The Story Behind Martha's Lavender
When a jar of seeds collected by her dad decades earlier turned up in an old desk drawer, Martha planted them, uncertain if they would ever grow. Now, lush rows of this beloved herb fill the air with a soft scent each summer, reminding her of the man who taught her to garden.
My father, Edward Kostyra, was a fine gardener. He diligently tilled the soil in our one-fifth-acre backyard in Nutley, New Jersey, each spring to grow as many different kinds of plants-mostly vegetables-as he could for maximum production. He had terraced our long backyard by hand into a two-level garden, supporting the upper level with a brownstone rock wall. The stones for his eight-foot retaining wall were found during his excavation of the yard, and there were plenty of stones to be had. Somewhere, in a book or magazine, Dad had seen a broad row of lavender atop a wall, which encouraged him to plant a hundred-foot hedge of home-grown lavender plants to highlight this beautiful divider.
It took only a year for the plants to fill the space with hundreds of purplish-blue flower spikes, and they remained there for as long as I can remember. The harvest of the flowers took place annually in August, and the method Dad used is demonstrated on the following page. I don't know if he learned to harvest from someone or just made up his own method, but we always had lavender sprigs for bouquets, an abundance of loose flowers for sachets, and lots of seeds to share with friends.
I so enjoyed the ritual of picking lavender and tying it into neat bunches to tuck into the corners of closets or hang on door handles or sconces in our house. One year-1964-Dad stored some seeds in a small jar and labeled it. The jar found its way into a drawer of an old secretary. And there it remained until my youngest sister, Laura Plimpton, uncovered it decades later, in 2014.
Dad had told us children the legend of seeds that the pharaohs stored in their burial tombs, seeds that were still efficacious, seeds that could still germinate, although at a reduced rate. Ryan, my gardener, and I planted a few trays of these lavender seeds that autumn in the greenhouse, hoping that they would sprout and produce the same sort of healthy plants that adorned our Nutley garden.
I must say, Dad would be so pleased, so proud, to see his lavender blooming so happily and vibrantly in my Bedford gardens. I am sure he would be equally happy to know that I remembered his techniques for drying the cut flowers. I know I am.
Lavender is cultivated in many parts of the world (France, Spain, England, India, and Australia, where it has even become somewhat invasive) as a commercial crop for extracts and oil for perfumes and bath products. To capture the most fragrance, harvest stems when the flowers have just started to open. Then use them to gently scent your rooms.
1. MAKE A BUNDLE
Gather lavender sprigs that are approximately six to eight inches long. Remove the foliage; align the stems so the flower heads are even. (Bunches should be about one inch thick.)
2. TIE WITH TWINE
Wrap raffia tightly around the stems, crisscrossing as you go down. Knot the raffia at the end, leaving an inch of stem exposed, and enough raffia loose to hang up the bundles.
3. TRIM THE ENDS
For a neat appearance, cut the ends with a very sharp clipper, so the sprigs are all the same length.
4. HANG TO DRY
Hang bundles upside down in a cool, well-ventilated, dry location, out of direct sunlight-a quilt stand makes an excellent rack. They should be dry after a week or so.
How to Grow Lavender at Home
SELECT A VARIETY
Lavender is favored by gardeners as a perennial edger, a landscape plant, and an accent in borders. There are dozens of known species, but seed catalogs offer only a few types that yield the largest flowers and the most intense color and scent. Choose the variety with the color and height that's best suited for your location, such as tall English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), which is cold-hardy to Zone 5, or shorter Spanish lavender (L. stoechas), which grows best in warmer regions (Zones 7 to 9) and can handle some humidity. But take heed if you're in a zone colder than 5: Plants may not survive the frigid temperatures.
PLANT AND MAINTAIN
Drought-tolerant and deer-resistant, lavender needs two things to grow well: light and well-drained soil. Pick a spot that receives six to eight hours of sunshine. Water deeply but infrequently during dry spells, and add a thin layer of compost each spring.