ISSUE 81  |  Weekend Getaway

Required Reading: The Lavender Lover’s Handbook

July 18, 2013 5:00 PM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

Lavender. There’s really nothing quite like lavender. Other herbs are fragrant, but the scent of lavender is unmistakable: sweet but sharp, calming but invigorating. It’s also a beautiful plant, not too big, colorful without being garish. Perhaps best of all, it’s useful. Whether you’re hoping to grow lavender yourself or you’re just hoping to give tonight’s cocktail an herbal scent, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Lavender Lover’s Handbook by Sarah Berringer Bader. 

Above: Lavender for sale at the farmers’ market. Photograph by Michael A. Muller for Gardenista.

I tend to avoid books written about a single plant. Exasperatingly, they often seem to have little information beyond the basics which you can get easily in general guides, or they are so padded with arcane minutia that they make for tedious reading. The Lavender Lover’s Handbook cleverly avoids both of these pitfalls. 

Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

Bader is the proprietor of a farm in Oregon called Lavender at Stonegate.  She began her career as a lavender grower through experimentation and trial and error.  Her book reflects a practical view of the plant. In the section of the book called “The Lavender Palette,” she gives details on 100 lavender cultivars that are best suited to North American climates.

Above: Photograph via Blomsterskuret.

Not surprising for a plant that is native to the sunny, dry Mediterranean region, many varieties of lavender cannot survive harsh winters where temperatures sit below freezing for extended periods.  Other varieties do not thrive where summers come with high humidity.  Bader recommends two hardy species: Lavendula angustifolia and Lavandula xintermedia

Above: Photograph by Meredith Swinehart.

For those inclined to grow lavender, there is a lot of clear, sensible advice in Bader’s chapter on cultivation. I learned that I most probably drowned my last, late lavender plant. Bader emphasizes that adequate drainage is vital and stresses that one of lavender’s best qualities is its ability to withstand drought. She tips us off that combination planting–putting lavender in the same beds with other drought tolerant plants (yarrow, hens and chicks, echinacea, etc.)–makes it easier to refrain from overwatering.

Enlightening to this (former) lavender grower was Bader’s explanation that lavender needs to be pruned, otherwise it can get woody and shabby. Bader includes a detailed three-year pruning schedule for a young plant which, if followed, can insure your lavender has a pleasing shape and stays healthy.

Above: Photograph by Michael A. Muller for Gardenista.

If you’re more likely to embark on a lavender-inspired craft project than plant your own, Bader demonstrates that lavender has many more, and more interesting, uses than being put into sachets to make your underwear drawer smell better. First she discusses which lavenders to use according to what you hope to do with your harvest. Lavenders that have a higher level of camphor, for instance, make better candidates for use in scented items than edible products. Of course the craft section does include directions for making a lavender sachet, but Bader also gives instructions for wreaths, swags, centerpieces, fire starters, cosmetics, and, for the truly enlightened homebody, an all-purpose household cleaning solution.

Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

A chapter on recipes includes instructions for using lavender in such diverse concoctions as savory herb blends, Provení§al salmon and pasta dishes, Mediterranean chicken recipes, crí¨me brí»lée, chocolate truffles, ice creams, condiments, and cocktails. Hungry?

The Lavender Lover’s Handbook ($27.95 from Timber Press) is well-designed and informative.  After finishing it, I felt so confident that I went out and bought a new lavender plant.  I promise to prune it, and I placed it in a pot with sandy soil and a prickly pear cactus so I won’t be tempted to overwater.  Thanks, Sarah Berringer Bader, for all the pleasant reading and good information.

Have you had bad luck with lavender? Follow the adventures of Meredith, our Novice Gardener, as she tries to figure out How Did I Kill My Lavender?

Looking to put your lavender to good use? We’ve got four projects to choose from (sachet, included):