Evergreen Lavender Farm blooming in Virginia
APPOMATTOX, Va. — The sweet smell of success doesn’t just happen overnight at Evergreen Lavender Farm, a cut-your-own operation. It takes hard work and good production practices.
However, growing lavender in the state is a challenge. “It’s survival rate I think is a little less in Virginia because of our humidity,” says Bonnie Swanson, co-owner of the farm along with her husband Ken.
She says lavender is naturalized in a Mediterranean climate where it is dry, low humidity, and not extremely hot temperatures. In Virginia because of its heat, humidity and sometimes wet weather as of late, lavender plants have a much shorter lifeline. It grows well for about five to six years, then she must replace the plants, unlike in a cooler climate where they may last years longer.
“Because of the wet climate we’ve had the past three years, I’ve had phytophthora [or root rot],” Bonnie says. “It’s a swimming soil algae so it grows, so to speak, underground. I still can’t see it, but it will attack one plant and then move on. It’s a real quick death. Like in two months or so, it’ll be done.”
Bonnie has researched how to combat this algae and continues to do so, finding it difficult to find a solution so far. She hopes an Extension agent in another county can figure out a plant that she can grow to absorb the algae and reduce the infection.
In the greenhouse, growers have been able to control the algae with fungicides, but once it gets planted in the field without further treatment it “succumbs to the phytophthora,” she says.
The algae remain in the soil. Because of this, Bonnie has elected not to replace some of her lavender plants in those same fields. Instead, she has planted sunflowers, zinnias, poppies and others. With a drier spring this year, she says the algae hasn’t been as bad, yet she knows it is still there just waiting for wetter conditions. So far, she doesn’t have a real bad case of phytophthora, but she has seen the results of its ugly destruction.
Three years ago in a field where she had planted Hidcote, an English lavender cultivar, it was beautiful in the month of May. “Well, in September it was all dead because it was a wet summer,” Bonnie says.
To help control the algae, she adds gravel into the soil to create better drainage.
Upon a Virginia Tech soil analysis recommendation, she adds lime to her fields to keep the plant healthy, for lavender requires a higher soil pH of 6.5 to 7. Additionally, she adds some loose bark or compost to the soil with the gravel to create drainage. Gravel is used as a mulch to help control the weeds and grasses. Bonnie does all these production practices in March and again in October.
Besides phytophthora, Swanson also is concerned about fungus issues like mosaic and Fusarium wilt. To help with funguses, she plants the lavender plants farther apart to improved airflow; however, when she does, it encourages more weeds to grow, thus creating more labor in chopping them out.
The first year after planting new lavender, Swanson does a severe trim of the plant in late summer. “The lavender needs to be trimmed in order to keep its shape, especially when it’s young,” she says. “If I didn’t trim it at all, it just would sprawl. So the first year, plants are usually trimmed in half. The second year, I like to see where the last green leaves are in the plant, and then I cut right above it. The third year, if it starts coming into its full size, then I just kind of shape it at that point.”
In subsequent years, as the plant ages, the lavender limbs will get woody, despite the trims and shaping. She says the lavender stems will become shorter and the blooms less plentiful.
In mid-March, the leaves will begin to turn green. Then, in late March and early April, she trims back the plant to an inch or two above the green leaves.
Bonnie plants two species of lavender, Lavandula x-intermedia and Lavandula angustifolia.
Under the L. x-intermedia species, she grows the cultivars Grosso, Phenomenal, Fred Boutin’, Sensation and Bridget Chole.
The L. angustifolia cultivars include Munstead, Hidcote, Betty’s Blue, SuperBlue and Big Time Blue.
She plants more L x-intermedias because they are easier to harvest and grow bigger, which creates a lot of eye attention from customers of fresh-cut lavender. This plant also produces more oil in the lavender buds. Grosso has been the most popular L. x-intermedia cultivar for her.
However, she recently planted Sensation and Bridget Chole to see how they will perform on her land and in Virginia’s weather conditions.
Bonnie, a retired special education teacher, planted her first lavender plants in 2010 after visiting lavender farms in Oregon with a friend around 2009. She had already been raising cut flowers to sell at a summer markets in the Lynchburg, Va. area. Irrigating the cut flowers was near impossible for her due to the drought-like summer conditions. She either had to install a water pump or a cooler for them. Also, she had to decide whether or not to expand the cut-flower business without a good watering source.
“Then I saw these lavender farms,” Swanson says. “I’m like, whew, this is pretty neat!”
She was intrigued by her visit to these farms because lavender is a drought-tolerant herb and may grow well in the typically dry summers in Virginia. They didn’t require a lot of irrigation.
With her own lavender plants today, she will water once a week when first establishing them, then very little after that. “In the beginning, I was putting drip tape down,” she says, “and then I wasn’t using it anymore, outside of the first year. So now, I don’t plant a huge amount of lavender at a time, so I just hand water if I need to. It’s very drought-tolerant.”
When she first planted her lavender, Bonnie would prepare the soil, plant the lavender, lay down black propylene fabric over the top then cut holes for the plants. She questions this propylene technique though for Virginia growers.
“I think the black fabric is causing problems for the lavender,” she says. “I think it retains too much heat and moisture. It suppresses the weeds, but when I pull it up, the ground is like dead ground. There are no organisms in it, nothing like that. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the short lifespan of lavender, but I’m losing my love affair with black plastic.”
Even though she questions the black weed fabric, Bonnie knows firsthand how it suppresses the weeds, which can grow rapidly in her fields and take over.
So she has decided to experiment to improve the health of her lavender plants while still killing the weeds. In her latest lavender planting, she put down black fabric in the row walkways versus directly on the rows. “I’m going to try it that way and see if the lavender is happier because at least the roots are getting aerated,” she says. “Of course, all kind of wiregrass is coming through it.”
She has tried putting down white plastic; however, the weeds took off like a sprinter in a track meet. “You could see it mounting up with the crabgrass under there,” she says. “It’s nice and moist for them. I’ll just have to do a lot of weeding. I have this new gadget. It’s a propane burner thing. If it’s windy, forget it. It blows it out all the time. So it’s been too windy to use.”
Thinking about it, Swanson says gravel might work better than white plastic to combat the weeds and crabgrass but would still reflect light to the lavender plants.
After she started growing lavender in 2010, Bonnie built up her plantings to about 900 plants.
Today, she only has about 450 to 500 plants due to the wet conditions of the past three years. Will she replace them? She’s not sure. She would have to go in a different direction on the farm to receive better drainage in case of a wet summer.
In addition, her soils are a denser, reddish clay. “That clay will do it in,” Bonnie says. “I think it would take a long time to change that soil composition. The lavender needs to move—the root system—and if it doesn’t, that’s when diseases start happening. Half of the plant will die; half of the plant will be alive. I have all examples of that because the soil is not porous enough.”
Bonnie says poor airflow might also be contributed to the black plastic. “If it’s right around the plant, then as the plant grows there’s no airflow,” she says. “The root systems get too hot, especially for these L. angustifolias. I think it’s a problem. Although most lavender growers use it, that’s why I used it because it’s been what others were doing. But I don’t know if it’s so great in Virginia, in the southeast. It might be ok in Oregon and Washington because they don’t get the extreme heat or humidity like we do here.”