Lavender Thrives in the Pacific Northwest

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Mary Gutierrez

Lavender is one of my favorite plants. It is attractive, fragrant, has a long blooming season and is evergreen. It looks at home in a parking strip or alongside roses in an English-style cottage garden. Plus, you can dry the flowers for bouquets or sachets to enjoy throughout the year. I can't think of many plants that have so much to offer.

The most widely known type is English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). The varieties 'Hidcote' and 'Munstead' are English garden classics. Both form tight mounds of gray-green foliage topped with purple flowers in early summer. 'Jean Davis' has pale pink flowers. Most English lavender varieties stay relatively compact at 18 to 24 inches tall and as wide, with flower stems a foot taller.

French lavender (Lavandula x intermedia) has long been used in the soap and perfume industries-it is the most fragrant and has the largest flowers. 'Grosso' is a commercial variety that some regard as the most fragrant of all. It can reach three feet high and as wide, with violet-blue flowers atop silver leaves. 'Provence' is also a choice commercial variety with fragrant light violet flowers. 'Fred Boutin' is a big boy-give this plant four feet in all directions. I grow 'Grappenhall', another large variety that I keep sheared to about 30 inches. The dark violet flower stalks extend two feet above the foliage, giving 'Grappenhall' a striking presence at the rear of a border or as a low hedge.

Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) differs from the English and French in that it has a medicinal, camphorous aroma. It is an attractive plant but is not desirable for making sachets or potpourri. Spanish lavender is extremely drought tolerant and is perfect for a parking strip. Sturdy plants 18 to 30 inches tall are covered with dark purple or magenta flower spikes topped by bracts that look like rabbit ears. 'Otto Quast' (also called 'Quasti') is a select variety with magenta flowers above green foliage.

Lavender is often associated with English gardens but it is native to the Mediterranean. It is believed that the Romans introduced it to European gardens. If you picture a Mediterranean scene in your mind's eye, you might see bright sun, intense blue sky and rather dry, baked soil. To successfully cultivate lavender, try to emulate those conditions in your garden. (Ok, the blue sky might be tricky!) Find the sunniest, driest spot in your garden and you've got a home for lavender.

The greatest threat to lavender in Seattle is not winter's cold-it is winter's rain. Soggy soil spells doom for lavender. These plants need perfect drainage, which you can attain by mounding up the soil in your beds and planting along the top or sides of the mound. In flat beds, add sand or grit to existing soil and make sure there is no clay layer beneath to trap water. If you mulch with compost, keep the mulch a foot away from the trunk of the plant. Some people prefer to mulch lavender with sand or pea gravel.

Lavender can grow leggy and woody over time, so it is important to prune annually. After plants are done blooming, shear them using pruning shears or a hedge trimmer. You can shear one-third to one-half of the foliage from the plant. Don't cut back into hard wood, though, as plants won't grow new leaves on old wood. If you have a lavender plant that has gotten too rangy, pull it out and plant a new one.

Harvest flowers just as the blossoms begin to open. Tie the cut flowers into bunches with twine or rubber bands and hang them in a dry shed or sun porch to dry. When the flowers are dried, strip them off the stems and the lavender is ready for cooking or crafts.

In the past decade, lavender farming around the Puget Sound has boomed, prompting some people to refer to our area as the "Provence" region of the country. In the coming month, regional lavender farms and local nurseries will offer a variety of classes, fairs and events where you can experience this magical plant firsthand. Whether you are in north or south Seattle, you can find a lavender grower close enough to take a leisurely day trip to visit and immerse yourself in the fragrance.

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