By Joyce McGowan – My husband James and I were living in a large city and running a natural body care store. But the city was getting too big, the traffic was too congested, and we were unhappy living in a tiny house jammed into a crowded neighborhood. We loved animals and had several dogs and cats, but they were also unhappy cooped up in a small fenced-in yard. So we decided that the time had come to follow our dream and move to the country. I envisioned wide open spaces and thriving gardens filled with my favorite herbs, like the lavender plant.
We are both native Arkansans who had lived in other parts of the country at one time or another, but had moved back to Arkansas because of the beauty of the land and the great people. So we knew we wanted to stay in Arkansas and began scouring the state for homesteading land. We found a small, beautiful farm surrounded by forest in the foothills of the Ozarks just southeast of Fayetteville. We were home.
At first we both got full-time jobs and saved every penny we made. We lived by that old adage: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” We never went without—we just made sure that we really needed whatever it was that we bought and then used it until it literally fell apart. By being frugal and conscientious about our spending, we soon were able to pay off our mortgage, our car, our credit cards, and become totally debt-free. It is an exhilarating feeling not to be in debt! It also has allowed us both to just work part-time and spend most of our time on the farm. My husband and I are both conservationists and believe that we should leave as light an imprint on the Earth as we possibly can. So we try not to over-consume goods, we recycle, we only have one car, we neuter and spay our pets, and we grow as much of our food as we can.
I have always loved growing herbs outside, so one of the first things I planted on our new farm was an herb garden. I love just walking through the garden, grabbing a sprig of herb and rolling it in my fingers, releasing its delightful scent. I had a wide variety of herbs in my garden, but I could never seem to get one of my favorite plants to grow—the lavender plant. Every spring I would buy a couple of lavender seedlings and plant them in my garden. They would live, but they never thrived and eventually died during the winter.
After several years of trying to make the lavender adapt to our farm, I decided to try making a small part of our farm adapt to the lavender. I got some books on growing lavender from the local library and downloaded a lot of information about lavender from the internet. I discovered that lavender must have well draining soil. It does not like to get its “feet” wet. So the first thing I had to do was modify our dense, clay soil. I purchased some top soil and spread it over the area where I planned to grow my lavender plant. I mixed several bags of sand into the soil so that it would drain easily. Lavender also likes a very alkaline soil, so I also mixed in a lot of lime. Lavender plant is very rugged and does not like a rich soil, so I did not add any compost.
There are several different species of lavender and some varieties are better for certain climates than others. Once I had determined which species would thrive best in our area, I set about finding where I could purchase lavender plants. Through the Internet, I found a wonderful nursery in southern Arkansas that grew the type of lavender I was looking for.
When planting lavender, it is important to place the plants far apart so they have room to spread and lots of air between the plants to prevent moisture buildup. After all my plants were in the ground, I mulched them with white sand. The sand does not allow water to collect on the ground around the plants and also reflects sunlight up into the bottom of the plants, which helps to keep them dry.
Lavender is a very hardy perennial and once established, it will live without much care for five to 10 years. Annual pruning keeps the plants healthy and looking good, but that’s about all the care they need. They need very little water, and deer and rabbits will not eat them.
The plants give off the most wonderful scent, even when they’re not in bloom. My lavender field has become my sacred space. I love to just sit by the plants and drink in their aroma not to mention there are several wonderful lavender uses.
We have also come full circle, so to speak. We have started making our own lavender-scented natural body care products, which we sell locally and over the Internet. Life is good and smells very sweet.
Lavender Plant Care
• Make sure your plants get plenty of sunlight—all day is good, but at least six hours per day is necessary.
• Your soil must be very loose and well drained—no clay. Lavender plants do not like to have wet feet. Mound the soil under each plant, mix in a lot of sand and be sure to add lime.
• Lavender does not like rich soil. I only add a little fish emulsion to the plants once a year.
• I mulch my plants with white sand. The sand reflects sunlight up into the bottom branches of the plants and keeps them dry. Pea gravel is also good—it helps drain water away from the plants.
• Think dry. When you water your plants, drip irrigation is best. Do not over-water. The biggest cause of plant failure is overwatering.
• Be sure to prune back your plants every year. I prune right after the last frost in spring. I cut back each plant by one-third. Do not cut too far into the woody center or you may kill your plant.
• Choose varieties that grow well in your climate. For climates like northwest Arkansas, I recommend Provence and Grosso.
Originally published in the May/June 2004 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.