We can't tell you how often we are asked for the secret to growing lavender. Many people have tried growing it time and again with minimal success, but the beautiful blooms and lovely scent convince them to give it one more go.
So, is there a secret?
Sadly, no simple secret (there rarely is with plants!), but learning what this fragrant favorite wants and how to provide it is key. Here are our tried and true tips:
LET'S START WITH SOIL
Lavender can be planted in containers, raised beds, or directly in the ground. Because lavender is borderline cold hardy in our zone, many people prefer to plant it in the ground as the soil offers insulation and gives it a better chance of making it through the winter (though a pot with amended soil can allow for better drainage, you may then have to protect the pot in winter).
This plant likes sandy, well-draining soil that allows it to dry out quickly. Unfortunately, the dense red clay of North Carolina does not offer the drainage lavender needs, so you are almost guaranteed to fail if you plant it in the ground without amending the site. We recommend mixing perlite (4 parts soil:1part perlite) or gypsum (follow directions on bag) into the soil in the hole, and you may even want to replace half of the native soil with a bark-heavy well-draining soil mix in addition.
You want to dig a BIG hole. Think 4x larger than the pot, or dig the hole as if you were going to put a fully mature lavender in it (each species and cultivar varies - many Spanish Lavender grow to over 2 feet wide and tall). To set yourself up for success, dig the hole 16-18" deep and fill with the amended well-draining soil until the lavender is sitting with the crown (base of its stem) slightly above the surrounding ground, then fill around the sides with the rest of the amended soil. This will help during rainy periods; lavender often dies due to"wet feet", so having good drainage beneath the plant is critical. Avoid adding compost as a fertilizer as it holds moisture, and make sure you space each plant well (considering mature size), to allow for good air flow.
Of course, there are some exceptions to heavy clay soil in our region - a few of you may have a spot of bottomland with sandy soil and won't need to be as extreme!
WHAT ABOUT SUN EXPOSURE & WATERING?
Lavender requires full sun, which means 6+ hours of direct sunlight. Because lavender wants to dry out completely between waterings, if you feel any moisture in the soil, don't water. Better to error on the side of too dry than too wet. You really shouldn't need to water lavender once it is established.
SHOULD I FERTILIZE?
Lavender is a low feeder - if you are growing it in a pot it will need a bit more, as nutrients wash out of potted plants quickly, but if in the ground you don't need to do much feeding.
OK, BUT WHAT DO I DO OVER THE WINTER?
If you're worried about your planted lavender not making it through the winter, you can add a lightweight mulch, but be careful to leave enough room around the crown for the plant to breathe. Mulch can hold in moisture, and for lavender moisture is a bigger enemy than the cold. If grown in a pot, try grouping your pots close to a building in a sunny spot and mounding leaves around them for extra insulation.
SHOULD I PRUNE MY LAVENDER?
The key here is to not allow your lavender to get too woody. We recommend you prune it in the late fall or very early spring, removing older branches and giving it a light shaping. If left unpruned, Spanish Lavender in particular can get very leggy, and you may be left with balder stretches of the woody stems at the base of the new growth and blooms.
OK, BUT WHAT VARIETY SHOULD I CHOOSE?
Every year Painters researches which lavenders do best in WNC. This research combined with our own experience and customer feedback informs the varieties we sell. Phenomenal Lavender is a tried and true choice in our region, with an excellent shape and prolific blooms. Hidcote Lavender is said to be hardier and more vigorous. Co-owner Dana loves her Spanish lavender, finding it less picky about soil and tougher in the wet and cold winters (despite a lot of sources claiming it is more tender than other species). Painters typically grows Anouk among other Spanish varieties, as it has proven to be hardier than many others we've tried. There are lots of cultivars to choose from, and it may require some trial and error to find which works best for you!
We are growing a beautiful selection of Spanish Lavender, English Lavender, and French Lavender at Painters this year. They range in pot/plant size, and are priced from $6.50-$14.