Glazed, swirling-colour pots, filled with flowers, shine out from a small gravel yard that is my neighbour’s garden area. Lilies, lobelia, miniature roses, strawberry plants, stocks and lavender are lush and bright in the pots that are set out all around her door. These pots have transformed a bare, grey yard into a summer filled with blossom. A patio table and chairs are set amongst the pots, and my neighbour can sit amongst the flowers catching the best of the afternoon and evening sun. Lavender is one of her favourite plants. Its long-lasting blossom provides hazy mounds of blue, its grey-green foliage releases Mediterranean aromas when you brush against it, and flowers attract bees and moths.
Botanists are not quite sure when lavender was first introduced to England but it is generally agreed that it arrived with the Romans. These brave, conquering centurions, so adept in the battlefields, also adored the finer aspects of living. Medicines and tonics of the time relied upon lavender as an antiseptic and disinfectant, and water and steam in Roman bath houses was laden with the aroma of lavender. The botanical and common names of lavender derive from the Latin word ‘lavare’ – to wash. In England, during the early medieval period, monks grew large crops of lavender in their monastery gardens for medicinal purposes, and during the Middle Ages when plague was rife, lavender was a main ingredient of ‘four thieves vinegar’ which robbers used as a protective antidote when robbing the homes of plague victims. Well-known 16th century herbalists such as Turner and Gerard were convinced that lavender had healing qualities that could be applied to everything from colds to paralysis, and in the 1800s, Queen Victoria employed her own ‘Purveyor of Lavender Essence to the Queen’ who inspected the farm in Surrey that grew the lavender harvested to make perfumes and potions for the royal household.
Today, crops of English lavender are still considered to be amongst the finest in the world, although the number of commercial growers in this country has dwindled. Most of us are more familiar with lavender as an ornamental garden plant. It is popular for growing in raised beds, gravel gardens, and in containers, mainly because it requires so little attention and shows excellent drought tolerance. Lavender often brings to mind traditional cottage garden styles of planting, but it is also used in contemporary design for roof gardens and as a companion to stainless steel and glass installations in modern gardens.
If grown in a pot, lavender should be potted in a soil-based compost. It is best grown on its own, rather than having to endure competition from other, more lush plants in the same pot. In order to flower well, it needs plenty of sunshine and prefers not to be overshadowed by other taller growing plants in neighbouring containers. It requires little maintenance, but in order to keep plants well-shaped and compact, the previous year’s growth should be trimmed in spring. It is important not to cut growth back to old wood, because you may find that such severe pruning will prevent new shoots from being produced, and will spoil the shape of your lavender plant.