mind that lavender seed needs light to germinate and germination may take a month or more.)
I typically space my lavender plants in a row 12 to 18 inches apart in an area with plenty of sunlight and sandy (even rocky) soil that has a pH of 6.7 to 7.3. If the shrub is small, mix some compost into the soil to give it a jumpstart. Once established, lavender is easy to maintain and very rewarding. It grows well in the ground, in garden beds, or in pots. Most varieties of English lavender are hardy in USDA zones 5-9. Spanish lavender is only hardy in zones 7-9 and French lavender in zones 8-11.
I prefer to grow English lavender, which has a much stronger fragrance than Spanish lavender, and a much sweeter fragrance than French lavender, which has more pine notes. There are many lovely and aromatic varieties of English lavender to choose from, but my favorites are Hidcote, Munstead, Betty’s Blue, Grosso, Beuna Vista, Impress Purple, and Royal Purple. For a white lavender, try Edelweiss, Melissa, or Jean Davis. For Spanish Lavender, try Ballerina, Madrid Purple, or Curly Top.
While lavender does not like to be watered frequently, it is important to water it deeply every few weeks during the hottest seasons of the year.
Harvest lavender in the morning after dew has evaporated from the buds, keeping in mind that only the flowers of lavender are harvested. Always harvest flower buds when the buds show their deep bright color but before they open. Gather a handful of sprigs below the flowers in one hand and cut underneath your hand just above the leaves or side branches with clean pruning snips or kitchen shears. Once the flowers are removed, the plant will begin to redirect its energy to new growth. Never cut the woody part of the stem. Choose a completely dry day and dry your flower buds as soon as possible after harvesting to decrease the likelihood of molding. Do not expose the buds to heat which can lessen their essential oils and lovely aroma.
My favorite harvesting snips: Barebones Artisan Pruning and Trimming Shears
Air dry lavender sprigs on a screen in a cool place, out of direct sunlight, or bundle them tightly into small bundles and hang upside down until the buds are brittle and easily fall off (about 2 weeks.) Alternatively, a dehydrator can be used. Once fully dried and brittle, the buds will easily fall off the stems when rolled lightly between your hands. Store the buds in an airtight glass container. Every time you open it will be like a rush of summer flowing out of the jar. Or lavender buds can be left on their stems after dried and added to preserved flower arrangements or wreathes. Lavender can also be infused in oil or water, steeped into a simple syrup, frozen into ice cubes, or pressed and used in botanical arts and crafts.
My Favorite Ways To Use Lavender
The list of uses for lavender is truly endless, however I find myself most often using this heavenly scented herb in my craft botanical cocktails, to make lavender sachets to place in sweater drawers, linen closets, and under pillows, and, perhaps my favorite use, lavender simple syrup. I also enjoy whipping up a quick batch of lavender lemon balm lemonade to cool off on the hottest summer days. Lavender makes a gorgeous purple color botanical sugar and a lovely calming aroma in rejuvenation herbal bath bundles too. And once the weather has cooled, Lavender chamomile bath soak is a fantastic way to appreciate the soothing and calming benefits of preserved lavender.
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