Bartlett on Gardening: Lavender on Lookout

Specially built raised rows keep plants at Lookout Lavender Farm boosted over our soggy Southern clay, while soil amendments keep roots dry and correct the farm's acid pH.

Lavender is a fragrant herb native to the Mediterranean region. There it thrives in stony, lean, alkaline soils. It needs a situation that is high and dry. In our area, we have had abundant rainfall saturating our native clay soils this year. Add to that our usual sultry summer heat, and one has to wonder how any member of the Club Med plant world could survive here.

But it is so. Several weeks ago, Planet editor Robin Ford Wallace and I, along with our mutual friend, horticulturalist Christine Bock Hunt, visited a newly-established lavender farm on Lookout Mountain. Knowing the challenges of growing lavender in the Southeast, I was eager to learn some tips from the pros, Bill and Alice Marrin.

The first thing that meets the eye at the Marrins’ place, Lookout Lavender Farm, is that the lavender is growing along raised beds that were created by a mechanical “hiller.” Each bed is covered in landscaping cloth to suppress weeds. In addition, the material is somewhat reflective, which helps reduce humidity around each plant. The plants are spaced 40 inches apart so that there will be good air circulation when they mature.

The Marrins planted earlier this year but are not expecting a show until next spring. Lavender is a classic example of a perennial that creeps before it leaps.

Results of a soil test revealed that their pH was too acid for lavender, which likes to be between 6.7 and 7.3 or even 7.5. On the advice of another lavender grower, the Marrins added limestone gravel and vermiculite to the backfill of each planting hole to simultaneously raise the pH and improve drainage. Alice told us that the plants didn’t look too happy during very soggy patches this first season, but they certainly looked healthy when we visited.

At the time of our visit, there were seven raised beds, five of which were dedicated to lavenders with concentrated essential oil content. One row contains Phenomenal, a recent introduction which stands up to humid heat better than older cultivars. The other four rows are planted with Grosso, a well established variety for oil production. Lavender oil is derived from the flowers, which must be harvested in the morning just as the first buds begin to open.

Lavender oil is the most used essential oil in the world. The Egyptians used it as a perfume and in mummy making. It is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as nard, the Hebrew name for the herb. The Romans used it as a purifying bath agent. Lavendula is derived from the Latin verb lavare, to wash. It has been the “go-to” herbal air freshener since ancient times. Housewives even tossed the branches on the floor to be crushed underfoot, releasing the volatile oil into the air.

Today we still enjoy placing lavender sachets in the linen closet and include it in potpourri. The oil is used to make lotions, bath oil, soap and other products that just smell wonderful. Research has confirmed that inhaling the scent produces a slight calming effect. The oil is used in aromatherapy to improve the quality of sleep. A similar effect may be had with massage using lavender oil.

Lavender is also used in cooking, and at the Marrins’ place, the other two beds are for culinary lavenders. One row is planted with Hidcote and the other Provence.

The flavor of lavender is subtler than rosemary, with a citrus note. In France, folks cook with whatever they have on hand, and the famed culinary term “herbes de Provence refers to a varied mixture of summer herbs. The notion of selling a standardized mix is relatively recent. Lavender may well be included in herbes de Provence along with basil, fennel, marjoram and tarragon. Lavender works well as a seasoning for poultry, pork and mild fish.

From left, Bill Marrin, your humble narrator, Christine Bock Hunt and Alice Marrin.

Next June I look forward to returning to Lookout Lavender Farm to see the field in bloom. Count on The Planet to let you know the date of the open garden event planned by the Marrins.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

Editor’s note: If you’d like to follow the doings of Lookout Lavender Farm, you may “like" its Facebook page. Here’s a link::

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