Strange things happen in lockdown. One of the strange things that has happened to me is that I have fallen in love again. But worry not, for it is with a plant, not a human being, that I have rediscovered my lapsed affection. The plant is lavender, one of the greatest English summer glories, and it is purely by an accident of lockdown and self-isolation that it has, quite rightly, returned to play a truly important role in my garden.
We have numerous large terracotta pots and each year, for some while, we have filled them with what I consider fairly stylish summer bedding – small-flowered species pelargoniums and the like.
Last winter, for want of space, I kept rather fewer plants than usual in my greenhouse, anticipating buying in more this spring.
Then Covid-19 struck and nurseries and garden centres were closed. But by chance last season, I responded to a “too good to miss” offer of dozens of lavender plug plants at some ridiculously low price and had potted them without much thought of how they might be used. But cometh the season, cometh the plant, and our large containers are now filled with masses of lavender in gloriously fragrant bloom.
Lavender has always grown well in our light soil and despite some kinds – French lavender (Lavandula stoechas), in particular – having a reputation for a degree of tenderness, I have never, in over 30 years, lost a plant in a Warwickshire winter.
All lavenders are fairly low-growing evergreen shrubs and there are around 30 different species. The common name is derived from Lavandula, the scientific name, but its origins are obscure. A notion that it has something to do with washing (and scented water) has not stood up to lexicographical scrutiny. They occur naturally in areas with a Mediterranean type of climate – hence in the countries around the Mediterranean itself, along with the Canary Islands and then eastwards as far as India.
Assuming the soil is appropriate, most of the mistakes that occur with lavender centre on its pruning – either in timing or severity. Left to its own devices, a lavender will soon become a decidedly untidy shrub with flowers at the tips of dry woody branches. So pruning is the order of the day, but prune too hard and you will still end up with a dry looking, and unattractive bush. We prune ours once the flowers have seriously faded and then cut back the current season’s growth to about two or three centimetres above the old wood.
For many people, lavender spells fragrance and it comes as a shock and disappointment to discover some varieties offer little. Although there are now numerous cultivated kinds derived from four or five main species, along with numerous hybrids, you really need to choose between colour and perfume because no one variety offers both in equal measure. The popular variety “Hidcote”, named after Lawrence Johnston’s Cotswold garden, has the most matchless colour. But although it is often recommended for its fragrance, too, I find it much less aromatic than other, less brightly coloured kinds like “Munstead” – named after another remarkable garden, that of Gertrude Jekyll in Surrey.
What the lockdown has taught me, nonetheless, is that I should love all lavenders even more; and that I should not get stuck with the same plants in my containers year after year. It’s just a pity it took a global health crisis to remind me.
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation