The Real Lives Of Yellow Jackets And How To Get Rid Of Them

Eastern yellow jacket cleaning itself on a leaf

Recently I published a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket. Continue reading

The Best Late-Summer Flowers For A Beautiful Garden

By August, your garden may look like it’s winding down, making it tempting to throw in the trowel. But that would be a shame with so many late-summer flowers just starting to bloom. All it takes is a little advance planning and some careful pruning, and you can keep the display going all the way until fall. Continue reading

Pruning Hydrangeas: A Step-By-Step Guide For Old And New Wood

To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Continue reading

USPS Puts Its Stamp On America’s Most Beautiful Blooms

Floral stamp from the USPS Pollinator stamp series

You may think that gardens and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have little in common, but The National Postal Museum, located in Washington, DC, is currently challenging that point of view. It recently opened an exhibition featuring the botanical art behind 50 years worth of floral stamps. And it’s delivered the goods just in time for the spring season. Continue reading

Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica 'Cheryl Lynn'

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful plants wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular multi-layered blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading

10 Resolutions To Make In Your Garden This Year

Every year, I make a list of things I want to achieve or change in my garden. But the year passes, I get busy planning my clients’ landscapes and before I know it, it’s mid summer. That is not an ideal time to start something new in the garden.

I’ve promised myself that this year, however, will be different. All those ideas I’ve jotted down in my garden notebook? I plan to convert at least some of them into reality. And January is the perfect time to sit down and create a plan for just how all of it will happen. Continue reading

How To Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

(Updated February 2020) 

One of the perks of being a master gardener is all the great lectures you get to attend. And today’s talk following the board meeting was no exception. It happened to coincide with the very moment I was asking myself “What’s going on with my lavender?” Here was professional grower, Sophia Watkins, ready to answer all my questions.

ABOUT SOLEADO LAVENDER FARM

Watkins runs a family-owned, sustainable farm called Soleado Lavender Farm. Located in Dickerson, Maryland, it is the largest of its kind in the state. Watkins grew up on the 286-acre property, 26 acres of which are now dedicated solely to the cultivation of lavender.

Soleado Lavender Farm

The family prides itself on its long history of organic farming, a practice Watkins’ father adopted back in the 1960s. During that time, the farm grew primarily a mix of soybeans and grains. For a child, it was a great way to grow up. So later, when Watkins and her fiancé took over the farm, they knew they wanted to continue the tradition.

“Our goal was about preservation even more than about gardening,” she said. “We wanted to protect these special parts of Maryland and keep them alive for not only our own child but for everybody else’s children as well.”

Why choose lavender? The couple was looking for a sustainable perennial that deer wouldn’t eat and one from which they could make products for sale. Lavender fit the bill — not only for its drought-tolerance, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. As the farm grew in popularity, the couple added bees for pollination. And today, the farm boasts nine hives with over 40,000 bees in each, all producing lavender honey.

In a nod to Watkins’ fiancé’s Latin American roots, they named their farm Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘baking in the sun.’ As it so happens, in their first year of operation, Watkins says they found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. As a result, Soleado took on a new shade of meaning.

TOP TIPS FOR GROWING LAVENDER

At Soleado Lavender Farm, all of the plants are grown from cuttings, a practice most nurseries have adopted due to the lower germination rate of seeds. Watkins harvests both soft and hardwood cuttings in summer. She strips all but two or three leaves at the top then dips them in a root hormone to encourage propagation. Not surprisingly, her top choice is honey.

Honey bee

In order to give the developing roots plenty of space to expand, Watkins then plants her cuttings in a ‘bulky’ growing medium composed of Leafgro and perlite. Later, she moves them to 2” plastic pots.

Once potted, the cuttings spend up to 8 weeks in partial shade or in the greenhouse (under shade cloths) until substantial roots begin to develop. Afterward, the new plants are moved to the field. Watkins noted that if the cuttings are planted outside first, the process usually goes faster.

THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER

According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years it takes for a good-sized plant to develop. After that, it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven, I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can live for anywhere between ten and twenty years.  Indeed, some historical properties boast plants that are as old as 80.

Lavender border along stone steps

A great combo, hydrangea and lavender

Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. This explains why no variety can tolerate shade and still produce flowers. Once the flowers are harvested, Watkins sprays the plants’ roots with fish emulsion for fertilizer. “We need to fortify them after they’ve put all that energy into blooming, “ she said.

GROWING LAVENDER IS A LOT ABOUT THE CUT

There is much conflicting information about when and how to cut back lavender. Watkins freely admits that her method might not suit everyone, but at Soleado Lavender Farm, they prune their plants two to four times a year. She sheers her crop like sheep, cutting back all new growth each time the plants flower. This process begins almost as soon as the cuttings are transplanted.

Growing cutting back lavender

Cutting back encourages new growth

Cutting back not only encourages new, dense growth, but also helps mitigate lavender’s annoying tendency to open up in the middle. It also improves the overall looks of the plant and enables it to better survive the winter. Lastly, it redirects energy into developing strong roots, which according to Watkins, results in a thicker, healthier plant.

At Soleado Lavender Farm, they never prune anything thicker than a pencil. And they avoid old wood. Watkins does NOT recommend cutting back old woody stems. If you absolutely must, she said to trim them back just to where the first bunch of leaves start on the bush.

They stop all cutting by the end of October.

SHREDDED MULCH: LAVENDER IS NOT A FAN

Along with lots of sun, lavender prefers to stay dry. Ironically, once of the main threats to its survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Since it often harbors mold spores, this kind of material can spell death for lavender.

“What seems to really kill them is the mold spores that come in on shredded mulch,” said Watkins. “Given the amount of humidity we have (in Maryland), it’s really important to stick with a dry medium.”

If you’re using shredded mulch in the rest of your garden, Watkins advises keeping it at least one to two feet away from your lavender. At the farm, they use crushed bluestone instead (that they harvest from their driveway.) Other great options include white gravel and seashells, both of which have the added benefit of reflecting light back onto the plant.

White gravel mulch is great for lavender

White gravel mulch

WINTERING TIPS FOR GROWING LAVENDER

Many of us have lost lavender plants over the winter. However, Watkins said, “Getting your plants through the winter does not have to do with size or age, even little seedlings can make it through the winter. A temperature of anything above 0 degrees Fahrenheit is OK.”

Frozen lavender flowers

Frozen lavender

So what can we do to prepare for the colder months? The most important thing, according to Watkins, is to keep plants trimmed and thick. The thickness (or thatchiness) is what keeps the snow and ice out of the plants. (Although snow doesn’t seem to be as bad for lavender as ice.)

In short, it’s a matter of creating a plants that have a good smooth cut on them so they become their own insulation.

Recently, a new lavender introduction called “Phenomenal” is showing amazing cold hardiness, retaining its leaves all through the winter. 

NO SIGNIFICANT PESTS OR DISEASES

Not only are its water needs low, but lavender also is resistant to most pests and diseases. Watkins says occasionally she’ll observe spittlebugs on her plants, but that’s about it. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores caused by humidity. As I noted above, the best thing you can do for mold is to practice prevention.

Another great plus to growing lavender is that deer hate it, although Watkins observed that “Sometimes they’ll pull the young plants out of the ground, ‘Just because.”’

Deer won't eat lavender

Soleado Lavender Farm grows a mix of English, French and Spanish lavender varieties. They’re always experimenting with new strains and each year discover clear standouts. These days, Watkins is loving the “rabbit ear petals” on the flower tops of Spanish lavender.

Spanish lavender flowers

Spanish lavender

To learn more about Soleado Lavender Farm, its tours and lavender-based products, click here for the official website.

 

Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Shade Gardens

As a child, I was always drawn to shady nooks. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into my adulthood. Only now, these same sensations inspire my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a shade garden. Continue reading

Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-class garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best ones I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to wow. And impress me it did, with its grand spaces showcasing plants from all over the world. Continue reading

Having A Ball With Alliums (Ornamental Onions)

They look like they jumped out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on long flexible stems. Alliums can be startling the first time you encounter them. But there’s so much to love about these drought tolerant plants, including long bloom period and resistance to most pests and diseases. And their whimsical appeal can sure liven up a garden. Continue reading