Beautiful, fragrant lavender is native to hot, dry, Mediterranean climates. But this hardy small shrub adapts to the challenging growing conditions of the Midwest, too. These tips will help you add this perennial bloomer to your garden.
Lavender plants need plenty of sunshine (blazing sun is not too much), room to spread and perfect drainage; lavender rots when planted in soil that holds too much moisture.
If you've got the right setting, lavender rewards you lavishly. Plants bloom for weeks, and their silvery foliage gleams from spring through frost.
While lavender is a handsome garden specimen, it also has other uses. For centuries, lavender has perfumed linens, clothes and homes; it lay among the fragrant herbs strewn on the floors of homes in medieval times. The powerful fragrance is said to relieve pain, soothe sunburn, cure insomnia and repel insects.
This multifaceted herb spurs such interest--and sales--that it's the star attraction of at least a dozen farms around the Midwest. Thousands of guests visit every summer during the peak flowering season of June through August. As visitors brush up against fragrant wands of blooms on a walk through a field of lavender, aromatherapy takes on new meaning.
Jody Byrne, manager of DayBreak Lavender Farm in Streetsboro, Ohio, grows 2 acres of lavender. She considers it "the Swiss Army knife of herbs." She uses the flowers and essential oils in soaps, lotions, creams, candles and sachets--even in cookies and cakes.
The fragrance, she says, has a mysterious appeal. "So many people have a lavender memory: a grandmother, a handkerchief, a drawer, a closet," says Jody. "Scent triggers so many things."
Here's what has worked for Midwest lavender farmers--and what should work in your home garden, too.
Plant in full sun. Lavender likes at least eight hours of sun a day.
Prepare 8-12 inches of well-draining soil for your plants. Lavender doesn't like the clay soils of the Midwest, which trap moisture. Prepare an ideal soil that drains well with one-third garden soil, one-third sand or pea gravel and one-third organic compost. When Deborah and Steve Nathe started their lavender farm, Winding Brook Estate, in Eureka, Missouri, just outside St. Louis, they literally added tons of sand to the soil. A mounded bed also helps provide drainage. Without good drainage, lavender will rot.
Plant in spring for best results. While lavender can be planted anytime from early spring to late fall, it has a better chance of thriving if it goes through a full growing season before winter.
Winding Brook Estate 
Provide room to grow. Kieran and Libbe O'Connor, who have nearly 4,000 lavender plants at Willowfield Lavender Farm in Mooresville, Indiana, space their plants 3 feet apart on mounded rows of well-draining soil. The extra space allows better air circulation to keep the plants healthy and improve production.
Use non-organic mulch. Deborah and Steve of Winding Brook Estate mulch their plants with white limestone pea gravel. The gravel mulch "sweetens" the soil, making it slightly alkaline (which lavender prefers) and reflecting light and warmth up into the plants. Use organic mulch only when first preparing the soil for new plants; after that, use gravel or rock. Wood mulch holds too much moisture and may promote mold growth.
Water until the roots take hold. Establishing lavender plants takes diligence, and you'll need to water new plants when they're dry to the touch. But once lavender is growing well, the plant is extremely drought-tolerant and doesn't need pampering or fertilizer. The fragrance everyone loves also makes it unattractive to rabbits and deer.
Lavender may bloom its first year, but it takes three years for plants to mature. Then you will have plenty of blooms to harvest for various uses.
Harvest spikes of mature plants as soon as they bloom. Cut just above the leaves. Don't be afraid to cut a lot of spikes; harvesting will promote new growth and keeps the plants from becoming leggy.
Harvest on a dry day, or after a series of dry days. This will mean less moisture on the plant. Late morning, after dew has evaporated, is an ideal time.
Dry in bundles. Tie six to 12 lavender spikes together and hang upside down on poles or hooks in a dry, dark place. Good air circulation will prevent the lavender from becoming moldy. It should dry in about a month.
Start with our recommended varieties. We asked Midwest lavender farmers to tell us which varieties perform best for them. True lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) are the most cold-hardy, but lavandin hybrids (L. x intermedia) also thrive in our region. Try the seven favorites on the following pages; all but one are hardy to Zone 5.
Pictured, from left: 'Grosso', 'Provence White', 'Hidcote Pink', 'Silver Frost', 'Mitcham Grey'
'Hidcote' has very dark flowers on compact plants 16 inches tall and 18 inches wide. It blooms in late spring and may rebloom in the same season. Pictured: 'Hidcote Giant'
'Lady', a Zone 6 seed-grown variety (other lavenders originate as cuttings), is the only lavender to reliably bloom its first summer. So even if it isn't hardy where you live, you can grow it as an annual that reaches 16 inches tall.
'Mitcham Grey', growing about 20 inches tall and wide, is the favorite lavender of Kieran and Libbe O'Connor at Willowfield Lavender Farm in Indiana. They love its dark blue flowers and heady fragrance.
'Munstead' is an old-time favorite for its reliable early blooms. Plants, with blue-purple flowers, grow 2 feet tall and wide.
'Royal Velvet' has extra-long flower spikes (up to 3 feet tall) that hold their navy blue and lavender color well in dried arrangements.
'Grosso', with prolific, dark purple blooms on long stems, is one of the most popular varieties, growing 30 inches tall and 24-30 inches wide. The flowers are fragrant, redolent of camphor.
'Provence', the lavender grown abundantly in France, is considered more rot-resistant than other cultivars. The purple flowers, when grown organically, are great for cooking.
Pictured, from left: 'Hidcote Superior', 'Melissa', 'Caty Blanc', 'Provence', 'Wycoff'
If you want to enjoy lavender in full bloom, visit lavender farms between June and August. Many are open only on specific dates; check before you go. Some farms offer pick-your-own-flowers at harvest time. Many have lavender products, such as soaps, oils and bouquets, available for sale year-round.
Illinois Lavender Creek Farm, Mackinaw
Kansas Kansas Lavender, Topeka (kansaslavender.com )
Missouri Winding Brook Estate, Eureka (lavender.windingbrookestate.com )
Ohio DayBreak Lavender Farm, Streetsboro (daybreaklavenderfarm.com ); Peaceful Acres Lavender Farm, Martinsville (peacefulacreslavenderfarm.com ); Springbrook Meadows Lavender, Hillsboro (springbrookmeadowslavender.com )
We suggest buying plants at your local garden center or some Midwest lavender farms. If you want to purchase mail-order, we found the greatest assortment of varieties at High Country Gardens (just make sure you are buying one hardy to your Zone).
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2008.)
High Country Gardens