How to Prune and Harvest Lavender
It may be difficult to grow in our region, but Southerners aren't going to let a little humidity stop them from cultivating beautiful, fragrant lavender plants in their garden. Thanks to tougher, more weather-resistant varieties, such as the ‘Phenomenal' plant, people in the humid South can enjoy this sun-loving aromatic in raised beds or container gardens. Like many plants, a healthy lavender bush owes its longevity partly to proper pruning and harvesting. Follow these steps on how to prune and harvest lavender.
How to Prune
Lavender is a semi-shrub, or subshrub, a plant that looks like a perennial because most of its growth is soft and green, but its older base stems turn to wood. At the center of the mounded semi-shrub, the lavender is trying to turn to wood; weak wood that can split and no longer produces new shoots. Pruning each year will help slow down the formation of wood and extend the vigor and lifetime of your plant.
Because lavender blooms on the stems that grow in the current year, pruning can be done in early- or mid-spring without sacrificing the current year's flowering. Pruning in late-summer or early-fall encourages good air circulation, which guards against rot. If possible, pruning twice a year is ideal.
When your lavender plants are still young, begin pinching tips of new growth; the plants will respond vigorously with dense branching that will help form a good shape. Delay pruning, and the plant has an opportunity to form older (eventually woody) growth that won't respond as well to pruning. Since lavender will grow vigorously in the right conditions, you should prune back at least one-third of an established plant each year.
How to Harvest
Many gardeners prune and harvest their lavender at the same time. Removing the flowering stems from the bush promotes new growth in the plant's roots, keeps the plant looking tidy, and gives you bunches of fragrant, fresh lavender flowers. To enjoy dried stem bunches or dried buds for cooking, you want to cut the lavender when just a few of the buds on the stem have bloomed. This will allow you to enjoy a more vibrant color in the dried stems and the buds do not fall off as easy once dried. Harvesting in the spring or early summer gives the plant enough time to possibly produce more flowers for a second cutting. The best time of day to harvest lavender is in the morning, after the dew has dried but before the heat of the sun draws out too much of the fragrant essential oils.
The best tool for harvesting lavender is a small, scythe-like instrument called a harvesting knife, but a sharp hand pruner will work fine. Using your thumb and middle finger, encircle a bunch of stems above the leaves and make a clean cut, being careful not to crush any flowers. A first-year lavender bush will typically produce enough flowers to form just one or two bunches, while a fully mature plant may produce 8 to 10 bunches of lavender.
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How to Dry Lavender
The simplest method for drying lavender is to hang the bunches upside down. As you cut each bunch from the plant, tie it together, at the cut end, with a rubber band or piece of twine. Hang the bunches upside down from hooks or nails in a cool, dark area. You will need to retie the bunches as they dry because they will shrink and loosen. The darkness of the room helps the lavender flowers and buds retain color. Hanging the bunches upside down means the stalks dry in an upright shape - ideal for using in flower arrangements.