Lovely Lavender: Herb has uses in decor, the kitchen and more ~By Shannon Sigafoos of The Morning Ca
Close your eyes. Take a nice, deep breath. Imagine the scent of lavender both uplifting and calming your senses.
Lavender is a fragrance that is so familiar, even just imagining it is enough to soothe the brain. And that’s what we tend to think of lavender for — as a base for oils, soaps, lotions, perfumes, sprays and bath salts.
This queen of the herbal world (and member of the mint family of plants), however, is extremely versatile and can be used for medicinal purposes; to add flavor to food; in organic home cleaners; to fill sachets to put on bedsides or in clothing storage; in candles; in eye pillows; and in everyday home décor.
There are many ways to introduce the energy of lavender throughout your property, from growing your own and beautifying your yard to displaying it in a way that compliments your personal style. It can help with great feng shui, but there really are no restrictions to it, so you choose what works best for your home.
Lavender grows in more than 40 different species, though in eastern Pennsylvania, the two types you’re likely to see are English and French lavender. Northampton, Lehigh, Carbon, Bucks and Monroe counties are all in the plant zones 6a and 6b, and zone 6 usually experiences below-freezing days throughout the winter - making it harder for French lavender to thrive, whereas English lavender is easier to grow.
At Hope Hill Farm in Pottsville, owners Wendy and Troy Jochems have six primary cultivars on their property: Grosso, Super, Cathy Blanc, Hidcote Giant, Folgate and Hidcote. They hope to add several more next year, including Royal Velvet and Edelweiss.
“Lavender is a zone 5-10 plant, and likes full sun and good drainage,” explains Wendy Jochems, who is a Penn State Master Gardener and came to lavender as a gardener. “We propagate plants here at Hope Hill Farm from plants in our fields that have proven themselves to stand a PA winter and have them for sale starting every spring with our annual plant sale. Mother’s Day weekend is the first time our plants are available for sale through typically mid-July. We love the different cultivars of lavender and are always seeking to add to our collection of lavender plants.”
Hope Hill is a working farm that is open to the public from April through December, with peak bloom time in June and July. Visitors can take a walking tour of the property, shop the store, and get up close with farm animals — including rescue horses, a pony, miniature Mediterranean donkeys and hens. Families can make a day trip of visiting the farm, which is also a certified Pennsylvania Pollinator Friendly Garden.
In the Lehigh Valley, The Lavender Farmette — an urban micro-farm located just outside of Emmaus, owned by Florence and Marlow Rodale — is a production farm that has been growing lavender organically for 10 years. The Farmette is not a destination place, but sells its products at local fairs, popups, in stores and online at thelavenderfarmette.com, with an option for local customers to pick up at the farm.
“We grow seven varieties of Lavendula x intermedia, also called French lavender or lavendin. We also grow three lavendula angustifolia varieties (English lavender),” says Florence Rodale. “A combination of angustifolia and lavendin in the garden gives you a long season of blooms to enjoy from late May to August.”
Most of the value of lavender is from the use of lavender oil, which is offered for sale by both The Lavender Farmette and Hope Hill Lavender Farm. The oil is known for many benefits, including reducing anxiety and emotional stress; protecting against diabetic and other health symptoms; improving brain function; healing burns and wounds; improving sleep; restoring skin complexion; relieving pain; alleviating headaches and more.
“One component of lavender oil distillation I have become a big fan of, is hydrosol. Distilling lavender flowers gives you the byproduct of lavender water, which is a non-alcohol water,” explains Jochems. “It is a great facial toner because it kills bacteria on your skin and doesn’t dry it out. You can see lavender oil being distilled on our farm.”
It’s also very handy to carry around in the summer to combat insects and their bites and stings.
“If you need to choose one essential oil to carry with you all the time, lavender should be it. Its anti-inflammatory properties help relieve the sting of bug bites; we use it all the time during harvest season as bees invariably sting us,” says Rodale. “It’s a good bug repellent, as well. And mixed with vegetable oil, it makes a wonderful massage oil to apply to sore muscles, minor cuts, burns and bruises.”
When thinking about culinary uses for herbs such as lavender, it can unfortunately be pigeonholed into our consciousness as a fragrance used for bath and body products. This plant, however, has been explored by enough curious cooks that it’s now becoming a staple in many kitchens and is used in everything from scones and muffins to ice cream and cocktails. Lavender is versatile and robust and as distinctive as rosemary or sage, but suited to both sweet and savory uses.
“Most scrunch their noses the first time they are offered a treat with lavender,” says Jochems. “We use English cultivar for cooking, as it contains less of the pungent components that French lavender contains in its chemical makeup. It is the buds before it blooms, or corolla, that we use in cooking with lavender. You’ll also use less when cooking with a dry herb — three times less. So, if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of a fresh herb, use 1 teaspoon of dry herb. We have several recipes on our website, hopehilllavenderfarm.com, to begin your adventure cooking with lavender.”
Finally, decorating with lavender can add an aromatic layer of lovely to your home while also inspiring a bit of French country style. It can be done in a very “no frills” way, as well, and used in any room of the house — or outdoors in patio planters or as picnic centerpieces.
“I love a huge, but simple bouquet of long-stemmed dried lavender mixed with dried larkspurs in my entry way. I place smaller arrangements in bathrooms where the steam from the shower will help release the scent. In the powder room, I like a container filled with a homemade potpourri of lavender buds, dried flowers and petals sprinkled, as needed, with a few drops of lavender essential oil,” says Rodale. “Of course, I have to make a wreath for my front door to celebrate the season that just passed; I’m really fond of dried lavender and hydrangeas mixed together. I also place lavender sachets and pillows stuffed with lavender buds on the sofa, armchairs and by my bedside for relaxing moments when I call it a day.”
If you want to decorate with lavender but are concerned about how long the smell will last, dried lavender usually maintains its scent for about two years. Fresh-cut lavender (not dried), however, will lose its scent inside of a week. Fresh-cut sprigs are good to use on dining tables if you only plan to use them for a one-time event, but it’s more likely you’ll want to use dried lavender around your home if you want to take advantage of the fragrance (just make sure not to place it where it will constantly be exposed to direct sunlight).
“The length of time that the scent lasts also typically depends on the person smelling it,” Jochems points out. “It amazes me that such a beautiful scent comes from a flower naturally.”
Want to grow your own lavender?
Florence Rodale, from The Lavender Farmette, provides these tips on how to make your garden a success:
Buy local: You want to buy plants that are acclimated to our Pennsylvania zone 6 to 6a. Seedlings from plants that are grown locally will be more resistant to the winter than a plant flown in from some faraway greenhouse.
Choose the right varieties for the climate: The varieties Rodale mentions in this article usually do well in eastern Pennsylvania.
Create good drainage: At the farm, they amend heavy clay soils with a few handfuls of compost, placing a few pebbles at the bottom of the hole to increase drainage. In your garden, you can amend your soil with horticultural sand, or mound the beds to increase drainage.
Water sparingly: Do not water lavender plants from the top or overwater them; they do not like moisture. Always water at the base of the bush, sparingly the first year, as your plant is settling down. The following years, no watering is needed, as rainfall is usually sufficient in our part of the state.
Weeds: Lavender doesn’t like to compete with weeds, so make sure you keep them at bay, at least until the plant is established.
Mulch: If you must mulch, use a lightweight weed barrier and place pebbles on top. The stones will reflect the heat of the sun to the center of the plant, keeping diseases at bay. Heavy wood mulch is not recommended; it is designed to keep moisture around your plants, which is a sure death for lavender.
Exposure: Lavender is a full-sun crop; it needs a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight. Deprived of sun, it will grow tall and leggy with little flower heads, if any.
Trimming regimen: To keep your lavender coming back year after year, you have to trim them on a regular basis. In the fall (October), cut back your plant head, leaving about 2 inches of green stems on the wood (the woody base). Do not cut into the wood, as it will most certainly kill your plant.
Again in the spring, when you see little bits of green shoots, inspect your plant, cut dead woody braches down to the ground and reshape your plant.