With these tips, anyone can grow lavender

Helpful tips on growing lavender in less than ideal conditions.

Courtesy of Doreen Howard
Ten weeks after planting, these lavenders are blooming and some are ready for harvest.
Courtesy of Doreen Howard
By summer's end, plants are blanketed with lavender wands.
Courtesy of Doreen Howard
Mulch lavender with two inches of turkey grit or white landscape gravel to keep plants disease-free and growing rapidly.

Visit the Mediterranean coast or warm, dry interior valleys along the Pacific Coast, and fields of brilliant blue aromatic lavender are everywhere. Those are the climates in which lavender flourishes.

Many of us don’t live in paradise but contend with humid summers or frigid temperatures six months out of the year. So, if you want lavender, you coddle it. I do.

Lavender is notorious for taking its poky time to flower in gardens, usually not hitting its peak until the second season. But lavender grown in containers is a different story. You can enjoy fragrant flowers in a couple months if you plant correctly.

Rapid drainage, alkaline soil, plenty of light, heat, and excellent air circulation are musts, according to my friend Rose Marie Nichols-McGee, herb and lavender expert.

She gave me these tips on how to grow lavender in containers, which have proved invaluable:

1. Start with large pots, as lavender plants can grow to the size of small shrubs. Twelve- to 16-inch containers do the job nicely. Fill the bottom inch or two of the container with Styrofoam peanuts or gravel to facilitate swift drainage. Add a tablespoon of lime to the potting mix after filling the container. Put one plant in the center of each pot, and situate it so the plant’s crown sticks up about an inch above the soil line.

2. If the potting mix doesn’t contain timed-release fertilizer pellets, sprinkle a half cup over the surface of each pot and scratch it in with a fork. I use alfalfa pellets, which are a slow-release organic food with triacontanol, a growth stimulant.

3. Mulch with a two-inch layer of turkey grit or white landscaping pebbles up to the plant crown. White mulch reflects light on to the plants for rapid growth and keeps air circulating so that plant stems dry out fast after rain or watering and don’t rot. You can find turkey grit at farm and pet stores and at some garden centers. It’s inexpensive.

4. Place pots in an area that receives at least eight hours of full sun daily; shade reduces growth and fragrance. In cooler summer areas like mine, put pots a concrete surface such as a patio or sidewalk to amplify the sun’s heat.

5. Water when soil is dry to touch (under the mulch) and then drench so that water flows freely out the bottom of pots. Feed weekly with a balanced water-soluble fertilizer. I use compost tea or fish meal emulsion.

6. Lavender pots can be stored over the winter for the next season. Bring them into an unheated garage or porch that is sheltered from wind. Potting mix may freeze, but that isn’t a problem. If the soil thaws out during the winter, water plants every two weeks so that roots stay hydrated.

Any lavender variety will grow in a container, but some are better suited than others. Dwarf Blue, Munstead, Hidcote, Sweet, Sharon Roberts, and Lavender Lady produce flowers fast and stay a manageable size in pots.

Harvesting tips

– Cut lavender stems when the lowest blossom opens. Make the cut slightly above the first set of leaves. Color will be more vivid when dried.

– Harvest stems early in the morning. Fragrance is the strongest then, and the blossoms will keep most of the perfume oils present, even when dried.

– Keep cutting blooming stems to encourage more growth. Plants can flower up to three times during a summer.

– Dry lavender in bundles hung upside down in a warm dark place for the deepest color. More essential oils will be retained, too.

Doreen Howard, the Edible Explorer, is one of eight garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. If it’s edible and unusual, Doreen figures out a way to grow it in her USDA Zone 4b garden. She’ll try anything once, even smelly Durian. A former garden editor at Woman’s Day, she writes regularly for The American Gardener and The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Garden Guide.

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