How To Successfully Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

One of the best things about 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 “Why is my lavender not thriving?”. Suddenly, here was professional grower Sophia Watkins, ready to answer all of 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 Montgomery County, 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 to the cultivation of lavender.

Soleado Lavender Farm

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

“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 and from which they could make products for sale. They hit on lavender not only for its drought tolerant qualities, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. Along the way 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 chose Soleado as the name for their farm. As it so happens, in their first year of operation, they also found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘just baking in the sun’ suddenly 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 averaging around 5 inches. Once she has the cuttings, she strips them of their leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Her top choice for an organic one is (not surprisingly) honey.

Watkins has had the most luck with her seedlings using a ‘bulky’ growing medium that provides maximum space for roots to expand. She mixes her own 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 they grow decent roots. After that, they’re transplanted to the field. Watkins noted that if the seedlings are planted outside first, the process is usually faster.

According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years for a good-sized plant to establish, after which it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can last a good deal longer, with 10 to 20 years not being unheard of. And 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. 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 for Soleado, 2 to 4 times a year is ideal. They sheer their lavender like sheep, cutting back all new growth 3 to 4 times a year until the plants flower. The cutting back starts almost as soon as the seedlings are planted.

Cutting back encourages new growth

Since lavender has a tendency to open up in the middle, cutting back helps to encourage dense growth. This improves the overall looks of the plant and helps it get through the winter. It also allows more energy to go into developing strong roots, producing a thicker, healthier plant.

At Soleado, they cut back nothing thicker than a pencil, avoiding 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 and ironically, once of its biggest threats to survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Often harboring mold spores, this kind of mulch 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 help to reflect light back onto the plant.

White gravel mulch

Wintering tips

Many of us have had the experience of losing our 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

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.)

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 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 lavender is that deer hate them, 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.

Spanish lavender

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

 

Garden Visit: The U.S. National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

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The National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

A stroll through the secluded campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland is an otherworldly experience. First, there’s the security, then there are the imposing, mainly windowless limestone buildings towering hundreds of feet in the air. I stopped by NIH late last week to visit a little known but remarkable garden. Located directly across the parking lot from the world’s largest biomedical library, it is known as the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) Herb Garden was established in 1976 as part of NIH’s Bicentennial celebration. Initially composed of low borders of boxwood, lavender and thyme, the garden has since grown to include over 100 flowering herbs. Meticulously arranged in symmetrical rows and beds, the plants bear silent testament to the healing power of nature and the integral role it has played in the development of modern medicine over time.

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View of the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

The first thing you notice upon entering the space is a large Indian totem pole located at the far end of the garden. A part of the NLM’s new Native Voices exhibit, it was carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation from western red cedar found in Washington State. The totem, which symbolizes and promotes good health and healing, is the main focal point of the garden . Its colors also have deep meaning.

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Totem pole is focal point at the NIH Herb Garden

Flanking the totem pole are two ‘story-telling’ benches, also carved from western red cedar. The bench on the right side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Bear and the Steelhead, which teaches respect for nature and the natural cycles of life.

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NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Bear and the Steelhead’

The bench on the left side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Raven and the Sun. The story tells of how at great pain, the Raven delivered the sun, moon, stars and fire to humanity and how we humans should treasure them as essential to our survival.

NLM bench 'The Raven and the Sun'

NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Raven and the Sun’

Nicholas Culpeper’s World-Famous Herbal Guide To Radiant Health (see jacket, below)

Among the nearly 20 million books, journals, manuscripts, audiovisuals, and other forms of medical information on its library shelves, the NLM considers Culpepers’s Complete Herbal  to be a primary source for information on herbs and herbal medicine. Written over 350 years ago by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54), the guide contains a wealth of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge, including a listing of herbs and their properties, many of which can be found in the garden.

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Culpeper’s master work, The Complete Herbal

Culpeper was a 17th century physician and herbalist who spent much of his life outdoors gathering and cataloguing medicinal herbs. Although he studied medicine at Cambridge, he abandoned a traditional practice in order to provide low-cost health services to the poor.  He believed that no man should have to ‘starve’ to pay a physician.

Mikania micrantha growing wild in the forest 

Culpeper saw plenty of suffering around him. So, he sourced his medicines from the surrounding countryside, which enabled him to offer the bulk of his services for free.

He wrote,

This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.”

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Considered a radical in his time, Culpeper’s  herbal medicine practice and writings on the subject proved to be a thorn in the side of his fellow physicians. Moreover, Culpeper believed that expensive fees and the use of Latin by doctors kept power and freedom from the general public.  He shocked the establishment by publishing the Complete Herbal and other works in vernacular English so that everyone could read them.

Today, it is widely believed that Culpeper’s systemization of the use of herbals was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals.

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Up close in the NIH Herb Garden with Verbena bonariensis in the background

A sample of some of Culpeper’s cures using various plants and flowers can be found on the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden website. Readers are cautioned, however, from attempting any of the remedies at home since they have not been officially proven to work. Following are just a few plants whose curative properties caught my eye in the garden.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)  USES:  Diaphoretic, immunostimulant and tonic.

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Boneset

Cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans)   USES: To reduce inflammation and treat sore mouths and ulcers. It also can be applied to painful joints.

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Cinquefoil

Goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis)   USES: Mild diuretic and treatment for urinary tract inflammation and kidney stones.

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Goldenrod

African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)  USES: Reduces fever and treats skin infections.

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African Blue Basil

Comfrey, Knitbone (Symphytum Officionale)  USES:  A healing plant for broken bones, wounds and ulcers.

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Comfrey, also known as Knitbone

Here was a surprise. Although I am aware that Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis, can be somewhat toxic, I didn’t know it can also kill rats.

Lenten Rose

Finally, I certainly didn’t know that Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be used topically for wounds, cuts and abrasions and is also good for allergic mucus problems including hay fever. I may try it out!

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Yarrow

These are just a very few of the many interesting and beautiful flowering herbs to be found at the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden. The garden is maintained by the Montgomery County Master Gardeners and the Potomac Chapter of the Herb Society of America. For more information on the garden and how to get there, click here for the website.

 

Coastal Gardening: 12 Top Plants That Work

coastal home

Gardening at the shore can present its own set of challenges. Plants that behave one way in town can take on an entirely new aspect by the sea. Still, there are many good options to choose from that can weather a good, stiff breeze and a little salt in their soil. It just takes a little know-how and some tough maritime plants, and you can create a coastal garden that will provide non-stop blooms from now until fall. Continue reading