Lavender: A Surprisingly Utilitarian Herb in Carolina Gardens

lavender-handOne of the best-kept secrets about lavender is that it is surprisingly utilitarian. It repels mosquitoes, attracts pollinators and adds a nice fragrance in your garden. Like most strongly scented plants, it’s also deer resistant. In the home, lavender buds have a strong scent and are easily incorporated into floral arrangements or dried potpourri. It also could be used for culinary purposes if you’re an adventurous chef. For all of these reasons and more, it is one of my favorite herbaceous perennials.

Lavender can be tricky to get started in Carolina gardens, but your patience will be well-rewarded. Once established, lavender requires virtually no maintenance.

Here are some tips for success:

1. Location, location, location. Lavender is particular about location. Full, direct sun is mandatory. Select a spot with southern exposure where your lavender plants will get the most sunshine. Because lavender is a natural mosquito repellent, I like to place it near porches and patios. It’s also wonderful along walkways and sidewalks where passerby can enjoy the fragrance. I have mine next to my mailbox as well.

2. Prepare your soil. Lavender needs a loamy soil that is aerated, well-drained and slightly alkaline. If you have Piedmont clay (the bane of many a gardener’s existence here in the Triangle), then you will need to amend your soil. For best results, I recommend planting lavender in a raised bed with a 50/50 mix of compost and natural soil with some pea gravel mixed in for good measure. Additionally, you may need to add a bit of lime to increase your soil pH. Aim for a pH of 7.0 or 7.5.

3. Avoid over-watering. Lavender prefers it hot and dry. It is native to the Mediterranean where rainfall is infrequent in the summer months— but keep in mind, when it does rain there, it pours! For this reason, the worst thing you can do is water too frequently, especially if you have a clay soil. That will cause root rot. Water lavender once a week if it hasn’t rained, and give it a good, thorough soak when you do.

4. Give it a winter haircut. Lavender branches get long and leggy and then go dormant for the winter, so you will need to give it a good trim. I cut mine back to about half its summer size. Pruning will keep the dormant branches from splitting, which harms the plant.

5. Be patient. Lavender will take about two or three years to reach peak bloom and fragrance. Give it some time. After it gets established, lavender needs almost zero maintenance besides the annual pruning.

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I typically recommend lavender to experienced gardeners and ambitious beginners. I’ve had the most success with the Hicodote variety of English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). This is what I have in my own yard.

Do you want lavender, but are nervous about soil amendment? Try growing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) first, and if you are successful you can advance to the more finicky lavender. All of the tips I’ve recommended for lavender apply to rosemary as well.

Rosemary is another fragrant, evergreen herb that originated in the Mediterranean. With its pale blue flowers, it has a similar design impact in the landscape. It is somewhat effective as a mosquito deterrent. Like lavender, rosemary prefers hot and dry conditions and well-drained soil, but it is more tolerant of variable conditions. Rosemary is also a wonderful culinary herb. Throw it on the grill with your steak, or sprinkle it on potatoes or any root vegetable.

Do you have questions or tips on growing lavender, rosemary or other herbaceous perennials? Please leave a comment! Or shoot me a message: bryson@gardenninjas.net.

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