Incredibly aromatic, lavender flowers have a soothing scent featured in a variety of merchandise, which provides a range of profitable outlets for small-scale producers. Unlike many other seasonal crops, producers can dry lavender for ornamental flower arrangements, wands, sachets or potpourri, or transform the dried flowers into value-added products such as essential oils, tinctures, soaps or lotions. It’s also useful in baking and makes a tasty honey.
Your plans for your harvested lavender will determine which of the many species you should grow, but all the common varieties have fairly simple propagation needs.
More than 30 species of lavender and hundreds of varieties exist, but most commercial growers choose one or more from a small group of widely grown perennial species. All species have attributes that make them ideal for specific uses, making it easier for you to determine which will work best for your endeavors.
- English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is also referred to as true or common lavender and the most widely grown species. It’s cold-hardy and thrives in mild summer heat in areas with extended daylight hours. It has a sweet fragrance and makes a versatile choice. Its uses cover a broad range including fragrances and flavorings. It’s also commonly used in dried-flower production and in essential oils. Popular varieties include Hidecote, Buena Vista and Munstead.
- Spanish Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) is compact, bushy and often treated as an annual instead of a perennial. Also referred to as topped lavender, this easy-to-recognize species is typically grown as an ornamental and used for fresh-cut and dried-flower production. It’s the earliest to bloom and has a long blooming season, but it’s less hardy than other species. Popular varieties include Silver Frost, Dark Eyes and Otto Quast.
- French Lavender (Lavandula dentata) is a busy, spreading shrub with beautiful purple-blue flowers that thrive in warmer, temperate regions. It’s often referred to as fringed lavender, and some varieties are also grown as annuals, instead of perennials, in the U.S. Unlike other lavender, French varieties are mildly fragrant with a lavender/rosemary scent.
- Hybrid Lavender, aka Lavandin, includes a wide array of crosses with many of the popular varieties being Lavandula x intermedia, a cross between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia, often referred to as Spike lavender. Because it’s a hybrid, it produces sterile seeds, so it can be reproduced only through cuttings. Many varieties, such as Grosso, are grown exclusively for essential oil production. These varieties typically produce five times more oil than English lavenders. Another popular variety, Provence, dries well and is used primarily for culinary purposes.
Grosso and Provence are the two varieties produced by Claudia Estrada of Harmony Lavender in Atascadero, California. Estrada always loved lavender but pursued commercial production as part of her empty-nest survival plan when her daughter graduated high school and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a career in country music.
“We primarily grow Grosso for its high oil production, drought tolerance and gopher/deer resistance, and Provence for its culinary uses,” Estrada says. “We’re adding some of the angustifolia [English lavender] for its beautiful color, fragrance and multiuse qualities.”
Estrada specializes in certified naturally grown lavender. She and her husband hand plant, grow and harvest it, then turn it into essential oil, crafts, gifts, and bath and beauty products. They continue to develop new products that they produce on their farm.
Make Money Growing Lavender
In many parts of the world, farmers have grown lavender commercially for centuries, and commercial cultivation in the U.S. has recently taken off. One way to profit from a lavender farm is turning it into an agritourism destination. Beyond that, there are multiple ways to transform this fragrant, highly popular herb into a teeming enterprise.
From small backyard endeavors to large multiple-
acre farms, lavender is trendy in culinary markets, but more commonly sought after for medicinal and cosmetic products.
Besides selling directly to consumers at farmers markets or from your farm stand, you’ll find plenty of markets for fresh or dried lavender. This includes florists, bath and beauty product manufacturers, candle makers, chefs and bakers.
“Our small farm has grown quite nicely,” Estrada says. “We have a lovely local clientele list, as well as a strong online presence and a full agritourism following.”
Dozens of easy-to-make lavender products can increase the value of your raw lavender. Many of these proven value-added products enjoy widespread appeal, which provides a steady supply of repeat buyers, as well as substantial profits. Personal care products have long been favored with many possibilities. Lavender soaps, for example, are a constant favorite among consumers and a consistent bestseller, especially as gift items. This gives them excellent repeat product potential. Plus, soaps are one of the easiest endeavors to get started with a simple melt-and-pour method. Lavender sachets and potpourri production are two more simple items to create with dried buds.
Lavender oil is among the most-used essential oils in aromatherapy, ranking it among the most sought-after products. It’s also used as the aromatic base for thousands of cosmetic products, including soaps, lotions, perfumes and massage oils. During the distilling process, the lavender oil is extracted, as is a lavender hydrosol. This byproduct has a tiny amount of lavender oil mixed with the water-soluble parts of the plant and makes an excellent addition to spritzers and room fresheners.
There are several methods of distilling essential oils and creating your own lavender oil, but they require a lot of time investment.
“Most products are relatively easy, but time consuming, to make,” Estrada says. “Growing lavender and producing products is definitely a full-time job. We use our dried Grosso to produce essential oil, which we use to make our products like soap, lotion, sprays, salves and aromatherapy oils. We use our dried Provence for gourmet jams, jellies, fruit butters, baked goods and more.”
You might have compiled a long list of lavender-based items you’d like to create, but not everybody can grow lavender. You must live in a region with the right climate for an ideal farming environment. Because lavender is a Mediterranean plant, it requires a similar climate to thrive. This demands mild winters and warm summers that aren’t too hot.
Lavender also requires regions with full sun and limited humidity to avoid problems with fungal diseases. However, lavender has been grown in most areas of the U.S., with hardier English lavender species chosen for colder regions. Areas with microclimates are more likely to be successful.
When planting lavender, it’s difficult to grow the herb from seed, so almost all commercial producers choose seedlings or propagate from cuttings from their existing plants. Cuttings guarantees new plants are exact clones of the mother plant and insures plants have consistent color, quality and oil production.
“Our largest crop is Grosso, which is a French/English hybrid, and our next largest is Provence, which is in the same family,” Estrada says. “Both are rendered sterile, so we propagate by soft wood cuttings. We usually take our cuttings when we harvest, since we’re already cutting the plants back. We don’t use rooting hormones and plant them in a 50/50 mix of perlite and sandy soil in 2-inch nursery pots in a shade-cloth building. We keep the cuttings moist, but not soggy, until they’ve sprouted good roots. Then, we often plant them directly in our field.”
Lavender plants need room to grow. Depending on the variety, space plants between 2 and 4 feet apart within the row and 3 to 6 feet between each row. Lavender also requires loose, well-draining soil to thrive, preferably a sandy loam.
“Typically, lavender thrives in sandy, well-drained, low-nutrient soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5 in full sun,” Estrada says.
Because of the plant’s susceptibility to mold and fungus, organic mulches usually aren’t good for lavender. This makes black landscape fabric a smarter weed barrier, so install it before planting. Lavender is drought-tolerant, so once plants are established, water requirements are minimal. This usually means watering every two to three weeks until buds form, then once or twice weekly until harvest.
“Once our plants are in the ground, we run drip irrigation,” Estrada says. “Water requirements vary with soil, location and microclimate. They don’t require much in the way of nutrients, and I’ve personally not had any problems with pests or disease.”
Once lavender buds bloom into brightly colored flowers, it’s time to start harvesting. Cut lavender by the stem, just under the first set of leaves. Harvest when it’s as dry as possible. To avoid mold problems, never harvest immediately after rain or when there’s a heavy dew. Late morning (after the dew has evaporated) and early afternoon (before hotter weather causes oil loss) are ideal times for harvesting.
“Harvest time in our microclimate is usually late July depending on Mother Nature,” Estrada says. “Depending on your final use of the lavender, harvest when a third of the buds are starting to bloom, or in our case when the honey bees really come on. We always harvest early in the morning, after the dew is gone, but before it warms up to produce the best essential oil.”
Estrada’s farm has between 2,000 and 3,000 plants at any given time of year, so she uses electric/wireless hedge cutters to harvest. “They’re very efficient, and we keep several charged and ready, as they only have a battery life of about two hours,” she says. “We then rubber band bundles of about 200 stems together and hang individual bundles [upside down] in a dark, well-ventilated barn for approximately one week before debudding/removing all lavender buds for processing for use in essential oil production or products. Once cleaned and sifted several times, the buds are stored in galvanized cans until used.”
Lavender is a hardy plant that can tolerate neglect, but plants take three years before they’re fully mature. What’s more, planting and harvesting are labor intensive. However, lavender can be one of the most profitable cash crops for small-scale farmers, and a lavender farm can provide producers with several income opportunities including agritourism and value-added products.
“Do your homework,” Estrada says. “This job is rewarding but not for the faint of heart. It requires a lot of time and hard work.”