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Loving Lavender: Flowers keep bees bustling in the garden

Looking in my organic lavender garden, you would never know our honeybee population is suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. It is late October and the garden is filled with busy honeybees taking nectar and pollen from the fragrant lavender flowers of Hidcote, French, Lady, Spanish, Goodwin Creek and Sweet heterophylla. It"s a gourmet feast. The bees straddle the blossoms and tuck their heads right down into the flower. I wish I could follow them back to their hive for a taste of their lavender honey. Bumblebees and other native bees, honeybees and beneficial insects are all welcome in my garden. After feasting on lavender, they fly off to sample and pollinate the large yellow squash blossoms, the small yellow cucumber flowers, the edamame flowers, the nectar-rich strawberry flowers and others. According to "Urban Bee Gardens," nearly one-third of our temperate vegetable, fruit and nut crops depend on the pollinating services of bees. This is a good reason to grow plants that will lure bees to the garden and be available to nourish and sustain any bees happening by. It"s a great reason to grow a bee-friendly garden. Lavender is perfect for this, as is seen in Provence, France, where lavender growers and beekeepers share the fields. Although they sometimes disagree as to the harvest date — the beekeepers always request a few more days of flowers for their bees — they celebrate their harvests with festivals in July and August. Lavender Officinalis, Provence and Grosso are each celebrated in different regions of Provence with parades and harvesting contests. Bunches of fragrant lavender are everywhere, and the streets are washed with lavender water. Fresh distilled pure lavender oils, delicate lavender soaps and lotions, lavender wands and sachets, fragrant honey soaps and sparkling jars of luscious golden lavender honey are abundant. The restaurants serve gourmet dishes made with reduced lavender vinegar, and the vegetables are topped with lavender lemon butter. Lavender lemonade, lavender cookies and lavender ice cream flavor desserts throughout the villages. Planting lavender We can enjoy these treats as well by growing the lavenders of Provence. Other varieties do well here, too, and fall is a great time to plant lavender. The plants will have time to establish themselves over the winter and will thrive in early spring. Spring-planted lavender has a slower start and takes several months to catch up with fall-planted lavender. Lavender is easy to grow as long as it is not overwatered or kept damp from overcrowding — it has a tendency to rot. Lavender is drought resistant and deer resistant. To plant lavender, an area with full or lightly dappled sun is needed. To prepare the bed, turn in 2-4 inches of organic compost, a sprinkling of organic chicken manure and a sprinkling of organic all-purpose fertilizer, according to directions. Add more compost or sand if necessary to ensure good drainage. Plant the lavender and mulch the area with a thin layer of straw, compost or leaves. This will prevent weeds and protect the soil. It is very important not to let the mulch get so high it could stop the air circulation under the plant. Water the newly planted lavender well and keep the soil damp (not soggy) until the fall rains begin. In the spring, check to see when watering is needed again. At some point in the summer, the plants will need to be watered biweekly, then as the weather warms they may need weekly watering. Once a year in spring or early summer, give them a big drink of diluted fish emulsion to keep them healthy and happy. Harvesting lavender A good time to harvest lavender is in the late morning after the dew has dried. For the best color, choose flower spikes that are beginning to open. Flowers that are fully opened will not hold as well on the stem and will fall off. Bunch together 25-50 stems with a rubber band. As the flowers dry and the stems shrink, the rubber band will continue to cinch them together. Hang the bunched lavender in a well-ventilated area, and they will dry in a couple of days. Store in glass jars or sealed containers until ready to use, or keep them up as home decorations. I have spent 30 years among the bees, tending and harvesting lavender, and I have never been stung. Unless you are allergic to bee stings and don"t want to take a chance, it is a lovely experience. English lavenders English lavenders are known as the true lavenders. They have the round form and require a yearly cutting back, 1-3 inches into the foliage, to keep their shape and fullness. The Officinalis and Munstead are cut back after blooming in late summer, to allow the plants time to grow a bit of foliage protection before winter. Because the Hidcote and Lady lavenders can produce flowers through a mild winter, I cut them back in early spring when the Spanish lavender begins to bloom, after the threat of frost, when they will grow quickly. All lavender flowers are edible, but the English lavenders are preferred in cooking because of their more delicate flavors, with Officinalis the culinary lavender of choice. When cooking with lavender, start with small amounts — you can always add more. Try substituting lavender for rosemary in recipes, adding it to spice cakes and steeping the blossoms for tea. Make lavender grilling sticks from the woody stems and herbes de Provence with the blossoms. • Officinalis ("Vera," "True" or "Fine") — long stems with slender lavender-gray flowers in mid-late summer. This is a plant with many names, and it is the medicinal lavender with many uses. If I had to choose only one lavender to grow, this would be it. According to the Lavender Museum in Cabrieres d"Avignon, Provence, "the pure and natural essential oil can treat insomnia (2-3 drops on your pillow); irritability (sprayed into the air); headaches (massage on temples); stress (5-6 drops in your bath)." The museum claims that the essential oil fights infections in sore throats with 1-2 drops in a spoonful of honey. This lavender is often preferred for culinary use. It is used in eye pillows, sachets and arrangements. • Munstead — long stems with fragrant dusty-gray lavender blooms from early spring and summer. Munstead is from a famous manor house in the Munstead Woods of England. It is very lovely when planted about 2.5 feet apart to create a soft border or garden divider. Munstead lavender is used in sachets and arrangements. • Hidcote — medium stems with stunning dark-purple petite fragrant flowers from early spring through frost. Hidcote is propagated from plants from Hidcote Manor in England. Profusely blooming, this plant is beautiful in the landscape foreground. Hidcote can be deadheaded for continued blooms that are excellent for drying and crafting, potpourri and arrangements. • Lady — medium stems with exceptionally sweet, billowy lilac blooms from April through frost. Lady is usually sold in six-packs. It grows rapidly, and to develop into a full plant, it needs to be cut back several times during its first two to six months. Otherwise, it will only put out a few branches that will grow long and fall over. Lady lavender is lovely in a front border where the flowers can be deadheaded for continuous bloom. Lady"s flowers are excellent in sachets, potpourri and arrangements. Year-round blooms These are the fall-spring blooming lavenders. Planted with the English lavenders, they will provide your garden with blooms throughout the year. They are superb orchard plants that provide nectar and pollen for the earliest spring bees and beneficial insects necessary to pollinate the local Bleinheim apricots and other early flowering fruit trees. Deadhead these lavenders for continuous bloom, then cut back, removing up to one-third of the plant in the summer, when their blossoms slow down and English lavenders are in full bloom. • French lavender — short stems with soft, purple, plump fragrant blooms. The Green Form variety, with its pretty, soft, green-toothed leaves, is most available. French lavender makes a wonderful foundation plant in perennial beds and edible landscapes, offering year-round texture and color. Use in potpourri and arrangements. • Goodwin Creek — short stems with plump, downy, deep-blue flowers. The light, blue-gray, toothed foliage offers a wonderful contrast in landscapes. Use in potpourri and arrangements. The foliage dries nicely for wreath making. • Sweet lavender — strong stems with long, slender lavender flowers. Use in arrangements, wreaths and sachets. This is a large and tough plant that blooms almost consistently, and a great mainstay for the garden. • Spanish lavender — short stems with magenta, barrel-shaped flowers topped with little flower petals often called "rabbit ears." This is a must-have lavender because it is the first lavender to bloom in the spring. For this reason, it is a great lavender to grow in the winter vegetable garden and orchard. Spanish lavender blooms again in the fall just as the English lavender blooms are fading. There are several varieties with varying colors and heights used in fresh-flower arrangements and sachets. The stems are burned like incense, and in the past it was used in churches as an old-time stewing herb. Jody Main teaches at Common Ground Organic Garden Store and Education Center in Palo Alto.

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