Lavender growing guide

lavender plant

How to grow lavender, including planting, pruning, propagation, care and variety selection

Lavender is not only a versatile plant with multiple uses in the home medicine cabinet, kitchen or bathroom—it's also a beautiful flowering perennial for the garden. Lavender adds an interesting shrubby texture to the garden all year round with its silvery green leaves, and all summer it offers a distinctive flood of flowers that make their presence known with a lovely mediterranean aroma.

Lavender is ideal for row arrangements or mixed planting in beds, in combination with other plants in the garden, but it can also easily be grown in pots. Despite its uniqueness, lavender is not difficult to grow, and with a little care, anyone can maintain it in the garden or in a pot. Here we'll discuss how and when to plant, cut, propagate and care for lavender so that it thrives in most climates.

Growing lavender

Lavender is a fairly hardy perennial, so it is not difficult to grow. The most important factors for successful lavender cultivation are a sunny location and well-drained soil. This plant is drought-resistant and doesn't need extra nutritious soil to thrive. Although lavender is native to the Mediterranean region, it can withstand cold temperatures quite well and can therefore be grown in a wide range of climates (USDA zones 5-9).  Lavender grown in a pot must be moved indoors to a bright location for the winter.   

Lavender thrives in well-drained soil, where excess water will drain away immediately, preventing root rot and water freezing at the roots in winter. A mixture of draining medium (sand, perlite, vermiculite or gravel) with potting soil in a 1:1 ratio is ideal. This mixture should be neutral to slightly alkaline, because lavender does not thrive in acidic soils. If the lavender is already well rooted, water from rainfall should be sufficient for this plant, and it requires no maintenance other than occasional pruning.

Planting lavender

growing lavender in potsFirst of all, it is important to know when to plant lavender. Spring is the optimal time to plant bare-root plants, once the soil is warming up and has sufficient moisture. Planting in autumn is also an option, particularly for larger plants that can already survive the winter. Lavender can be transplanted from a pot at any time during the growing season.

Plant lavender at fairly wide spacings (2-3 ft/0.6-1 m), as some cultivars will grow up to 3 ft (1m) tall and wide as adult plants. The soil for planting lavender does not need to be rich in nutrients, but it should always be as well-drained as possible. If you have heavy clay soil in your garden, mix it with sand, gravel or other draining material before planting. Dry, non-waterlogged areas where excess water drains well are suitable for lavender.

Dig a planting hole twice as deep and wide as the lavender's root system, place the plant in it, cover with soil, tamp down and water thoroughly. Water once a week until the plant is rooted (4 weeks). Thereafter, water from rainfall will usually be sufficient.

Pruning lavender

pruning lavenderOnce lavender plants are well-established, they no longer need much maintenance. The exception is pruning, and it's important to know how and when to prune lavender. When the thickest stems have become woody, they should be cut back by half in early spring (when they are coming to life). Cutting back the thick stems will ensure richer flowering during the summer and also prevents the stems from creeping and creating empty spaces in the center of the plant.

Additionally, cutting back the flowering or already spent green stems during the summer encourages the plant to grow more and flower again. You can cut the lavender back at harvest time and expect another wave of flowers in a few weeks. However, don't cut back lavender in autumn,  as this would stimulate the growth of new shoots, which could freeze during the winter.

Lavender propagation

lavender cuttingsThe easiest way to propagate lavender is with cuttings. Young, trailing shoots, as well as old woody stems, are suitable for propagation. The advantage of young cuttings is that they can be taken in spring without disturbing the mother plant. They root quickly, but aren't as reliable as cuttings from old wood. Older, woody cuttings are more reliable (though slower) to establish, and tend not to bend. Cuttings should be healthy, strong and without flower buds that would exhaust them unnecessarily. The length of both old and young cuttings should be 3-4 inches (7-10 cm).

The young, green cuttings can be propagated in spring, while woody cuttings can be propagated in spring and autumn. Use sharp scissors to take the cuttings and always aim for a clean cut. Remove the leaves from the lower half of young cuttings and use a knife to scrape the skin of the stem on one side at the lower end of the cutting. In the case of woody cuttings, it is beneficial if they have bumps (future leaf buds) at the bottom, which will become roots when the cuttings are planted.

To plant lavender cuttings, use a 1:1 mixture of perlite, vermiculite or sand with potting soil. Cuttings can be soaked in growth hormone before planting, but it's not necessary with lavender. Place the cutting 2 inches (5 cm) into the soil and water well.

Young shoots take two to four weeks to root (woody cuttings take longer). Once rooted, the cuttings can be transplanted to their permanent home in the garden or in a pot.

Lavender care

As mentioned above, lavender doesn't require much maintenance, but it will thrive better with a little help, especially with overwintering.

overwintering lavenderBefore winter arrives, spread mulch (straw, wood chips, bark etc.) around the base of the plant to protect it from hard frosts. Some parts of the plant may freeze in the winter despite the insulation, but the plant will recover after spring pruning.

Coarser gravel, geotextile sheets or a combination of the two are preferable as a year-round mulch to prevent weeds, as they do not hold moisture, which could cause the most common disease of lavender, root rot. In any case, keep the mulch away from the direct contact with the base of the plant.

Lavender species and varieties

The lavender genus includes almost 50 species of perennials, most of which are native to southern Europe. The best known and most commonly cultivated species of lavender is Lavandula angustifolia (known as common or english lavender) and its cultivars, but other lavender species can also be found in gardens. Among the best known cultivated species are

Common, English lavender Lavandula angustifolia

common lavenderAlso known as lavandula officinalis, it is the best known, most versatile and hardiest species of lavender. Common lavender comes in multiple varieties with different sizes and colors. This species can survive the hardest frosts and can flower up to twice a year.

Recommended varieties:

Lavandula angustifolia hidcote: compact, silverish-green leaves, deep violet flowers

Lavandula angustifolia munstead: compact, green leaves, violet-blue flowers

Lavandula angustifolia nana alba: dwarf form, green leaves, white flowers

French Lavender Lavandula dentata

lavender varietiesAlso known as French lavender, it grows up to 2 ft (60 cm) in height and has slightly toothed silver-green leaves. Its purple flowers are larger, bloom only once a year and have a strong lavender aroma. French lavender is less tolerant of hard frosts and will only survive long term without help in USDA climate zones 7-9.

Recommended varieties:

Lavandula dentata royal crown: compact, green leaves, deep purple flowers

Lavandula dentata candicans: full height, silverish-green leaves, purple flowers

Broadleaved lavender Lavandula latifolia

lavender perennialCompared to common lavender, the scent of broadleaved lavender is stronger and more penetrating (with higher camphor content). This type of lavender is often referred to as Portuguese lavender. Its characteristic feature is its spear-shaped inflorescences on long stems. It is a little hardier than French lavender, but even this species is only suitable for warmer climates (USDA 6 - 9).

Recommended varieties:

Lavandula latifolia erigens

Lavandula latifolia tomentosa

Lavandula x intermedia

types of lavender plantsThis is a hybrid between common lavender and broadleaved lavender. This type of lavender is widely grown in fields for the cosmetic and perfume industries.

Recommended varieties:

Lavandula x intermedia Grappenhall: full height, green leaves, light violet flowers

Lavandula x intermedia Phenomenal: full height, long inflorescences, good resistance to heat and high humidity

Lavandula x intermedia Provence: full height, long inflorescences, intensive aroma

Spanish lavender Lavandula stoechas

gardening lavenderLavender stoechas, also known as Spanish lavender, is characterised by its silver-green, hairy leaves and a thicker set of pinkish-purple flowers at the end of the stem, topped with a corona of long, flower petals.  Spanish lavender flowers once a year (during later summer) and is suitable for warmer climates (USDA 7-10).

Recommended varieties:

Lavandula stoechas Royal Splendour: compact, green leaves, deep pink flowers

Lavandula stoechas Ballerina: compact, green leaves, violet flowers with dominant white crown

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