A New Approach to Weeding

The bane of maintaining any garden is the unending encroachment of weeds into the space designed for our plantings.  The headache of weeding becomes even more intense for those of us who have elected the organic approach because little, short of conventional manual approaches, is possible.  Mulching, ground covers, weed matting and similar options produce varying degrees of success.  But, ultimately, in our experience the weeds eventually find an avenue to daylight.

Our primary lavender field garden is located in our South Meadow.  While not perfectly ideal because it is not exclusively south-facing, it benefits from full sunlight exposure while gently sloping from East to West.  However, the farm’s history was rooted in livestock and today’s lawns and meadows once provided grazing space for cattle, goats, guinea hens and burros.  The consequence for us is soil so rich that we had to integrate 10-tons of crushed limestone to achieve a PH factor suitable for lavender.

Initially, our lavender field garden was cultivated, disked and weed matted.  Twenty years ago plastic matting was the popular convention.  Its limitation, however, was that it quickly became brittle following prolonged exposure to the elements.  Despite being covered with a 4-inch layer of small, round sandstone pebbles the deteriorating plastic weed mat soon incurred holes and splits which provided opportunities for the century-old field grass lying dormant beneath to emerge.  Replacing the plastic weed mat with the aerated fabric matting that became all the rage thereafter proved, for us, to be only marginally better.  Nature is tireless in its effort to reclaim land to its former, natural state; and, within a year of replacing the plastic matting with the woven alternative, the weeds were back in full glory.

For nearly a quarter-century our assault on weeding the lavender field garden has been a shovel-and-shoulder enterprise.  Neglect it for a season and the following year would find the lavender plants choked by a sea of thistle, clover, field grass and dandelion.  Measuring 120 feet by 40 feet, the lavender garden formerly required 2 – 2 ½ months to fully restore.  Then, completely by chance, Ginna discovered a partly rusting tool hidden deep in the dark recesses of the Carriage House where our garden tools and supplies are stored.  It is called a Hula Hoe.  This tool features a simple square looped steel blade affixed to a shovel handle.  Its virtue is that when pushed forward and back through the weedy gravel it upends many of the invaders while clipping off others.  In a span of three weeks the entire lavender field was cleared; thereafter, requiring only several weekly maintenance passes through the garden.

Sadly, the tool suffered metal fatigue and failed at Summer’s end.  Fast-forward to Christmas when family members were peppering me for gift ideas, my research for a replacement Hula Hoe discovered what I can only describe as the single most efficient, effective weeding tool which should be de rigueur for every gardening arsenal.  It is made in the United States and, building on the design theory of the Hula Hoe, it features a triangular shaped cutting blade that, when placed flat on the ground, slices cleanly through soil and gravel at far less than half the effort required by the Hula Hoe.  I have just completed clearing the entire 4,800 sq. ft. lavender field garden of Spring and early Summer weeds.  The project consumed a grand total of 21 hours!  That is 82.5% faster than the Hula Hoe required and 2 ¼ months quicker than conventional shovel weeding.

At the heart of its design is a pointed arrow shaped blade.  The angled edges are serrated to facilitate side assault, as well.  I opted for the longer handle to reduce the bending angle of my back.  It is called the Basic Garden Tool by its creator and manufacturer, and can be used as a hoe, weed, shovel, edger, pitch fork and rake among other tasks.  It is available through www.basicgardentool.com  

With a lifetime guarantee it is certain to be the only weapon I will carry with me into gardening’s battle hereafter.

Organic Lavender Farm Tour in Clarion County, PAThanks for this post to Chris Gemmell Co-owner and Chief Weeder at Lavender Green farm.

Celebrating a Bountiful Harvest!

Like any plant, lavender experiences good years, poor years and bountiful years.  I’m thrilled to report that this summer has been one of those bountiful years as the first harvest completed with a brimming Carriage House full of drying bundles.
What contributes to a bountiful harvest?  Lavender likes air, space, light and sun which were plentiful here at the farm in the critical months of May, June and July.  We received just enough rainfall which meant that the plants didn’t get their “feet wet” or drown in puddles in the garden, which renders them more vulnerable.
 
Sunny and warm Summers also hold diseases at bay like Alfalfa Mosaic Virus (AMV) and Phytophthora Nicotianae (Ppn) which plagued many lavender farms throughout America for the past two years. We’ve had our own tough seasons past  with “winter kill” from prolonged days of sub-zero Winter temperatures.
A few years ago we lost about half of our lavender plants from “winter kill”.  Many of those plants were 20+ years old and had been so well loved that we knew them by name.   We also lost every one of our long stemmed “Provence”and “Grosso” plants during the brutal Winter of 2013-14.  This was a heart break.
In trying to second guess the upcoming Winters we cautiously bet that there would be a return to “normal” which, for us, does not include months of sub-zero temperatures.  So, we began replanting gingerly.
We replaced the Provence and Grosso gardens with “Phenomenal” which flourished this year.  Phenomenal has stems as long as 2 feet; is very hardy in Growing Zone 5; and, offers a nice fragrance.  It has a mid-bluish/purple color and is a nice all around plant to include in your garden. All in all, an improvement!
 
We’ve planted a test garden of “Big Time Blue”, a new angustifolia with exceptional color, good fragrance and a long flower head for 10″ bouquets.   We found Big Time Blue at Burpee’s and I believe they have them in stock for Fall planting if you’d like to give this compact variety a try in your perennial garden.
Big time Blue Lavender

The Gros Bleu with it’s vivid color, longish stems (18″) and nice fragrance was such a hardy Winter survivor and star that we planted another garden of them.

A garden miracle also occurred with our twenty year-old  Munstead and Hidcote plants which produced “babies” through a natural layering process.  The aging Mother plant produced five baby plants, encircling her last summer.  While many of the rows are no longer “neat and orderly” the harvest from the year old babies has been surprisingly strong.   Mother nature works in mysterious ways
Even though we haven’t experienced Ppn at Lavender Green Farm, we’re taking precautions by sending one plant from each new flat from the nursery to the Clemson Problem Plant Clinic to be tested.  In the interim, the other newbies from the flat are quarantined until we get a disease free health report.  This may seem overly cautious but we don’t want to introduce fungus- like oomycete* into the gardens as they destroy plants with symptoms that look like root rot.  So far there have been no diseases present in nursery stock ordered this year.
A number of the gardeners who attended our tours last Summer reported that their plants died instantly after a rainfall, which is a another sign of Ppn.  If this happens to you, pull and burn or put the sick plant into the trash bag and remove the surrounding soil by digging out the ground around the spot in your garden.  If it was Ppn nothing will successfully grow there for an indeterminate number of years–it is that serious and it can spread through the soil infecting other plants.  You can also notify your local Dept. of Agriculture office to find out where to send the plant for diagnosis.
So much for reflection on what we have learned over the past few years. Given this year’s harvest, our new mantra is to optimistically look forward with eyes wide open–taking nothing for granted.
I hope your garden is flourishing this Summer, too.
Fragrant Lavender Wishes,
Ginna

 

Lavender: “For Love or Money” ?  

LavenderGreen-Love_or_money

This winter I had the pleasure of presenting to the Grapevine Garden Club of Sewickley, PA.  Chris and I loaded the car with lavender filled pillows, closet sachets, Lavender Lover’s Bath and Body products and our Aromatherapy line so that they could shop a little after our talk about our work here at the farm.  We presented at the very accommodating and technically up to speed Edgeworth Country Club, right in the heart of Sewickley.

Lavender Green Farm with SnowValentine’s Day was just around the corner, so love was the  theme of our talk.  The #United States Lavender Growers Association had just posed a question at their recent Conference in San Antonio, “Are you in the lavender business for love or money?”  As you can imagine, almost everyone said “both”.  I had to think long and hard about this question because for me LavenderGreen was all about the love and I wondered if I had ever considered the financial implications of this venture.  The answer “was not at all”.

Partly this lapse was because I didn’t need to think about profit because I was working in Washington DC as an innovation process consultant to membership associations there and could therefore subsidize the farm and the kids and the lavender with earnings from my practice. So LavenderGreen developed without a business plan, even though I  knew how to write one.  Reflecting back to 1990 and making a timeline for how we got to now, was a good exercise.  I began to take stock through some self examination–and an unexamined life is not a life worth living, right?

Gardens at Pickity PlaceAnyway, back to love.  There are many layers of love involved in our case.  Love of the farm and the land itself and the memories of spending lazy summer afternoons here as a kid, usually in a hammock reading a book. Love of my family and all of the warm and safe memories that our big family could provide and wanting to recreate that memory for the next generation. Love for the community weighed in, too. Here, the center of social life was the Dutch Reformed Church and the grange. Everyone in Little Germany and Knox seemed like good people, then and now. Love of the pace of life and the feeling that we are set back in time.

Love of the plant is possibly the main ingredient.  I fell in love with the plant 25 years ago after first touching its leaves in a place called Pickety Place in New Hampshire.  That was the very first time I had even seen a lavender plant and I purchased two to plant in pots in front of our house in Concord, MA.  When we bought the farm, those two plants were planted here and still survive to this very day.  Our plant population sort of mushroomed from there but we’ve lost some due to too much rain and poor drainage, frost heave from planting too early in the spring, and most recently winter kill from 19 days of sustained winter temperatures below zero degrees.  We’ve replanted after every loss. Our love for lavender seems undaunted and we continue to research better methods of planting to reduce loss. 

Gros_Bleu-Weeding

The Sequim  Lavender Growers Association, members of the US Lavender Growers Association posted this very succinct article, How to Grow Beautiful Lavender, that I’d like to share with you to increase your probability of success with your own lavender plants.  Sequim has about the perfect location for growing lavender in the US, located in the Olympic Peninsula in the great state of Washington.  If, like us, you’re located in cooler growing zones, refer to our article Building a Lavender Garden from Scratch.

Building a Lavender Garden from “Scratch”  

Gros_Bleu-StemsAre you dreaming of a purple haze of lavender in your backyard and lavender’s refreshing scent wafting through an open window on a sunny afternoon?  Almost everyone can make a mini-garden of lavender that can fulfill this dream and provide enough dried stems for your home and buds for sachets or potpourri.  A mini-bed can be created along the side of a building, in a circle, a knot garden, or in a straight line bed along sidewalk or driveway.  The garden featured in this post contains just 18 plants of the Gros Blue variety which is a cultivar of Grosso, a Lavandin.  We love it for its color, fragrance and stem length.

There are just a few things to consider:

  1. Chose the right location, full sun with good drainage
  2. Prepare your soil; a sandy, loamy soil is ideal, but you can amend any soil to work
  3. Chose the right variety for your garden and buy enough plants to space them with room for air to circulate
  4. Plant, Water, mulch, snip, and prune

Choosing the Timing and the Right Location

 Chose a location that receives the most sunlight in your yard.  South facing is helpful and so is a wind-break or a building or a stone wall nearby.  We have open field gardens that do well with a fence as a near-by wind-break, critical in Zone 5.

Plot out your garden first and decide how many plants to buy.  We plant in early June, after the danger of frost has past, but before the heat requires too much watering.  Fall planting is fine in some warmer areas of the country.  Make certain that you have good drainage with a natural slope where water from a heavy deluge of rain can quickly run off the garden.  Lavender likes rain, but does not like to have its feet “wet”…so no standing water in the lavender garden, ever. (standing water leads to root rot–a very sad occurrence).

Soil Preparation

 Lavender loves a sandy, loamy soil just like the Mediterranean soil it came from originally.  Our soil has a lot of clay in it, so we dig a hole 18″ deep and fill it with potting soil, pearlized limestone, and pea gravel.  This soil mix should crumble in your fingers and is “friable” which helps promote healthy root growth.  You can also add play sand, but we reserve the play sand for mulch.  Use a mini-soil tester to make sure the soil mix has a PH of 7.  A PH of 6 or below is too acidic for healthy growth.  Lavender likes “cheap” soil, so there is rarely a need to add fertilizer.

 Sequim, Washington has a gritty soil and Delaware a sandy soil which are both naturally hospitable soils for lavender, but the rest of us need to compensate.

Close-up of Gros Bleu Lavender

Choosing the right lavender plants for your garden

 There are now about 200 varieties of lavender available in the market place.  We suggest that you buy from a local nursery to get the plants that will do well in your growing zone.  In our case, we plant very winter hardy lavender like to true Angustifolia Munstead and Hidcote which survive our quirky winters in growing zone 5.  If you like long stems, consider the new variety “Phenomenal” which can withstand cold, rain and draught.  This is a cultivar of Grosso, a very sturdy Lavandin with long stems.   If you’re going for a sea of lavender, buy all of the same variety for each garden.

 If your gardens are full, consider adding a lavender plant as a fragrant purple accent in a mixed perennial garden. It pairs well with roses and many other favorites.

Gros_Bleu-WeedingPlant, water, weed, snip and prune

 Measure your garden and read the spacing requirements on the tag of your plants.  Lavenders come in many sizes from compact, 12″ spreads to huge 36″ mounded spreads.  Make sure to allow enough space between the plants so the air can circulate around them and you can move around the plants to harvest the lavender flowers and weed.

 Dig holes 12-18″ deep and 12″ wide and refill your hole with the amended soil.  Lavender roots extend 18″ deep, but a 1 year old plant has about 3″ of roots, so you need to mound up a little Pyramid inside your hole and gently spread the baby’s roots over the pyramid, so that the crown of the plant is even with the garden.  Water the plants when you have patted them down into the soil.

Pea_Gravel_ newspaper_mulch We add a top cover of pea gravel to our entire garden after planting for two reasons.  First, it’s light color reflects sunlight back into the plant and prevents fungus and second because it works its way into the soil and breaks down the clay, allowing the roots to “breathe”.

Garden side by side year one and two Don’t expect many stems in your first summer, but year two will yield more and year three should be spectacular.  It’s important to cut off spent stems, to encourage more growth.  English lavenders will give you a second cutting in September if you cut the stems in July.  If you experience a rainy summer with lots of cloud cover, consider adding a 1-2″ play sand mulch on top of the gravel all around the plant to bounce light back into the plant.  This little tip can spare you from root rot and promote healthy growth by tricking the plant into thinking it’s really back home in the Mediterranean.

Gros Blue garden in the fallWeeding is important because weeds can “choke” a young lavener plant and be the cause of an early demise.  We weed by hand because we are keeping our gardens organic and herbicide free. Prune in the fall after the plant has gone to sleep.  Lavandins can be pruned and shaped into a neat mound and the Angustifolia’s can at least be made neater, although they grow asymmetrically and always look a little “oppitity”.

 Your garden should give you color, fragrance  and pleasure from mid-June until mid- July plus or minus two weeks.  It may rest in August and flower again in September providing you with lavender enough for your home and gift-giving.

Enjoy!

Ginna Gemmell