There has been a lot of interest in growing lavender in recent years. Lavender production has a lot of potential in Ontario for agri-tourism and value-added production. However, it may not be the best option for all growers, depending on the market potential, their location and soil type, and their people skills. There are a lot of things to think about before putting any lavender in the ground.
Lavender has a lot of market potential in Ontario but there is little to no established market. This means that any marketing of lavender or lavender products is entirely the grower’s responsibility. If your plan is to grow lavender and drop it off somewhere for an established price, then lavender is probably not the crop for you. There are currently few options for wholesale lavender production. Most lavender sales are based on attracting visitors to the farm and/or sale of value-added lavender products on or off the farm. It is the grower’s responsibility to find a market and build the business, and the market should be identified before large scale production on the farm. Growers should start small to build the market over time and ensure the business is cost-effective before spending large amounts of money. Consider what is going to set your farm or products apart. Working with other lavender producers or agri-tourism businesses may be an opportunity for cross-promotion. Lavender production usually requires substantial interaction with the public, and demands growers with good interpersonal skills.
The Ontario Lavender Association (OLA) was established in 2010 to represent the interests of Ontario lavender growers. The Association’s vision is to increase the demand for lavender in Ontario. Being a member of OLA is good way to work with other producers to enhance the industry and to learn strategies from existing growers. More information about the association can be found at www.ontariolavenderassociation.org.
Business of Lavender
Lavender is rarely a grower’s only source of income. Most lavender producers either have jobs off the farm or grow other crops or livestock. This helps to reduce the risks involved, especially when first getting started. Combining lavender with another crop/product with additional agri-tourism or value-added product potential can add to the uniqueness of an operation. It is always best to prepare a cost of production budget ahead of time to price products properly and ensure there is potential for profits once established. There is no established cost of production for lavender in Ontario. Growers will have to research the cost of materials/equipment and estimate the labour requirements, and compare these with the retail prices for various lavender products. Consider starting small and developing the cost of production once you can better estimate the labour requirements on a few plants. For more information on cost of production budgeting see the Resources section below.
Location, Location, Location
Agri-tourism based lavender operations may not be successful in all areas. If you are on a side road well away from any other tourism destinations or population centres, it may be more difficult to attract visitors to the farm. Sale of value-added products on the internet or in off-farm retail locations may be a better fit in this situation.
The other main consideration for your location is the soil type. Lavender requires well-drained soil. If the soil remains saturated for an extended period, lavender will not survive. Therefore, lavender either needs sandy and sandy loam soils or a slope that allows the water to drain rapidly away from the plant. Lavender cannot be grown successfully on clay or clay loam soil without a slope or substantial raised bed. Tile drainage helps in these situations, but doesn’t solve the problem because water will sit near the surface when the soil is frozen. Also, clay soil may not provide the aeration required for the root zone during rainy periods. Even sandy soils on flat ground may not have sufficient drainage if there is a high water table or clay layer farther down the soil profile.
Growers have inquired about the addition of sand to a clay soil to increase aeration. This is not practical because of the amount of sand that would be required to make any difference, and the complete destruction of the soil structure that would occur when trying to incorporate that much sand. For example, it would take 30 extended dump trucks full of pure sand to change the top foot of an acre of land from a heavy clay to a sandy clay. Even if this was economical, it would still not be suitable for lavender production considering that sandy clay still behaves a lot like clay, and that the lower soil layers would still be heavy clay and would restrict drainage.
It is best to conduct a soil test ahead of time to determine if the site is suitable for lavender production and what modifications may be necessary. Take a separate soil sample for each distinct area of the farm. Each soil sample should consist of 10 or more soil cores taken over the sample area to 15 to 20 cm depth and thoroughly mixed. These should be submitted to an OMAFRA accredited soil lab for a standard soil test (including pH, buffer pH, P, K and other nutrients) and a soil texture analysis (sand, silt, clay content). Accredited laboratories are listed on the OMAFRA website: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/resource/soillabs.htm
The lab will be able to provide some interpretation of the soil test. For additional info, consult a crop specialist.
Lavender Types and Climate
There are two main types of lavender that can be grown in Ontario – Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender) and Lavandula x intermedia (lavandins or French lavender). L. angustifolia will be called ‘angustifolia’ in this blog to reduce confusion with other types and cultivars of lavender. They are mainly grown for their sweeter scent, more showy flowers, and earlier blooming. They are most suitable for culinary purposes and aromatic products. Lavandin cultivars have more of a medicinal scent due to high camphor content and are mainly grown for use in personal care products and sachets. They grow much faster with longer stems that make good flower bundles and their scent lasts longer in stuffed products. Other species of lavender such as L. stoechas (Spanish lavender), L. dentata, or L. latifolia (Spike lavender) are not hardy in Ontario.
Angustifolia lavender is hardy to Zone 5. It may be possible to grow it in colder zones with winter protection. Over the extremely cold winters of 2013/14 and 2014/15, there was substantial damage to angustifolia cultivars in Ontario, but the plants generally survived. These cultivars do best when the cold winter winds are blocked by a wind barrier such as a hedge row or snow fence. Lavandin cultivars are generally only hardy to Zone 6 without protection. They may survive many winters and then die in colder winters. Some cultivars, such as Provence, Alba and Tuscan Blue are not hardy anywhere in Ontario and are not a good choice for large scale plantings even with winter protection. Over the winter of 2013/14, many lavandin plants died if they did not have a good insulating snow cover. It is recommended that these plants be protected over the winter with row covers. For more information on the results of cultivar and row cover research consult the Lavender Research Report located on the OLA website at www.ontariolavenderassociation.org. Growing lavender is a challenge – don’t expect a perfect lavender field and high yield every year! Even when you think you have a healthy crop, any one of several pests can reduce yield or marketability of the crop.
Lavender should not be grown from seed. Seed-grown lavender will be highly variable in appearance and characteristics. Lavender is normally propagated from vegetative cuttings so the new plants are identical to the parent plants. It can take several months for the new plants to be ready to plant in the field. Many propagators require orders to be placed well in advance so the plants will be ready for spring planting. It is best to find propagators and place orders in the fall before spring planting. Finding propagators of specific cultivars can be difficult. Consult other growers, the Ontario Lavender Association, or conduct an internet search to identify propagators. Lavender plants are usually purchased in 72 or 50-cell plug trays or in 5-10 cm (2-4 in.) diameter pots. Larger plants are more expensive but result in more rapid establishment in the field.
Labour and Equipment
Lavender is a labour intensive crop. Hand labour is generally required for planting, weed control, pruning, harvesting and product development. There is very little mechanization available for small-scale lavender producers. Weed control is one of the biggest labour requirements. Labour for weed control can be significantly reduced with the use of plastic mulches. Black solid or woven plastic mulches are often used in the row, with mowed grass between the rows. Machinery is available for rent or purchase to apply the mulch. Planting usually has to be done by hand. If using plastic mulch, it is best to put drip-irrigation tape under the row for both irrigation and fertilization (fertigation). Although lavender is tolerant of dry conditions, it does not grow well under dry conditions. Irrigation improves crop growth and establishment.
Post-harvest equipment is available for purchase to strip buds off of the stems and to clean the buds. This also reduces labour requirements. Some of this equipment can be made by hand or modified from other existing tools. Growers also need to consider whether they are going to create their own essential oil. There are many models and sizes of distillers available on the market. It is important to ensure the distiller is the size necessary to match the size of the operation. A good overview of this equipment is provided in “Growing and Marketing Lavender” in the Resources section below.
The following resources provide a good starting point for the production and post-harvest requirements of lavender. There are also many lavender related articles posted to this blog. Click on ‘Herbs’ at the top of the screen and select ‘Lavender’ to see all articles related to lavender.
Specialty Cropportunities (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/CropOp/en/index.html)
- This resource provides a good overview of specialty crop production and marketing and includes crop profiles of over 100 specialty crops including lavender
Growing and Marketing Lavender (By Curtis Beus, Washington State University) (https://pubs.wsu.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=15507&SeriesCode=&CategoryID=321&Keyword=)
- This guide provides a good overview of all aspects of lavender production. Note: Not all production practices will work in Ontario’s climate. For example, fall pruning is not advised in Ontario. Mid- to late-summer is best in Ontario. Also, we have some pests such as four-lined plant bug that are not an issue in Washington.
Starting a Farm in Ontario – Business Information Bundle for New Farmers (OMAFRA) (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/busdev/newentrant/newent.htm)
- Provides an overview of business planning and resources for new growers
OMAFRA Factsheet – Programs and Resources for Ontario Farmers (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/busdev/facts/progserv.htm)
OMAFRA Factsheet – Guide to Cost of Production Budgeting (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/busdev/facts/08-055.htm)