When most people think of lavender they think of hot summer days, that heady distinctive scent and the gentle buzzing of bees; an image that has made it one of the most popular garden plants. Originally from the Mediterranean region and India, the lavender species is now cultivated all over Europe. Its uses are documented as far back as Roman times when it was used to scent their bath water. Indeed it was the Romans who first introduced the plant to Britain.
Lavender is a large family of plants, some annual, others perennial, some hardy and others tender. It is a plant well worth collecting and if you have some space in your garden, why not create a small garden devoted to the species. Here is a short guide to creating a small lavender garden which measures 15 feet square, including preparation, types of lavender you might like to grow and some companion plants.
Preparing the ground
Lavender prefers well-draining soil and a warm sunny aspect. However, it will grow in semi-shade as long as the soil conditions are right. Most lavenders are quite hardy and should survive winter temperatures, but if you live in an area with very cold winter temperatures it might be worth considering growing the plants in containers so that you can more easily protect them in severe weather.
If your soil is clay you will need to dig in plenty of organic matter followed by sharp sand in order to improve the drainage. Mark out the area you want to plant. In a square area it is a good idea to divide it up into four smaller squares with narrow paths running through so that you can easily access the plants.
When deciding which species to include in your garden, there are a few things you will need to consider. How large will a particular species grow? Is it hardy? It is a good idea to grow a range of varieties in groups to achieve an overall effect of shape, size and colour. Plant in groupings of 3-5 plants for maximum impact. For larger varieties choose augustifolia or English Lavender, which is a hardy evergreen perennial. It grows to a height of 32ins with a spread of 3ft and has mauve/purple flowers on long spikes in summer. If you are keen to try and distil your own lavender oil, then choose Lavender Grosso which is a cross between augustifolia and latifolia and the choice of most commercial growers. The species is very tall growing and is good for making lavender wands and the flowers are good for making sachets. Lavender Hidcote is another good variety. This hardy evergreen perennial grows to a height of around 18in and has dark blue flowers on medium spikes in summer. Lavender Rosea has pink flowers in summer and very aromatic leaves.
Lavenders known as French Lavenders are only half hardy but are well worth growing for their attractive coloured bracts in summer. Lavender Pedunculata grows up to 24ins and has attractive purple bracts with an extra mauve centre tuft.
If you want some smaller growing varieties for the front of borders or to infill, then choose Lavender Folgate, Lavender Lodden pink or blue, and Lavender Munstead. Medium varieties include Lavender Bowles and Lavender Old English.
The best way to maintain a healthy lavender bush is to trim it to shape every year in spring, taking care not to cut into the old wood which will not sprout again. Once the flowers have gone over, trim back to the leaves. You can also trim the plant again in early autumn. Regular trimming in this way will keep a neat shape and encourage new growth.
If you want to gather lavender flowers for sachets or to dry as bunches, it is best to cut them just as they open. Dry the flowers by hanging them in small bunches. The leaves can be picked at any time to use fresh.
If you choose to grow your lavender in containers make sure you choose garden planters that show the lavender off well. All lavenders look good in terracotta. Choose a well-drained compost and grit mix. Position your container in a sunny position. Although lavender will grow in partial shade, it can affect the scent of the plant. Water well and feed during the summer months. In winter allow the plant to dry out completely and then re-introduce water slowly in the spring.
You may wish to grow other plants alongside your lavender. If you have used a square design you could edge each square in low box hedging which will enclose the lavender plants in a straight edge of dark evergreen foliage. Other plants that grow and look well with lavender include other heat tolerant plants such as Santolina or cotton lavender, Rosemary and Oregano. Echinacea and Scabiosa are other good choices. Coleus adds a good colour contrast to the silvery grey of lavender leaves.