Updated: May 13, 2020
Your lavender plants are not dead!
Have faith dear lavender grower. I write to you in the midst of a large chore; I am chopping and lopping off every last bit of top growth on 400 well established lavender plants. Typically this time of year there is nothing but a quick buzz cut shearing to be done to clean up some of last year's secondary blooming and shaggy winter leafage. Some of the branches I am cutting through are an inch or so thick.
This is of course disheartening and I speak to my sweet plants as I perform this decapitation: 'I acknowledge all this experience you have formerly expressed over the last 7 years. You have done so well. But these branches now represent the past. As I remove them, and all plants are being treated exactly the same (socialism at its finest), I recognize that there are green shoots, new growth bursting forth from the base, at the root level which tells me we have a solid, strong, resilient foundation. We have been here before, in different ways, but the previous hardship prepared us for where we find ourselves right here, right now. In order for this new life to shine forth-beam its light into the world we must jettison all the old and heavy accumulations. They can serve us no longer and in fact get in the way of our potential. That old growth is calcified, heavy weight but deep inside at its base is all that experience and we only need trust in the innate process of Almighty Nature. Let her take over, here, Just Let Go of this old tired stuff.'
I cannot help but realize as I tell my plants this that I am assuring myself and dosing on my own advice. I am gobsmacked at the way the plants echo what occurs in this present day physical existence for humans. We are living amidst a very strange time on this beautiful planet. A big reset button has been pressed.
There have been moments in this past month (writing to you on the 20 April 2020) when I, myself have felt as inconsequential as the dead branches I am lopping. All the experience of the past two decades seemingly for nought. Some really dark moments lodged in my person dragging me into depths of depression that I tought I'd bid farewell to from 2009 and again from 2015. It has been most unpleasant. But here again these lavender plants remind me with their resilience that if I can just let go of the old shit, if I can BE PRESENT, if I can trust in the the inherent energy - the fire, the utter magic that is renewal and forward motion, growth; I need not control it, just let it happen, all is well. How will you know if your plants suffered this top growth death as mine have? They should be greening up now. You may be seeing splotches of green amidst grey leaves. The grey leaves, this time of year (and I write to you from 2790' elevation; if you are farming at a higher elevation your plants may not show green leaves until well into May, so you have a waiting game,) indicate dead branches. I will discuss why one branch could be dead right next to a live one in a furture blog post or you can find it in the pages (74-75 and 14) of my book Lavender Farming: Secrets from a Hard Row Hoed.
These dead branches won't come back to life, though they may try. But in the trying (bless 'em) the plant wastes energy that might otherwise be put to use in reviving the growth coming from the roots to restart the plant as a whole.
My process for removing this dead frass (yes, that is my word and you know what I mean) is to start at the top of the plant, go deep into the base of it with a sharp and well oiled set of long handled loppers. Cut out a handful of branches. Now inspect the base of those cut branches. Look for green shoots. If you find them they become your guide as to how far to cut the plant back. If you find them not, you gotta get busy, and right now! Ideally, you'd want to have your plants all cut down by the end of April (in the northern hemisphere) as the warm and natural burgeoning growth fires up in May. Bring friends in to help - don't worry, its safe to be outside and it's not difficult to maintain a 6 foot distance if working a large crop. This ain't rocket science, just get to chopping. I'm gonna warn you right now, the amount of biomass these decapitated branches create will astound you! I am amazed at the intricate organization of the branches neatly woven to form an intimate collection on-the-plant create a pile 5x the size once they are dismantled from that coherence. I plan to have one HELLUVA fragrant Beltane bonfire!!!
If you find some branches are green and looking fine, growing, unaffected you can work around those, and I tend to because sometimes the severe pruning can set a plant back a year from its normal blooming production. It can be quite a shock to start a whole new existence on ones abiding and strong foundation. You will still get a bloom from these new branches it just might be finer, not as robust, not as long a stem, or thick a flower. The surviving branches will function as usual. It may happen that a handful of plants show no sign of life at all (they succumbed to the culprit). You can see/feel it once you cut all the dead away. You will have to remove these eventually.
And you may also find a handful of plants that were affected very little if at all (showing great and natural immune response!). This occurred twice in my lavender farming career. (You can read about that as well in the preface and introduction of my book.) In fact, these unaffected plants are the reason I continue to farm. It is cloned cuttings taken from these resilient - I call them Mother plants, their progeny that allows me to continue this experiment otherwise known as farming. And it is the stalwart survivors of this supposed set-back that I will clone to replace those who were too frail to make it through. I guess in its own way we've established herd immunity here...
What was the culprit? In the case of lavender plants this year, at least in my locale of western Montana, a typical usda zone 5 (negative 20F degrees the lowest temperature); we experienced a zone 7 winter (0F degrees the lowest temperature). I understand it was the warmest winter to date in the entire northern hemisphere. Many nights in November, December, and January I was shocked to find +30F degree temperatures in the middle of the night. I was away the entire month of February on a self styled book tour so I was not here to record weather but tuned in from time to time especially for a 45mph wind event that would have killed everything by windchill had it not been +60F degrees. There were days during those warm winter months when I'd walk amongst the plants and exclaim; 'Well, for once in the life of you we squeak by with an easy winter!'
I surmise then, that the culprit was the two nights in early March that the night time temperatures dropped to 8 and 10 degrees above Fahrenheit. That is well within acceptable levels for the hardiest of lavender species. But as occurred in what I call the Devastation which killed 1,000 of my 1,100 plant crop at my sharecrop at Ten Spoon Winery in early (too early) October 2009 (details in the book) the lavender plant seems to enjoy, rather command a languid slide into the changing seasons. That 8F degree night sandwiched between two 35F degree nights was just too much of a shock in plants that may not have been in deep dormancy to begin with, and the timing of which was such that the energy had begun to rise into the tops of plants for this season's bloom. They were green and growing first of March and to my horror I realized they were not as I began to clean them up mid-month.
I note that the rows I was able to put under blankets (yes, each and every one of the 11 rows has its own 100 foot long blanket to save 8F degrees) have less damage than those exposed. I could not cover all rows out of sheer exasperation of working alone in the howling wind (how I wish that was on video so you could better understand that my prices are as rock bottom as possible...).
I hope to get a video up of a demonstration of lopping dead branches on my YouTube channel. Tune in to https://youtu.be/wkYxjd5hyNE. Now get out there and start hacking!