Diarmuid Gavin: Add fragrance and colour to your garden this summer with lavender
Add fragrance and colour to your garden this summer by planting one of the 400 varieties of lovely lavender
Lavender is a genus of 39 species of flowering plants in the mint family. There are over 400 varieties of the plant that come in many shapes and sizes - and all, of course, carry that wonderful evocative scent.
Despite this wide range, however, in most people's garden they only have the one variety; English lavender (lavandula angustifolia). There are plenty of varieties that will do much better in an Irish garden than the standard lavender.
Historically, lavender has been very highly prized. It's reckoned that the plant was first brought to the UK by the Romans, and soon made its way to our shores. The Romans were well aware of its healing and soothing qualities, and by Tudor times lavender was established as the herb of cleanliness and calm, and used throughout people's houses.
Subsequently, the Victorians used lavender in perfumery and for the scenting of linen and clothes. It's thought that hundreds of acres of British and Irish farms were planted with lavender as a crop. Happily, on both islands, there's now a definite resurgence in its growth as a commercial crop.
In the UK, it's heavily associated with one garden in particular - Hidcote, in the North Cotswolds. This was one of the few farms to continue through the lavender decline in the 20th century. This garden was created by American horticulturist Lawrence Johnston, and its colourful series of 'outdoor rooms' are packed with delightful surprises. Johnson was an old-fashioned plant hunter and many plants growing in Hidcote were collected on his voyages to far away places.
So, what should we look out for in gardens, parks and garden centres? Well, let's start with French lavender (lavandula stoechas, pictured right). It grows between 18in and 30in, and are the first to flower.
These are recognised by the colourful 'ears' on top of the flower heads. These can be long, short, thin, broad or wavy, and come in magenta, purple, pink, white and yellowy green, often contrasting vividly with the flower below.
The many varieties of English lavender have cylindrical flower heads on short flower stalks that appear during June and July. Plants vary from 12in to 30in and from white to dark purple, with pink, pale blue and powdery purple shades in between.
And after the English are past their vibrant best, during July and August come the dramatic varieties of lavandula x intermedia. Known collectively as lavandins, these are generally taller (30in to 39in) and have long flower spikes, which loom above the foliage and are topped with almost conical blooms in white or purple.
As they largely originate from the Mediterranean, lavandins need to be planted in full sun and do best in light, well-drained soil.
They can be planted either in spring or in September when the soil is still warm - later planting gives the roots a chance to become well established before winter, and by the following spring they will be raring to produce foliage and flower.
They are great plants for growing in pots but be careful that drainage is excellent if you wish them to survive winter. To help with that, withhold watering and raise the pot up on feet or bricks. Lavender grows in a free-draining mix made up of equal parts peat, John Innes No 3 compost and coarse grit.
They are not hard to take care of - one good prune immediately after flowering, about a third into the foliage, should keep plants bushy for up to 12 years.
So, how to choose the best varieties to grow in our gardens? If you want a short sweetly scented lavender then select the pale purple angustifolia 'Ashdown Forest' or the mid-purple blue 'Folgate'. If you've space for a taller type then try the dark purple 'Gros Bleu' or x intermedia 'Sussex' which is very architectural - and great for lavender bags.
Learn about lavender
To appreciate both the beauty and possible uses for lavender, why not visit a commercial farm on the sunny south-east? The Wexford Lavender Farm has been in the one family since 1950. Formerly a dairy farm, the focus has now changed to growing lavender and barley. The 2two-acre site near Gorey, is tended organically. The farm welcomes visitors and general admission is free. This year they will be producing organic lavender oil from their first harvest. Visitors are invited to learn about the distillery process at the on-site workshops. These sessions will take place at weekends from July 18 to August 16. Guided tours cost €5 per adult and free for children, and they also cater for school groups. wexford
This week in the garden
We are well into the growing season now, and our flowering beds and borders need some attention to ensure continuous healthy, floriferous growth:
● Sweetpeas should be rambling up their supporting canes and netting climbing frames. Their scent is fantastic, so remember to cut some of the flowers (pictured below) for the house which will also serve to encourage even more blooms.
● Dead-head your roses, allowing the buds that are developing behind the withering blossoms to develop. All of the material gathered can, of course, go on the compost heap.
● While you’re at it, keep a close eye out for invasions of greenfly, whitefly or blackspot, all of which are common rose villains.
● Cutting oriental poppies back now, after flowering, will encourage plenty of green growth from the base.
● Keep an eye on the forecast – there’s still talk of occasional frost. So, be careful if you’ve introduced some tender bedding of fuchsia or geraniums to borders, pots or hanging baskets.
● Continue to keep an eye on tall perennials in the border, if they are getting a bit top heavy or floppy they may need staking.
● Tie up any climbing plants which are putting on lots of fresh new growth.
The next generation of gardeners
Education is the best way to tackle the national obesity epidemic, and where better to start than in schools? This summer, Airfield House in Dundrum is running courses on School Gardens, Nature and Nutrition aimed at teachers. Taking place from July 6–10, at both beginners and advanced level, the courses will show teachers how to set up and maintain a school garden, as well as how to pass on the knowledge of how food is grown and its nutritious qualities to their pupils. Participants will spend time with education guides, nature experts, gardeners and chefs to explore how to get the most from the school gardens and grounds. For more information, visit blackrockec.ie