Lavender seems to have it all. It looks fantastic when it's flowering - painting the countryside in a haze of purple. The oil is sought after in perfume and cosmetics. Craft people love its rubbings (dried flowers) for use in all kinds of products - potpourri, drawer sachets, added to wheat bags and so on… Growers propagate plants for others to enjoy and some even breed new cultivars.
The brilliant thing about Lavender is, depending on what you decide to do with your Lavender, you can have either a relatively small or a very large acreage filled with this delightful smelling plant.
There are basically 3 types of lavender and within each of those there are literally hundreds of cultivars - each having a different smell and quality of oil. Some of these cultivars are covered under the Plant Variety Rights Act and you cannot propagate them - you must buy the plants through commercial outlets. All the rest can easily be propagated from cuttings. Avoid growing from seed - cross pollination by bees generally means there is no guarantee of what you may end up with.
- Intermedia - often referred to as the French variety. These plants have good quality oil. They are taller with bigger flowers than the Augustifolia variety and for that reason are most often used in commercial productions. With proper care these plants should last for 20 years.
- Augustifolia - often referred to as the English variety. These plants have the highest quality oil. They are smaller plants and have smaller flowers than the Intermedia so more plants are required to achieve the same volume of oil. With proper care these plants should last for 20 years.
- Stoechas - often referred to as the Spanish variety. These have a camphor smell and are not suitable for oil or drying - they are purely ornamental. With proper care these plants will last 5 - 7 years.
Lavender plants need well drained soil; they will literally 'rot off' if they sit in water. Plant them in raised rows in a north facing position where they get full sun all day. The distance between plants depends entirely on the variety and cultivar you decide on. Distance between rows will be dictated by whether you machine or hand harvest. Think carefully before deciding on hand harvesting as it is very labour intensive and may restrict your ability to expand your operation.
Once planted maintenance is relatively simple:
- Give your Lavender a feed of lime in the autumn - some growers use weed mat and cover it in crushed shells so the calcium will leach out over time and the shells help to reflect the sun up to the plants.
- Water plants well when they are planted and again only if it is a particularly dry summer. These plants are drought and frost resistant and will cope with snow.
- In March - in the North Island, or autumn - in the South Island prune back the plants by a third. This promotes new growth and ensures the longevity of your plants.
Harvesting is done is December - January. Oil is extracted with a still. Stills are expensive it would pay to check if a grower near you already has one. Still owners will often extract other grower's oil for a fee. A still works on steam distillation. Steam is forced across the flowers then condensed and cooled. The liquid is then separated into lavender water (a brilliant by-product) and the valuable oil floating on the top.
New Zealand has a good name for quality oil on the international market. The New Zealand Lavender Association www.lavender.org.nz has members from the far north right down to the far south. Everyone I spoke with was extremely helpful, very willing to help anyone wanting to enter this emerging industry. The good news is that because the industry is young there are still good opportunities for new growers.