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Gardening 101: Lavender

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Gardening 101: Lavender

August 12, 2019

Lavender; Lavandula: “The Practical Feminist”

Alice Walker once wrote that “womanist is to feminist as lavender is to purple.” As the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Color Purple, Walker can be considered an expert on both. Actually, lavender has long enjoyed a connection to feminism. In 1969, Betty Friedan originated the phrase “the lavender menace” to refer to the militant, “man-hating” contingent that she feared would cause the women’s movement to be taken less seriously.

How do we reconcile lavender’s radical stance with the fact that this short-lived herbaceous perennial loves taking part in household tasks? Ever since the Middle Ages, lavender has been a key ingredient in home medical remedies, fragrant nosegays to counter the odors of the street, perfumes and toilet waters, and countless cleaning products.

With more than four dozen species (and 500 cultivars), there is a favorite lavender for everyone:

Photograph by Michael A. Muller for Gardenista.
Above: Photograph by Michael A. Muller for Gardenista.

The most common type of lavender is English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), with grayish green leaves and a tendency to form small, neat mounds in the garden. Other favorites: Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) and French lavender (Lavandula Dentata). Flowers range in color from purple to white to pink, depending on the cultivar.

To be sure, lavender is spicy and full of character. But she is also superbly helpful around the house and garden, taking pride in the spaces she calls her own. Lavender needs a room of her own. In either fall or spring, settle her into an outdoor spot that is two to three square feet. Water diligently at first, and soon enough she’ll be independent enough to impress even Friedan and Walker.

One of our favorite summer recipes: DIY Lavender Soda. Photograph by Marla Aufmuth.
Above: One of our favorite summer recipes: DIY Lavender Soda. Photograph by Marla Aufmuth.

Cheat Sheet

  • A drought-resistant and evergreen herb, lavender provides year-round interest in the garden.
  • Lavender attracts bees and butterflies while warding off deer, which hate its scent.
  • Shades of violet, blue, purple, and gray blend pleasingly with other colors in the garden.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Fudge. For more, see Garden Designer Visit: Lavender Fields in Australia.
Above: Photograph courtesy of Peter Fudge. For more, see Garden Designer Visit: Lavender Fields in Australia.

Keep It Alive

  • Lavender grows naturally in the sandy, rocky soil of the Mediterranean; bits of gravel and brick will remind it of home.
  • Perennial in US growing zones 5 to 9.
  • Give each lavender plant full sun and from 2 to 3 square feet of space to spread.
In a large garden near Grasse in Provence, British garden designer James Basson conserved water with a design that included lavender in “large beds of mixed perennial dry planting.” Photograph courtesy of Scape Designs. For more of this garden, see 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Provence.
Above: In a large garden near Grasse in Provence, British garden designer James Basson conserved water with a design that included lavender in “large beds of mixed perennial dry planting.” Photograph courtesy of Scape Designs. For more of this garden, see 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Provence.

A well-established lavender plant needs almost no attention, and performs double and triple duty. Known to help ward off incursions by deer, lavender is a good neighbor, happy to lend a hand to protect tender rosebuds and other pest-magnets. When summer arrives, lavender’s flowers fill the garden with a sharp yet clean fragrance.

Lavender borders a path of decomposed granite. Photograph by Mimi Giboin. For more, see Landscape Architect Visit: Vineyard Views in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley.
Above: Lavender borders a path of decomposed granite. Photograph by Mimi Giboin. For more, see Landscape Architect Visit: Vineyard Views in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley.

Lavender makes a great neighbor for other drought-resisting plants like yarrow, hens and chicks, and echinacea. Give them their own section of the garden and it will be easy to avoid overwatering them.

 For more about lavender, see Required Reading: The Lavender Lover’s Handbook. Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.
Above: For more about lavender, see Required Reading: The Lavender Lover’s Handbook. Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

N.B.: If you live in a Mediterranean or other warm climate, you (always) need more lavender in your garden. For garden companions and planting ideas, see our Garden Design 101 guides, especially Perennials 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design. And see more ways to add lavender to an herb garden:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for lavender with our Lavender: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

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