Learn how to grow lavender from seeds or cuttings, tips on pruning, watering, and other growing requirements, then how to harvest the flowers and leaves!
How to Start Lavender From Seed
For many people, starting lavender from seed often seems to be too daunting a task at first glance; as soon as words like ‘cold-stratification’ and ‘scarification’ come up, suddenly that $10 lavender plant on the shop shelf doesn’t seem that pricy anymore.
Growing lavender from seed’s not that scary! It takes some patience, and a spot in your refrigerator for a while, but if you’re willing to give those two things, you can potentially end up with a field of lavender, if you so desire, from just a few packets of seeds!
There’s more to lavender than just ‘lavender’! There’s a nice selection of varieties out there to pick from, and all of them are lovely, fragrant, and beloved by bees. Here are a few of them!
(Lavandula angustifolia vera) English lavender, also known as True lavender, is perhaps the most common lavender. It’s hardy down to USDA Zone 5 and up to Zone 10, and has beautiful purple blossoms.
(Lavandula angustifolia krajova) Czech lavender, also known as Country lavender, has gorgeous deep purple flowers and a mellow fragrance, which is considered less overwhelmingly floral and ‘soapy’ than most lavenders. Despite this, Czech lavender has a high content of essential oil. It’s cold-hardy down to USDA Zone 5.
(Lavandula angustifolia var. munstead) Munstead lavender is very hardy! It can take on USDA Zone 4 winters, making it a good choice for more northern gardening. As a dwarf plant, it’s also quite space-efficient, packing lots of fragrant flowers into one small bush.
(Lavandula angustifolia var. hidcote) Hidcote is another dwarf lavender, this one with deep, intense purple flowers. Hidcote is hardy down to USDA Zone 5, and up to Zone 8.
(Lavandula latifolia) Broadleaf lavender has a slightly different scent from other lavender plants- it’s more pungent, with a stronger aroma of camphor. It’s not as hardy as the other lavenders- USDA Zone 6 is about as cold as it can handle, and there may still be winter temperatures cold enough to kill it on occasion. But in its favor, it’s one of the longest-blooming lavenders, with lovely, pale lilac blooms on the ends of tall flower stalks that pollinators love.
How to Start Lavender Seeds
What is scarification?
Scarification is when the hard seed-coat on the outside of more stubborn seeds- such as lavender- is weakened so that the seed within can be exposed to water and air, allowing it to sprout. This process occurs naturally over time in nature, but gardeners can speed up the process with such handy tools as, say, sandpaper, or even boiling water!
Scarification is considered an optional step, but it has the potential to be a very useful one- if you’ve tried starting your lavender from seed a few times without scarifying them, and they just won’t sprout, try scarifying the next batch!
To scarify your seeds, you will need:
- Lavender Seeds
To scarify lavender, take up a seed in your fingers, and gently rub it against the sandpaper. Your goal is to break down the outer coating of the seed- make sure to stop once you’ve made it through!
There will be a lighter color where you were rubbing the seed against the sandpaper. You don’t want to go much further, because you don’t want to damage the seed itself- just the outer seedcoat.
When you scarify seeds, expect to be planting them (or starting them on cold-stratifying) immediately! Scarified seeds don’t keep, so only scarify if you’re completely ready to plant (or cold-stratify) right away.
Once you’ve scarified all the seeds you want to plant, move on to the next step- cold-stratification.
Something to try
Some people have luck with germinating lavender seeds simply with scarification- planting the scarified seeds directly in soil, and then simply keeping them moist and waiting. Try it, if you like- there’s so many seeds in a packet that you should have more than enough to experiment with as you please!
There’s two ways to try here: The paper towel method, and the sand/peat method.
What is this?
Some seeds need a period of cold weather to break their dormancy so they’ll sprout- in nature, this happens naturally over the winter, the cold and the wet working together so that when spring’s warm weather and sunlight get to work, the seeds will germinate!
This is how nature cold-stratifies seeds, and what gardeners try to mimic, letting us start these tricky seeds whenever we so choose. Since we can’t exactly drop a localized portion of winter wherever we so desire, that means we have to get creative- and luckily, refrigerators exist, meaning we can have a little slice of winter right in our houses, even in summer!
This may seem like an inconvenient pain for someone who just wants these plants to grow, already, but this reluctance to sprout without first going through a certain period of cold and damp weather is perfectly reasonable for the plant- seeds sprouting in the middle of winter, after all, aren’t likely to make it to spring.
Seeds that only sprout after the cold is gone, though, and only get triggered to germinate once warm weather has truly set in, on the other hand, have a much better chance at living and producing the next generation of seeds. And clearly, it works!
Paper Towel Method
You will need:
- Lavender seeds (scarified, if you’re doing that step)
- Plastic bag that can be sealed
- Paper towel
- Spray bottle with plain water inside
Lay your paper towel out flat, and mist it all over with the spray bottle so it’s consistently damp, but not soaking. If there’s too much water, squeeze it out, then lay it flat again.
Scatter your lavender seeds on top of the paper towel. Lavender has very low germination rates, so use a lot of seeds- the whole packet wouldn’t be overkill at all.
Fold the paper towel over on itself, so the seeds are surrounded by the damp paper towel on all sides. I like to fold mine into fourths, but folding it in half is also perfectly fine.
Place the paper towel inside the plastic bag, and seal it. Write the current date on the bag, what the seed is (plant, variety, etc) and then pull out your calendar. Count along the days, until you find out what date it will be 3-6 weeks from the current day- that’s when the cold-stratification will end.
As an example: If I started stratifying my seeds on June 10th, and I decided that I wanted to stratify my seeds for 6 weeks, the second date would be July 22nd.
Write down this second date on the bag as well, so you won’t forget when your seeds are ready, and place the bag in your refrigerator. Not your freezer! We don’t want to freeze the seeds, just keep them cold and damp.
Frequently check your seeds- you want to keep them evenly moist, so if the paper towel dries out, spritz it again with the spray bottle. Occasionally unfold the paper towel to make sure none of your seeds are molding or sprouting- toss moldy seeds, and go ahead and plant any sprouted ones.
Once the end-date of the cold-stratification has arrived, your seeds are ready to plant.
You will need:
- Lavender seeds (scarified, if doing that step)
- Sand or peat moss
- Mixing container
- Sealable plastic bag
Some people soak their lavender seeds before cold-stratifying: if you want to try this, place your lavender seeds in a container capable of holding water, and pour plenty of room-temperature water over them. Let them soak for 12 to 24 hours, and then pour the contents of the container through a fine strainer, separating water and seeds.
When letting the seeds soak, make sure you place them out of reach of any pets or small children you may have- cats in particular like to try and drink out of containers of soaking seeds, and I’ve personally woken up at night more than once to the near-inaudible lap lap lap of a cat tongue stealing a drink of the forbidden water.
This method is very similar to the paper towel method: the difference here is that it’s peat or sand that’s keeping the seeds moist.
Start by taking a small scoop of peat or sand and placing into your mixing container- then, slowly add small trickles of water and work it in, until it just sticks together in a ball when you squeeze it with your hands. No measurements here, I’m afraid- you have to just keep adding water until it feels right. If things get too damp (you don’t want it soaking wet), you can add more peat or sand to balance it out. You don’t need much!
Now take your lavender seeds, and mix them into the peat or sand. Once well-mixed, transfer the sand/peat/seeds blend into your plastic bag, and seal.
Just like with the paper towel method, write down what plant is in the bag, any relevant details (variety, etc.) the current date, then write down the date 3-6 weeks from now. Place the bag in your refrigerator, and check frequently for molding or sprouting seeds, using a spray bottle to add moisture if needed. Toss the molding seeds and plant the sprouting ones!
Once your seeds are finished cold-stratifying, it’s time to plant!
Sowing & Sprouting
Once cold-stratifying time is done, remove your seeds from their bags.
Sowing from paper towels cold-stratification is easy: the seeds are clearly visible on the paper towel, so all you need to do is pick up each seed, and press them onto the surface of a pot (or a few!) full of pre-moistened soil- I just use a simple, organic potting soil. Don’t cover your seeds! Use a spray bottle to quickly mist over them, making sure they’re moist, then cover the top of the pot with a greenhouse top or plastic wrap to keep moisture in.
If you stratified your seeds in sand or peat instead of on a paper towel, it may be difficult to find your seeds. They’re so small that picking them out of the peat or sand will take an eternity- so don’t! Instead, very thinly spread your peat/sand and seed mix over the top of a few damp-soil-filled pots, so that the seeds have a minimal chance of being covered too thickly. Cover with a greenhouse top or plastic wrap.
Regardless of which way you stratified your seeds, place the pots containing them somewhere warm and with lots of light! If you don’t have grow lights to help with this, place your pots in the sunniest windowsill you have.
Watch your pots, keep them evenly moist and warm, and wait: Lavender can take anywhere from 14 days to 90 days to germinate, so patience is key!
How to Grow Lavender from Cuttings
Seed-starting lavender not seeming worth it to you after all that? Consider trying to root lavender cuttings instead!
Using sharp scissors or pruning shears, clip off the top 4-6 inches of a fresh stem that isn’t flowering. Plunge the ends of these cuttings right into a jar of water as soon as you cut them so they don’t dry out on you!
Once you have all the cuttings you want, prepare your pots. Fill any sized pot with your choice of soil- I like to use an organic potting mix- and soak well, making sure the soil in the pot is moist all the way through from top to bottom.
On rooting hormones
Some people use commercial rooting hormones on their cuttings. Some people use natural rooting hormones, such as honey, or willow tea. Others use none at all. It’s down to personal choice, really.
I personally do not use rooting hormones at all, because commercial rooting hormones are generally not safe to use on any plant you plan to ingest. This does mean I have a lower success rate on my cuttings, but the pay off is that I know, for certain, that the plant I have propagated is completely safe for use in both foods and crafts.
As for natural hormones, I have not personally experimented much with them, so I can’t say whether or not they truly work- but willow tea, for one, is a known natural rooting hormone, so if you have access to willows, it’s worth brewing up a batch and giving it a try!
Other items I have seen used as natural rooting hormones include: Olive oil, cinnamon, and raw honey. (May or may not produce desired effects: further experimentation will be required!)
Use a pencil (or your finger) to poke holes in the soil. Strip the bottom half of the lavender of its leaves, and tuck the bare section of the stems into the holes, gently using your fingers to push the soil in closer and tamp it down. I recommend doing several plants per pot, as you never know how many will actually end up succeeding.
(Don’t discard the leftover lavender leaves! They’re useful for food and natural medicinal purposes!)
Keep the soil moist, warm, and in indirect sunlight. It may help to secure a clear plastic bag with a few airholes stabbed along it around the top of the pot, enclosing the cuttings, helping to keep a constantly moist and warm environment.
Discard any completely dried out or hopelessly withered cuttings, as they won’t root. You’ll know if your cuttings have rooted by the appearance of new growth- that means you’ve succeeded, if your cuttings are actually growing!
The roots will be very few and fragile- ideally, leave the cuttings in the pots to keep growing for at least another month or so, but start letting the soil dry out more between watering. Breaking the roots will most likely kill the plant completely, at this stage, so if you have to transplant it into another pot early, be careful!
Cuttings will most likely take 3-6 weeks to root. Grow up cuttings in pots until they are large enough and have a strong enough root system to survive being planted into the garden.
Growing Tips for Lavender Plants
Plant lavender 2-4 feet apart.
There are two times of year that people tend to plant lavender in: spring or fall.
When to plant
Spring, after all risk of frost has passed, is the ideal time (unless you live in a very, very hot climate) for planting most lavender plants. It gives them plenty of time to get well-established before winter and cold weather hits, raising their chances of survival.
Fall is a bit chancier- only very well established, large and healthy lavender plants should be planted in fall, as the cold weather looming on the horizon can take out young or weak plants.
However, if you live in a climate that doesn’t exactly experience winter, but does experience an exceptionally hot summer that tends to bake your plants, then fall planting may be your friend. Sometimes climates that get very heavy rainfall in spring are also better off planting lavender later in the year, so the young plants don’t get drowned, or so waterlogged that they end up with root-rot.
Your best bet is really to experiment- if planting in spring doesn’t work for you, try planting in fall next! And if none of your fall-planted lavender survives, then plant it in spring next time. And if neither of them give you the results you want, well, then, there’s always summer, isn’t there?
Lavender wants full sun! That means it needs a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to be happy. They can tolerate a little shade, but they don’t really like it- a lavender in the sun is a happy lavender.
Avoid planting your lavender anywhere that stays constantly wet or moist- that’s a recipe for root-rot waiting to happen.
Lavender can take a lot, so long as it’s not waterlogged, so odds are you’re good just to dig a hole and plop it right in. As long as the soil drains well, you’re probably safe.
As far as nutrients go, soil with poor to medium fertility are completely fine, and you probably won’t have to add anything to the soil just for that! If you have very heavy clay soil, you might want to amend with sand and tiny stones.
If your lavender is just completely failing to thrive, consider getting your soil tested- if you have super acidic soil, lavender isn’t so fond of growing in that. Amending the soil so you have neutral or slightly alkaline soils might fix the problem.
Lavender isn’t water-greedy- potted lavender plants only need watering usually about once a week- and in most climates, once your lavender plants are established, the rain will often give them plenty of moisture.
Too much wetness can give lavender root rot, so don’t overwater- if in doubt, your lavender won’t be hurt by skipping a watering. Lavender is a very drought-hardy plant, so it can take a dry spell!
Since lavender thrives in poor to medium-fertility soils, there’s usually absolutely no need to fertilize them. In fact, giving lavender a lot of fertilizer has the potential to make your plant decide not to bloom, or could outright kill it!
The exception here is that sometimes, in the spring, some people like to spread about an inch of good-quality compost around the base of the plant- this is something older plants may appreciate, if you’ve noticed your lavender was starting to lose its vigor, in the past year.
When in doubt, skip the fertilizer. Save the rich soil and the nutrient-dense fertilizers for your fussier plants!
Regularly pinching off the tips of your young lavender plant as it grows encourages branching and a bushier plant, helping shape them into a denser shrub. As a bonus, you also get a mini harvest of lavender leaves when you do it!
After your lavender has finished flowering, use sharp pruning shears to cut back all the stems by one third, which will also help shape the plant, and encourage even more branching.
Pruning is important for extending your plant’s lifespan, because from the center out, your lavender plant is trying to turn into wood. Nothing can put this off forever, but regular pinching and pruning can help slow down the process, extending the lifespan of your lavender plant.
Why is it bad that lavender goes woody?
The woody portions of lavender usually will not sprout leaves, which means that lavender is prone to getting bare spots in these areas. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this is undesirable because it makes a patchy, straggly-looking plant.
For the more practical angle, lavender wood is very weak, and it splits and breaks easily. And the wood itself stubbornly insists on acting dead- if you prune off all the green stems on your lavender, cutting down to the brown wood instead, it won’t grow back. It’s kind of like if you just tried to prune a dead twig- it just stays there, refusing to grow back.
Lifespan of Lavender
With proper care, lavender plants can last about 10 years. After that, they begin to decline, so if you dearly love that particular plant, you may want to take what cuttings you can off of it and attempt to propagate it. Your lavender can’t be truly immortal, but you can clone it infinitely and it can live on that way!
Without proper care- that is to say, without pruning- you can expect a lifespan more along the lines of 3-5 years. This could be drastically shorter or possibly longer, depending on your climate, soil type, and so on. Overall, though, it’s reasonable to expect a significantly shorter lifespan on a lavender plant that has never been pruned.
Harvesting, Drying & Using Lavender
Lavender’s useful for more than just attracting pollinators and looking pretty! You can harvest and use both the leaves and flowers of your lavender plants, and there’s plenty to do with the both of them!
Harvest the flowers when they’re dry and no rain or dew is upon them. Choose the nicest looking stalks, and leave behind any that are browned or aged. Use a pair of scissors or pruning shears to clip off the flower stalks. It’s a good idea to tap the flower stalks lightly against your hand to dislodge any little critters hiding within.
Lavender leaves have lots of uses too! They can be pulled or clipped off, or saved when you’re pruning or stripping the stems for lavender cuttings.
Once you’re back indoors, spread the lavender stalks and/or leaves on a screen, paper towels, or clean dishtowels. Allow them to air dry for several days, until completely dried. Alternative, you can use a dehydrator set to around 105 degrees F, checking every hour or so until dry.
Storing Dried Lavender
Once dried, the flower stems and leaves can be stored in brown paper bags (lunch bags work great) or lidded glass jars, out of direct sunlight. Be sure to store in a dark place, so the colors and freshness won’t fade.
Don’t crumble the dried herbs to a powder until right before you’re going to use them. This helps the volatile oils stay around longer and will give you best results. Shelf life of dried lavender is around one year, or until the color and scent has faded.
Using Dried Lavender
Lavender flowers and leaves can be infused in oil, turned into salves, lotion bars, bath soaks, and soap, or infused into vinegars and tinctures.