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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
4/29/2013 09:55:32 am
You make me want to travel to France! Figs, wine, lavender! Sounds heavenly! Your lavender looks quite happy. So nice that this plant holds such fun memories for you.
4/29/2013 11:26:39 am
It was pretty darn nice, I admit. We missed the fields of lavender, since they weren't blooming at the time, but they had it everywhere in the markets.
4/29/2013 03:12:02 pm
I've heard rumors that the English lavender is hardy to zone 5. I don't see why it wouldn't work as a substitute for nepeta. It likes similar conditions, I think.
4/30/2013 06:20:34 am
Count me in the "fail completely" category with lavender. And I do like sachets and scented soaps--it seems unfair. Maybe I will try again. . .
4/30/2013 07:03:18 am
Do you remember what kind you tried to grow? That may have been the issue. Your area is sort of like mine - heat, humidity, the works. Also, I should mention that Spanish lavender doesn't really smell like lavender (to me, anyway). Provence has that classic lavender aroma, if that's what you are going for.
5/1/2013 11:59:19 pm
Sarah, it was years ago and I have no idea what kind it was. I do see people in my neighborhood with whole beds of it, so maybe I should try again. But right now I'm afraid that anything I plant will be dug up/eaten/lain down on by my dogs (or rather, by one of my dogs)--whole bed of day lilies was crushed the other day (I'm crushed, too).
4/30/2013 02:38:20 pm
Wow! I am surprised to hear that you killed one. I didn't think you killed anything - your garden is so beautiful. Yes, the trip to France was fun. I still can't believe I went!
Spanish lavender seems to be much more tolerant of North American conditions than the traditional lavender, and it sounds like your experience is proving that. How wonderful that you can grow it, and that it brings back your magazine-spread vacation!
4/30/2013 02:45:40 pm
Thanks, Laurrie. Didn't I see heather in your garden, next to the sedum Angelina? It looked pretty good to me! Heather is another plant I have always longed to grow, and I've never been to Scotland. The White Flower Farm catalogue strikes again!
Good eye! Actually the plant next to the Angelina sedum is a heath -- it is Erica darlyensis. I have had good luck with this heath, but the heathers (Calluna vulgaris) were much more finicky, got woodier looking and were less attractive while they lasted briefly.
4/30/2013 07:13:47 pm
I have been using Spanish Lavender in my Zone 8 garden beds and have had no problems until the last few years. With the unusual weather patterns in fall, winter, and spring I am replacing many more plants than in the past.
5/1/2013 01:48:59 am
That's interesting to hear. Has it been too wet? Too cold? Or something else? I am enjoying perusing your website. In fact, I plan to be in Seattle the very first time in a few weeks. Unfortunately, I will have just one day there. So many choices, so little time!
I think lavender in food is an abomination too, but I do love its scent in soap and perfumes. As a plant, I think it is beautiful, especially planted in mass numbers. I have yet to successfully grow lavender, but I keep trying. I think I should try amending the soil as you have done.
5/3/2013 08:19:30 am
Is it too cold where you live, or do you think it's the soil? If it's too cold,you could always try containers, I suppose.
Lavender is big out in CA wine country where they have the perfect conditions. I've never tried to grow it as I suspect that although I have dry spots, I don't have enough sun. Supposedly the scent is soothing so I keep some gifted lavender scented goat's milk hand cream in a drawer next to my bed. I sleep well but I can't tell if it's the lavender or the glass of wine I have with dinner. I vote for the wine.
5/3/2013 08:22:38 am
Yes, it's probably the wine. Lavender seems to do well in wine country and in southern California, too. It's probably the closest thing to a Mediterranean climate that we have in the U.S.
I'm not into lavender at all. Though I do enjoy seeing images of lavender in Provence and in fields. But I don't enjoy the overpowering scent and a plant that after three years is a ratty mess. But I do understand the compulsion to buy a white one when you have the other types.
5/8/2013 07:26:47 am
You are so right - it is a ratty mess after 3 or 4 years. I usually rip them out and start all over again at that point. I can't seem to help myself.
9/2/2014 07:29:32 am
Thank-you for your tips on planting lavender in North Carolina. Would I be successful in the coastal areas?
9/6/2014 10:28:24 am
I am not an expert on coastal gardening but I don't see why it wouldn't, because it likes well draining soil and yours is sandy, isn't it? I am not sure about salt tolerance, though.
9/6/2014 11:30:19 am
Thank-you for your advice
5/31/2018 07:56:09 pm
can you grow lavender in eastern N.C.?
6/1/2018 06:44:57 am
I don't see why not! I would still go for a variety like Provence or Phenomenal, rather than the English kinds like Munstead, The key is really well drained soil and not over-watering.
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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