Last week, I bought another lavender. Of course I didn't need; I already have two rather enormous specimens and have no room for more. And yet, after a trip to the Farmers Market to purchase basil plants, I somehow wound up with another lavender. In my defense, it was a white flowering variety. Pretty cool.
Spanish lavender ( L. stoechas): funny looking and proud of it. Ron's photo.
My fixation with lavender is odd, because I am not the lavender type. I hate perfume, sachets, and scented soaps. I think lavender in food is an abomination, and I don't care how many trendy chefs think I'm an unsophisticated boor for saying so. Yes lavender is pretty, yes it smells nice, and yes the bees love it, but you could say that about a lot of plants. So why the obsession with lavender?
"Provence" lavender with bee. Messy but delightful.
I trace it back to my visit to the south of France 20 years ago. The trip was decidedly out of character for me; I'm far too cynical ever to have romanticized places like Provence, plus I'm a coward when it comes to travel. In fact, I probably never would have gone if my friend Lili hadn't dragged me. The trip ended up being one of those obnoxiously picturesque vacations that I had always assumed only other people could take - you know, where you rent a 200 year old farmhouse in a tiny town in Provence, amid olive groves and vineyards. We pulled figs from the trees and drank wine under vine-covered arbors. We had tiny cups of espresso at sidewalk cafes while the locals read the paper and smoked smelly French cigarettes. We picnicked at the calanques in Cassis, where my insane friends dived off the cliffs into the Mediterranean. It was like being in a magazine spread. Two of Lili's photo's from Provence. There are more on LilisLight. Mostly I hung out with Lili, who was busy photographing everything in sight (you can check out a small sampling of her photos at LilisLight). Lili has a romantic nature and an artistic sensibility, some of which must have rubbed off on me, because I left Provence all misty-eyed, with a fixation on sunflowers and lavender that has never gone away.
When it's happy, Spanish lavender gets huge (3 x 3 at least) and sprawls all over.
Back to reality. Lavender is a Mediterranean plant, and the climate in central North Carolina (not to mention the soil) is emphatically un-Mediterranean. My observation has been that growing lavender here is an all-or-nothing proposition: either you fail completely, or the plant takes off and eventually sprawls over everything in the vicinity. For some reason, the so-called English lavenders, like "Hidcote" and "Munstead," don't work at all. However, Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) and the "Provence" variety do just fine. Since lavenders need perfect drainage, most people recommend raised beds, but I've had great success simply amending the soil (throwing in lots of Permatill) and planting high. I also "mulch" with pebbles (to reflect the heat and keep things dry), and water very sparingly.
Lavender "Provence" does very nicely in North Carolina's humidity. My yard in June 2009.
Is my garden now a little slice of Provence? Actually, no. Do I fantasize about living in the south of France? No again. But I do love brushing my hands on the lavender.