If there’s one plant that summons up the essence of an English country garden in summer, it’s lavender. Not only does it have those aromatic silver leaves, which are evergreen so they look good all year round, but in summer it’s topped by those lovely purple spikes of flowers. On warm days you can guarantee they’ll be surrounded by bees, which adore the nectar-rich, scented blooms.
If you struggle to grow it, chances are it’s because your soil is too heavy. This shrubby plant hails from the Mediterranean and likes sharp drainage around its roots, so if your soil is gritty or sandy you’re laughing.
My soil is quite heavy, so I make sure I dig lots of grit into the soil where it’s going to grow and I put a layer of grit in the bottom of the planting hole, to make sure water doesn’t hang about around the roots. If you think your soil is irredeemable, you could always grow it in pots on the patio instead. Just mix some grit into multi-purpose compost to make sure it drains freely.
The other thing to remember is that a regular trim stops it getting gnarly and leggy. Do this either in early spring or just after it has flowered, at the same time as you remove the faded flower stalks. But never cut back into old, brown wood because it won’t re-grow; only cut lightly into the silvery leafy growth. Do this every year and you’ll keep your lavender bushy and well-shaped – it can even be grown as a lovely low hedge.
If you want to pick lavender flowers for drying, do it when the first couple of flowers at the bottom of the spike start to open. Then hang the bunch upside down in a dark, airy place so the colour doesn’t fade. When the flowers have completely dried, strip them from the stems and use them to scent your airing cupboard or drawers.
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most reliable. ‘Hidcote’ is the variety you’ll find in almost every garden centre, and it’s a great plant. But there are lots of others with pink, deeper purple and white flowers too and lots of specialist lavender suppliers that stock them.
Try Downderry Nursery in Kent (01732 810081; www.downderry-nursery.co.uk) for an amazing range and mail order.
MUST-BUY PLANT… Nigella
Love-in-a-mist is a great hardy annual, easy to sow and grow and will self seed around too. Blue flowers followed by decorative puffed up seed pods.
Nigella ‘Delft Blue’
This variety (from Johnsons Seeds) has the same starry flowers but instead of plain blue, they’re white overlaid with stripy blue that’s more intense in hot sun.
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