Lavender is lavender is lavender …right? Well, did you know there are over 400 varieties of lavender to choose from? And not just choosing the right variety but finding a TRUE variety is a challenge. Large nurseries order cuttings from far off places, quality control is hard to trust, and lavender varieties have different uses. Some lavenders are good for bouquets, some are best for culinary, while still others are better for essential oils. There are some good things to research and know before starting a lavender farm or adding lavender to your cut flower business, or even planting for your personal garden.
1. Local, Local, Local. Chances are pretty good that small local specialty growers are going to have a true variety. Larger nurseries buy cuttings on a large scale usually from out of the country from different sources. The quality control of small growers are going to be better and they will be able to recognize the true varieties if anything is mislabeled. Most lavender farms propagate off their own lavender so buying from a small grower, or at a local farmer’s market, is your best choice.
And if you buy local then the plants you buy will most likely be the ones that do best in your own area.
2. Decide what you are going to use it for. Are you looking to plant some lavender in the backyard for an evening cocktail, or are you looking to add lavender to your backyard flower business? Are you starting a lavender farm and want to make essential oils? Or are you a crafter and want to make dried lavender wreaths or sachets? Or do you just want to walk up the front path and be able to smell the delightful scent of lavender as you walk in your yard?
In general, true lavender (lavender angustifolia) has a mild scent and can be used for culinary use. Many varieties in this group keep a nice true color when dried which is nice for wreaths. Hybrid lavenders like x-intermedia are larger plants with longer stems and the scent is stronger which is nice for bouquets or scenting soaps and candles. This can vary amongst the varieties in each of these groups so knowing what you are going to do with it is helpful before choosing a plant.
Personally, I like the varieties that will be used for more than one thing. Lavender angustifolia ‘Royal Velvet’ for example, make beautiful bouquets and wreaths with a rich dark color that doesn’t fade when dried, it is a smooth mild flavor in culinary dishes, the essential oil is great for anxiety and sleep, and the plant stays a nice round compact shape in the landscape. It is why it is the most popular variety amongst lavender farmers nationwide – and developed right here in Oregon too!
3. Know how much space you have. Lavender can grow from 10-inches to over 5-feet in size. The stem length can vary as well. In general, lavender angustifolia should be spaced 3 feet apart while lavender x-intermedias should be spaced 4-feet apart on center. Remember that lavender does better with adequate air flow. Also keep in mind that when the plant is blooming the stems can tangle up with the plant next to it making harvesting a challenge if planted too close together.
If you are planting for harvest is there space to walk between rows? What about carts? Are you okay with bees or do you need more room to walk? Things to consider with large scale planting. Some farms will space their rows the width of the mower so they can make just one pass between rows and a UTV can easily drive up the center without crushing long blooming stems. Do you need room for classes? Does yoga in the field sound enticing? Maybe group rows into blocks closer together with wide open spaces around them. Visit some lavender farms. See what others are doing. Before starting our farm we visited a number of farms. We took notes and pictures and did a lot of research. Lavender can live 10-20 years so it’s a good idea to have a plan.
4. Choose a Color Palette. Lavenders can come in many shades of purples, blues, whites, and pinks. There are lavender farms that create elaborate designs in their fields with the color variations. Scalloped edges in whites or violets. Alternating row of whites and blues. Or Ombré with light to dark across the field. Some have created lovely meditation gardens with a circle labyrinth to walk through. So many possibilities.
If you are looking for a nice complimentary pallet in your garden look at colors that coordinate. I love how my ‘Peter Pan’ lavender with it’s explosion of dark blue-violet flowers looks next to my bright yellow daylilies. Or try an all-white pallet with ‘Melissa’ lavender, or ‘Grosso White’ (previously ‘Alba’) such as in a moon garden.
5. Know Your Climate. All lavender has general growing conditions that make them as happy as growing in the Mediterranean where they originated: neutral pH, well-draining soil, dry summers, trimmed once or twice a year, good air circulation, and full sun. But in less than ideal conditions some lavender varieties are a little more forgiving. Some can tolerate a little more summer humidity, extreme weather like freezing temperatures, or hotter climates, or even whether they do better in a container. Here in the Pacific NW there are many microclimates. My lavender tends to bloom a week before another lavender farm just a couple miles away! So before doing any large-scale planting, try experimenting with a few varieties. Ask local growers, neighbors or friends what has done well for them.
And #6…A Bonus..
6. Be okay with BEES… You will have bees. Your fields will be alive with bees. For us it is a joy to see the sleepy bumble bees tucked in between the flowers, sound asleep on a cool morning. Or to watch the honey bees zipping from bud to bud. But many people are scared, nervous or have phobias around bees. So be prepared for bees. But also know wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets are not really interested in lavender. I never see these bees on or in my lavender. Before harvesting we give the stems a little swoosh and a gentle shake low on the stems and the bees just move on to the next plant. The bees are more interested in the flowers than in you. We harvest by hand to protect all the pollinators that our fields support as well as making sure there are flowering plants in the late Summer and Fall to support them after our lavender is harvested.
With a little planning and thought you can get the most out of your lavender for many years ahead!