FIRST, there's the charm of the plant itself, with its wonderful clean scent, both calming and invigorating. There are its practical virtues – water-wise, useful and easy to grow.
And then there are all the associations: Provence, Tuscany, English cottage gardens, aired and scrubbed and polished good housekeeping. Plant a lavender bush or two and you're halfway there. Plant more and you have the foundation of a great garden, whatever your style.
Year round, lavender is indisputably one of the most effective and enjoyable of all garden plants and using it simply and boldly is a large part of the secret.
Plant a lavender meadow, using just one kind en masse or generous drifts of different types and colours.
Interweave showy seasonal flowers, allowing each to take its turn. Picture March lilies (perhaps with a sprinkling of cosmos or gaura), poppies for spring, watsonias or irises for early summer and daylilies or agapanthus for November and December.
In formal and modern gardens, offset lines or blocks of lavender's soft ebullience with clipped glossy-leaved shrubs or hedging. You can change the scene by trimming the lavender itself into a clipped hedge or spheres when it's time to prune.
Timeless and traditional partnerships for lavender, such as roses, annuals, rosemary, cistus (rockrose), scented-leaf pelargoniums and olives also benefit from bold planting in swathes or repeating patterns.
Olive trees and lavender are an evocative combination that has almost become a cliché in the Western Cape. At Cavalli Horse Stud near Stellenbosch, however, Keith Kirsten and Raymond Hudson have brought new freshness to the formula by using dark-flowered stoechas lavender in a grid lined with colourful fynbos.
CHOOSING LAVENDER: KEY FACTORS Growth habit varies greatly according to type, creating different patterns and textures in a garden design.
Flower structure and colour also varies greatly – new cultivars have extended the range to deeper violet and plum as well as white and pink.
Some lavenders have a much more medicinal scent than others – test by rubbing a leaf before you decide.
And consider your climate, not all lavenders are frost hardy and some are best in cooler regions.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? WHICH IS WHICH?There are at least 40 species of lavender, the classification of which remains the subject of much disagreement among experts. Numerous hybrids and natural crosses complicate matters and common names such as "English", "French", "Australian" and "Spanish" are often swapped around, adding to the general confusion. The important thing is to get an idea of the different basic types and how they look when fully grown.
The best way to do this is at a specialist herb nursery – preferably one with a show garden – where you can see this clearly.
If you see the effect you want in a nearby garden, beg a flowering sprig (with some leaves as well) and take it to your nursery so you can be sure of getting a similar type.
Species, hybrids and cultivars that are generally available locally can be divided into four major groups:
ıLavandula: "English" lavender types have smooth leaves and loose flower heads, some spiked and whorled, some clustered.
Of these, Lavandula x intermedia is probably the best in local conditions, fully hardy and blooming nearly all year round. Large, billowing bushes and long-stemmed flower spikes create a wonderful airy, fine-textured effect. Ask for "Margaret Roberts" or "Grosso".
ıDentata: the "French" lavenders are plump bushes with ridged leaves and fat mauve flower heads – sweetly fragrant and excellent for picking.
Lavandula x allardii is a hybrid of L. dentata, a very large, handsome, shy-flowering bush that is excellent for formal hedging.
ıStoechas: variously called "Spanish", "French" or "Italian" are compact shrubs with smooth leaves and showy, boxy flower heads with large, bunny-ear bracts.
Growers have produced a range of cultivars in a wide range of colours, particularly from L. pedunculata.
Look out for Malanseuns' "Ruffles" and "Lace" series, which are able to cope with hot and humid conditions.
ıPterostoechas: often called "Australian" or "Canary Island" lavender, it has a very different look, with a more open growth habit, feathery leaves and violet-blue, branched flower spikes.
Look out for "Blue Canaries". This one is only half-hardy.
SECRETS OF SUCCESSıPlenty of sun: in walled city gardens, raised beds or large containers will raise your lavender to the light and also provide the necessary drainage. This is also a good solution in regions of high rainfall and humidity.
ıGood drainage: lavender is happiest on free-draining, slightly alkaline soils.
ıGood air circulation: check the mature height and spread of the variety you've chosen and plant accordingly. Avenues and hedges can be planted more closely.
ıMulch with gravel or coarse river sand to discourage fungal attack.
ıWater new plants three times a week until established, then allow the ground to dry out in between waterings.
ıRemove all flower buds during the first year to encourage strong, bushy growth.
ıPrune regularly – at least once a year – to keep plants in good heart. The best time is at the end of winter, cutting growth back by one-third.
Never cut into old wood as drastic pruning may kill the plant.
ıLavenders are relatively short-lived – depending on conditions. They may need to be replaced every four years. Regular dressings of compost will extend the life of the plant, but take care to keep the compost clear of the stem. © Home Weekly