How do you grow lavender for fragrance and cooking?

Lavender in full bloom (Photo by Per Ola Wiberg - CC-BY)

Lavender in full bloom (Photo by Per Ola Wiberg - CC-BY)

Lavender likes a temperate climate with sunny summer days and cool winters. It will grow in most of Europe and in American zones 5-10. While it is happier on well-drained soils than on damp clay, it’s not too fussy otherwise. Mix sand into the earth round lavender roots to help it cope with heavy, wet soil.  Give it a reasonable spot – no heavy shade or water-logged roots – and even plants started from cuttings should be fully grown in 2-3 years.

A local nursery or garden centre will help you choose a good variety for your area, whether you are planting one single lavender bush, a group, or a hedge. Don’t spray insecticide anywhere nearby if you want to use the flowers in cooking.

Growing lavender beside a path or a door means you will enjoy the scented flowers in summer when you walk past, especially on sunny days.  Butterflies and bees like it too.

For indoor use, pick the flower heads while most of the florets are still closed, but the top ones are just beginning to open. This is the time when they are most strongly scented.

To dry lavender, hang by the stems in loose bunches somewhere dark and airy, or spread them on a wire rack away from the light. Once the flowers are well-dried put bundles inside closets and drawers, or fill a shallow bowl to scent a room. Stripping flowers off the stems to fill home-made lavender bags is a traditional way of packaging the sweet herb for yourself or for a gift. Use cotton fabric that’s not too thick or tightly-woven to allow the perfume through.

You can make simple lavender water by putting a couple of handfuls of the flowers into a pint of boiling water. Cover and let this “herbal tea” infuse for several days. Strain and use it in a spray wherever you want. It should last a few weeks before starting to deteriorate. A splash of vodka may help it keep longer, but you can’t expect to make long-lasting lavender perfumes at home, unless you buy lavender oil and use more complicated methods.

Lavender adds a delicate flavour to desserts, cakes, and fruit drinks. Flowers added to a container of sugar for a few days will produce lavender-perfumed sugar to use in sweet recipes. You can also add lavender directly to cookies, muffins, scones etc. towards the end of the mixing process. About 6 or 7 dried lavender flowers per cookie is a good quantity for your first experiment.

Some people like lavender with salmon, or as an alternative to rosemary in grilled or baked fish recipes. To me, this is a less successful combination than lavender in lemonade, sorbet, scones, or other sweet goodies.

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