A fragrant shrub from the Mediterranean, lavender has a long history as a healing herb and has been utilised as a tonic, antiseptic and sleep aid for centuries.
The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming and in cosmetics, while the ancient Greeks extracted lavender oil for medicine and aromatics.
It was carried by Roman soldiers to dress wounds and combat infection and was grown by monks and nuns in England in the Middle Ages.
Lavender became fashionable in Tudor times when it was used to perfume linen and its popularity peaked with the reign of lavender enthusiast Queen Victoria.
While lavender can be used as a culinary herb, these days it is mostly valued as an essential oil but still has many applications around the home.
Know the types
Lavender comes in three main types, English, Italian and French. Italian lavender has two brightly coloured wings at the top of each flower, while the French variety has serrated leaves.
The English variety is known as true lavender and is the most popular with home growers. It has deeply perfumed purple flowers that bloom on square stems from winter to spring with aromatic grey-green foliage.
Growing to 800mm high and 1m wide, this evergreen shrub forms a tight mound if pruned regularly.
It tolerates light frost but wet soil can cause root rot, while high levels of humidity lead to mould problems.
Avoid planting in exposed areas where it can be pummelled by strong winds and instead choose a warm northerly spot that receives full sun.
Position lavender next to a wall or solid fence to protect it during winter nights, as these surfaces retain heat from the day and release it after dark.
Lavender grows well in containers in part to full sun. Use a terracotta pot, as it’s porous and dries out quickly. Good drainage is essential, so raise pots off the ground.
TIP Place potted lavender near vegies as a valuable companion plant.
Choosing a variety
There are many different varieties of lavender available at nurseries and garden centres in a range of colours and sizes, so choose the plant that best suits your climate zone and landscape.
The Princess Lavender
A new variety bred in Australia with large pink blooms in late winter to summer. Ideal as a hedge in small gardens, it grows to 700mm high and wide, and needs no special care.
Ideal as a hedge in small gardens Princess Lavender grows to 700mm high and wide and needs no special care. Image: Thinkstock
Growing to 1m high and wide this Italian variety has bright purple-tipped flowers from spring to autumn. Good for a hot and dry area of the garden, as well as in pots and containers.
Growing to 1m high and wide Lavender Avonview has bright purple-tipped flowers from spring to autumn. Image: Thinkstock
This early flowering variety has lilac-coloured blooms from autumn through winter and grows to about 700mm high and wide. Plant it in entryways to add winter colour.
Lavender Lace has lilac-coloured blooms from autumn through winter and grows to about 700mm high and wide. Image: Thinkstock
Grow it at home
Choose a variety to suit your climate, adding lime to acidic soils to boost growth. Lavender tolerates poor soil as long as it is very well drained.
POSITION in full sun, as shade causes the plant to grow towards the light.
PLANT seeds, container-grown plants or cuttings in spring.
FEED with liquid fertiliser just once or twice during the growing season.
WATER once or twice a week in hot weather after planting, as lavender is drought-tolerant once established.
MULCH year round to protect from the cold and reduce evaporation.
PRUNE the flowers in spring, cutting the plant back to keep it compact.
WATCH FOR grey mould in wet, humid conditions as fungal diseases can kill lavender. Ensure good airflow around plants and eliminate weeds. Remove and destroy badly infected plants.
Lavender attracts honey bees to the garden for pollination. Image: Thinkstock
Raise a healthy hedge
Lavender releases a strong scent when brushed against, so it makes a very fragrant hedge. Mature plants can be bought and planted, but this is an expensive way to create hedging.
A more economical method is to buy small plants as tube stock or propagate your own plants in spring, planting them out about 300mm apart.
The effect might not be instant but within a year or two the hedge will be taking shape at a fraction of the cost.
Lavender is low maintenance but a hedge should be pruned twice a year to keep it compact and looking good.
Prune after flowering to remove spent blooms then give the plants a light trim in spring.
For the first prune, trim as much of the season’s green growth as possible without cutting into old wood.
Brushing against lavender releases the fragrance making it a great plant for pathways and hedges
Propagating lavender cuttings
Take softwood cuttings from non-flowering stems in spring to grow a potted feature plant, hedge or garden border. Insert the cuttings in a pot and position in a warm shaded spot, transplanting into well-drained soil after six weeks.
TIP Lavender won’t regenerate from old wood, so don’t prune too hard.
Strip the leaves from the base of the shoots by hand so the cuttings have a sufficient length of bare stem for clean insertion, then dip each cutting into hormone powder.
Make holes around the edge of a small pot filled with seed-raising mix using a stick then insert the cuttings and water. Cover with a clear plastic bag to create humidity.