Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lavender Harvest

I have been fond of lavender for only a few years of my long gardening life. It may have to do with all those years of shade to deep shade gardens that prevented me from noticing the beauty and simplicity of this fantastic plant. I never grew it I never had my hands on it, only its final forms of oils, waters, perfumes, herbs. Once I moved to a home that had ample sunshine lavender was just to me another plant to serve a purpose: Grow in a dry hot spot. That it did as well as made me love it for its hardiness. Growing aromatics have become my favorite in the garden. It all started with Rosemary and now well lavender has become my love.

Those first lavender plants I introduced to myself and this home grew with such energy that it was difficult to ignore. They welcomed our guests with their scent and gentle tickles from stray stems as people came to the front door. Then the bees. Oh the bees. 100s of bees became our newest friends. Dawn to dusk those bees went to work outside our front door. Constantly working on those blossoms the bees I know came from far away to harvest that pollen. I have always loved bees. The lavender only increased my appreciation of those integral insects. In the mornings I would sit on our steps between the rows of lavender watching the bees work. They would fly all around me frantic to get more pollen. There for a while I could almost identify each bee by their behavior it was so fascinating to be that connected with them. They became my pollinator pals. I loved my bees but many other people do not have my same affection. Spring through early summer the front walk became a scary place for kids and sensitive (to bees) adults.

That first year my lavender came and went. I picked some stems for the house but was not particular about reserving those precious buds. The following year the plants grew even larger. The bees returned in greater number. I remember sitting outside in early spring once it had gotten warm enough for bees to wake seeing them. They were investigating my lavender. Each bee, honey and bumble came periodically to keep an eye on those flowers. They were scouting out my garden. I felt flattered. I know that's what they do but I've never experienced that sort of relationship with bees. They came back because I had flowers they wanted to visit. The second year I let the lavender grow and the bees enjoy. I cut some stems here and there but waited for them to be of little interest to the bees before trimming them down. I bound up bouquets which I hung in my dining room to dry. Some I gave as gifts but most just remained in the dining room.

The third year the lavender came back but with less eagerness. By Spring they had just not produced. They were dying. One managed to hang on but I lost 4 plants that year. Heartbreaking. I missed my bees. To cheer me up Keith came up with a way to give me my lavender and bees. He constructed a small circle flower bed in the back yard. There we planted a crape myrtle with a ring of lavender and a ring of box wood. From that point on my lavender has been taking over that part of the yard. Growing eagerly without worry they have been doing so much better in the new spot. Although I miss sitting on the front steps with the bees it is far better for the bees and kids that there is space for each to go about their activities without interference. The lavender I grow is a hybrid and is commonly available at most garden centers. The Grosso variety is used by many for making oils and cosmetics. This lavender grows large and has a strong camphor. It is the perfect choice for using around the house in dried arrangements or potpourri.

Knowing your lavender is important only if you have plans for harvesting the buds. Growing lavender for harvest requires knowing the use you have in mind prior to choosing your plants. If you prefer to cook (eat) with your lavender then you will want to choose a culinary friendly lavender. The difference between a culinary lavender and a cosmetic lavender is very clear by the strength of the lavender's aroma. A culinary lavender will have a less intense aroma; the scent won't be overwhelming. A good culinary choice would be French lavenders which bloom earlier in the season. They make a great start to the lavender season. The camphor concentration in culinary lavender is less strong making them pleasant to use in your teas and dishes. Mistakenly using a hybrid lavender in place of a culinary version will result in an overpowering flavor borderline bitter in taste.

For the past few years I have exclusively grown the Grosso variety. It does well in our Southern environment taking the heat and humidity in stride. My Grosso lavender has been really easy to care for requiring little effort on my part. I make a point to keep them watered during dry spells and am sure to prune them back after the growing season. In return they have grown fast and large. Each year I collect the stems and dry them for small bouquets. This year I am collecting the buds only. In our first harvest of half the plants we collected a quart and a half of dried buds. We still have the other half of our harvest drying in a basket in the dining room. I have plans for using those buds to make sachets, essential oils, and linen water. Because I have a steady supply of my cosmetic lavender I want to move in the direction of culinary lavender. I admit my recent visit to a lavender farm (who charges 10 cents a stem) made me realize what a cost savings I could reap if I focus on growing more than one type of lavender.

We have become very fond of lavender lemonade. It just is such a wonderful drink that once you try it you will prefer that lemonade to all others. This beverage is a good motivator for finding space in the garden for new plants. Last summer I grew a few French lavenders. I had just enough to gather a few buds. Nothing on the level of my Grosso plants. The plan in my head is to set aside another location around our yard for the French lavenders. I like to put my lavender by type all together so that I can harvest them easier. With an already full garden finding a new location will be tricky to determine. Once I have a spot set I'll move those other plants so that I can have a little culinary lavender garden. See, it's just one step closer to having my own urban lavender farm. Can't you just imagine a whole yard filled with lavender. Oh wouldn't that be wonderful.

While I dream about fields of lavender I'll get to thinking about how to carve out a spot for my new lavender additions.

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