The right and the wrong way to prune lavender in Italy
Lavender has to be one of the most misunderstood plants in the Mediterranean plant list, in my opinion. The various tones of violet and blue flowers that the 25 varieties of lavender offer the garden designer in Italy an amazing choice. The stunning violet of the Lavender is set off perfectly against the grey metallic foliage and the Italian sunshine makes this plant resonate a Mediterranean symbolism second to none. However for the lavender’s stunning Mediterranean beauty to shine this plant has to be in optimum health. In just a few years the health and aesthetic prowess of the lavender can deteriorate into a scraggly and woody mess!
As a professional garden designer, living here in Italy I see this plant being badly treated and pruned in completely the wrong way and at completely the wrong time of the year in almost every garden I visit. Few people really understand the correct way to prune the lavender but the steps to maintaining a perfectly healthy lavender plant are really very simple indeed. Most people are of the opinion that the removal of the lavender flowers after they have flowered is ‘giving the lavender a good prune’… WRONG!
It’s true that the flowers of the lavender should be removed after flowering, towards the end of summer, however this cannot be considered as pruning. In reality it really is only the flowers and their stalks that should be removed and the leaves at the base of the flower stalk should be left alone. By removing the flowers we prevent the lavender from producing its seed thus reducing excessive energy loss, however by pruning too hard into the leaves we risk leaving the plant bare and open to frost damage during the winter.
The correct time to prune the lavender in your Italian garden is when the new leaves of spring are beginning to emerge, just as the plant begins to wake up again after the winter. This generally occurs around the middle of March, which is around the same time as the olive trees are pruned in most Italian regions. The part of the lavender that was left untouched during the flower-stalk removal should now be sheared off, being careful to not cut below the area of active bud growth. The area of active bud growth can easily be seen when the plant’s foliage is gently opened, it is the point where the leaves stop emerging on the stalk and is generally around 15 to 20cm from the base of the flower stalk.
This annual March prune can be done with a pair of quality hand-shears or a mechanical hedge-cutter if there is a lot of lavender in your Italian garden. Remember that it is better to prune from planting onwards and never allow your lavender plant to get woody as you won’t be able to re-generate the plant by pruning into this wood. Without correct annual pruning the lavender plant will begin turning woody after just 5 to 7 years and will then need ripping out and replanting! Therefore it makes perfect sense to take care of your lavender plant from the outset.
Ten tips for maintaining your Italian lavender plant:
- Plant in full sun and only in a free-draining soil.
- Trim back half the lavender foliage in the spring of the first year to stimulate healthy growth.
- Water copiously in the first year after planting.
- DO NOT EVER water lavender from above to avoid wetting the foliage, as this causes a fatal fungus to develop which will cause parts of the plant to die off- very quickly!
- In the second year do not over-water as this will damage the roots and may cause the plant to die.
- Only remove the flowers after flowering and not the leaves.
- Shear off a layer from the foliage to around 10 to 15cm every spring.
- Never prune into old wood (where there are no leaves present) as your lavender will not grow back from there.
- Maintain the soil weed-free and apply a gravel mulch, wherever possible.
- Love and enjoy your lavender plant for it’s beauty and you will naturally respect it in your Italian garden.