September 8, 2013

Lavender Blue (and purple and pink and white) – guest post by AJLR


About 45 minutes drive from where I live in southeast England is the National Lavender Collection, at Downderry Nursery, in the heart of the Kent countryside. National Collections of plants are held by people who are recognised experts in growing, identifying and propagating particular species as both a supply of true varieties and as a reference for all gardeners. Most collections are open to the public.

Downderry 1

It’s always worth visiting during the summer months and we (husband and I) have been there several times. Each time we’ve been it has been a little bit bigger and more organised, and the exhibits of theirs that we’ve seen in the last couple of years at various RHS shows have been stunning. We went again in July this year, roughly a week into the hot weather, and this time we went also with bees in mind. This was the view as we walked in through the gate.

Downderry 2

 All that blue is just astonishing. The sound of a lot of happy bees was pretty great, too.

One of the reasons that this place is so useful is all the demonstrations they’ve set up of how to grow lavender for various uses. The one below, showing some hardy lavenders (happy down to -15C) that can be used to form low hedges in a garden, shows young plants set out at a certain distance from each other so that one can see, for example, what particular spacing looks like, how many plants might be needed, etc.

Downderry 3


The next example, below, showed some of the tender (not frost-hardy) lavenders and the soil type they’re happiest in. These flowers, of a particular sky-blue, just lit up that little area of the garden. The leaves of these lavenders are intensely aromatic – that’s where the scent comes from in those species, rather than the non-scented flowers. It’s a pity none of them would survive a winter outside with us because I’d love to try a couple. Mind you, they also prefer a more acid soil than most other lavenders, another reason why they wouldn’t like our neutral-to-mildly alkaline soil at home. And yes, OK, I could have one or two in pots inside the house but I suspect they wouldn’t really thrive.

Downderry 9


One of the reasons I enjoy going to Downderry so much is the almost overwhelming impact that a lot of lavenders together can have. On a hot summer day such as that of our visit the perfumes, the sea of blue before us together with the blue sky overhead, the sight of so many plants being grown so well, just the sheer sensory impact of it all made for a great day out. It was one of those days whose memory I can cling to on cold and dark winter days.

Downderry 8


Despite the heat of the day we sat in this seat for a while, our backs to the lovely 200 year-old wall (the nursery is set in what was once the walled kitchen garden to the local Big House) and baked happily in the scented sunshine.

Downderry 4

Of course, after getting rather warm in the sunshine, we needed a little help to cool down. And help there was, close at hand. Whoever makes their lavender ice cream is a genius. It’s not a hit-you-on-the-head intensity of flavour, rather something that leads you into eating one teaspoonful after another in an effort to decide exactly how they’ve put all the ingredients together…

Downderry 7


The nursery owners also grow some very attractive varieties of rosemary, another shrub whose scent under the hot summer sun of that day was almost intoxicating. I have a couple of rosemary bushes at home in the back garden, mainly for culinary use but also because I like their flowers early in the spring. The plants in this nursery ranged from the prostrate and creeping to those reaching for the sky. It’s such a clean smell, rosemary. Note also the roses against the back wall. They looked splendid, very healthy, but I couldn’t smell any scent from them. Possibly my olfactory nerve had OD’d on lavender…


Downderry 6


Once we’d wandered round for an hour or so, admiring the masses of particular lavender varieties and being amazed at the sheer numbers of honeybees and bumblebees that were all over the flowers (the growing field next door to this display area had three hives in it so that explained the honeybees but I reckon there must also have been representatives from every bumblebee nest within a three mile radius) it was time to think what we wanted to take home with us. The sale area is well laid-out and with informative labels on all the pots so all one has to do is restrain oneself from grabbing too many plants!

Downderry 5

We had planned to buy enough plants of one variety to have a low hedge in our front garden, in a nice sunny spot that has honeysuckle growing over a low wall as a backdrop. We chose L. ‘Peter Pan’ for that area. I also wanted one each of three other varieties that would grow well and look interesting together in a big tub outdoors and for that we chose ‘Lullaby Blue’,  a very pretty little one called ‘Thumbelina Leigh’, and one with a lovely soft foliage colour – ‘Betty’s Blue’. I’m glad to say that all the plants have now settled in well at home (planted according to the growing instructions supplied by the nursery, naturally) and we hope they’ll come safely through the winter to delight our local bees and butterflies in years to come.



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