Loving Lavender: Sweet Smell in the Country

Who doesn’t love lavender? The spiky, flowering Mediterranean native of the mint family has it all: fragrance, form, flavor, and medicinal value. In Roman times, a pound of lavender flowers would cost about 100 denarii, which was about a month’s wages for a farm laborer. Today, you can grow lavender almost anyplace in the country as long as you have a sunny spot. Be aware, however, that lavender needs lots of light, good drainage, and proper care in the early stages.

For some tips on lavender growing in a hostile environment, the Country Gentleman visited the cottage lavender farm of Kieran “Kie” and Elizabeth “Libbe” O’Connor. Former city folk and gardening enthusiasts, the O’Connors turned eight acres of Indiana clay (a soil guaranteed to kill lavender plants) into a flourishing retirement business. They provide culinary lavender to local chefs and sell lavender sachets, bouquets, and bundles. “Lavender is really about getting it established, so in two or three years you say, ‘that looks really good,’ ” says Libbe.

“Lavender does not do well in clay or anything that holds water around it,” Kie says. “Wood mulch is not good. Use decorative rock or something that provides reflective heat and allows airflow around it.” The O’Connors nurture lavender in raised beds, which are at least 12 inches deep by 12 inches wide, with a mix of equal parts topsoil, compost, sand or pea gravel, and a smattering of lime. “The other big thing is to know how to prune them,” Kie says. “Some varieties of hybrids (Lavandula intermedia) you prune only in fall because they set buds in winter. The true lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) you prune early in spring and throughout summer. By keeping them pruned, you get inner growth and a nicely shaped plant.”

How to Harvest and Dry Lavender

Harvest lavender just as the buds are beginning to open, when the essential oils are at their peak. This will ensure the flowers retain their scent and bluish color when used in sachets or potpourris.

1. Take a bundle of lavender and cut the stems above the leaves using garden shears. Leave a few inches of green growth.

2. Wrap several stems together with a rubber band.

3. Hang the lavender upside down in a dark dry place and allow seven to 10 days for the stems to dry.

4. To remove the buds from the stems, place the stems on a large towel and roll into a tube. Roll the tube back and forth on a hard surface. This will remove the buds from the stems without crushing them.

5. Store the buds in an airtight container for use in sachets, potpourris, or recipes.