(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 my questions.
A family-run lavender farm named 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. They later added bees for pollination. 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 that average around 5 inches. Once she has the cuttings, she strips off the leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Her top choice for an organic one is (not surprisingly) honey.
In order to provide maximum space for the roots to expand, Watkins plants her seedlings in a ‘bulky’ growing medium. She mixes it 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 is usually 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.
A great combo, hydrangea and lavender
Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. Consequently, 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 starts almost as soon as the seedlings are transplanted.
Cutting back encourages new growth
Of course, we all know lavender’s tendency to open up in the middle. Cutting back helps to encourage new, dense growth. This not only improves the overall looks of the plant, but also enables it to get through 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
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.”
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.”’
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.
To learn more about Soleado, tours of the farm and their lavender-based products, click here for the official website.