Lavender is a woody perennial that is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 9.
Native to the mountainous zones of the Mediterranean, lavender is an extremely popular member of the Lamiaceae family. It is a short, bushy shrub that has rough woody branches and grows two to three feet tall. The leaves of lavender can be broad or narrow depending on the variety; most are lance-shaped and greyish-blue and grow directly off the stem. Lavender flowers are very fragrant and grow on slender stalks that reach up above the leaves. Flowers consist of whorls of bright purple flowers that are small and spiky at the top of the stalk.
True to its Mediterranean roots, lavender likes full sun and well-drained, sandy soil. It takes a couple of seasons to become established and to produce a solid blossom crop. While farms in Canada not too far from us have had success growing lavender in large volumes, we have not. Perhaps we are just too cold or it’s not quite sunny enough in our area. We are able to produce lovely nursery stock and therefore have focused on live plant sales of lavender rather than on row crops.
Lavender can be grown from seeds or vegetative cuttings. On our farm we grow lavender from seed and also from cuttings that are made from soft (not woody) stems that are planted in potting medium and kept well watered. We grow the cuttings until roots begin to form, then transplant them out into our gardens when they are well established.
When lavender is in full bloom it is quite striking: rows of purple blossoms with a delightful fragrance. Because of its sweet appearance and aromatics, we plant lavender where we can see and interact with it daily. Here in Vermont where we farm in USDA zone 4b, lavender is marginally hardy and is prone to winter kill, especially if it isn’t heavily mulched. Therefore, we grow varieties of lavender such as Lavandula angustifolia var. Munstead that are very hardy yet not ideal for commercial production due to their relatively low yields and low essential-oil content. However, we continue to grow lavender because we love this plant. We are also experimenting with growing different varieties of lavender and ways of marketing that may be more commercially viable in the future. Wherever you plant your lavender fields, they will remain for a while. Therefore, site selection is important. Lavender plants take approximately two growing seasons to set good blossoms and will continue to produce for five or six years before yields begin to drop off. Lavender does not require rich soils but after subsequent seasons may benefit from a top-dressing of compost. Plant spacing is sixteen inches within the row and twenty-eight inches between rows. Pruning mature plants is also important to help them overwinter and to increase yields. After the second season prune plants, leaving one to two inches of green growth about the woody section of the plant.
Lavender is a popular herb for herbalists, foodies, and artisans. At any given health food store or farmers’ market, you can easily find lavender in soaps, sachets, essential oils, lotions, salves, extracts, teas, decorative weavings, baked goods, flavorings, body powders, and bath salts. Lavender is familiar and beloved—as well it should be. Lavender is a powerful nervine, helps to reduce anxiety, promotes relaxation, and restores a sense of well-being to the frazzled. The essential oil is safe to use directly on the skin (dilute in a carrier oil for those with sensitive skin) and can be used topically to relieve headaches and insomnia. Lavender is a favorite for soaps and is antimicrobial and soothing. The essential oil of lavender is also good to use directly on insect bites and stings to reduce inflammation and pain.
Lavender produces good blossoms after the second season and should be harvested for medicinal purposes when it is beginning to bloom but before all the flowers are fully open. When growing for oil production, wait to harvest until the flowers are fully open. In Vermont, our lavender harvest occurs at the end of July or early August. To harvest lavender, use a sharp knife to cut off the flowering stalks a couple of inches above the leaves. It is faster to cut the stems and garble off the flowers once dried, rather than pick the small blossoms off the plant. It should be noted that the stems also contain essential oils, and some distillers will utilize both the flowers and the stem. If you are working with artisans or selling bundles, keep the stems and flowers intact, as it is better for weaving and crafts. Some growers harvest and bundle lavender in the field and dry the bundles by hanging them. We harvest lavender but do not bundle. We use and sell lavender in its loose form, so we dry our lavender in racks in a drying shed, then garble off the blossoms. It is helpful to keep all the lavender oriented the same way when harvesting onto tarps. This makes racking and garbling the lavender easier.
Postharvest and Drying Considerations
To dry lavender lay out the flower stalks in a single, compact layer on drying racks and dry at temperatures of 100 to 110°F. It is best to keep lavender out of direct light to help maintain vibrant color and medicinal quality. In good drying conditions, lavender should dry in a couple of days. When dry the blossoms will rub off the stems easily and the stems will snap and no longer be pliable. Rub flower stalks over quarter-inch stainless steel mesh, and separate the stem from the blossoms.
Pests and Diseases
In general, lavender is extremely disease resistant and not susceptible to many pests. Large commercial growers do report having issues with leaf spot, some fungal diseases, and pests such as spittlebugs and caterpillars. Good site selection, crop rotation, and management are the best course of action for growing strong crops and avoiding difficulty.
Forty pounds of dried lavender flowers per one-eighth-acre bed. Moisture ratio for lavender flowers is 5:1 fresh: dried.
Retail price for one pound organic:
• Dried lavender flower: $18 to $26
This excerpt is adapted from Jeff and Melanie Carpenter’s book The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer: The Ultimate Guide to Producing High-Quality Herbs on a Market Scale (Chelsea Green 2015) and is printed with permission from the publisher.