How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Lavender in Your Garden
Are you considering growing some lavender this season? Lavender is one of the trickiest plants to grow, depending on your geographic location. Organic gardening expert Logan Hailey worked one of the most popular lavender farms on the west coast for several seasons. In this article, she walks you through how to plant, grow, and care for lavender, step by step.
When a spring breeze wisps the refreshing floral aroma of lavender through an open window, one can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia and presence. Few things compare to a lavender planting in full bloom. And no garden is complete without it!
For centuries, this classic herb has been coveted for its decadent fragrance, calming presence, and even healing properties. It thrives in poor soils and can bloom year after year for decades to come. Once established, it takes very little maintenance aside from annual pruning and– of course– harvesting the dazzling lilac-colored spikes.
Growing lavender is almost a rite of passage for the avid home gardener. Yet in spite of its delicate flowers, it has a few strict preferences that it’s not willing to compromise. Fortunately, caring for this hardy herb easily becomes second-nature once you understand its unique needs. Let’s dig into everything you need to know about how to plant, grow, and care for lavender.
Lavender Plant Overview
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Plant Family Lamiaceae (Mint Family)
Plant Genus Lavandula
Plant Species L. angustifolia, L. intermedia
Hardiness Zone USDA zones 5-10
Planting Season Early spring and fall
Plant Maintenance Moderate
Plant Height Up to 2-3 feet tall and wide
Fertility Needs Low to none
Companion Plants Rosemary, sage, herbs
Soil Type Sandy, rocky, well-drained
Plant Spacing 1-3 feet
Watering Needs Low to none
Sun Exposure Full sun
Lifespan 5-20 years, depending on variety
Pests Spittlebugs, whiteflies, FLB
Diseases Root rot, crown rot, xylella
Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is an herbaceous perennial herb in the Lamiaceae, or mint family. It is closely related to rosemary, sage, and thyme. It has silvery-green foliage and spike-shaped flowers that come in many hues of purple, pink, and white. Lavender shrubs are semi-woody and characterized by their square-shaped stems and evergreen foliage (in some climates).
Depending on the variety, lavender can be a dwarf 12” tall plant or a massive bush up to 36” tall and 3-4’ wide. This aromatic shrub has been cultivated for millenia for its perfumey blossoms that lend well to culinary, medicinal, and ornamental uses.
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean, where it still grows wild on dry rocky slopes beneath hot summer sun. Early travelers to the region quickly began collecting the dazzling purple flower and later helped spread it throughout Europe. Lavender is now cultivated almost everywhere in the world and is especially cherished in English gardens and North American backyards.
There are over 450 different lavender varieties of 45 unique species in the Lavandula genus. Many species are specifically adapted to containers, large bulk plantings, essential oil production, and hot or humid climates. Some cultivars even remain perennial in regions as cold as USDA zone 5.
It can actually grow perennially all the way down to hardiness zone 3 if you choose the right cold-tolerant variety. Lavender is impressively hardy, drought tolerant, and adaptable to a range of growing conditions.
Wild Lavandula species originated in the mountainous regions of Mediterranean Europe, specifically Italy, France, and Spain. Some wild stands of lavender thrive at altitudes of 3,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level!
Lavender loves the sandy or rocky calcareous (calcium-rich) soils similar to those preferred by wine grapes. During the rainy winters, water moves quickly through these well-drained soils and down the slopes, giving us clues to what lavender prefers in the garden. By far, the most common mistake beginner lavender gardeners make is growing in poorly drained soils.
Lavender loves its native Mediterranean weather of dry, hot summers and wet, mild winters. Though it can grow in most climates in the United States, it thrives in areas that most closely match these weather patterns like the arid West and parts of the Pacific Northwest.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t grow lavender in the Midwest, Northeast, or South. It simply takes a bit more effort and special attention to variety selection, which we will cover below.
Given its dry highland origins, Lavender doesn’t do as well in areas with high humidity, which is why southern growers often opt to grow lavender as an annual or container plant. There are also several varieties of Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) bred specifically for hot, humid climates.
Lavender is most commonly propagated by vegetative cuttings rather than seeds. This is because lavender seeds can be difficult to germinate and take a lot of extra steps (and patience) that most beginners aren’t willing to endure.
Softwood or hardwood cuttings are far quicker, simpler ways to clone a lavender plant and get an abundance of new lavender plants for super cheap! Here’s the basics for trying one or all three methods:
Growing Lavender From Seed
Contrary to popular belief, you can certainly grow lavender the old-fashioned way: from seed. While most beginner gardeners purchase lavender from the store, lavender seeds are straightforward to grow as long as you have plenty of patience. It takes up to 2 full years for lavender to bloom after being sown from seed.
Carefully choose what varieties you’d like to grow and purchase lavender seeds from a reputable disease-free source.
Indoor vs. Direct Seeding Lavender
These seeds can germinate quite irregularly and require a special amount of attention. Because of this, it’s best to start lavender seeds indoors rather than direct sowing in the garden. If you do want to try seeding outdoors, do it in the late fall so the lavender seeds get exposed to the cold temperatures before sprouting in the spring.
For indoor sowing, lavender seeds need to be cold stratified. Cold stratification is the process of exposing seeds to a period of cold temperatures to “break” their dormancy. This mimics the natural overwintering process they would have in their native wild habitat.
Simply put the seeds in moist (not soggy) soil inside a plastic bag and keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 6 weeks before planting.
Germinating Lavender Seeds
It’s best to start lavender seeds indoors 10 to 12 weeks before your expected last frost date in the spring. Once the lavender seeds have been stratified, remove them from the fridge and pour into a shallow container.
Fill a small pot or cell tray with seed starter mix. Sprinkle in 2-3 lavender seeds per cell and lightly press them into the soil. The seeds need light to germinate, so don’t sow them any deeper than ⅛”.
Gently water and keep the seeds moist for 30 days, or until they begin to sprout from the soil. Don’t let the soil dry out, but don’t get it soggy either. Keep in a warm, sunny place at about 60° to 70°F.. Optionally, use a heating mat set at 75°F to encourage more even germination.
Once the lavender seeds have sprouted and grown to fill out their cell trays, up-pot transplant just like you would any other vegetable start. Wait until after the last frost date to plant outside.
As you can see, growing from seed takes time. But it has many benefits, and some gardeners may argue that it’s more rewarding to grow from seed, than it is to propagate from cuttings or from purchasing transplants. Now that you understand the process of growing from seed, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of growing lavender from seed.
Pros of Growing Lavender from Seed
- Cheaper than purchasing starts.
- More varietal selection.
- Easier to grow a large quantity.
- No “mother plant” required to start.
Cons of Growing Lavender from Seed
- Need cold stratification for the best germination success.
- Can take up to a month to germinate.
- More patience needed.
- Lower success rate than cuttings.
- Takes up to 2 years from seed to bloom.
Propagation by Softwood Cuttings
Softwood cuttings are taken from the pliable, green tips of new lavender growth in the spring. These quick-growing tips are plentiful in the period before lavender starts to flower, but you can’t reliably root stems that have already started to bloom.
It’s important that your starting “mother plant” is healthy and vigorous enough to allow for pruning off several cuttings.
Whether softwood or hardwood, propagating lavender cuttings requires a few simple tools. Once you’ve collected your tools, you’ll move onto the steps for propagating lavender.
- Sharp, sanitized knife or shears.
- Small pot or cell trays.
- Store bought rooting medium or a homemade mix.
- Rooting hormone or a homemade rooting method.
- Plastic cover (to conserve humidity for a greenhouse effect).
Now that you’ve taken the time to gather your tools, let’s take a look at the steps involved with propagation from cuttings.
Step 1: Take a Cutting
To take a softwood cutting, begin by examining your lavender plant in early spring. Look for a stem that has vibrant green color and no flower buds growing on it yet. Find a node (bump on the stem) a few inches from the tip. You will cut at a diagonal angle just below this node.
The cutting should be 3 to 4 inches long. Take as many cuttings as you need and then begin preparing them for rooting. Strip the lower 2 inches of leaves from each stem. Then, use your knife to scrape a small amount of the fleshy skin from the bottom part of the cutting.
Step 2: Plant in Rooting Medium
Fill a multi-cell container or small pot with your rooting medium. If using a rooting hormone, dip the stripped end of each cutting into the solution right before placing it in the medium. This will help the cutting quickly establish roots while resisting rotting.
Softwood cuttings don’t always need a rooting hormone and can root without them as well. The bottom of the stem cuttings should be about 2 inches deep in the soil. Press around it to ensure that the stem stands up straight, then water thoroughly and place a plastic dome or ventilated plastic bag over the top to keep the area humid.
Step 3: Place in a Moist, Sunny Location
Keep lavender cuttings in a sunny location and water regularly to keep the soil moist about 1 inch down. Don’t let it get soggy or your cuttings might rot. A heating mat set at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit can help cuttings establish more quickly.
After 2 to 4 weeks, give the stems a gentle tug to see if they have started developing roots. If they start to have enough resistance, you can use a trowel to gently lift them from the soil and transplant them into a larger container.
Contrary to popular belief, propagation from cuttings isn’t simple. While it’s likely to yield quicker results than propagating from seed, there are plenty of problems that can pop up. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of softwood cutting propagation.
Pros of Softwood Cuttings
- Quickest rooting (2-4 weeks).
- Easiest to collect large quantities in spring.
- Don’t always need a rooting hormone.
Cons of Softwood Cuttings
- Less hardy than hardwood cuttings.
- Require more attention.
- More delicate and prone to rot.
- Can only propagate in spring.
Propagation by Hardwood Cuttings
Hardwood cuttings are brown, woody, non-pliable parts of the lavender plant. They can be used to propagate lavender in the spring, summer, or fall.
Propagation of hardwood cuttings are similar to propagation of softwood cuttings. Follow the steps below for hardwood propagation.
Step 1: Take Your Hardwood Cutting
To take a hardwood cutting, locate a green growing leaf tip and then follow the stem down to the brown woody portion. Cut the stem at an angle roughly 1 to 2 inches below the green softwood. Remove the lower leaves that grow on the woody part.
Step 2: Use a Rooting Solution
The cuttings should be about 4 to 6 inches long. Scrape a bit of the woody skin from the lower tip and dip them in a rooting solution to maximize success.
Step 3: Place Cuttings in a Container & Care
Place hardwood cuttings in a container like the one described above. Care for them just like softwood cuttings. Wait 4 to 6 weeks for them to establish roots before transplanting.
The process of propagation of hardwood cuttings is similar to propagating from softwood. This propagation method will likely take longer for your lavender to root, but your plant will likely stand up to harsher elements since it’s being grown from a more established plant. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of hardwood propagation.
Pros of Hardwood Cuttings
- More hardy and reliable.
- Can propagate in spring or fall.
- Less prone to rot.
Cons of Hardwood Cuttings
- Take longer to root than softwood cuttings (4-6+ weeks).
- May require a rooting hormone.
Lavender is hardy perennial in most climates, but it needs to be planted at the right time to get established before any extreme temperatures.
The best time to plant young lavender plants is in the spring after the chance of frost has passed. Use a temperature probe to check that the soil has warmed to at least 60°F.
Larger established lavender plants can be transplanted in the fall in mild climates (zones 9-10) so they can establish their roots during the cool season.
Before planting lavender, be sure that you have properly prepared the soil. Don’t skimp on this part! It is much harder to fix lavender soil after it is already planted. Recall that this herb is perennial in zones 5-10, so it will be planted in this part of your garden for the next 5-10 years.
Start by digging a hole that is twice as deep and twice as wide as the lavender’s root ball. Then, use a broadfork or digging fork to loosen the surrounding soil.
To improve drainage, mix in a generous amount of sand, perlite, shredded bark, or fine gravel. If you want to use compost, make sure it is mostly bark-based or leaf-based and doesn’t contain materials with high-nitrogen content like manure.
If growing in a heavy clay soil, widen and deepen the hole even more to be sure that the lavender’s root zone doesn’t get waterlogged. As a rule of thumb, a lavender’s planting hole should always be at least two to three times as large as the root ball in every direction.
Lavender planted in a shallow hole or poorly drained soil will have a hard time pushing its roots down and getting established, which can lead to signs of stress (wilting, yellowing leaves, or slow growth).
Once you’ve sweated and dug, transplanting lavender is super simple! Begin with a homegrown or store bought lavender start at least 8-12” tall.
Important Tips For Transplants
- Make sure transplants sure they are thoroughly rooted.
- Ensure you have healthy lookin transplants, especially if purchased.
- Loosen tightly bound root balls before planting.
It’s best to transplant lavender in the morning. To reduce the risk of transplant shock, lightly soak the plant with a watering can to encourage the soil to stick to the roots. Grasp the plant at its semi-woody base and wiggle it out of the container. Place it in the hole, keeping the base of the plant at the same level as it was in its pot.
Cover the roots with soil and use your hands to gently firm the soil around the base. However, don’t use too much force or it will cause compaction (and lavender hates compaction!)
Optionally, you can use white gravel or stone to mulch around the immediate base of the plant. This is what commercial lavender growers do to suppress weeds and reflect sunlight upward to help keep the foliage dry (which reduces the risk of many common lavender diseases).
Once it’s established, lavender is remarkably drought tolerant. In fact, commercial lavender farms often only water their plants just a few times per year. But newly transplanted lavender is a bit more needy. You don’t want these babies to dry out! Follow this watering schedule for the highest chance of success:
Immediately After Transplanting
Thoroughly soak the root zone with water from the base of the plant. Add a diluted kelp solution to minimize transplant shock (but avoid any high-nutrient fertilizer).
First 30 Days Post Transplant
Generously water new lavender plants every week if there isn’t any rain.
After 30 Days
Reduce your watering to once every 2-3 weeks and skip if there has been significant rain.
After 6 months, your lavender should be thoroughly established, green and growing. These plants are super drought tolerant and may only need water in the driest, hottest parts of the summer season.
Regardless of the life stage of your lavender, never water it from above! Lavender hates to have its foliage or stems wet (except, of course in unavoidable rainstorms).
Lavender bushes can grow surprisingly large, often 1 to 3 feet wide and up to 3 feet tall! Most lavender bushes need at least 2 to 3 feet of space in every direction. Dwarf varieties like ‘Compacta’ and ‘Hidcote’, and ‘Irene Doyle’ can be planted closer together at 1 to 2 feet.
Once established, lavender is one of the easiest, most hands-off herbs you can grow. The hardy perennial is resistant to drought and only requires pruning once or twice per year.
Lavender needs full sun, or at least 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight every day. Ideally, they should be planted in a south-facing part of the garden.
Recall that these beautiful purple flowers prefer to grow on hot open slopes of Mediterranean Europe. They like to bask in the sun as much as possible. Be sure that your lavender isn’t going to get shaded out by neighboring trees, shrubs, or structures.
Lavender plants are very drought tolerant and adapted to arid, hot regions. They are more likely to suffer from overwatering than they are from underwatering.
In fact, overwatering is often the most common reason for lavender disease, root rot, and problems with pathogens.
To prevent soggy conditions and ensure lavender is happy with its moisture level:
Preventing Soggy Soil Conditions
- Plant lavender in soil that is as well-drained as possible.
- Never use overhead irrigation.
- Irrigate newly planted lavender once every 1-2 weeks.
- Only water established lavender plants in the hottest, driest parts of the summer.
Lavender’s soil preferences are almost the opposite of our common garden crops: no rich composts, high fertility manures, or fluffy soil texture. In spite of its delicate floral fragrance, lavender prefers a rugged soil: gravelly, sandy, and extremely well-drained. It thrives in alkaline soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5.
The best step for success with lavender is to prepare the soil ahead of planting. First, double dig or broadfork the entire planting bed. Be sure to loosen at least 6-12” beyond the planting hole so that the lavender can spread its roots deep and wide.
Amend with one or more of the following:
- Coarse sand
- Peat moss
- Perlite or vermiculite
- Shredded wood bark
- Fine pea gravel
- Coconut coir
- Bark or leaf-based compost (not manure based)
Mulches are useful for protecting the soil from erosion, insulating the root zone from extreme weather and suppressing weeds. Lavender does best with a lightweight mulch like light wood shavings, pea gravel, perlite, shredded leaves, or chopped straw. This also prevents splashing water from going up onto the leaves and causing diseases. Avoid any heavy or deeply layered mulches that hold in a lot of moisture.
In a perfect world, lavender would grow in the lovely warm Mediterranean temperatures between 65° and 85°F with minimal humidity. It really prefers dry warmth for most of the growing season, so if you live in an extra moist climate, be sure to widen your spacing, up your pruning game, and choose a Spanish (Lavandula stoechas) variety more suited to humid settings.
Most Spanish and French lavenders are not frost hardy below 30°F, therefore they need to be protected or brought indoors in the winter. However, English lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) like ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote Superior’ can tolerate temperatures down to a whopping -20°F once it’s in dormancy. Proper pruning and mulching also help lavender survive intense frosts.
Many varieties will have temperature tolerances somewhere between these extremes, so be sure to read our guide to lavender varieties to find what will be best for your climate.
Unlike most of our common garden crops, lavender does not prefer to be fertilized at all. High nitrogen soils or fertilizers can actually lead to less fragrant blooms and an excess of foliage growth. Avoid fertilizing lavender or adding manure-based composts.
The only mineral fertilizer your lavender may need is calcium (in the form of agricultural lime or eggshells). Eggshells have the added benefit of making the soil more alkaline.
Pruning lavender is the most important step you can take to maintain aesthetically-pleasing, happy plants. Similar to mowing a lawn, the pruning process encourages big flushes of new growth while keeping the bushes in a nice rounded shape.
- An aesthetically-pleasing shape.
- More flushes of flowers.
- Healthy foliage growth.
- Less risk of disease.
- Less woody growth.
Un-pruned lavender plants can get quite mangled, woody, and unsightly if they are left to their own devices. This can even cause them to be susceptible to high winds and disease issues.
Most gardeners prune lavender twice a year:
- Once in the spring after the first round of flowers (“softer” pruning).
- Again in late summer or early fall (“harder” pruning).
The spring pruning is easy to do as part of your first big spring flower stem harvest. You simply use your shears to shape the plant in a big arched shape as you cut the lavender stems. Cut 2-3” above the woody growth, leaving 1-2” of green new growth to fuel the next flush.
In the fall, you will do a “harder” prune that cuts back up to one third of the lavender’s new growth. Cut just above the new growth and side branches, creating an oval arc over the top of the plant. Be sure you don’t cut into the inner hardwood of the plant.
Pro Tip: Use the pruned stems to multiply your lavender plants. Take cuttings at the same time as pruning and root them using the instructions above. Be sure there is at least one lower node to sprout new roots in the potting medium.
Proper pruning can help your lavender live for 5, 10, or even 20 years in the garden. But there is one very important pruning rule for lavender: never, ever, ever cut into the woody base (hardwood) of the plant. This can harm or even kill your lavender.
Lavender varieties can be a bit confusing because the Lavandula genus has over 45 species and 450 unique cultivars. The four main types of lavender are:
Spanish Lavenders (Lavandula stoechas)
Known for pine-cone shaped flowers and “rabbits ear” bracts, these varieties tolerate the most humidity and heat, making them great for southern growers. Their scent is reminiscent of pine, rosemary, or eucalyptus. They are very drought tolerant and compact shrubs.
English Lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia)
Most coveted for their fragrance, English lavenders are the infamous “true lavenders” with slender stems and tight violet (or white, pink, or blue) flower spikes. They are the most cold hardy of all and great for northern climates.
Lavandin Hybrids (Lavandula intermedia)
Bred specifically for extra high essential oil content, Lavandins are hybrid crosses between English Lavender and Portuguese Lavender (Lavandula latifolia). They have lovely aromatic sage-like foliage, delightful perfume lavender scents, and wide adaptation to zones 5-10. They can only be propagated by cutting because their seeds are sterile.
French Lavenders (Lavandula dentata)
These lavenders have fluffy flowers, tooth-shaped leaves, and an extra long bloom time. They are mostly ornamental, though they still have a nice fragrance and charm. Unlike English varieties, French lavender does best in the mild climates of zones 7-10.
The cultivar selections you make depend heavily on how you want to use your lavender (culinary, aroma, or ornamental), how hot or humid it is in your climate, the necessary frost tolerance, and the aesthetic you prefer.
Thanks to their super strong smell and extreme hardiness, lavender is incredibly resistant to pests and diseases. There are very few bugs that tolerate the musky aroma and bitter flavor of lavender. However, pathogens can be an issue when lavender is exposed to large amounts of humidity, rain, or overhead irrigation. Thankfully, prevention is very straightforward and similar for all major lavender diseases.
Overwatering, rainy winters or heavy clay soils can lead to fungal attack of the lavender roots. These pathogens attack the root zone and cause discolored, blackened, or mushy roots. Above ground, the plant may appear wilted, yellow, brown, or droopy even when the soil is thoroughly moist. As the disease progresses, the plant can no longer absorb nutrients and water, ultimately leading to death.
Cultural controls are the most important ways to prevent root rot. Well-drained soil is key. But if your plants have already succumbed to the disease, you can try to stop it from spreading by pruning away damaged root tissues and treating the root zone with an organic fungicide like baking soda, horsetail (Equisetum), or sulfur.
However, this isn’t foolproof. Often the best means for dealing with lavender root rot is disposing of the plant and replanting in a new, better drained area.
Lavender is also susceptible to Crown Rot, Phytophthora root rot, Xylella bacteria, Shab, Alfalfa Mosaic virus, Botrytis, and Septoria Leaf spot. But the most important thing to remember is that they can all be prevented with similar measures.
To prevent lavender diseases:
- Well-drained soil cannot be emphasized enough.
- Improper drainage is the number one reason for diseases.
- Avoid heavy clay soils.
- Double dig the planting area, and amend with aerated materials.
- Avoid overwatering. When in doubt, neglect your lavender.
- Allow soil to dry out between watering.
- Avoid overhead irrigation.
- Maintain proper air flow and spacing.
- Remove and destroy infected parts ASAP.
- Use neem oil, baking soda, horsetail (Equisetum), copper, or sulfur when necessary.
- Control aphids and pests, when present (they can spread bacteria and viruses).
Fortunately, lavender is virtually immune to pest issues. That’s why it has been used for thousands of years as a bug spray and pest deterrent! While some insects may hang out on the plant, they are unlikely to cause any major damage.
The most common (but benign) lavender pests include:
- Four-Lined Plant Bug (FLPB)
Frequently Asked Questions
Where does lavender grow best?
Lavender thrives in climates most similar to its Mediterranean home: hot, dry summers and cool, mild winters. The arid West (California, Colorado, Washington, parts of Oregon, New Mexico, and Texas) have the most success with growing lavender commercially. However, lavender can be grown almost anywhere in the U.S. if the proper variety is chosen.
Is lavender an easy plant to grow?
Once established, lavender is incredibly simple to grow. It is drought-tolerant, resilient to pests and diseases, and thrives on a bit of neglect. As long as lavender has a well-drained soil, ample sunshine, and a yearly pruning, the plant doesn’t require much attention.
What’s the secret to growing lavender?
The number one most important secret to growing great lavender is to prepare a superbly drained soil. Soggy soils with poor drainage quickly lead to lavender’s demise by pathogens, root rot, or sluggish vigor. To keep your plants happy, thoroughly dig and aerate the soil before planting, then amend generously with pea gravel, coarse sand, peat moss, or shredded bark. Avoid overwatering and prune twice per year.
Does lavender come back every year?
In most climates (USDA zones 5-10), lavender is a semi-woody perennial shrub that comes back every year with proper pruning. Depending on the variety, it can also be grown as an annual or a container plant that is brought indoors during extreme winters.
Few garden plants are as hardy and hands-off as lavender. As long as it has ample sunshine, warmth, and really well-drained soil, lavender is sure to thrive.
Other than harvesting and pruning once or twice a year, this herb is eager to please. And when it comes to irrigation, it even thrives on a bit of neglect! If you put the effort into establishing lavender the right way, it will reward you with many years of gorgeous blossoms without much need for attention at all.