It takes a few simple steps to grow lavender in this region, and it’s easier than you think. First, the two most reliably hardy varieties to grow in southeastern Pennsylvania and like environs are Munstead and Hidcote. Both were developed in England, which has a climate more akin to ours.
Location is important to successful lavender growing. Lavender requires well-drained soil and full sun. If you have clay soil, you need to amend it with lots of compost and some sand so that it becomes porous and drains well. If you don’t have a compost pile or bin, you can purchase composted material in bags at a local nursery. Lavender benefits from a location near a stone, brick wall or a driveway. My lavender hedge edges my driveway and separates it from my vegetable garden. It prefers an alkaline, chalky soil and benefits from mulch in the winter. The best mulch for lavender is stone, again because of the “soil” requirements. It grows wild in the south of France, and in what seems the most unlikely places — soil that is mostly stone and extremely dry.
When planting, lavender does benefit from a handful or two of good, rich compost in the hole and must be watered often in the first season as it gets established. After that, it will survive through our hot, dry summers all by itself.
Once it begins to bloom, you will notice your garden is now a-hum with bees of every type from bumbles to honey to small wild ones. If you want to harvest the blooms, do so early in the morning as bees usually don’t get to work until the sun is well up. But do leave some bloom for the bees. Once the bloom is over, it is time to shear the plant for two reasons — to protect it over the winter from damage due to ice or heavy snow and to encourage new growth for the next year. Lavender is classified as a sub-shrub so it will develop woody stems. In my experience the plants will last five to seven years before dying out and needing to be replaced.
Historically, lavender has been in use for centuries and it’s rumored that Queen Elizabeth I ordered her gardeners to have lavender available year round. She ate it, used it as a body perfume, and drank lavender tea to mitigate her migraines. Lavender scented an early form of moisturizer used here. Included at the end of the article, is a recipe from a workshop held at Grumblethorpe, the Colonial-era mansion located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
Companion planting is an idea that’s been around for a long time. We’ve all heard about marigolds and their effect on nematodes. Lavender, however, turns out to be an excellent repeller of the flea beetle. The flea beetle attacks eggplant and makes lace of the leaves, weakening the plant effectively enough that you get little if any fruit. Plant it next to lavender, and your eggplant plant will look like a photo in a gardening catalog and the cascade of fruit will only stop at frost. I discovered this inadvertently one year when I put one of the eggplants next to my lavender hedge and after years of harvesting one or two eggplants at best, had an almost unending supply from a plant that didn’t quit until a severe frost hit it. Subsequent years of planting the two together proved that it was not just a fluke and this year the lavender seems to be working its magic on a broccoli plant nearby as well.
For culinary lavender, harvest the blooms just as they reach their peak of bloom and before some of the tiny flowers show their time has past (they turn a kind of dull bluish gray from the bright lavender blue of their peak). Put the blooms on a rack above a cookie sheet in a cool, dry place. Test and when the tiny flowers are easily detached from the stem, you can flavor sugar, simple syrup, or store in an airtight jar (canning jars are perfect for this) and use in cookies, shortbreads, and scones. Since cupcakes are a current craze, you can flavor a plain white cake with lavender as well and easily add some lavender essence to the icing. Lavender oil or essence is available from gourmet food stores or online. If you don’t want to bother drying your own, culinary lavender bloom is also available online.
Lavender Hand Cream
½ ounce beeswax, melted
6 ounces olive or jojoba oil
½ drops of lavender essence (oil of lavender)
Melt the beeswax in a small, heavy saucepan. Warm the olive or jojoba oil and slowly pour it into the melted beeswax, stirring constantly. Keep stirring and add the lavender essence, pour into a sterilized 8-ounce container and cool. (In this climate, it’s best to keep this in the refrigerator.)
This is a great moisturizer for hands and feet in the dead of winter. You will need a pair of old socks to put on after application before you get into bed as it’s quite greasy until your skin has a chance to absorb it. It also does wonders for winter-dry cuticles.
For cookies flavored with culinary lavender, use any good sugar cookie recipe for the recipes and substitute lavender-flavored sugar for the regular and add lavender buds to the dough before rolling out and cutting into shapes.