Start lavender now for summer

If the scent of lavender is one of your favorites, you might want to try growing it yourself.

Years ago the only lavender I could grow in my garden was a dwarf variety called Munstead. This hardy little plant would come back every summer for three to five years before it just didn’t. But putting new plants in the ground every two to three years, I could ensure a lavender harvest every year without fail.

I bought my plants from two local herb farms that I loved to visit twice a year in the spring and the fall, Sunnybrook Farms in Chesterland and Lily of the Valley in Minerva. Neither herb farm is still in operation, and I miss them, but it isn’t difficult to start lavender from seed as long as it’s done early.

I grew Munstead lavender because it was hardy. Common lavender (Lavender augustifolia), not only won’t withstand our winters, but is a biennial that blooms the second year. Since it can’t survive here the first winter, it won’t be around to produce flowers the second season. But Munstead will come back for a few years anyway.

Eventually the seed company Burpee came out with a new variety called Lavender Lady. Like common lavender, Lavender Lady also won’t withstand our winters, but it blooms the first year it is planted from seed. We may have to treat this plant like an annual, replanting each year, but it is worth it to have those fragrant flower spikes that can be used in everything from baked goods to potpourri.

As an herb, lavender has been documented for more than 2,500 years. It was used as a perfume and in the mummification process by ancient Egyptians. Lavender oil was added to water for bathing. The flower spikes were the main ingredient in making tussy mussies, those small bouquets of fragrant flowers women used to carry to mask body odors before deodorant was invented.

Lavender also had many medicinal uses. It was often mixed with gin or brandy and used to treat migraine headaches. During the days of the plague in London, people would wear lavender around their wrists to protect them from contracting the disease.

Lavender blossoms also are used in cooking, particularly in the batter of cakes and cookies. Lavender flowers are edible and are often used as garnish, steeped to make a refreshing tea, sprinkled on salads or ground fine and added to sugar for a floral taste. I used to put a vanilla bean in my sugar bowl to impart that flavor into my morning tea, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that lavender could be used the same way.

So here we are in the dead of winter in northeast Ohio and I am writing about a plant we can only grow outdoors in summer. The reason I bring it up now is because February is the time to start those lavender seeds so that healthy plants can be set outside.

Start with containers that have drainage holes in the bottom. I have purchased cute containers without drainage holes, and then prevail upon the husband to use his glass-cutting drill bit to make them. He uses masking tape to mark the spot and then slowly and carefully drills through the ceramic or terra cotta. It doesn’t always work, but most of the time it does.

Lavender seeds are tiny, but they have a hard seed coat that sometimes takes a month or more to break open and allow for germination. There is a way to move this process along faster though. Gardeners call it scarifying seeds, and when the seeds are large, like morning glory flowers, it’s not difficult to use a file or knife to nick the seeds. But since lavender seeds are so small, another method is easier and just as successful.

Moisten the seeds with a little water and then wrap them in a damp paper towel. Put the paper towel in a plastic bag and put them in the freezer overnight. Once thawed the next day, plant them in sterile soil and immediately place them under fluorescent lights. Don’t raise the lights more than two inches above the container.

The seeds should germinate within a week and once the plants begin to grow, raise the lights, but be sure to keep them no more than two inches above the young plants.

Once placed outside in the garden around the end of May, it should only be a few weeks before your lavender garden is in bloom.