If there's one plant we can't get enough of, it's lavender. This beauty has got it all — signature fragrance, striking foliage and more uses than almost any garden-variety plant. The leaves and flower heads, both heavenly scented, can be used to make essential oils, tussie mussies, wreaths, wands, sachets and potpourri. Lavender also can be used to scent your bath or flavor sugar, cakes, cookies, custards and assorted desserts.
"It's beautiful, it's fragrant, it reminds us of Provence — even though we're botanically as far from France as you can get," says Mary Lahr Schier, editor of Northern Gardener magazine.
And there's the rub. Try as we might, growing lavender as a perennial is a hard bargain for most Minnesotans. While there are varieties that can winter over, they tend to be slow starters in the spring and lack the profusion of flower heads we want from this stunner.
But for lavender lovers, that only adds to its allure.
"There's a mystique about it because it's hard to grow as a perennial," says Theresa Mieseler, the author of "Beyond Rosemary, Basil, and Thyme" who ran Shady Acres Herb Farm in Chaska for decades.
But as an annual, lavender grows so well that she cautions against choosing a container that's too small.
"You wouldn't believe how much growth they'll put on in a year," she says.
Mieseler likes to pot up several different varieties in a long, rectangular container (2 feet long by 8 inches wide) or plant a single variety in an 18- to 24-inch round pot.
"When you plant it in a container, they start blooming quickly and they bloom until the first frost," she says.
Among her favorites are Goodwin Creek Grey lavender (L. x ginginsii 'Goodwin Creek Grey'), which she likes for its silvery foliage and rich purple flower; fringed lavender (L. dentata), which boasts a unique scent and dries especially well, and fernleaf lavender (L. multifida), a magnet for butterflies with its lanky flower stems that tower above the leaves.
Schier recommends cultivars of Lavendula angustifolia, commonly known as English lavender, including the very aromatic Munstead and Hidcote. Phenomenal lavender is a newer variety that is prized for its hardiness (growers rate it as hardy to USDA Zone 5). But it's probably not hardy enough to reliably rebloom in the Twin Cities (Zone 4).
No matter which variety you choose, lavender is pretty easy to grow as an annual. It needs sun, rich soil and plenty of water, especially in the heat of summer.
While we can get bountiful growth and a profusion of blooms from potted lavender in summer, we won't be mistaken for the Mediterranean anytime soon.
"I still haven't heard of anyone in Minnesota with fields of lavender," says Mieseler. "It's still a dream."