Does your lavender sprawl? In photos of fields of lavender, not one plant seems to splay out from the middle, spoiling the picture with its bare centre. Most likely, that's because they were pruned at the right time and in the right way.
Pruning is one of three keys to growing lavender with success, says Suzanne Steed of the Steed and Company Lavender Farm, who has been harvesting the fragrant subshrub on her farm in Sparta, Ont., for eight years.
"In colder climates of Canada, cut back plants by about one-third in the early spring before new growth begins," says Steed. "Annual pruning will stimulate new growth from the centre of the plant, which is what keeps stems from becoming so woody they begin to flop outward from the middle." In milder parts of the country, this pruning can be done in the fall.
The second key, says Steed, is sun and lots of it: full sun, all day. The sunny south side of a house is a perfect spot.
The third is well-drained soil. "This is a drought-tolerant plant, so don't over-irrigate," she says. Rain water flows freely through the nutrient-poor sandy soil of the Steed farm on Lake Erie's north shore, which is exactly what lavender needs to thrive "You can kill them with kindness," says Steed, explaining that a little light compost applied in the fall or spring is all that's necessary. And avoid mulch, she says. Because it holds onto moisture, mulch can promote fungal diseases to which lavender is prone. "They need good air circulation, so don't crowd them with other plants – leave lots of space around them."
English lavender ( Lavandula angustifolia ), hardy to Zone 4, is the best variety to grow in our northern climate. "It's also most prized for its scent because, unlike some species, it doesn't contain camphor oil," Steed explains. "The fragrance is more floral."
Of the almost 50 different cultivars of English lavender that are available, Steed recommends 'Munstead' for especially tough situations and 'Hidcote,' which has the deepest blue flowers.
When harvesting lavender to dry, says Steed, you want the buds, not the flowers. "The scent is in the oil of the buds," she explains. Cut the spikes to the base of the stems when they're just on the verge of flowering, she says. Wrap an elastic band around the bunch and hang it upside down in a well-ventilated area for six to eight weeks.