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My love for lavender stems back to a trip to Provence before my last year of university. I have a postcard of the lavender fields we passed while in transit—and have been dreaming about them ever since. I was delighted when my first garden had an established lavender plant in the front garden. And in my current home, I have a few. I love to pick small bouquets and add sprigs to bigger arrangements with other cut flowers. However, if you’re going to gather it to use in sachets and cooking, it’s important to know how to harvest lavender—and when.
Where to grow lavender
I grow lavender as a border plant against taller perennials, like coreopsis (though some plants can reach three feet or more), in one area of my garden. And I have some along the curb where my garden meets the street. The soil isn’t the greatest, but my plant thrives, even during the hot, dry days of summer. And when I harvest, I’m selective, so there are still blooms to enjoy aesthetically in the garden—and for the pollinators. The flowers are full of nectar, so my plants are often covered in bees!
In my book, Gardening Your Front Yard: Projects and Ideas for Big & Small Spaces, one of the yards we photographed was planted almost entirely with lavender. With its nice mounding habit (as plant breeders like to call it), lavender is a great ornamental choice in lieu of a front lawn.
Plant lavender in full sun in your garden or along a garden pathway, so you can enjoy the fragrance as you brush past. Be sure to read the plant tag carefully to make sure you leave enough space for it to spread. Less-hardy varieties can be planted in containers.
Choosing the right lavender for culinary use and projects
There are a few types of lavender, the most common being: English lavender (L. angustifolia), Spanish lavender (L. stoechas), and French lavender (L. dentata).
Often plant tags at the garden centre simply say “Lavender,” so you don’t always know which type or variety you’re bringing home. It’s important to note that in our northern climate, not all lavender will survive the winter (like the example below).
English lavender is pretty easy to grow and overwinters well, down to about USDA zone 4 (zone 5 in Canada). It requires some maintenance to keep it looking healthy and full, but in general, plants can live in poor soil, are drought tolerant and hardy, and the deer don’t seem to like it. Of course amending your soil and fertilizing your plants will always go a long way towards growing more blooms. (A slow-release, organic fertilizer is best).
At Terre Bleu Lavender Farm, which is local-ish to where I live, they grow seven varieties of lavender that were chosen based on their hardiness in Ontario (Milton is about 5b on Canada’s zone map—or 4b according to USDA zones): ‘Betty’s Blue’, ‘Imperial Gem’, ‘Purple Bouquet’, ‘Melissa’, ‘Grosso’, ‘Folgate’, and ‘Phenomenal’.
Spanish and French lavender is native to the Mediterranean region. While English lavender grows little flowers all around the top of the stem, Spanish and French lavenders have an added flourish of blooms that sprout from the top, like feathers in a cap.
When to harvest lavender
Knowing when to harvest lavender is important. If you look closely at the lavender found in culinary uses or in wellness products, you’ll notice that the buds are closed (you’re not looking at dried flowers). The best time to harvest lavender is when those first buds just begin to bloom.
Those who use it for lavender essential oil can harvest lavender flowers and buds. This is often what lavender farms do because their business is multi-tiered. They want to attract visitors to see the lavender fields in bloom, but then they also want to make use of those blooms to make a whole host of lavender products they can sell.
How to harvest lavender
Using a sharp pair of hand pruners or snips, hold the stem, and follow it down to the base, cutting below one set of leaves (these can be removed later). Apparently harvesting in the morning is best. To dry, tie your sprigs of lavender in a small bundle (I’ve read about an inch in diameter is best to promote drying). Use twine to tie your bundle and hang upside-down in a dry, well-ventilated area. Out of direct light is best, but I hang mine using garden twine from a curtain rod in my dining room. On my province’s agriculture site, it recommends not hanging anywhere that may compromise your harvest as being food safe, like a garage or barn where there may be rodent droppings or insects.
Using your lavender harvest
Besides fresh bouquets in summer and dried bouquets as an everlasting for the winter months, my main use for dried lavender is in herbal tea. My favourite herbal tea blend includes lavender, lemon balm and chamomile. I enjoy drinking it in the evening because it’s caffeine-free, but it also helps to calm an upset tummy. I’ve also munched on dark chocolate covered in lavender buds and enjoyed it infused in honey. There are a lot of culinary uses for lavender. There are some great ideas in The Lavender Lover’s Handbook.
For Christmas presents a couple of years ago, I added dried lavender and added the buds, along with essential oil, to bath salts. I got the recipe from my friend Stephanie Rose at Garden Therapy and included it in this article about drying herbs and flowers for gifts.
When the lavender is completely dry, remove it from where it’s hanging and carefully pull the buds off the stem. Store the buds in an airtight jar in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to use it.
Caring for lavender plants
Be careful when mulching around the base of your lavender plants, especially if you live in a more humid climate. Trapping moisture can lead to root rot.
Prune about a third of the plant back in the fall or spring (but only after you see new growth in spring). Remove any dead stems.
What do you use your dried lavender for?