How to Grow Lavender in the Midwest
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.
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. Bees and butterflies love lavender, and in peak flowering season of June through August, a visit to your garden will give a whole new meaning to aromatherapy.
Here's how to add this perennial bloomer to your yard.
Where and How to Plant Lavender
Place in Full Sun
Lavender likes at least eight hours of sun a day.
Prep Soil Well
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. Add lime to increase soil pH (6.5 to 7.5 is ideal).
A mounded bed also helps provide drainage. Without good drainage, lavender will rot.
Plant in Spring
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.
Give Lavender Room
Midwest lavender farms space plants about 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.
Water Until 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.
After lavender's first bloom, prune and add more lime each spring. lf needed, add non-organic mulch such as gravel or rock. Wood mulch holds too much moisture and may promote mold growth.
Harvesting and Drying Lavender
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.
Cut Spikes As They Bloom
Trim 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
Even better, harvest 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.
Lavender plants should grow for seven to 10 years in the Midwest. Avoid varieties labeled as annuals or Spanish lavenders; they won't survive our cold winters. The following English lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) and lavandins (a hybrid lavender) are easy to find and grow in our region; all are hardy to Zone 5.
Named because it grows well in England, English lavender tolerates Midwest humidity better than most lavandins.
'Graves' This elegant dark purple variety adds graceful height to landscaping; it reaches 36 inches tall and is noted for its strong fragrance.
'Melissa' Pinky white buds bring delicate beauty to gardens—and if used for cooking, count on a subtle nutty flavor.
'Munstead' This great culinary lavender delivers early-season violet-blue blooms.
'Hidcote' One of the toughest English lavenders, velvety deep-purple 'Hidcote' dries intensely blue. It's great for crafts because the buds stay on stems.
Violet Intrigue Medium-size violet-blue buds look beautiful and also bring a nice light citrus flavor to dishes.
Originating in the Provence region of France—where they're used in perfumes—lavandins (lavender hybrids) crave hot temps and dry conditions
'Grosso' According to many Midwest lavender farm owners, this dark purple variety is the easiest lavandin to grow in our region. Long stems with prolific, dark purple blooms make it great for dried crafts. The flowers are fragrant, redolent of camphor.
'Provence' Its fragrant lavender buds are commonly used in sachets because they fall off the stem easily. This lavender, grown abundantly in France, is considered more rot-resistant than other cultivars.
'Hidcote Giant' Bigger than 'Hidcote' English lavender, this hybrid boasts deep-color blooms on long stems.
How to Use Your Lavender
While lavender is a handsome garden specimen, it also has many 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.
Sweet and savory foods get a surprising lift from organic dried culinary buds. Whole or crushed, the buds boost meat rubs, salads, soups and desserts. The buds pair well with honey and lemon and herbs like rosemary and thyme in lavender recipes like Lavender Shortbread Cookies, Sparkling Lavender Lemonade or Lavender-Spiced Walnuts.
You can also use the flowers and essential oils in soaps, lotions, creams, candles and sachets. Commercial lavender growers also often hold classes in how to make lavender products; if you're interested in a hands-on experience, check for classes at a farm near you (or near your next Midwest vacation destination).
Where to Buy Lavender
We suggest buying plants at your local garden center or a Midwest lavender farm. If you want to purchase mail-order, we found a good assortment of varieties at High Country Gardens (just make sure you are buying one hardy to your Zone).