HOTM - Lavender - August 2013

The Mint Edition
Morningsun Herb Farm's monthly newsletter for herbal enthusiasts
A Lavender Update
by Rosemary Loveall-Sale
Lavender continues to be a popular perennial to grow in California, both for the home gardener and for farmers looking for a niche crop.  Most of you have been out to Morningsun, and know that we grow a large variety of lavenders at the farm.  No matter how many we grow, most customers still gravitate towards the tried and true varieties that are familiar to them, namely Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ and Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’.  While these are great choices, in the last two years we have expanded our selections greatly, with some new choices for the garden.
If you follow us on Facebook, you know that we have been busy growing Lavandula angustifolia ‘Maillette’, an English variety that is considered the queen of lavenders for distillation.  This year, we harvested in mid June, distilling over a gallon of lavender essential oil – quite an increase from our first distillation 2 years ago when we distilled a mere 9 ounces of lavender oil!   The distillation process also results in a high quality lavender hydrosol, which can be used as a facial spray, and is well known for its regenerative effects on damaged and fragile skin.  It is a pretty lavender, although it doesn’t show off like some of the other lavenders in the field, but if you are growing a lavender for medicinal or cosmetic use, it is definitely the best choice, with the cleanest, truest scent of lavender.
Lavenders of another color are always fun to grow, and make for a fun and fragrant edition to the garden.  Lavandula angustifolia ‘Miss Katherine’ is probably the darkest pink lavender available, with  true clear pink flowers and heavy English lavender fragrance.  Growing to 2 feet, it has an upright, attractive habit and long flower stems.  Another unusual  lavender we are growing for the first year is Lavandula stoechas f. leucantha ‘Snowman’ – a long name for a very short and compact growing Spanish lavender.   Spanish lavenders – these are the lavenders whose flowers have the ‘bunny ears’, often get overlooked by many because they are not used for fresh cut or dried arrangements, and aren’t used in cooking or medicine making.  They are terrific plants for early bloom however, and are often blooming in the garden in mid March.  The honey bees love them, so if you are attracting bees into the garden you will want to include them for early spring flowers, when the bees don’t have many choices!  ‘Snowman’ is terrific because it is very tidy, growing just 1-2 feet, and the flowers and upper bracts are pure white!  It will also rebloom if pruned lightly, so it is lovely in mixed containers, or as a short hedge.
Three other Spanish lavenders we have added to our collection in the last year are L. stoechas ‘Helmsdale’ , ‘Blueberry Ruffles’ and ‘Silver Anouk’.  Helmsdale is actually an older selection, widely grown in Britain and New Zealand, where it was selected.  It is compact, growing to 2 feet, with thick dense foliage, burgundy purple flower heads (the ‘bunny ears’) and blue violet florets (the lower fat portion of the flower).  This one is very striking in bloom, and has a very long bloom season – beginning in March through June, and then again in mid fall if it is lightly pruned.  It attracts butterflies, and has high impact color.  Blueberry Ruffles is a patented selection from Australia, grown for improved tolerance to high humidity, longer bloom time, compact growth habit, and an interesting wavy edge to the flower bracts.  The flowers are a light airy blue, and will rebloom if sheared back.  Silver Anouk is a selection of Spanish lavender that is strikingly silvery white.  It is so silvery white that in a full moon garden it would glow!  Set off against that silver foliage are the rich purple flowers, with deep purple flower bracts on top.  This is a short squat selection, growing to 16 inches.  Place this in a mixed container, where it is stunning even when it is not in bloom.
Different species of lavenders often hybridize, and new selections are always being found.  One of the more drought tolerant selections is Lavandula ‘Ana Luisa’, a lovely hybrid of Lavandula angustifolia and the little used Lavandula lanata, commonly called wooly lavender.  The plant grows to 3 ft by 3 ft, with silvery foliage and big silver gray flower heads with deep violet blooms.  The flower heads are so fuzzy, you could pet them!   This is a plant that is perfect for the driest spots in your garden.
English lavenders continue to be our most sought after, and although ‘Hidcote Blue’ and ‘Munstead’ have long been our favorite to recommend to customers with our new introductions I feel like we have some great options.  L. angustifolia ‘Betty’s Blue’ is a stunning 2 ft bush, with vibrant purple blooms that are very upright on a greener foliaged plant.  The fragrance is intense and the flowers are very uniform and dense, making this variety a favorite for lovely dried bouquets.  L. angustifolia ‘Elizabeth’ grows to about 30  inches, with very long large fragrant spikes of dark purple flowers above gray foliage.  This is a selection from  Jersey Lavender in Great Britain.  This is one of the longest stemmed selections of English lavender, very elegant as a bouquet.   For years we have been scratching our heads over a long stemmed English lavender, since ‘Hidcote Blue’ and ‘Munstead’ are both very short stemmed, and we think ‘Elizabeth’ is a winner.
Another lovely and delicate looking variety is L. angustifolia ‘Peter Pan’, which is similar to ‘Hidcote Blue’ in flower color, with a slightly longer flowering stem, and a potential bloom period of almost all summer if it is sheared back lightly after each bloom.  It grows to 18 inches tall and is reported to be extremely cold hardy, so this might be the one to try in higher elevation Sierra foothills.  Lavandula angustifolia ‘Lavenite Petite’ grows to 14 inches, and is very upright with sturdy flowering stems.  The flowers can take several forms – our selection is thick and long, with very luxurious deep purple flowers that are very upright.   This variety would show up well if you want to use it in floral arrangements.
The primary requirements for lavender are simple. All lavenders prefer full sun of at least 6 hrs/day. Even in the hottest summer areas, lavenders are sun lovers. A soil pH of 6.4-7.6 is needed, with a slightly alkaline soil (7.1) being preferable. The addition of lime to an acidic soil may be necessary, Good drainage is essential for healthy plants. If your soil is high in clay, work compost into the top 8-10 inches of the planting area, or plant in raised beds or on mounds (this is what we have done at the nursery). Allow for good air circulation by planting plants 1 1/2 to 3 ft apart, depending on the species. Finally, pruning after the bloom period, regardless of variety, and shearing lightly in late winter (late Feb) will stimulate new growth, keep plants tidy looking, and promote greater flower production.
Most lavenders are hardy down to USDA Zone 5 (-10 degrees). Exceptions to this are L. pinnata, L. canariensis, L. dentata and L stoechas. With a little selection, it is possible to find a combination of lavenders which will bloom almost every day of the year. For example, L heterophylla blooms in April-December, L. stoechas blooms in March, and L dentata blooms during the winter. By choosing microclimates, such as planting near a wall or the warmest side of your house (near your fireplace for example) L. heterophylla and L. 'Goodwin Creek Gray' will often bloom into January.
Lavender needs little fertilizer, particularly if planted in the ground. At the nursery we use an organic fertilizer, such as 7-1-7 or 6-3-4 when we first plant, and a spraying of sea kelp and fish emulsion after we have harvested the flowers, and if possible another side dressing of organic fertilizer at the end of winter. A good compost spread around the plants (leaving about 3-6 inches bare around the stem to prevent fungal problems) is often all that is necessary for fertilizing. In pots, lavenders will need more constant fertilizing, once per month to maintain healthy plants.
Lavender needs only a fraction of the water required by lawns and other water thirsty perennials. In general, in our climate an established lavender plant will require between ¾ and 1 ½  gallons of water per week although often plants are weaned off much more water, being watered perhaps only once per month. It is best to provide plants with deep, infrequent watering to produce deep roots and minimize problems with root rot. If parts of plants suddenly turn yellow or brown and die, root rot is usually the culprit.
To maintain a healthy, long lived plant, follow a careful pruning regime.  Pruning should begin early in the life of the plant, English lavender and lavandins should be pruned at least once a year, after bloom.  Prune back at least one third of the green material.  Those varieties that bloom in the fall also need to be pruned a second time after the fall bloom as well.  Some species such as Spanish lavender or French lavender can be pruned back even more, 50 per cent or more.  With proper pruning, the lifespan of lavender can be 10 years or more, although in production fields flowers are usually replanted every 8 years.
All of the chefs and lavender growers will give you a different answer to the question of which lavender is best for cooking.  So, here is my answer!  For sweet foods such as ice cream, cookies, teas, bar drinks and jelly, use the flowers from Lavandula angustifolia.  Any of the varieties will work, although with lavender jelly I would use the deep purple varieties.  We found from experimentation that they produce a pretty pink jelly naturally.  When we used Lavandula ‘Provence’ for jelly, it produced a gray colored jelly – not very yummy looking!  If you are cooking savory foods such as meats, egg dishes and soups, or using an Herbs d’ Provence blend, then the lavandins such as Lavandula ‘Grosso’ or ‘Provence’ will be good choices.
If you are interested in trying our Lavandula angustifolia ‘Maillette’ essential oil or hydrosol, you can find them in our gift shop.  Both products will be available online for sale at our website September 1st!  And to learn more about lavender, be sure to sign up for our full day workshop ‘A Day of Lavender’ on September 7th.