Lavender Farming: What You Need To Know
Lavender fields are a beautiful addition to farms, offer diversity in crop cycles, and create a colorful draw for people and pollinators alike. While they can help add profit to an existing enterprise, it takes hard work to grow these flowers, so if you’re looking for a set-it-and-forget-it crop, you’ll have to look elsewhere. If, however, you have the desire to grow this lovely flower and the will to see it through, I think you will find the rewards to be manifold.
How to Sell Lavender – What’s the Market?
The first step to lavender farming is to determine how you plan to monetize your crop. There are several different varieties of lavender on the market, and each one lends itself to a particular end product.
Fresh Cut Flowers are a quick and easy way to get your lavender to the public. If you already have a retail outlet where cut flowers are sold, it’s a no-brainer to add some lavender to your harvest season. You might also check with local florists who would love to be able to advertise local cut flowers in their arrangements.
Dried Flowers are a versatile product with a much longer shelf life than fresh flowers. They can be used for aromatherapy and artisan sachets, sold in bundles for interior design, and added to teas, concoctions, soaps, and other popular health trend items.
Distillation of lavender oil may be one of the most popular uses of the plant. You can distill it on-site for a boutique oil, or sell it by weight to a processor.
Lavender Varieties: Which Ones Should I Grow?
With your market in mind, the next step is to decide which varieties best fulfill your market goals and also grow well in your area. Not all lavenders are created equal: there are more than 30 species with over 400 varieties to choose from in the world. However, only three of those species dominate commercial applications: Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender), Lavandula stoechas (Spanish lavender), and Lavandula x intermedia (a hybrid strain).
Lavandula angustifolia (English Lavender) is generally hardy down to zone 5, and is typically grown for high oil production or culinary use. It is known to have sweeter flowers than other varieties because of a lower level of camphor in the oils.
Lavandula stoechas (Spanish Lavender) is hardy in zones 7 to 10 and can handle a harsher summer than English Lavender. It’s the first to bloom in mid-spring and will hold its color through late summer. Spanish Lavender is known for its unique blooms, with feathery petals extending from the top of the bloom stalk. It’s not for human consumption, though–this one’s better for cut flowers and attracting pollinators (or people) to your fields.
Lavandula x intermedia is the number one producer in commercial farms. This family contains varieties such as Lavender Provence, Grosso, and Goodwin Creek. Each variety is a little different, but as a group, they are hardy from zones 6 to 9. They generally produce larger flowers, longer spikes, and exponential yield rates of oil compared to English Lavender.
**Note: It’s important at this step to think through whether or not you’d like to do any propagation yourself, cutting and rooting new plants: if so, you’ll need to avoid popular patented varieties, like Phenomenal.
How to Plan Rooted Cuttings
When you bring in your liners (the small starter plants, sometimes called plugs), you’ll need to plan some extra time to grow them out into a 3″ or 4″ pot. Liner roots are established, but they’re small and do not have enough root mass yet to survive the ups and downs of life in the field.
Plan 4-6 weeks to allow your liners to mature in a 4″ pot, at which time they will be ready to go into the field. When planting the 4″ pot in the field, make sure you are past your frost date, and be sure to plant it right at the dripper head on the drip tape. Dig a hole double the size of your root mass, and make sure that the soil you use for backfill has plenty of coarse ground sand or gravel for drainage.
Lavender plants can survive for decades, but most commercial farmers rotate older plants out in order to create a consistent yield for their crops. At a large lavender farm in Aix en Provence, I discovered that their early plantings (years 1-2) were very low yield–almost nursery beds; years 3-5 were their main production; starting year 6 (depending on the variety) they would begin to replant fresh stock. In the fall, they trim their plants back in order to create new growth in the spring and increase flower production.
Field Planning and Soil Conditioning
Because lavender is from the Mediterranean region, it prefers particular growing conditions: a dry and arid environment, lots of sunshine, and a coarse, rocky soil that stays quite dry during the growing season. In a perfect world, lavender would be planted on a south-facing hill (in the northern hemisphere) in a rough soil, giving it quick drainage and lots of sunlight.
If your conditions are less than ideal, you’ll need to plan for soil conditioning. Adding coarse sand and gravel will condition the soil for better drainage. Planting on raised beds with groundcover will decrease the amount of saturation due to rain. (A plastic cover on a raised bed will all but stop rain penetration, but it can make it difficult to know moisture concentration for irrigation systems.)
Spacing and Irrigation
Spacing is somewhat determined by the variety you decide to grow, but a good rule of thumb is 2-3 feet between plants, and 4-6 feet between rows. Your row spacing is going to be determined somewhat by how you plan to care for the ground. If you’re going to use a solid groundcover and do weed control, you can go on the short side; if you plan to do a cover crop like a short grass or clover, then you’ll need enough space to mow (depending on your mower size). Both of these approached have pros and cons.
Rows should be planted in an alternating pattern (the second row spaced halfway between the plants of the first row). Each row should have drip tape running the length of the row, either on top of the ground or buried 1/2″ deep, but you’ll have to plan the spacing of your plants before you order drip tape–each hole of the drip tape should fall right at the placement of each plant so that only the plant is receiving moisture and the ground around it is dry enough to wick away the excess.
Younger plants will need to be watered a couple times a week until they are established, but mature plants should be watered once every two weeks in the absence of rainfall. Once buds form, most lavender farmers will increase their irrigation to at least once weekly to promote more flowers.
Lavender farming can be very rewarding, both for bees, beautification, and your bottom line. With a good plan, you can expect healthy returns while drawing people to your property. I mean, who can resist a good lavender field?
All unmarked photos ©Rachel Donahue, North Carolina Farms.