Question: My lavender is starting to look very scrubby. Is now the time to prune?
Answer: Who can resist the wonderful intoxicating smell of lavender? Its uses over the years range from perfumes to disinfectants. There are historical records of flowers being sewn into the pockets of clothing to repel insects or scattered on mattresses to freshen linens and mask unpleasant odors. Today many gardeners grow lavender to add to culinary treats ranging from ice cream to cookies. Its versatility makes it a desired plant by gardeners worldwide.
There are many species of lavender varying in growth patterns and growing conditions. English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, is the most commonly grown lavender and is sold as a variety of cultivars. Flower colors range from lavender blue to dark blue to pink and even white. Your plant will thrive in well-draining soil with a pH of about 6.5. If your soil seems to drain slowly or is always on the wet-side, your lavender will not survive for long. Although associated with English gardens, lavenders natural environment is the rocky slopes of the Mediterranean. Creating a similar planting environment with full sun, well-draining soil, with low water needs will prove successful for most backyards.
When it comes to pruning, lavender is considered a semi-woody perennial sub-shrub. It responds well to pruning and once established should be pruned every year. This will prevent the plant from becoming unsightly. At the base of your plant you will see that the older stems have become woody. The goal of pruning is to cut down on the amount of woodiness. Lavender wood is weak and prone to splitting. It also does not produce new shoots and if incorrectly pruned back to woody areas the plant will not recover.
In early spring, cut off the top third of each lavender stem when green leaves begin to emerge. Lavender blooms on the current season's growth so pruning in early spring will not affect flowering. When flowers begin to bloom in late spring or early summer it is time to prune again. If you are growing lavender for dried uses, cut off the stem just below the first set of leaves when just a few bottom flowers begin to open. If you are growing for essential oil production wait until half the flowering floret is open. Harvesting early in the morning will maximize the amount of oil in the flowers. To finish pruning, after harvesting the flower stems, cut back the rest of the plant leaving 1 to 2 inches of green growth.
Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Exten-sion, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: