Soil Matters to Lavender


Distinguished by long thin wand-like flower stems, English lavender is the hardiest of them all.

The Serenity Prayer asks us to “accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, with the wisdom to know the difference.”  If you’ve tried growing lavender with little success, maybe it’s time to identify what you can change to make this year’s garden a fragrant bee filled blend of drought-resistant lavenders for landscaping. It only takes a little wisdom to make a difference.

french lavender
French lavender is the commercially grown species popular throughout southern Europe.


Lavender comes from Europe where it has been grown in the South of France since Roman times.  There, the Mediterranean climate mirrors that of California where winters are wet and mild with long dry seasons extending from May to as late as December. These plants are naturally adapted to loose friable soils, sandy loam and fill soils that don’t pack down.  In areas with persistent humidity, extensive summer rain, and dense acid soils, lavenders languish.

A Need for Porous Ground

Naturally, fast-draining soils ensure the roots are exposed to plenty of oxygen during the growing season, and if irrigated or rain falls, it moves in and out of the root zone quickly.  Such porous ground, particularly on a south-facing slope, helps to counteract the slow soil surface evaporation caused by humid climates with stagnant air.

spanish lavender
Larger flowers and a shorter stature define the heat-tolerant Spanish lavender.

In northern California where rainfall can be very heavy in winter and soils are dense and extremely rich, lavender struggles despite its preference for the climate.  Fields now growing commercial lavender are plowed into mounded rows well above grade to enhance drainage and keep the root zone sufficiently aerated.

Amending Soil

Fortunately, the soil is among the things we can change by adding amendments that open its structure.  Prepare the natural soil by blending it with pumice and Black Gold Garden Compost Blend.  Use this enhanced mix to raise up the soil surface so the crown or base of the stem of the plant is above the surrounding grade.  This is also a good way to create soils that are perfect for rocky outcrops and raised beds where lavender thrives.

In San Francisco where conditions are cool and damp, growers prefer to mulch their lavenders with minerals such as washed sand or decorative gravel that help reflect heat back onto the plant. This porous material also creates a dry barrier between damp soil and the plant foliage to discourage mold.

Choosing a Lavender

All three species have yielded endless horticultural varieties to choose from.

Before you select a lavender for marginal areas, consult a local expert to find the best species and or variety to match your microclimate and soil conditions.  They vary in cold hardiness, size, and color from the cold-tolerant English lavender to a Spanish lavender to fill that super hot spot.  And for those romantics who love the notion of true French lavender in the garden, these plants will be the genesis of homemade tinctures, fragrant waters, sachets, potpourri, soap and a wide range of natural herbal cosmetics.

Once you know what to plant, select a sun-filled area and improve the soil for drainage, then plant in spring so there’s plenty of time to adapt your ground before the summer heat and fragrant flowers to come.

About Maureen Gilmer

Maureen Gilmer is celebrating her 40th year in California horticulture and photojournalism as the most widely published professional in the state. She is the author of 21 books on gardening, design and the environment, is a widely published photographer, and syndicated with Tribune Content Agency. She is the weekly horticultural columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs and contributes to Desert Magazine, specializing on arid zone plants and practices for a changing climate. She works and lives in the remote high desert for firsthand observations of native species. Her latest book is The Colorful Dry Garden published by Sasquatch Books. When not writing or photographing she is out exploring the desert on her Arabian horse. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.

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