I always know when summer is on the way and it’s time to start planning on harvesting English lavender for a new season. Sometimes the first signs can even be as early as the end of September (southern hemisphere). Where I live in Western Victoria it may still be very cold but the lavender knows that summer is just around the corner and they’d better get growing.
I’m going to take you through a typical season on the ‘lavender farm’, on how and when I cut the edible lavender that I grow especially for you to eat. Note, I’m not open to the public.
SPRING – the growing and maturing of lavender
The English lavender plants sometimes look like they’re struggling to survive at the end of Winter. They’re stressed, yellow and just don’t look too good, in fact, some can succumb to too much rain. Then the first few days of spring sunshine arrive and they begin to shoot new leaves, giving them that healthy look once again. It’s really amazing.
Transformation of the lavender
The changes just keep happening. New stems appear with tiny buds and that’s when I hope the heavens open every now and again to keep them moist. I also hope that there are no storms or torrential rain as the plants do not tolerate ‘wet feet’. (I’m hard to please sometimes) Most of my plants are planted on a slope but there are a few pockets that have more clay than others.
I have a few different varieties of English lavender planted so that when I harvest I can stagger the workload. Very important when there’s me, me and me. Oh, and sometimes hubby helps out.
SUMMER – let the reaping and cutting of lavender begin
As the plant matures, the stems get longer and longer, the tiny buds lengthen and the colour starts to appear, a pale purple which continues to become more vibrant as time marches on. Once the stems are firm, standing like little soldiers, and the colour is at its peak, I’ll start checking every morning and evening to see if it’s time to start cutting.
I mainly cut for the culinary market so as soon as there are about 50% of the flowers open and the bees are buzzing, I’m ready to start. If the bees think it’s good enough for their queen then, usually it’s pretty much good enough for me. The result of the harvest is dried flowers for our culinary lavender.
I try and wait for a lovely, dry day full of sunshine. Now the fun (um, hard work) begins.
HARVESTING LAVENDER – THE PROCESS
I cut lavender bunches with a sickle, taking pretty much all the stem, (makes it easier to prune later) The size of the bunch has a diameter roughly about the size of an Aussie 50c piece. I collect them up and then hang them upside down in an airy, darkened shed to dry.
It takes about four days to a week (weather dependent, of course). In the middle of summer, with 40 plus degree days, it only takes one or two days. The trick is keeping it completely dry. If there is a cooler, humid day then the lavender picks up that moisture and it needs to be left to hang longer to dry out again.
For culinary lavender – the lavender you eat
Once completely dry, I pick the hottest day to strip the flowers off the stems. I don the mask and start ‘stripping’. A manual process which means rubbing the stems together until the flowers all fall off. They’re ‘bounced’ around a bit on the mesh to start getting the seed and leaf out as it’s not needed. Then I store them in a closed container ready for the next stage.
Once all the flowers are stripped the sieving is started. The edible lavender is sieved at least six times to make sure that as much of the leaf and seed is removed as possible. The ready to use lavender is stored in clean containers ready for packing.
All the culinary lavender is weighed and packed into 500g lots. Each bag is stored for a minimum of seven days in a freezer. It’s then placed in a cool, dark room until sold or repackaged into 15g jars.
For craft lavender – you can’t eat this one
The lavender I use for crafting is a very different variety and has a slight camphor ‘mothball’ smell. (technically an ‘intermedia’ lavender) It’s not ready for harvesting until mid to late January. So, I get a bit of a break around Christmas / New Year – phew.
It goes through all the stages above but I usually only sieve this dried lavender three times, sometimes four depending on the amount of leaf in it and that depends every year on how the weather is behaving. It’s packaged into 100g and 500g bags.
So, the harvest is finished – time to relax?
Nope, they still need to be watered, weeded and pruned ready to start again.
As you can see there is a lot of hard work that goes into your jar of culinary lavender or 100g bag of dried lavender. Growing, watering, watching for the perfect moment to cut, harvesting, drying, stripping, sieving, bulk packaging, freezing and repackaging, back to pruning and the cycle begins again.
The upside is I get to have a lovely, relaxing work environment that always smells good.