Purple haze: The sight and smell of  lavender is hard to beat

Peter Dowdall extols the virtues of lavender, which when in full bloom comes alive with the buzzing of bees and butterflies, and fills the air with an aroma which can’t truly be replicated.

IT’S HARD to imagine a nicer scene in the garden than laying back enjoying the summer sunshine during the month of July — on a lawn or patio — surrounded by a bed of lavender.

The sunshine during this month is at its strongest, long hot days when the garden is giving its best, and the blue sky is as good and rich as we are likely to see it until next year again.

The lavender is in full flower and alive now with the buzzing of bees, butterflies and other foraging insects attracted by its visual beauty and also, of course, its scent. That aroma which fills the nostrils and can’t be replicated.

There are many varieties of lavender available to grow now, but they can largely be broken down into two groups, the French or butterfly lavender, and the English form. Starting with the French, Lavandula stoechas, the foliage is more ragged looking, soft and grey in colour and the flowers standing on top of these stems open up with petals which give the impression of a butterfly’s wings, hence the common name.

Most varieties of L. stoechas will grow to nearly 1m in height if left unchecked and unpruned. Lavandula angustifolia on the other hand is what we commonly refer to as English lavender and to me, this is the classic lavender. Varieties of L. angustifolia produce stems of blue flowers, the type that you envisage when you think of the lavender fields in Provence or even in Jersey or the south of England. The most commonly grown varieties in our gardens will be “Munstead”, which produces tall airy stems of these blue flowers reaching up to 80cm, and “Hidcote” which produces similar coloured flower stems, but in a much more compact manner, not reaching more than 40cm or 50cm in height.

I would argue that very few plants are high maintenance. Pruning can become an issue when we, as gardeners put the wrong plants in the wrong place, such as a plant that will naturally grow too wide or higher than what we want for a specific position. The result is lots of cutting back — and that’s not the plant’s fault but ours.

Similarly, if we plant acid loving plants in limey soil then we will be forever adding minerals and nutrients to the soil to counteract the imbalance, again, not the fault of the plant. There are some plants however that do require regular work to keep them looking at their best and lavender is one that certainly falls into this category.

It needs to be regularly cut back to stop it from getting leggy and woody. If you are to read the text books on when to cut it back, you will be waiting forever, as they will nearly all say to cut back after flowering. The thing is, in my experience, they never seem to stop flowering.

Even during the winter, whilst not looking as impressive as during the summer, there will still be some blooms to admire. So, I recommend constant pruning. Every time a flush of flower has finished, grab the plant by the scruff of the neck and prune off the flower stems, which have finished flowering, and cut back about 10cm into the foliage beneath.

Don’t worry about removing buds which have not yet opened, as they will be replaced with newer ones in no time at all. If you don’t stay on top of them like this they will surely outgrow themselves and you will be left with a dishevelled and unruly plant. The urge then will be to cut it back hard and wait for it to green up again but it won’t, rather it will turn up its petals and die on you, for it will not tolerate being strongly pruned.

If you really want the effect that massed lavender gives in the garden, but all this maintenance sounds too much like hard work, then there are some suitable alternatives available to grow. 

Perovskia ‘Little Spire’ the dwarf Russian sage will produce a haze-like display of grey stems with blue flowers from late summer through into late autumn.

Salvias too, of which there are many varieties, will give a similar purple/blue display to lavender and of course nepeta “Six Hills Giant” or catmint produces masses of blue flowers and from a distance it can very easily be confused with Lavender. 

All of these are herbaceous and thus will only need to be cut back to ground level once, during the winter.

RUSSBOROUGH SHOW 2017

Chelsea Gold Medal winner, Paul Martin will be speaking on ‘Creatng Beautiful Gardens’ next Saturday at the RHSI Flower Show.

A new addition to the gardening calendar this year, the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI), The Alfred Beit Foundation and Quinn’s of Baltinglass have teamed up to hostthe show on Saturday, July 29 from 10am to 5pm in the historic parkland setting of Russborough, in the heart of beautiful West Wicklow.

Several other speakers will take to the stage on the day along with an impressive list of nurseries, specialist plant growers, tools, books and garden furniture suppliers.

Opening at 10am, admission is €8 with RHSI members getting a reduced rate and children are free.



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