How To Successfully Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

(Updated February 2019) 

One of the perks of being a master gardener is all the great lectures you get to attend. Today’s talk following the board meeting was no exception. It happened to coincide with the very moment I was asking myself “What’s going on with my lavender?” Here was professional grower Sophia Watkins, ready to answer all my questions.

A FAMILY-RUN LAVENDER FARM CALLED SOLEADO

Watkins runs a family-owned, sustainable lavender farm located at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. It is the largest lavender farm in the state. She grew up on the 286-acre farm, 26 acres of which are now dedicated solely to the cultivation of lavender.

Soleado Lavender Farm

The family prides itself on its long history of organic farming, a practice Watkins’ father adopted back in the 1960s. At that time, the farm grew a mix of soybeans and grains. For a child, it was a great way to grow up. So when Watkins and her fiancé took over the farm, they knew they wanted to continue that tradition.

“Our goal was about preservation even more than about gardening,” she said. “We wanted to protect these special parts of Maryland and keep them alive for not only our own child but for everybody else’s children as well.”

Why choose lavender? The couple was looking to grow a sustainable perennial that deer wouldn’t eat as well as one from which they could make products for sale. They decided on lavender not only for its drought-tolerance, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. Later, they added bees for pollination. And today, the farm boasts nine hives with over 40,000 bees in each, all producing lavender honey.

In a nod to Watkins’ fiancé’s Latin American roots, they named their farm Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘baking in the sun.’ As it so happens, in their first year of operation, Watkins says they found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. As a result, Soleado took on a new shade of meaning.

TIPS FOR HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY PROPAGATE LAVENDER

At Soleado, all of the lavender is grown from cuttings, a practice most nurseries have moved to given the lower germination rate of seeds. Watkins harvests soft and hardwood cuttings from established plants that average around 5 inches, then strips off the leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Not surprisingly, her top choice for an organic one is honey.

Honey bee

In order to provide maximum space for the roots to extend, Watkins plants her seedlings in a ‘bulky’ growing medium that she mixes herself from Leafgro and perlite. Then she plants the cuttings in 2” plastic pots.

Once potted, the cuttings spend up to 8 weeks in partial shade or in the greenhouse (under shade cloths) until substantial roots begin to develop. Afterward, they’re transplanted to the field. Watkins noted that if the seedlings are planted outside first, the process usually goes faster.

THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER

According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years for a good-sized plant to develop. After that, it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can live a good deal longer, with 10 to 20 years not being unheard of. Indeed, some historical properties have plants that are as much as 80 years old.

Lavender border along stone steps

A great combo, hydrangea and lavender

Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. Therefore, no variety can tolerate shade and still produce flowers. Once the flowers are harvested, Watkins sprays the plants’ roots with fish emulsion for fertilizer. “We need to fortify them after they’ve put all that energy into blooming, “ she said.

CUT, CUT AND THEN CUT AGAIN

There is so much conflicting information about when and how to cut back lavender. Watkins freely admits that her method might not suit everyone. But at the farm, 2 to 4 times a year is the rule. Soleado sheers their lavender like sheep, cutting back all new growth each time the plants flower. The pruning begins almost as soon as the seedlings are transplanted.

Growing cutting back lavender

Cutting back encourages new growth

Most of us are familiar with lavender’s tendency to open up in the middle. Cutting back helps to encourage new, dense growth while mitigating this problem. Not only does it improve the overall looks of the plant, but it also enables it to survive the winter. Additionally, it sends more energy into developing strong roots, which according to Watkins, results in a thicker, healthier plant.

At Soleado, they never prune anything thicker than a pencil. They avoid old wood. Watkins does NOT recommend cutting back old woody stems. If you absolutely must, she said to trim them back just to where the first bunch of leaves start on the bush.

They stop all cutting by the end of October.

AVOID SHREDDED MULCH

Along with lots of sun, lavender prefers to stay dry. Ironically, once of the main threats to its survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Often harboring mold spores, this kind of material can spell death for lavender.

“What seems to really kill them is the mold spores that come in on shredded mulch,” said Watkins. “Given the amount of humidity we have (in Maryland), it’s really important to stick with a dry medium.”

If you’re using shredded mulch in the rest of your garden, Watkins advises keeping it at least 1 – 2 feet away from your lavender. At Soleado, they use crushed bluestone for mulch that they harvest from their driveway. Other great options include white gravel and seashells, both of which have the added benefit of reflecting light back onto the plant.

White gravel mulch is great for lavender

White gravel mulch

WINTERING TIPS

Many of us have lost lavender plants over the winter. However, Watkins said, “Getting your plants through the winter does not have to do with size or age, even little seedlings can make it through the winter. A temperature of anything above 0 degrees Fahrenheit is OK.”

Frozen lavender flowers

Frozen lavender

So what can we do to prepare for the colder months? The most important thing, according to Watkins, is to keep plants trimmed and thick. The thickness (or thatchiness) is what keeps the snow and ice out of the plants. (Although snow doesn’t seem to be as bad for lavender as ice.)

In short, it’s a matter of creating a plants that have a good smooth cut on them so they become their own insulation.

NO SIGNIFICANT PESTS OR DISEASES

Not only are its water needs low, but lavender also is resistant to most pests and diseases. Watkins says occasionally she’ll observe spittlebugs on her plants, but that’s about all. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores (mentioned above.) The best thing you can do for mold is to practice prevention.

Another great plus to growing lavender is that deer hate it, although Watkins observed that “Sometimes they’ll pull the seedlings out of the ground, ‘Just because.”’

Deer won't eat lavender

Soleado Farms grows a mix of English, French and Spanish varieties of lavender. They’re always experimenting with new strains and have found that within each variety each year there are clear standouts. These days, Watkins is loving the “rabbit ear petals” on the flower tops of Spanish lavender.

Spanish lavender flowers

Spanish lavender

To learn more about Soleado, tours of the farm and their lavender-based products, click here for the official website.

 

How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

It’s that time of year again when we all head out to buy annuals for our containers. And the flowers always start out looking gorgeous. But, in no time the blooms fade and the stems turn long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find this is one of the most frequent questions I am asked: How do I keep my potted plants in shape all summer? Continue reading

What To Do If Your Spring Bulbs Come Up Too Early

(Last week it was 70 degrees, now it’s 20)

Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start popping up mid-winter. As weather becomes more unpredictable, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants have seen it all before. And they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.

To understand why spring bulbs can survive a little premature growth, it helps to take a quick peek underground.

THE UNDERGROUND WORLD OF BULBS

Botanically speaking, a bulb is a short stem surrounded by fleshy leaves that store food during dormancy. As soon as you plant it in the fall, a spring bulb starts growing.

A bulb has five major parts:  a basal stem (plate), fleshy scales, protective tunic, flowering shoot and lateral buds. The action begins in the basal stem.

During the winter months, roots slowly emerge from this basal plate to penetrate the soil. 

Photo credit/University of Illinois Extension

As they grow, the roots absorb water and other nutrients. They store these in the fleshy scales. In some flower species like alliums, a thin papery covering called the tunic protects the scales from damage or drying out.

Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out

In addition to providing food storage, the scales also protect the flowering shoot. This vital part of the bulb contains all of the future leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the shoot slowly grows upwards within the bulb until it eventually develops into a stem.

Depending on the species, a bulb is pre-programmed to emerge at a set time in the spring. Its leaves are first to break through the soil. Approximately one month later, the flowering shoot becomes visible.

At this stage in the process, the key thing to remember is this: leaf development occurs independently of flower development.

The leaves might jump the gun, but the flowering shoot needs an extended period of time (between 5 and 7 weeks) before it will begin sending its stem up towards the surface. Before that happens, the bulb has most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.

STRATEGIES FOR PROTECTING EARLY GROWTH

If you see foliage poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause the leaves to yellow and die back, but the bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once temperatures warm up again.

There are a few strategies, however, that you can implement now to slow things down while adding an extra layer of protection to the flowering shoot.

1. COVER YOUR PLANT

Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will provide insulation against frigid temperatures and drying winter winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.

Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.

2. WATER DURING DRY SPELLS

If there’s been a dry period for a long period of time, a little extra water during the day helps bulbs grow. However, make sure your soil has good drainage. They may rot if they receive too much water.

3.  IF FLOWERS START TO APPEAR

If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually won’t affect flowering in the coming months.

4. PLANT BULBS LATE IN THE FALL

The later in the fall you plant, the longer the bulb will take to sprout come spring. Wait until the temperature is cold enough (40°F or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs. This will ensure they are fully dormant. Here in Maryland, I plant my many different daffodil varieties as late as mid December.

Finally, make sure to plant your bulbs at three times their height in depth with the base down and the bud up. Planting bulbs too shallow can lead to premature growth.

For a list of ten popular spring bulbs and when and how to plant them, click here.

Happy planting!

 

Planting the Seeds For A Happy New Year

‘Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.’ – Alfred Austin

My first adventure with gardening of sorts involved a decrepit white begonia in a cast iron pot belonging to my mother. Frail and anemic and sporting only one bloom, it languished, (but never died!) in its water logged container. I decided to give it a haircut to see what would happen.

I was very young and my first trim was severe. My mom and I waited anxiously for the plant to recover. But over time it did, and as I began experimenting more and more with the forlorn little specimen, I eventually discovered that by careful pruning I could coax the plant into acquiring a more uniform shape.

I also found that by playing with the plant’s watering schedule, the begonia gradually lost its yellow-green color and developed deep green healthy stems. Finally one day, I was rewarded with a few tentative white blooms.

Gardening has taught me a lot over the years. I’ve learned to anticipate the needs of my plants and to sense when they’re thirsty or feeling poorly. I don’t love weeding, but I know that it is an essential chore to help my plants thrive. I’ve become sensitive to the slightest shift in the sound of the wind rustling through leaves, the particular calls of my neighborhood birds and the stillness that envelops the garden with the approach of a storm.

These things and more, await even the most amateur of gardeners (and we are all gardeners.)

So as a new year begins, I ’d like to share a few things I’ve learned from a life taking care of plants in the garden. These are not resolutions so much as ways of looking at things. (You don’t need to be a gardener to ‘get’ them.) Here goes:

No matter how long the winter, spring always arrives.

Following the particularly rocky year we’ve all experienced in America and abroad, this comes as a reminder that things never stay the same and that life can spring forth from even the darkest of times.

Perennials may look like they’ve died, but they’re only resting beneath the surface.

And not only are they resting, they are gathering strength for the coming spring.

A little TLC can make almost anything look good.

This goes beyond a good haircut. All living things respond well to a little personal attention. And practicing tender love and care benefits the giver, too.

It’s important to periodically clear the weeds.

When weeds become invasive they can have a devastating effect on life’s quality. Taking the time to remove them benefits everyone.

Nursing a sick plant back to health produces a really good feeling.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of bringing a sick plant back to health and being rewarded with new foliage and blooms.

Life springs eternal

Ok, so maybe this sounds a little corny, but all gardeners know that new life is always waiting just below the surface. May 2017 be the year that we all strive to tend our own gardens by pulling the weeds, extending a hand to those who need it and appreciating those cycles of life that are so essential to our well being. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.

Jardin Botanico in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires’ lovely Jardín Botánico

 

How To Protect Your Evergreens From Winter Damage

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You could say that evergreens are the stars of cold weather, instantly infusing drab winter landscapes with color and texture. When well sited, watered and fed, most can stand up to the harshest of conditions. Still, some evergreens are less equipped than others to battle icy winds and harsh winter sun. These are the plants that can benefit from a little extra TLC to prepare them for colder temperatures. Continue reading

The ‘Roomba’ of Gardening: Tertill Is A Robot That Weeds

Franklin Robotics ‘Tertill’ promises to weed your garden for you

Last year was a particularly big one for weeds, with many of us struggling in vain to control them in our gardens. But thankfully, just in time for next summer, there’s an invention that just might alleviate this tiresome chore. It’s called Tertill and it proposes to do the weeding for you. Continue reading

Boxwood Care: How To Identify And Treat 4 Common Pests and Diseases

Boxwood balls in the landscape

Deep green spheres of English box

Boxwood has been a garden staple for centuries, instantly infusing a landscape with structure and elegance. Its dense, evergreen foliage can be sheared into almost any shape imaginable. For those of us on the East Coast, the fact that deer won’t eat it only adds to its appeal. There’s just one problem: it’s plagued by a bunch of pests and diseases. Continue reading

Why You May Be Watering Your Houseplants All Wrong

We all know that indoor plants need water to survive, but do we really know how much or how little? It’s not easy to keep container plants looking their best, even with regular watering schedules. You can change all that, though, by changing how you water. These simple techniques will restore your houseplants to their former greenhouse glory while ensuring they not only survive, but also thrive well into the future. Continue reading

6 Essential Pruners Every Home Gardener Should Own

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When it comes to gardening, good tools are essential, especially when it involves repetitive tasks like pruning. The right pruners increase productivity, decrease wear and tear on the body and produce superior results. These days there are hundreds of options available. No matter what you choose, though, make sure these six are part of your home arsenal.  Continue reading

Understanding Biopesticides And How To Use Them Safely

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Japanese beetle

The word biopesticide can provoke strong reactions these days, immediately conjuring up images of people spraying toxic chemicals that are hazardous to human health. Complicating matters is the fact that just because a pesticide says it’s organic doesn’t mean it isn’t toxic. Still, sometimes a gardener has no choice but to reach for a biopesticide or other, more conventional product, to save plants from immediate destruction. That’s why the best approach is always to understand your pesticide before you spray. Continue reading