There’s one plant you really shouldn’t be without this summer – and that’s lavender. Better still, push the boat out a bit and have a small collection.
Why? Well, lavenders have it all. They are fashionable, scented and they attract bees. If you choose several species, you can have some plants in flower from now through to autumn. Lavenders are small and shrubby, and they don’t all have the traditional lavender flowers; some are white, pink, mauve or purple, and a few are closer to blue, but they all mix and match.
They are also quite versatile – you can grow them as neat edgings along a path or round flower beds, or team them with perennials near the front of a border – lavenders look fabulous with alliums, especially the large, purple, drumstick sort that are at their best now.
Then there are dwarf varieties, ideal for containers. But the very latest thing is to have one of the slightly tender botanical species trained as a small standard plant, in a pot on the patio or in the conservatory.
Lavenders don’t just look and smell good, they are useful, too. You can cut the flowers for a vase indoors, dry them and rub off the individual florets to use as potpourri or make into scented sachets for your “frillies” drawer. Drop a bundle of lavender straw (the dried stems left over after stripping off the florets) into your pond to help clear the water if it turns green in spring.
And if you have a few lavender bushes growing in a convenient spot, you can even drape your freshly laundered tea towels and tablecloths over them, so they pick up a fresh, floral fragrance as they air in the sun. It’s one of those things that people did years ago in cottage gardens.
Lavenders are easy to grow, but it’s the old story – they need the right growing conditions. Being natives of the Mediterranean region, they like well-drained soil that’s not too rich, and a warm, sheltered, sunny spot that’s not too draughty.
Plant them now, at the start of the flowering season, and you’ll enjoy a heavenly scented summer – they’ll be even better from next year onwards.
If your ground isn’t naturally well drained, grow lavenders in a raised bed, otherwise fluff up the ground by working in plenty of grit. Tip the plants out of their pots and plant so the top of the root ball is barely buried. Firm them in gently and water well. Even though well-established lavenders are pretty drought-tolerant, newly planted ones need a bit of help.
To grow lavenders in containers, choose 6-8in wide terracotta pots with plenty of holes in the base so that excess water doesn’t become a problem. Put a handful of gravel in the bottom for extra drainage then fill with a mixture of John Innes No 2 potting compost and about 10 per cent bark chippings or gravel for aeration.
Plant a dwarf lavender or one of the slightly tender types that’s been grown up a short trunk as a small standard or trained out into a fan shape over a piece of trellis.
The thing to watch with a lavender in a pot is watering. Don’t let it become waterlogged either, so resist the temptation to leave it standing in a saucer in case it rains. The trick is to water little and often.
Lavenders aren’t difficult plants to look after, but you must prune them. An unkempt lavender soon turns from a neat, busy youngster into a straggly geriatric with bare, arthritic woody stems, stunted bunches of foliage and very few flowers.
Pruning acts as an annual rejuvenation treatment that prolongs life, besides keeping them in shape. But go about it in different ways for different kinds of lavender. The traditional English type of lavender and its hybrids, which have long spikes of flowers in June and July, want a light, all-over clipping as soon as the flowers are over – avoid cutting back into old wood if you possibly can.
Lavandula stoechas cultivars start flowering in May, and these only want regular deadheading – removing each of the big knobbly dead flowers complete with a short stalk as soon as they go over, but leaving the rest of the plant untouched. That way, they’ll keep flowering in dribs and drabs throughout the summer and on into early autumn.
So stock up on lavenders and you will have a truly mind-blowing garden full of colour, as well as fragrant drawers indoors.