the lavender way

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"Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get."

Mark Twain

the lavender way agony aunt

pruning lavender

QUESTION: Hi Gill I want to ask you a pruning question. All my lavender, such as it is, looks pretty awful after I prune it, as though a dog came along and weed in the middle of it. What am I doing wrong?

I've read that it shouldn't be pruned back too far ie so that there is still some green left, or it will die, but a friend who recently went cycling in Provence tells me she saw it pruned right down to very small hummocks.

Also, does lavender have a limited life. Should it be replaced after a certain time?.

ANSWER: Re: pruning lavender I'll try to give my take on it...

Many lavender cultivars, like rosemary, will break open in the middle and get very woody over time. I've got plants which are 6 years old and totally out of control in that respect despite pruning quite hard every year. Different cultivars will have different life spans - some die back after a couple of years, others are more hardy and you can expect them to live 10 years or more.

Our field doesn't look like Provence because I treat each plant individually so it's a mixed bag - some are perfect hummocks and others more sprawled because that's the way they've turned out. It's up to you how you want your plants to look and what you want from them.

Most commercial farms in Provence use particular cultivars which are very uniform and can be processed mechanically. (Usually small/medium bush varieties will long stems - so of course they look like small hummocks when pruned - it's their natural shape).

I personally prefer a more natural cottage garden look. The aim of the hummock shaping is to produce as many flowers as possible because yield is important. It's very difficult to achieve this in a sprawling plant once it's got too woody.

As a rough gauge I always try to leave at least 3 pairs of leaves on each branch when pruning however in some cases cutting lower can trigger new growth in the middle which when established means the sprawling branches can be cut right back. This is a high risk option and may create a period of ugliness you don't want to live with. If you want perfect hummocks start cutting the plant in this rough shape from year 1 to encourage it.

        lav2 all pruned

propagating from cuttings

QUESTION:I assume that you propagate from cuttings and not from seeds - how do you do that?

ANSWER: Yes I propagate mostly by cuttings and this is how I do it:

- take a cutting from a stem without a flower (usually near the base) which is 10-15cms by pulling down gently so you have a heel

- expose the heel and remove leaves below planting depth and pinch out the top leaves so it can concentrate on root growth you can dip in rooting hormone but I don't use anything and get pretty good results

- put in damp compost and wait until signs of new growth before potting on (few weeks)

- obviously select strong healthy plants and take more cuttings than you need - I never achieve 100%!

I've had less success trying this method with the smaller angustifolia because the cuttings are relatively tiny and seem not to be very robust however in principle it should work with all lavenders and this may be more due to the severe aridity/heat/sun here in the summer.

Cuttings are guaranteed to be true to the parent plant whereas seeds can produce uneven results.

I normally take cuttings November time and ignore them until spring when I pot them on - then they harden off in the summer and get planted out in the following November. This regime allows me to plant out the really tough plants.

Most lavender sold in pots which is 1-2 years old - my babies are 18 months old and have a lot of flowers but that's because they passed the survival tests!

      the cuttings tray

what kind of lavender do I have?

QUESTION: I have a number of lavender plants that have a more grey leaf than normal -could these be a different variety?

ANSWER: It isn't really possible to identify individual plants across the internet but I can recommend a very good reference book which I used as a bible in the early days - Virginia McNaughton's Lavender - the grower's guide. It's full of photos and detailed descriptions of the lavandula subsections and cultivars.

Trouble is there are so many so if you can buy named varieties and take cuttings from these you have a head start! Lavandins generally have laterals, bigger spikes and broader leaves whereas Angustifolia usually has a single stem etc. 'A' also has much less camphor content which can dominate in the latifolias. I could go on and on....!