Lovely lavender

Two Western growers share secrets for raising and using these fragrant plants
Lauren Bonar Swezey

On a warm summer morning outside Victoria, British Columbia, Lynda Dowling strolls between rows of lavender at her farm, Happy Valley Herbs. A wonderfully sweet scent fills the air, and bees buzz from flower to flower. It's harvesttime ― a moment Dowling has anticipated for months. "Harvest day is a day out of time," she says. "You stand in the middle of a purple field, inhale the intoxicating fragrance, and listen to the bees sing. No faxes or phones nearby."

For Dowling, lavender has become a way of life. She breathes it, eats it, and bathes in it. She's not alone in her passion ― in Oregon, Margaret Sansone and her guests gather bunches of lavender from her fields to weave into "wands."

Both of these aficionados have learned a lot about this beautiful herb that carpets whole hillsides in southern France. On the following pages, they share some of their tips, such as which varieties are the most heavily scented, and ways to use the fragrant flowers in cooking and crafts.

It's not too late to plant your own lavender. (The plants listed on the links below grow well in Sunset climate zones 4 to 24.) One whiff of your own homegrown flowers and you'll understand why Dowling and Sansone look forward to harvesttime with such gusto.

Lavender plants by mail
Goodwin Creek Gardens, Box 83, Williams, OR 97544; (541) 846-7357. Catalog: $1. Sells 38 kinds.

Woodside Gardens, 1191 Egg & I Rd., Chimacum, WA 98325; (360) 732-4754. Catalog: $2. Sells more than 30 kinds.

Growing tips
• Plant lavender in full sun and well-drained soil (add organic material to heavy soils). Sansone plants her lavender in raised beds to ensure good drainage during wet winters.

• Water plants deeply, but infrequently, when the soil is almost dry.

• Spread compost over roots once a year, in spring.

• Prune in early spring or at harvesttime. For low-growing varieties, trim back foliage 1 to 2 inches. Tall (3 to 4 foot) lavenders should be cut back by about 1/3 to keep plants from getting overly woody (start the second year).