Lavender: It’s an herb, a favorite of pollinators; it smells wonderful and it’s drought tolerant. I consider lavender the perfect Southwestern plant. I guess that’s why I have nearly 20 lavender plants.
Lavender (Lavandula) is native to the Mediterranean and North African coast, which speaks to its easy adaptability to the dry heat of the Southwest. I’m in zone 6B of the high desert/intermountain region of southeast New Mexico, but I’ll throw in a few tips for gardeners in hotter or more humid areas of the Southwest.
Selecting Lavender Plants
There are plenty of lavender varieties for various conditions (like cold tolerance) or superior aroma, color, bloom stalk length and even culinary use. Local nurseries, landscapers and extension agents should know which cultivars do best in your climate, whether it’s a little hotter, colder or more humid than the plants typically like.
Although most L. angustifolia varieties grow well in zones 5 through 8, a few survive down to zones 3 or 4 and others perform well in zones 9 and 10. Plants commonly called Spanish lavender (Lavandin or L. x intermedia, L. stoechas) do best in hotter, more humid climates. Sunset lists several varieties that grow in Sunset zones 4 through 24 (all but the coldest regions of the West). But if you see – or smell – a lavender you must have, try planting it on a mound, in a container or creating a microclimate to help the plant along. It’s fun to experiment until you find what works for you.
Lavender plants like alkaline, sandy and barely fertile soils, another reason they do so well in Southwestern gardens. In hotter areas with mild winters, plant lavender in fall and winter. Otherwise, plant in late spring or early summer, once the ground has warmed and before intense heat kicks in. I lost several plants a few years ago by being impatient and planting them too soon. So if you think it’s warm enough, make yourself wait another week.
In more humid areas of the Southwest or when placing lavender near plants with drip lines or needing supplemental watering, all you have to do is plant the lavender on a small mound. This helps water drain away from the roots. Clay soil or other conditions that keep the soil around the lavender from draining well can be death to a lavender plant. You will need to water new plants a little more the first year. Just time watering so the plants do not sit long with have cool, damp roots.
Choose full sun exposure when possible and for optimal blooming. If you live in hotter areas, like zones 9 and 10, try to place your plant so it gets a little shade from a tree or your house in peak afternoon heat. And be sure to give new plants extra water during the hottest weeks.
Caring for Lavender
It’s not so much freeze or heat that damages a lavender plant – it’s wild extremes, and especially dampness. When in doubt, don’t water, especially if any rain, cloudiness or cool nights are in the forecast for the next few days. If, however, you live in hot, dry zones, add some water during peak heat and drought. It’s much better to water lavender early in the day, before the plant can get heat stressed and so the soil near roots has time to dry a little before nightfall.
In a hostile environment with plenty of plant killers, the only time we lost a lavender to a pest was when a gopher tunneled under the plant. I’m guessing a combination of gnawing on roots and a giant tunnel under the plant likely did it in. But deer leave lavender alone.
Keep Lavender Warm and Dry
Here’s the best advice of all for growing lavender: rock mulch. Many plants do better with mulch that helps retain moisture, but too much dampness can kill a lavender plant. Instead, use white or light pebbles, decomposed granite or similar small materials that reflect heat. With three to four inches of rock, you also cut down on weeds. In hotter areas, use a lighter layer of mulch (like decomposed granite) and a more neutral color that won’t reflect too much heat back to your plants, like standard landscape gravel.
Lavender plants need little care once established. Each spring as new growth begins, lightly prune your lavender for shape to keep it rounded. Avoid cutting into the woody branches; just cut back remaining flower stems and some of the outer foliage to get a nice round shape.
The most fun when growing lavender is cutting off flower stems to dry. Harvest just as the blooms begin to open and use in sachets, potpourri, dry arrangements and even recipes. As the plants mature, the stems should get longer and more prolific. In warmer zones, you can prune the first flush of blooms and watch for a second wave in late summer.
And Enjoy Lavender!
In summer, wander by your plants and enjoy the bees and butterflies that surround them. And just brush your hand over the leaves or buds to enjoy the scent. I love giving lavender as gifts, especially for myself!