The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College
I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind that advances a foot a day and needs to be dug out with a tractor. But I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views suddenly upended. It all started with some aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading →
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best ones I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to wow, and impress me it did, with its grand spaces showcasing plants from all parts of the world. Continue reading →
They look like they’ve jumped out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on long flexible stems. Alliums can be a bit startling the first time you encounter them. But there’s so much to love about these drought tolerant plants, like long bloom period and resistance to most pests and diseases. And, their whimsical appeal is a sure-fire way to liven up your garden. Continue reading →
When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. And this May, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the spectacular flowers from behind the scenes, so to speak, but also for the magnificent spring weather . Continue reading →
High on a hilltop in Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it occupies the second highest point in the county. The magnificent estate is seldom open to the public. So recently, when my garden club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go. Continue reading →
One of the many things I love about being a garden designer is getting to know my clients’ story. By this I mean what role gardens have played in their lives, what plants, structures, and ornaments evoke certain memories, and what kind of garden makes them feel relaxed and most happy. Continue reading →
‘A collection of old roses gives a great and increasing pleasure.’
There are rose gardens and then there are rose gardens. It’s not every day you come across a rose garden covering nearly 10 acres. But Buenos Aires’ El Rosedal, commonly known as the Jardin de las Rosas (Rose Garden), is just such a place. And the magnificent space is immaculately maintained and surprisingly, free to the public. Continue reading →
Who doesn’t love a great view? Unfortunately they’re not always easy to come by. That’s why, when designing a garden, I look beyond the borders of the space. And if I see something great, I borrow the view. Continue reading →
We all see color differently, but it’s rare to find someone who can’t see white. That’s because white, like sunlight, is composed of all the colors of the visible spectrum. In the garden, white plants reflect light, instantly brightening a shady spot. And an all-white garden is a symphony of light, where flowers and foliage join together in a succession of harmonious arrangements. Continue reading →