Atlanta, Georgia—In my quest for long-lasting herbal fragrances, I have found sweet lavender to be one of the best. When I first moved to Atlanta in the late 1970s, I harvested and dried flowers, then quilted them into flat mats to place between my sheets in the linen closet. These mats are still in use, and their lavender aroma is still notable. Lavender’s soothing quality has long been recommended for nervous headache and insomnia. Our ancestors appreciated lavender tea for its soothing qualities, as well as its delightful scent.
The easiest lavender for me to grow in Atlanta is Lavandula stoechas, often called Spanish lavender. This one has short, light-green leaves and compressed, square spikes of flowers with bunny ears in a tuft at the top. These actually are sterile bracts, and bract shapes on different cultivars have been carefully noted by taxonomists. I like its strong fragrance, its ever-gray quality and its ability to thrive in heavy Georgia red clay.
I make a lavender sugar by alternating layers of sugar and dried flowers and sealing it up in canning jars for use with Earl Grey tea.
Several years ago, I set out more than two dozen types of lavender on a hillside that gets about a half day of sun. I prepared the soil with lots of compost and pulverized the dolomite lime recommended to make our acid soils more neutral. After a term of intense comparison and investigation, I subjected them to benign neglect through drought and freeze. My stoechas is the only one still thriving, so what’s not to love?
The short leaves have a strong aroma, and the shrub grows low (18 inches) and sturdy. Often it blooms twice, particularly when rains break a summer drought at the end of August or in September, priming it to bloom about six weeks later, in October. All winter long, the short, spiky leaves give up fragrance when stroked by garden visitors, and it is always fresh when needed for a quick tussie mussie or a floral arrangement.
Other than harvesting what I need, I don’t prune back my Spanish lavender; I just let it grow. It is best to take greenwood cuttings in June, when the stems are at the stage that they break crisply when bent. Taking 6-inch cuttings, I strip the leaves off of the bottom half and root them in my favorite mix of 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 perlite and 1/3 milled sphagnum moss.
The flower spikes can be dried whole, or the lavender blossoms rolled off, dried and added to potpourri. I make a lavender sugar by alternating layers of sugar and dried flowers and sealing it up in canning jars for use with Earl Grey tea. My friend Cynthia Hizer of Hazelbrand Farm (www.hazelbrand.com) mixes the blossoms into her goat’s milk lavender soap. Whether you dry it and put it to use, or leave it in the garden, take time to enjoy sweet lavender in the coming season.