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home : columnists : home & garden
April 23, 2019

7/30/2015 11:12:00 AM
Home & Garden: Maintaining Lavender
July in Maine has reached its over-the-top perfection. Wildflowers - black-eyed Susans, sky-blue chicory, orange daylilies, magenta fireweeed, golden tansy, creamy Queen Anne's lace, dusty mauve Joe Pye weed, red and white clovers and deep-blue vetch - spill over banks lining back roads. Squashes, peppers, peas, greens, herbs, the first tomatoes, onions and potatoes and berries of all colors contribute to an ongoing feast, while cutting flowers fill vases and jars for the table. Perfection is fleeting; the ground beneath the Dr. Van Fleet roses is carpeted with spent petals, even as the last blossoms are opening, and the lavender is drying and dropping deep purple blossoms on the dusty brick of the garden path.

I've been watching the lavender for the past month and have never seen it with less than a dozen bees working it hard. It's close to tomatoes and peppers, so I've been hoping that the pollinators will take a few side forays into the vegetable blossoms while there's still lavender to be had. I was surprised to even see the lavender had survived last winter's epic snow and cold, but it has grown huge over the summer. Hugeness can be expected in lavender, because it falls into the category of a semi-shrub, a plant that looks like a perennial, with soft green growth, but turns to wood in the parts that are a few years old. Beneath the froth of purple blossoms and silver-grey foliage, your lavender plant is trying to turn to wood.

As the CEO of the garden, it's your job to prune your lavender and slow this woody growth, for several reasons. First, lavender wood is weak and prone to splitting under a Maine winter's snow and ice, Unlike other true shrubs and trees, lavender that has become woody doesn't rejuvenate when pruned; it just dies. Old wood also stops producing new shoots, or makes sparse shoots, destroying the attractive mounding appearance of the lavender. Pruning heavily on an annual basis will help slow down the formation of wood and extend the life of your plants.

If you have newly planted lavender, you can start the pruning process by pinching tips of new growth. This will encourage dense branching and helps form a good shape and a lot of blooming growth. If you wait too long, plants form older growth that becomes woody and responds poorly to pruning. If you've had lavender that you love that now looks scraggly, you know what I'm talking about.

All lavenders bloom on new growth. This means that pruning can be done any time after this summer's flowering right up to mid-spring without sacrificing next year's flowering. Established lavender plants grow vigorously each year and can use intense pruning at summer's end to stay healthy. After a summer of heavy growth, trapped water can promote rot in lavenders' weak stems and wood. By late autumn, trapped water turns to an early frost, ending the growing season early, and this water can freeze, easily splitting out woody parts. A dense plant with sprawling wood is a target for snow load. Pruning now and into the fall reduces the plant's size, weight, and density before a heavy snowfall can get in and break off branches. This is the best reason to prune in autumn. With good, sharp pruning shears, cut back all shoots by at least a third.

In spring, you can prune out winter-killed bits back to vigorous buds. While you can't rejuvenate older plants by cutting into old wood, you can attempt to encourage new growth by pruning to points just above this wood. Count to the third node above the woody part and cut just above it. With luck, growth will emerge at these nodes.

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