Gardening: Lovely lavender

By Justin Newcombe

The bees love it and so do we. Justin Newcombe extols the virtue of a purple garden treat.

A bumblebee visits a lavender flower in bloom. Photo / Supplied
A bumblebee visits a lavender flower in bloom. Photo / Supplied

Signs of summer include long hot days spent busy in the garden. I don't mean you or I being busy in the garden, although there is that. I mean insects, birds, bees and many other critters, which look favourably upon the garden as a good place to feed. Flowers make a big contribution to the life and food supplies of a garden, both visually and materially. One of the best suppliers is the lavender.

Just thinking about this perennial favourite in purely aesthetic terms, I've always found it quite a dexterous plant from a design point of view. Whether it is trimmed into tight rows, hedges or topiary, or left to its own devices to form a bit of shabby bohemian chic down a garden path, lavender can be counted on to be a consummate performer. In New Zealand it does particularly well in a coastal environment, which can be too demanding for a lot of other plants. I love using it on the coast paired with rata vine, grasses and succulents. The lavender can take the sting out of some of the more architectural or purely native plants favoured in this environment. Too much of one thing becomes nondescript and has tended to become too much like an academic exercise. Getting on my soapbox here, I worry too many designers are intent on proving their prowess with the pencil rather than providing a garden embracing some solid garden virtues like sanctuary and beauty.

Lavender, as we know it here, is one of three main types. The French lavender or lavendula stoechas is the one with the tubby flower bud with showy rabbit ears at the tip (how French). The oil is quite resinous so this is not generally the one we use in cosmetics or soaps. It is the lavandula dentata, also a French lavender, that we use for flower oils for aromatherapy and cosmetics. This variety has been traditionally very popular here, and is grown ornamentally a lot. In cooler climates, the English lavender, lavandula angustifolia, is de rigueur. It has pointy spread-out flower buds forming what's known as a meadowier, stem-orientated flower head.

Many of the problems besetting New Zealand's budding lavender growers can be directly related to the soil. Lavender hates wet feet and heavy acidic soil. Alkaline, rocky dry soils suit it best. If you have heavy soils then raising the beds and introducing copious amounts of lime will be really important.

Don't be afraid to introduce large pieces of broken pottery, bricks or concrete into the soil. Remember you're trying to get your soil to resemble a Greek isle in the height of summer, not the west coast in the bowels of winter.

Mulching is another reason we tend to have difficulty. Many regular readers of this page will realise I'm a regular mulchosaurus, I can't get enough of the stuff. But, be warned, your lavender plants certainly can. Lavender wants to be given a lean diet of water so mulch - which is essentially there to keep water in the soil - and are the last things it needs. The best method is to cover the ground with aggregates which will warm up the ground but also allow evaporation in the soil.

Under-planting is also a good option so try rata vine or muehlenbeckia in coastal environments, while more feminine options include carpet roses, eschscholzia or lobelia.

Plant selection also plays its part, with the puffy French variety stoechas doing better in full sun and really dry conditions. Keep good airflow around your plants and make sure they get full sun, especially during winter. English lavender does better in cooler climates but still requires full sun and good airflow and of course suffers if its feet get wet.

So that just leaves lavendula dentata (the other French lavender) which in NZ at least is what I would call a classic.

Same rules apply as the other two, full sun, dry feet. But it seems to be a little bit hardier, a little more reliable and a little less work.

I'm all for putting less in and getting more out and I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 02 Aug 2014 19:51:38 Processing Time: 534ms