So what’s the big deal about harvesting lavender anyway, and why should I grow it?
History and Uses
Lavender is one of those “must-haves” in every gardener’s yard. It’s quite simply one of the best plants to grow due to it’s wide temperature tolerance, low nutritional needs, and most of all it’s AMAZING smell. All it takes is one walk down the detergent aisle of you local grocery store and you’ll see that all of the major producers have some form of “lavender scented” softener… particularly targeted for your sheets. Why? Because for thousands of years, lavender has been universally sought after for it’s unique ability to induce a more restful sleep, and fall lavender harvesting is once again upon us!
While it seems to have been “rediscovered” in recent years in the form of essential oils, for well over 2,000 years, lavender has been an extremely sought after plant. Romans, Greeks, Persians, and even the Egyptians have been documented as using lavender for a variety of purposes. The Egyptians were documented as using it for their perfumes and for the mummification process dating back to the times of Pharaoh. Others have used it for soaps, bath salts, infused oils, and even the Balm of Gilead used in the Bible was rumored to have included lavender. Some people speculate that the word “spikenard” used to anoint the feet of Jesus in John 12 may have been another name for lavender. Whether any of that’s true or not, there is no doubt that lavender’s aromatic properties are well extolled and the virtues of it’s medicinal properties are equally promoted.
From a medicinal perspective, it’s said that during the 14th century there were people who believed using lavender could cure the plague and other diseases. While we aren’t ready to sign up for those treatments just yet, the most common usage for lavender today is as a sleep aid through aromatherapy or by putting the lavender directly into pillow cases through the use of sachets. It’s also quite often used with bath salts and oil infusions. However more recently studies have shown that it can even be used to treat pain, help with skin irritations, acne, and even diaper rash.
In our family, we use it quite frequently to help our children with chronic leg aches at night. We use a combination of coconut oil and peppermint oil that’s been infused with lavender. If you’re interested you can find it in the book Healing and Herbal Infusions.
So now that we’ve established it’s a pretty cool plant… how do I grow it?
It always seems to me as if the lavender was a little woman in a green dress, with a lavender bonnet, and white kerchief. She’s one of those strong, sweet, wholesome people, who always rest you, and her sweetness lingers long after she goes away.~Myrtle Reed (American author, poet, and journalist)
As we mentioned earlier, Lavender is a pretty hearty plant and it grows well in soils that many plants might turn their proverbial noses up at. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean and is grown by the hundreds of acres to this day in the Provence area of France. It thrives in sunny areas that are semi-arid and is much more tolerant to dry soil than wet and can even grow well in containers. Typically it grows well in USDA zones 5-10 and while it does love warm temperatures… it doesn’t typically do as well in humid areas, so growers in Gulf states like Florida might see some challenges.
Certain types of lavender, especially English Lavender, can get quite woody if not kept in check. For those reasons, some people have turned to lavender as low wind breaks and low hedges in their landscaping. If you’re looking to start lavender from seed, it can be a real challenge for even experienced growers. For that reason, it may be best to go to a local nursery or your local big box home improvement stores to source your plants. Often towards the end of the season, you can get neglected lavender plants for pennies on the dollar and nurse them back to health. Because lavender tolerates such dry conditions, you can often coax it back from near death in these scenarios with surprising success by simply watering and then cutting back any firmly dead growth.
Typically growing for 5-10 years, lavender does best when pruned once or twice a year, and the fall lavender harvesting event is the most important for plant health. In the spring and summer (or whenever you just want some fresh cuttings) you can harvest the top 10% or so of the plant and you’ll be amazed at how quickly it grows right back. If you’re lucky enough to grow in warmer climates, you may be able to do these small pruning events year-round, as they encourage new flower growth and can keep your plants in a near perpetual state of flowering. However if you live in colder climates where the growing season is shorter, you may want to limit yourself to only two major pruning/harvesting events per year.
The fall lavender harvesting is a bit more of the “tough love” event where you’re going to cut the plant back more aggressively. If you plants are younger and smaller, you’ll want to be somewhat judicious in how you prune for the first few years. However if you plants are bigger and more woody (think small hedge level) then they can and should be pruned back much further. A good rule of thumb is that you can generally prune your plants back 30% without damaging your them. Unless things have gotten way out of hand, you don’t typically want to take it down to the “woody” portions as the plant may not recover.
Drying your lavender
Once you’ve finished your fall lavender harvesting, the best approach is to take a handful of flowers and stems, about the size of a small flower bouquet from the store and wrap twine, string, or yarn around it. Don’t bundle it too tight or the stems may have difficulty drying out and you may inadvertently create good conditions for mold to develop. Take your bundles and hang them upside down to dry in a location where air can easily circulate and it’s not in direct sunlight.
If you’re asking yourself that burning question of “why do I need to hang them upside down?”, then today is your lucky day, because I’ve got the answer. By hanging the plant upside down, you use gravity to move the essential oils out of the stems of the plant and into the flowers and leaves allowing for a larger surface area for the fragrance to diffuse from vs. getting stuck in the thicker stem where you can’t use it easily. Boom… how many of your minds are blown right now?
The amount of time that it takes to dry your lavender can range from a few weeks to several months, primarily driven by relative humidity, size of the bundle, how tightly it was wrapped, and so on. The easiest way to tell if the lavender is ready, is to break one of the stems near the flower area. If it bends or barely breaks then it needs more time, but once it snaps like a dry twig, you’re in a good spot.
Once dry, you can store your lavender sealed glass mason jars for later use or you can hang directly in rooms for decoration. You can use the flowers in infused oils (like the version we mentioned above) or you can use it for soaps, food, salves, or whatever else you might need it for. In our house we still keep some right by the bed to help with a restful night’s sleep!
This is also a great time of year for propagating strawberries. If you’d like to learn more about making a little money by propagating your strawberry plants, click the link to our article below.
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