10 Tips for Growing Lavender

Texas farmer Debbie McDowell shares her expert advice on growing fragrant, flowering lavender in your garden.
Lavender Elegance

Lavender Elegance

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Choose the right lavender for your growing conditions. French or Spanish lavenders are better for the humid South, where they're often grown as annuals. English types are widely grown, thanks to their tolerance for winter moisture and humidity.

When Debbie McDowell and her husband, Jim, moved from Houston to 23 acres of rolling farmland in Texas bluebonnet country, they decided to do something special. 

The couple did their research and started planting lavender, an aromatic herb not often found on Texas farms. The flowers, they realized, wouldn’t just be beautiful. The oil from the plants could also be put to a variety of uses. 

“Lavender is a natural antiseptic and can be used on burns, insect bites, cuts and other skin irritations,” Debbie says. “And of the course the camphor in the oil is great for stress, sleep, headaches, tension and so many other applications.”

After experimenting with a few plants in their first season, the McDowells began setting out groups of 600 plants. “Then we increased each new field to 1,500 plants,” Debbie says. 

“Over time, we have learned how to manage this plant that is not native to our Texas climate. We’ve had lots of ups and downs, but we’re pleased to be able to produce a plant that most Texans don’t usually have an opportunity to experience.” 

That was 12 years ago. Today Chappell Hill Lavender Farm in Brenham, Texas, has 4 acres dedicated to some 4,000 lavender plants. Other land is planted with herbs, berries and fruit trees. 

“Maintenance is always an issue for the lavender,” Debbie adds, “so at this time, we don’t plan to expand past 4 acres.” 

Lavender, she says, needs a dry, arid climate—“Certainly not what we have here in Texas!” 

While the plants grow best with about 15 inches of rain a year, the farm gets around 39 inches in a normal year. Humidity is also a problem, since lavender can’t tolerate a lot of moisture in the soil or air. The McDowells compensate for the climate by planting two varieties, ‘Sweet’ and ‘Provence,’ both well-suited to  their growing conditions. “They are considered hybrids and can withstand our heat and humidity better.” 

From mid-April into June, the flowers of ‘Sweet’ lavender open at Chappell Hill Farm. ‘Provence’ blooms from late July through October, keeping the fragrant flower show going. 

Each mature plant yields 300 to 400 stems during the blooming season. The McDowells sell bundles of the perfumed flowers or turn the oil from the plants into soaps, lotions, shampoos for pets, teas, coffees and more. 

Other, shorter-stemmed varieties aren’t as good for bundling, Debbie says, but make great specimen plants. She says ornamental varieties like Spanish lavender, ‘Fern Leaf,’ and ‘Goodwin Creek’ do well in Texas, although she and Jim don’t grow them. 

The farm’s lavender fields are planted each spring and fall. November is a good time to plant, Debbie says, when “the hot weather is over, but it’s not too cold, so the plants can get acclimated before the actual winter arrives.” Springtime is a bit trickier. By April, the temperatures are rising and there may be too much rain. 

“Lavender is actually easy to grow, if you follow some guidelines.” Here are Debbie’s tips for successful growing: 

  1. Give the plants 6 hours or more of full sun each day. 
  2. Apply very little water. Most people overwater. 
  3. Grow in well-drained areas or raised beds. If you have heavy or clay soil, grow lavender in pots. 
  4. If your soil is sandy, mix in some gravel to improve drainage. 
  5. Make sure you have good air flow around the plants if you have high humidity.
  6. Don’t mulch or use any topping that will bring moisture to the plants. “It is best to use small pea gravel on top of the soil."
  7. Don’t use a sprinkler system. 
  8. Plant lavender with other drought-tolerant plants. 
  9. Don’t fertilize; it's not necessary. 
  10. Prune back the plants in the late fall.

When choosing your plants, keep in mind that lavender is native to the Mediterranean, where the winters are cool and moist and the summers are hot and dry.

If you garden in the north, look for cold-tolerant varieties or grow in containers you can bring indoors for the winter. Provide plenty of light while the plants are inside.

In the humid South, try Spanish lavender, also sometimes called French or butterfly lavender. Give the plants good air circulation to help avoid disease. 

Editor's Note: This article is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a professional healthcare provider before trying any form of therapy or if you have any questions or concerns about a medical condition. The use of natural products can be toxic if misused, and even when suitably used, certain individuals could have adverse reactions.

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