Like many Oklahoma growers who have worked with lavender, we’ve had our share of problems. There are some guidelines worth considering regarding lavender, but we know of plants around Tulsa that break every one of them and still thrive. First let's lay out the guidelines, and then explain more about what we’ve learned.
Generally, lavender prefers to be dry. Its roots can’t tolerate standing in water. Consider planting on high ground, or at least in soil that has excellent drainage. Young plants need some water before they dry out, but mature plants can be left alone.
Lavender prefers full sun, and you’ll see a minimum of six hours listed on the little tags that come with young plants. In our experience, some afternoon shade isn’t the worst thing you can provide. It’s just so hot here in July and August.
Lavender’s native Mediterranean habitat is generally horrible limestone, and lavender prefers an alkaline soil. Look at pictures from Provence, but don’t look at the plants. Look at the soil they’re in. We give away crushed limestone when we sell plants until we run out. You can buy a 50lb bag at Home Depot for $6.
Pruning once a year is a good idea, as it helps keep a plant from getting too woody. Prune in the spring after the freeze date or in autumn well before the first freeze by taking about a quarter of the plant. Just give it a haircut, but don’t cut into woody parts of the stems. or you could prune in the fall long enough before a freeze to allow the plant to heal before the weather turns cold. We're just so tired of the field by fall that we always leave the task until spring.
Harvest takes place in May or June, depending on the variety of plant. The English Munstead and Hidecote varieties bloom earlier than the larger Grosso (also called Fat Spike) and Provence. We use serrated sickles, but a smaller crop only calls for scissors. When about a quarter of the buds have opened into flowers a stem is ripe for picking. We cut and gather them in bundles about the diameter of a quarter and hang them upside down in a dark place for about a week. They’ll then stand upright and last for years.
OK, those are the general rules, and every lavender farm with a website says the same thing. For those who like to read Shakespearean comedies and tragedies, read on.
When we started our field we put the lavender where we wanted lavender, not necessarily where it would be happiest. This was a beginner’s mistake which in our case was mitigated by a fair amount of beginner’s luck. Our chosen field was on a gentle southern slope, and our soil was a gravelly mix. Both the slope and the gravel aided drainage. Some plants at the top of that field are still alive and producing, although the area doesn’t look all that good because we now focus our attention elsewhere. We should really take them out, but we’re sentimental.
A second field we planted didn’t do well at all. It was too flat, and water had no place to go. Furthermore, repeated tilling caused erosion, which lowered the field even more. That second field was a sophomoric effort – we didn’t know half as much as we thought we knew. It was also the sight of some experiments, most of them failed. We tried weedblock for the first time, laying down black fabric that lets rain pass through but inhibits weeds from sprouting. To our eyes it looked horrible and the black fabric was hotter to the touch than the bare ground net to it. It just didn’t work in our application. Others have different results.
For years we fertilized with fish emulsion, which is the stuff at the bottom of aquariums. We’d mix some into a backpack sprayer, and dutifully spray each plant. Frankly, we don’t think the benefit was worth the cost. Lavender likes to be left alone.
We rigged up a drip irrigation system the first couple of years. These systems are very efficient and deliver water right where you want it at a reasonable rate. We don’t bother with it in the newest beds, preferring to hand water.
The biggest problem we face is high humidity. Present in most soils are fungi that can attack and kill roots. A combination of humidity and heat activate the fungi. When lavender plants go, they go quickly. Remove the plant from the area so as not to infect neighboring plants.
The best thing we’ve done is to plant in raised beds filled with gravel from our creek and some topsoil. The lavender is very happy with all of that drainage.
If you're thinking about planting lavender, or have had trouble before, bear in mind the generalities but also keep an eye out when you drive around town and notice where healthy lavender is planted. We often see it planted next to concrete or at the top of a slope. We don’t see it in with tomatoes and annuals which require too much water. Of course, we also know of plants that break all of the rules. Our daughter has a huge lavender plant growing from beneath her porch in a low spot that receives a lot of water and not much sun. This is beyond frustrating to us.
We're often approached by people who would like to start their own lavender farms, and we enjoy these talks. We started out with 800 or so plants because that’s what filled the space we had. It was really too much to take care of and to move at market. We have just shy of 300 now, which is a little less than optimum from a business standpoint. We could probably move more. Most of our income from the business comes not from the field production but from the products we make.
Potential lavender farmers should note that income from the field will likely not be worth the time spent maintaining the field. Added value items are the key to our business, and agritourism is elemental to the success of other such ventures. If we weren’t so private, we could have income from the existence of the field itself and have people come pay to harvest their own bundles. Again, we decided the hassle wasn’t worth the benefit.
We’re glad that there are other lavender farms nearby that do offer tours. It’s not even a competition because we’re doing what we’re doing anyway, and if something doesn’t work we just change. Isn’t that how anything happens …ever? We just focus on our products and our customers and our plants, and what makes us happy. We’ll see you on Saturdays at market.
What has kept us going is doing something that is our own. There are no big financial rewards. We've made some mistakes by trying to do what other similar farms have done in the way of coming up with more and more lavender products. That was fine for awhile, but the spirit that made us drop the plow in the first place is the spirit of trying something new. One has to find out what that is, and copying others isn't really the way we want to proceed. There is still lavender, but other interests mean that there is plenty of hand-dyed yarn and turned wood in our booth, too. No one wants to be just one thing.