If you’ve ever been captivated by the scent and sight of a field of lavender in full bloom in mid-summer and thought, “I want to start a lavender farm,” you aren’t alone. In the same family as mint, this herb is not as easy to grow as its cousin. Lavender is particular about its growing requirements and has specific harvesting and preservation needs, making growing lavender commercially a focused—yet rewarding—endeavor.
Choose Your Lavender Species
As you get into lavender farming, you might be surprised at the number of varieties of lavender. There are more than 20 species, each with multiple varieties. Most have the signature purple buds, but there’s also pink lavender, red lavender and white lavender, adding diversity to a small-scale lavender farmers’ options. Healthy lavender plants of all varieties can produce for 10 to 20 years.
Here are some varieties you may want to consider as you begin farming lavender:
- English Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia): A perennial in USDA zones 5B through 8, this is the most widely grown lavender species. It’s used for dried-flower production, fragrance—such as in oils and perfumes—and flavoring. According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Service, most plants are 2 to 3 feet tall. Buena Vista, Munstead and Hidecote are three popular varieties of English lavender.
- Spanish Lavender (Lavandula stoechas): Varieties in this species include Tiara, Blueberry and Hazel, and they have flower pedals that don’t look unlike helicopter blades growing from the top of the flower pod. These are often used in dried-flower production and grown as annuals.
- French Lavender (Lavandula dentata): The buds of these large plants are rosemary-scented and th leaves are “fringed” or serrated. They thrive in warm, temperate regions and are often grown as annuals in the U.S.
- Wooly Lavender (Lavandula lanata): Aka, Spanish Mountain lavender, this type has a strong balsam-lavender fragrance, so it’s most often grown for potpouri. It can reach 2 to 3 feet tall.
- Spike Lavender (Lavandula latifolia): This is the lavender type grown for its essential oil—especially for soaps—but it’s rarely grown in the U.S. because of its Mediterranean-climate needs, according to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. It can grow to 3 feet tall and spread out.
- Lavandin (L. hybrida, L. x intermedia): Also called Dutch lavender, this is a hybrid of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia. These 2- to 3-foot-tall and -wide plants bloom once in late summer but produce the highest yield in flowers and more oils than English lavender, but the oils are not generally of as high of quality. Lavandin buds tend to fall off of the stems, so these varieties don’t make good dried-flower lavenders. Lavandin produces sterile seeds, so can only be reproduced through cuttings, according to Colorado State University Extension. Grosso, Provence and Silver Frost are a few varieties to know.
As a Mediterranean herb, lavender likes hot, dry, sunny climes. In the U.S., many successful lavender farms are located along large bodies of water, such as lakes, that have their own warm microclimates.
Lavender is difficult to grow from seed, requiring five weeks of cold stratification before planting and, according to North Carolina State University, six months before the seedling grows to transplant size.
Purchasing lavender seedlings or taking cuttings from existing plants is an easier way to grow lavender. Colorado State University Extension suggests taking cuttings from stems with no flower buds on them just after the lavender plant has bloomed. Remove leaves from the bottom half, and put the lavender cutting into well-draining sterile potting soil or vermiculite. Keep the cuttings watered, and they should root in about three weeks. Transplant these rooted lavender cuttings into 2- to 4-inch pots. Once they have developed strong roots, plant the lavender seedlings in the garden. The University of Vermont also proposes dividing lavender root clumps in the fall.
Lavender likes room to grow, so depending on the size of the lavender variety, space them 2 to 3 feet apart within the row with 3 to 6 feet between the rows. Put lavender plants in full sun.
One thing every lavender grower will agree on is that lavender doesn’t like wet feet. This statement has more to do with the soil type than the amount of water it’s given. Loose, well-draining, alkaline soil that’s not too rich is key to lavender-farm success.
Typical organic mulches are not good for lavender because of the plant’s susceptibility to mold and fungus. Black landscape fabric is a smart weed barrier for growing lavender plants. Mulching lavender with white sand or white stones may increase the plant’s production of oils and flowers while keeping down weeds and reducing fungus infections.
The Colorado State University Extension recommends watering lavender once or twice per week until plants are established. Water mature lavender plants every two to three weeks until buds form, and then once or twice weekly until harvest. With regular rainfall throughout the growing season, you may not need to water your established lavender plants at all.
Having been developed along the Mediterranean Sea, lavender is not accustomed to cold weather and snow. If you have difficult winters, protect your lavender plants with heavy mulch, fabric row covers and wind blocks.
Use scissors to harvest lavender by the stem—just under the first set of leaves—in the morning, when the oils are the most concentrated. Lavender is best harvested when approximately half of the flower buds have opened.
Preserving, Storing and Drying Lavender
There are several ways you may choose to package or preserver your lavender if you’re planning to sell it at the farmers market or via wholesale. Perhaps the easiest method is dried lavender. Lavender dries well in bundles of 50 to 100 stems secured with rubber bands. Hang the lavender bundles in a cool, dark place with good air circulation for seven to 14 days.
Lavender Oil: To Make Or Not?
Lavender is said to have been used as a perfume by ancient Greeks and Romans and as a disinfectant and insect repellent since the Middle Ages. Even today, the majority of lavender is produced for its essential oils and fragrance production, says the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.
There is no easy answer to how to make lavender oil. According the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in Alberta, Canada, there are several means of distilling lavender essential oils:
- hydro distillation (also known as water distillation) to produce a hydrosol, rather than a pure essential oil
- steam distillation, which can be accomplished on a minute scale using a pressure cooker on a home stove
- using solvents, such as olive oil, to extract essential oils and flavorings
- supercritical extraction, where highly pressurized carbon dioxide extracts essential oils and flavorings
Hydrosols are easier to produce for home-scale lavender farmers and require a less expensive equipment investment. Ben Alkire, a consultant in the essential-oils industry, suggests not trying to turn lavender essential-oil production into a full-time income, rather purchasing essential oils to turn into value-added products to sell at your lavender farm and through other direct-marketing outlets.
How To Make Money Growing Lavender
Turning your lavender farm into an agritourism destination is one way to profit from growing this herb—people love to visit beautiful farms! However, there are multiple other money-making methods you can incorporate into your lavender-farm business plan.
Lavender is highly sought after for culinary and medicinal uses. Today’s culinary uses for lavender include as flavoring for everything from vinegars to baked goods. Herbal-medicinal uses of lavender include remedies for headaches, toothaches, nerves and digestive issues. Value-added lavender products to consider include dried lavender buds, lavender bath products, lavender sugar, lavender vinegar, lavender wands, lavender sachets and dried-lavender flower arrangements.
You might find a market for fresh or dried lavender among local chefs, bakeries and high-end bartenders; florists; and soap, lotion and candle makers. You can also peddle your lavender wares for sale directly from your farm and through farmers’ markets and on handmade-goods websites, such as Etsy.com.
Growing lavender for profit is a challenging venture with a beautiful result—a field full of lavender. Starting a lavender farm opens many options for small-scale farmers, from lavender agritourism to value-added lavender products. Start growing today and see where your imagination takes you.
About the Author: Freelance writer Lisa Munniksma first became captivated by lavender farming while visiting a lavender farm in Idaho. Read her weekly ag-news and -opinion blog “The News Hog.”