Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lavender Confessions

It recently occurred to me that I should probably come with a warning label. People and plants would all have the option of either running away screaming or at least feeling more informed about whatever madness and shenanigans I have planned. But it's too late for the lavender. They weren't given any warning at all.



While I may be successful at growing plants that don't need my help, my true talent lies in torturing lavender. It's one of my least favorite skills, along with the tendency to end up in the wrong state on road trips, or buy the same book twice and then forget to read it.


In December I decided to sow 334 lavender seeds. Spending all day with twelve year olds and several hours at night grading is a proven recipe for teacher insanity. Sowing 334 seeds seemed less insane. But of course, in true Tammy-style, I couldn't just grab a pot of soil and throw in some seeds. That was way too easy. I had to create an experiment to determine if a piece of growing advice I'd read online was true or not.

Step One:

Read questionable advice and decide to take it a step further. Because why be questionable when you can be completely batshitcrazy? Advice says to take lavender seeds, stratify them by soaking in a tablespoon of water and refrigerate for a month.

Step Two:

Buy three types of lavender (l. augustifolia English Tall 'Vera', l. augustifolia 'Hidcote Dwarf', and lavendula stoechas 'Purple Ribbon'), and and a grocery bag full of little cups. Place 16 seeds in one tablespoon of water in each cup for each type of lavender. Repeat the process with a second group of cups. Label all the cups, feeling very organized and scientific.


Lavandula stoechas 'Purple Ribbon' is also known as Spanish or French lavender, but I'm not sure if the Spanish or French are aware of this. This cup was in the fridge for six weeks. 

Step Three:

Decide to discover the perfect time span for stratifying seeds by breaking experiment down into three time periods: six weeks, three weeks, and 10 days. Put half the cups outside during the worst winter in years and the other half in the fridge. Look proudly upon all 18 cups of seeds and feel smugly satisfied. Keep three seed packs at room temperature to use as a control group. Make a chart to document data and write reminders on the calender. Sleep soundly knowing you are about to unlock the mystery of growing lavender.


Lavender seeds in the fire pit waiting to spend the winter freezing and thawing. I do not recommend this stratification method, but love the irony of this photo.


Step Four:

After brutally freezing my seeds, it was finally time to plant them. Did I mention lavender seeds are microscopically small and need to be planted with tweezers? Of course not. I've already blocked that from my memory. I numbered each compartment on the seed trays and then labeled each grow light greenhouse.


I should never be left unsupervised.


Step Five:

Run down stairs like a five year old on Christmas every day to see if anything is growing. Wait for the basement to look like this:


instead of this:


The germination rates of English Tall 'Vera' and 'Hidcote Dwarf' were about 5%, most of which were so wretched I pulled them. My best 'Vera' seedling came from a seed I dropped that sprouted out the side of a coir pot.


By the time the grand experiment was over, I was the proud owner of a single 'Vera' seedling, a teensy 'Hidcote Dwarf' seedling, and half a tray of Spanish lavender. Even the control group, which spent the winter in a box at room temperature grew. 


The lone lavendula augustifolia survivors. 
'Vera' is on the left and 'Hidcote Dwarf' is on the right.


I transplanted the seedlings into little plastic cups and keep them in these baskets to make it easier to take them outside during the day.


I have 17 tiny Spanish lavender seedlings. The pathetic 'Hidcote Dwarf' is in the back. Since the Spanish lavender seeds are immune to subzero temperatures, I may try hot lava next. 

80 comments:

  1. You may feel unsuccessful, but that's relative. You have 17 more seedlings than I got from my outdoor seed efforts. Congratulations!

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    1. That's the attitude I'm taking, too! One is better than none. :o)

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  2. I'm surprised that, after teaching science all day, you have enough energy to do such extensive experiments after hours! But as always, I admire your spunk. And you did get some seedlings. But why oh why grow lavender from seed? It's hard enough to grow when you buy it as a pot. And trust me - if your climate is anything like mine (and I know it is), stick with Spanish lavender or the kind called 'Provence.' Everything else is doomed in heat and humidity, in my experience.

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    1. It's all part of my determination to fill my garden with pesticide-free plants. Plus, my lavender died last summer after I transplanted it and I really wanted to replace it. Most of this was all done on weekends and snow days or on weeknights when I thought I'd scream if I had to grade another paper. Plus, I'm a sucker for a challenge. Either that, or a total sadist. :o)

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  3. Good luck!!! I have tried growing these plants and they work only in pots, but then again, we live in the desert and the soil isn't so great, but sometimes depending on the right type of lavender, they will do really well. Good luck!

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    1. I actually had better luck with mine in the ground but have killed a lot of it! It's definitely not an easy plant! But I love it so much, I just keep plugging away. If I could find it locally and could guarantee the plants weren't full of pesticides, I'd just buy it. But I never see organic lavender.

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  4. Your basement, not to speak of your refrigerator, must be a very interesting place. As Lee said above, everything's relative - my efforts growing seeds indoors using an "ultimate seed-starting kit" were an abysmal failure.

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    1. I currently have our hammock - on it's stand - in the basement, too since we pull it in every winter. Another garden project is all over the little kitchen table we down there, too. Interesting is an apt description! Did your seed starting kit come with peat pots? Those things are recipes for disaster since the seedlings get too wet and damp off. I prefer coir pots or seed starting mix in plastic cups. I also think grow lights make a huge difference. Don't give up! Just try again!!

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  5. Oh dear - well at least you tried - I think I'll stick to taking cuttings.

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  6. Let me just say that this is just down right awesome! I will start off by saying that lavender and I have never co-exisited very well! I have managed to kill this plant more than I care to share all because of the above picture in your post! So to you I say congrats for rocking out this experiment because you have walked away with a lot of plants in my eyes! Have a great week you!!!

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    1. It was a fun diversion, for sure. But of course, my idea of fun is waaaay different than most people! Of course, after telling a friend about my experiment, she reminded me of a local herb grower who uses organic methods. D'oh!! I think I'll give him a visit to buy some lavender that can be seen without a microscope and keep these little guys in a pot over the summer. It may be several years before they bloom. Serenity now!

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  7. Tammy, I so admire your enthusiasm. Go big or go home is admirable. I'm sure you will have a new plan in place for next year.

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    1. I think the willingness to explore and be curious is as vital to adults as it is to children. For me, that's what experimentation is all about. It was never truly about the results but about the process and the willingness to try something different.

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  8. This crazy experiment reminded me of a scientist on crack.....you are worse than I am when it comes to proving something can be done....I tip my hat to you.

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    1. I like to prove things to myself and challenge myself. If I were a color, I wouldn't be beige!

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  9. My goodness that was a process but you have lavender!!!!

    Love my lavenders.

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  10. I'm impressed that you even attempted to sow 334 seeds (of anything)! And that you would even try to grow lavender from seed! Really, it probably for the best that you only ended up with 17. Where in the heck would you have put 334 lavender plants?!!

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    1. I know it sounds nuts but I sowed 4 seeds per cup and was going to thin them to the strongest seedling. At an optimistic germination rate of 50%, I'd end up with 42 plants. I had planned on giving most of them away to friends. If all 17 surviving seedlings live, I'll give away quite a few of those, too.

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  11. It's a great lesson for me. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  12. Hi Tammy, that's funny and amazing, "mad scientist" springs to mind. I wouldn't have the patience for all the sorting, documenting, recording, waiting and so on. I'd have just got several module trays, thrown some compost on and then the seeds on that, then left them for a long while, eventually forgetting about them and then coming across them one day to sow something new in, at which point the lavender germinates and then I really get confused and of course, nothing is ever labelled, that would be too organised wouldn't it?

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    1. But you actually are a scientist!! I'm a literature/writing teacher who was shanghai'd into teaching science to kids and fell in love with it. I did this just for the pure joy of discovery. I just wanted to know what would happen if.... Plus, it was winter and I couldn't garden.

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  13. Well all I have to say is Bravo. I buy well matured lavender at the nursery and it never makes it through the winter, barely through the summer. I would say that you were pretty successful.

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    1. There is a local herb farm that doesn't use systemic neonicotinoid pesticides that carries multiple varieties of lavender. Of course, I completely forgot about them when I hopped on the crazy train to do this experiment. My plants are so teeny tiny, I'm curious how much they'll grow this summer. They probably won't bloom for a few years. Sigh.

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  14. I'm very impressed! I have come to the conclusion with microscopic seeds that I must be dropping them on the counter (where I pot up seeds) and not actually planting them. I think that's what must have happened to 317 of your seeds. Or that's what you can say to make yourself feel better.

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    1. I thought I was going to go blind after I planted all those seeds! I don't think they appreciated being frozen and are notoriously difficult to start from seed, anyway. Even the seedlings were fussy. I think most growers propagate from cuttings. But I was so curious, I just had to try.

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  15. I admire your devotion to the scientific method. I started out trying something similar with primula seeds and a little bit of a germinating hormone, but got predictably lazy with the note-taking. Is the foil still working on the grow lights? I thought I remembered you detailing something fire-hazardly in a previous post…?

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    1. Let me tell ya, the tin foil wrapped grow lights are things of wonder and magic. They are outrageously effective. Just make sure you only wrap three sides in foil and the tops are left open so they don't overheat and the light isn't too intense. We should be back into the 60's this weekend so my seedlings will all be back outside again and I'll have new cups of zinnias under the lights. With our weird weather, I don't want to direct sow them. I'd rather start them inside so I get flowers faster this summer. :o)

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  16. Crikey. Lavender doesn't survive in my wet part of the world. But I was thinking of trying Trilliums.. ?

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    1. The next thing I grow from seed will be zinnias, which don't need my help and will germinate in about 5 days, providing much satisfaction and hurrah-ing. Do you have a lot of trilliums? My climate is too hot for them.

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  17. I love lavender but your method of growing seedling is so complicated, Tammy. I prefer to buy a small pot with seedling and then to grow in my green house. You're very patient doing this experiment!

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    1. I'll have to buy a pot of lavender, too, if I want any flowers this summer. :o)

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  18. I always admire those who grow plants from seeds. I never considered growing lavender that way. You do have some seedlings to show for your efforts so it was not a failure. I'm not very successful growing from seeds, but Mother Nature does a good job self sowing from the established plants. Of course those are the easy ones like Love in a Mist, violas, and poppies.

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    1. Mother Nature was laughing at me the whole time, I'm sure.

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  19. Oh ....I really was laughing at this!!! So much effort and fancy the best seedling growing out of the side...hahahahahaha...
    I'm glad you ended up with some plants, they should grow beautifully. I hate to say it but I chucked a packet of lavender seed at a tray of compost a few weeks ago and they're growing great!!! You are utterly ingenious, I raise my hat to you!!! xxx

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    1. HOW???? How is your lavender growing and what kind is it? I've heard of gardeners dealing with self-sown lavender and of growing it themselves so I just had to try. Of course, the more I worked, the less it grew. The seedling growing out the side of the pot does make me laugh. Cheeky little thing!

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    2. Lol....the lavender was English Lavender and I bought the seeds really cheap in a discount store....xxx

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  20. Lol...trust me, I don't need a warning before visiting your blog. I know exactly what to expect :-)
    I admire your dedication & applaud your results but.....sheesh! What a palavar!!
    Just this week I've had a ruthless purge of non-performers. 60 days for seedlis that should appear in 7-10 days is pushing it. I have a queue of seed packets waiting in the wings. Well done you x

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    1. 60 days when they should have had their little green heads out of the soil in 10? I'd give them the ax, too! The next batch I'm sowing are zinnias and cosmos. I think the only thing easier to sow is a dandelion. The Lavender craziness was a bit mad but I think a bit of madness keeps us all from going bonafide nutso in the winter!

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  21. Well it was an interesting experiment but in my opinion quite mad. I grew my plants originally from seed, they only took 3 weeks to germinate. They don't need stratifying.
    Anyway if you want nice bushy plants quickly, cuttings are easy and fast.
    Still you had fun doing your mad scientist experiment and you have some lavender plants.

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    1. I enjoy a bit of madness with my tea. It makes the day more interesting. What cultivar did you convince to grow in 3 weeks? Maybe lavender just likes you Brits more than Americans. ;o) I am experimenting with cuttings next winter. I may end up with my lavender farm, after all. :o)

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  22. I'm doing a bit of experimenting with seed starting myself this spring - but nothing quite as extraordinary as your lavender growing investigation.

    With tiny seeds, I do the 'sprinkle like salt over the growing medium' method rather than using tweezers. It's rather imprecise, but also less aggravating -- at least until you end up with too many seedlings all crammed together in some spaces and nothing at all in others!

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    1. I definitely should have sprinkled instead of tweezed. I nearly went blind. What are you sowing? Seeds are a cheap gamble and just as exciting, except at a slower pace. Besides, when it's dark at 4:45 and colder than the Arctic outside, I need a bit of a diversion from work, work, and more work.

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  23. Well, the good news is ... At least you have some plants. I planted several different types of seeds last fall, and have yet to see if any of them will sprout. I also started about 200 herb seeds about 1 1/2 weeks ago in seed-starting mix. I've been toting them in and out with this weather, so who knows what will happen with them. ;-) I enjoyed your description of your experiment, and one could say it was partially successful! Yay!

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    1. I bet your seeds grow! What did you plant?

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  24. So what happened to the easy "shove a cutting in some soil" method? Fantastic effort though and very funny. I have learnt a new phrase involving bats today - you are truly a great teacher.

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    1. I didn't have a cutting to shove into any soil. My lavender died and because I'm trying to only buy plants that are pesticide-free, I thought I'd grow my own and then give a bunch away. However, I will be cutting and stuffing the next time I need lavender! Of course, after starting all this a friend reminded me of a local herb farm that sells organic lavender. Oy! I am a genius! As for bats, they are so educational! Bat shit crazy is American slang for totally insane. :o)

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  25. Where is that lavender field, in heaven?

    I didn't think lavender seed needed stratification to germinate. You ended up with a petty good number in any case!

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    1. That lavender field probably only exists in Photoshop. :o) I found it on Google images. I've heard so much conflicting advice about how to grow lavender that I thought I'd give it a try just for the sake of giving it a try. It was an excellent diversion form housework and grading.

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  26. Halfway though reading this I got tired. Lavender is tricky to grow here and would likely sulk in my part shade conditions. Now I know where to go when I want to admire it in someone else's garden :).

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    1. I'm used to my energy level but have been told that I exhaust other people. But this was only accomplished thanks to an abundance of snow days. Yippee!

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  27. Wonderful post, Tammy. I've never grown lavender from seed, and I have learnt much from your experience! I know I wouldn't do any better, so I'll carry on with cuttings. I am pleased you do have some plants, I hope they thrive. I do love lavender and have plans to add more in the garden. The bees are so fond of it.

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    1. I don't think I'll ever grow it from seed again, either, but I do have some lavender! I'm going to try cuttings next. :o)

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  28. Wow, what an experiment!
    I tend to be a ‘half-full’ person rather than a ‘half-empty’ so I’ll congratulate you with your 17 seedlings, never mind those 317 that never grew to anything :-) It reminds me a bit about my fuchsia cutting experiment last November, veeery late, I know, but I didn’t get around to do it until then. I took 33 cuttings (3 trays) which I took inside and kept in my spare bedroom, and 33 cuttings I left outside, knowing they would probably die. All the ones I took inside died. All the ones I left outside survived, AND are they stayed green, most are in flower now because we didn’t have any frost during the winter. Propagation can throw up some surprising things when you are not expecting it!

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    1. Maybe it was your mild, rainy winter that made them so happy! I'm a glass half full person, too, and am very happy with my 17 plants. :o) If everything had grown, I'd be over run and giving them away to everyone who walked by.

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  29. Too funny, but hey now you know how to grow it in so many different ways that you can become a germination expert. LOL.

    Over here, and I say this only to create a jealous rage in your gardener's heart, snort...you plant one, and get so many seedlings it's not funny. My garden looks just like that french field you have there. JUST KIDDING. But I do have a lot of lavender.

    PS, were you the one that mentioned Annemone Canadensis? I'm on a wild goose chase for that sucker, and even being Canadian, no one has heard of it.

    Jen

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    1. Is it legal for me to send you my huge swaths of a. canadensis across the border? Maybe it's been here for so long, the Canadians have forgotten about it. Anemone canadensis is the tough dry shade loving ground cover I recommended for you a while back. It's a native wildflower in your parts. Lavender seedlings? Le sigh.....

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  30. You make me feel doubly chuffed that I've just ordered some lavender plug plants!! Impressively scientific approach though...

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  31. Your plants will thrive! I don't think I'll ever start lavender from seed again. But, hey, you never know until you try!

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  32. I find it challenging enough to attempt to keep lavender plants alive, I can't imagine I would ever have any success with seeds! I admire your scientific approach though. My experiments are just beginning. I have some seeds that require 6-8 weeks of cold. I read somewhere that the refrigerator is no good for cold storage of seeds. Too much humidity maybe? I have others where it is recommended that you "sand" them. Not sure how that's going to go. Should be interesting!

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    1. Maybe the 'sanding' refers to scarification, where you scratch or nick them a bit. As for seed starting advice, the internet is so full of contradictory advice that I never know what to believe. Some of my seeds that were in the fridge did germinate, they just grew sideways or poorly. I think I'll stick to seeds that are easy to grow.

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  33. I give you credit Tammy...it is not easy to grow from seed and I hope to take cuttings of mine..and I agree lavender is temperamental to grow if you have a plant already.

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    1. I suppose lavender would be easy to grow if we all lived in the Mediterranean or the south of France. Getting it to thrive in my humid climate can be a challenge but I do see gorgeous clumps of it around town so it's definitely possible. :o)

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  34. Sniggered all the way through, but am impressed by your scientific rigour in the face of very naughty Lavender seeds. However,Tammy, you did fail to avail yourself of a good human resource ... your pupils ! They could have been your willing Lab Assistants and got their daily science and maths fix by reading thermometers and making graphs ! Or is your Education system like ours, in that there is no time for fun anymore because we are all too busy chasing targets ?

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    1. Having my students monitor the progress of my experiment would require all 120 of them to visit my house on a daily basis, the thought of which is terrifying! I grow all my seeds in my basement, which in the States is like a cellar but with a higher ceiling and regular walls so it's more of a living space. I have a row of shelves that are perfect for my grow lights. I squeeze in as much fun stuff as possible in my classes but do have a set of tests I'm forced to administer. But my goal is never on test scores but to teach my students to be independent problem solvers who can think their way through an experiment. That goes farther in life than filling in stupid bubbles on a test sheet.

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  35. What a commitment you made! I would also love to have a field of that beautiful lavender. I have about a 50% success rate with lavender, often losing some each year. They can be very particular about things. Wishing you lots of luck with those seedlings. They must be the tough ones to have survived.

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    1. Now I just have to figure out what I'm going to do with all of them this summer! They're too small to give away but won't bloom til at least next year. :o)

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  36. I laughed out loud at your beautiful image of the lavender field! My dream! Of course, even a single lavender plant refuses to grow for me through my humid, hot summers and wet winters. So your 17 plants look like an amazing success to me, a regular mini-field of lavender. I am so jealous and I can smell them now!

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    1. Why we gardeners in humid climates torture ourselves with Mediterranean plants? If they weren't so beautiful, they would be easier to resist!

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  37. I see the science teacher in the experiment you carrried out. Lavender, I think, is notoriously hard to grow. On my third try after scarifying and planting directly into the ground I was successful.

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    1. What kind was it? How did you scarify them? I didn't know that was a requirement. The seeds are so tiny. I had read they need to be stratified but have also read not to bother. So much conflicting advice!

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  38. This puts the final nail in the coffin of your sanity. Thanks for confirming what many of us have been wondering for quite some time. Bat. Shit. Crazy. Good for you for trying and hurrah for your successes!

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  39. You did it. Yes, it may have seemed to lean a little towards futility (a word I choose to use instead of "insanity") but by golly you have success. Congrats you gardener you! :)

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  40. Good news. You're not batshit crazy. Only obsessive compulsive. I look forward to seeing how your lavender does, I've been thinking about getting some myself.

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