How To Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

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 growing 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 shears 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.

Updated February 2020

Coastal Gardening: 12 Top Plants That Work

coastal home

Gardening at the shore can present its own set of challenges. Plants that behave one way in town can look entirely different at the shore. Still, there are many good options to choose from that can handle a stiff breeze and some salt in the soil. It just takes a little know-how and some tough maritime plants, and you can create a coastal garden that has non-stop blooms from now until fall.

SEASIDE CHALLENGES

Coastal gardens often bear the brunt of high winds that can leave plants vulnerable to breakage. And salt spray can damage buds, stems and leaves, leading to dieback. Often, these symptoms don’t show up until late winter or early spring. However, some of these factors can be mitigated by protection. 

Indeed, in order to perform at their best, seaside plants need some extra protection. Screens are one way to protect vulnerable blooms. Or, consider siting your garden in an area close to the house or behind a stand of trees to help break the wind and lessen its impact.

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My own seaside garden: a mix of mostly drought-tolerant plants 

SANDY SOIL 

If you’re gardening at the shore, you are gardening in sandy soil, which is naturally more porous. Porous soil tends to drain quickly, meaning it doesn’t easily retain water. You can combat this by adding generous amounts of compost, leafmold or other organic matter to your soil. This will help conserve moisture and provide much-needed nutrients for your plants to grow.

Just the same, choosing mostly drought-tolerant plants is the number one way to ensure your coastal garden’s success. For those plants that need more attention, make sure you’re around to water them or consider installing a drip line on a timer.

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Sandy soil drains water more rapidly

COASTAL GARDEN COLOR

Bright colors show up better at the shore. That’s because bold hues stand out in strong sunlight, which tends to wash out lighter colors. Choose strong purples, blues, magentas, yellows and oranges for your coastal garden. And select plants with bold architecture like big leaves and strong stems for added definition.

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Bold colors show up best in bright sunlight

PLANT IN THE FALL FOR BEST RESULTS

To give plants a healthy start, install trees, shrubs and large perennials in the fall when the soil is still warm. This will allow their roots to begin growing before the soil freezes.

Plant trees, shrubs and large perennials in the fall

TOP PLANTS FOR COASTAL GARDENS

ALLIUM (Flowering Onion)

Of the many allium varieties, ‘Purple Sensation’ is probably the most well known. The giant ornamental onion has 4-inch rounded purple blooms that appear in late spring to early summer. Alliums, however, are a large family of bulbs that come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Yellowing foliage can sometimes be a problem, though, so pair them with large-leaved perennials to mask any decay.

allium

BLACK-EYED SUSAN (RUDBEKIA)

Black-Eyed Susans are some of the most heat and drought-tolerant plants around. Native to North America, these tall, golden wildflowers bloom from mid-summer until fall. Plant them in large masses in sun or part-shade for high-impact in the garden.

black eyed susans

DAYLILY

Daylilies seem to thrive in just about any condition. I’ve left entire clumps of them out all winter long and they still settle happily back into the ground come spring. Daylilies come in a wide variety of colors, from deepest purples to pinks, reds, yellows and even creamy white. There’s something for everyone.

daylilies

HYDRANGEA 

It’s hard not to think of a seaside garden without first conjuring up visions of blue and pink flowers. Hydrangeas are synonymous with coastal living. My own hydrangeas flourish alongside my house where they feel safe and protected, faithfully producing blooms from June through August.

seaside.hydrangeas

LAMB’S EAR

In town, my lamb’s ear needs constant maintenance to look its best. When the plants receive too much water, their velvety leaves start to droop and decay. At the shore, however, my lamb’s ear takes on a whole new appearance, forming upright, silvery-grey mounds.

lambs ear

In mid June, lamb’s ear pushes up tall furry spikes of blue-grey flowers. They’re not to everyone’s liking, and many people trim them off. At the shore, I leave them be so I can watch them sway in the ocean breezes.

LAVENDER

This plant is perfectly suited to coastal gardens. Lavender loves lots of sun and once established, thrives in near drought conditions. I’m constantly having to beat back my own lavender Hidcote to keep it in bounds in the border. Check out these great tips from Soleado Lavender Farm on the best species and how to maintain them.

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NEPETA (CATMINT)

This hardy, drought-resistant perennial slightly resembles lavender, but has a softer, more delicate appearance. It produces purple-blue flower stalks in May/June from above grey-green clumps of fine-textured foliage. I trim my nepeta back hard after its first flowering and enjoy a slightly smaller bloom in July. Nepeta’s soft grey-green foliage looks great paired with bright yellow daylilies and almost anything red or orange.

nepeta

PORTULACA

A low, creeping annual with succulent-looking stems and foliage, portulaca thrives in coastal gardens. Use it in the front of a border, trailing over a wall or in hanging baskets. Its bright colored blooms come in a range of shades from orange, red and yellow to bright white.

portulaca

RED-HOT POKER (Torch Lily)

I love this striking plant that sends up bright yellow-orange poker-shaped flowers on 3-foot stems. Drought resistant and attractive to pollinators, red hot poker likes lots of sun and isn’t picky about soil. It blooms in mid-summer. 

redhot poker

VERBENA

A perfect plant for coastal gardens, verbena’s large clusters of deep purple flowers and deep green foliage look good all summer long. The plant is primarily known for its purple blooms. However, you can now find cultivars in blue, pink, red and white that grow from 6 inches to 3 feet tall.

verbena

VERONICA

Also known as Speedwell, this long-blooming perennial with tall flower spikes is the perfect addition to a sunny coastal border. Best known for its intense, violet-blue flowers, it also comes in pink, rose and white. My favorite variety is the mid-sized Ulster Blue Dwarf, one of the truest blue perennials. Veronica is also a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies.

veronica ulster blue dwarf

YARROW

This elegant plant has flat-topped golden yellow flowers borne high atop asparagus-fern like foliage. Yarrow is especially captivating in seaside gardens where it sways softly in seaside breezes.

yarrow

Yarrow blooms from mid-summer to fall and in addition to the traditional yellow, come in shades of orange, red, pink and white. It also makes a long-lasting and sturdy cut flower.

DROUGHT-TOLERANT DOESN’T MEAN WATER-FREE

While most of these plants are drought-tolerant, they’ll still need watering from time to time. Give your coastal garden a healthy start by improving the soil with compost or other organic matter before planting. Mulch well to hold in moisture and use overhead irrigation whenever possible to wash off salt from the foliage. And avoid watering your plants during the hottest hours of the day, which can burn the foliage.