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The National Collection of Lavender at Longbarn

Richard Norris is a National Collection holder of Lavender. Downderry the famous lavender nursery also has a National Collection in Kent but Richard’s one is mainly of Lavandula x intermedia types and has six cultivars that does not exist anywhere else in the country. Richard’s collection can be viewed on the site of his business Longbarn - a shop, garden centre and cafe of lavender orientated products in Alresford, Hampshire. We are wanting to introduce lavenders including interesting different ones into the garden at Bramdean House, so I was keen to reach out to him as he was so local to seek his advice and see a range of lavenders growing side by side in situ. 

Demonstration beds to give an idea of how lavenders grow in the wild at Longbarn.

When I arrived with my trainee Katie, the first thing that Richard did was show us alongside his shop a sloped gravel based bed that demonstrated the habitat lavender would be found growing in the wild. The scene would not be too far off if one was walking in the mountain side of Mont Ventoux in Provence. It also reminded me a little of the type of habitat one would find walking in the Pyrenees.

Lavandula angustifolia he explained are found at a higher altitude at an elevation of 200m - it is characterised by its narrow leaf, self sows freely and is where famous ones like Munstead originates from. Another one would find in these areas is Lavandula latifolia, which has a wider leaf, a more muted flower on a flower stalk that has lateral branching rather than a straight one like L. angustifolia. When you crush it you get a distinctive smell of camphor rather than the sweeter tones more associated with lavender products. Lavendula x intermedia which the french call Lavandin are a cross of L. angustifolia and L. lanata, and as the meeting of these is at a limited altitude mid zone between the two, it means there are less L. x intermedia type lavenders - about 50 are known in cultivation. The French would purposely create ‘population’ fields so that species can readily hybridise. The types of plants often found in these hillsides growing with lavenders are Anemanthele lessoniana, Pinus mugo and wild fennel. He had some gnarly older version of the Pinus trees that he had acquired as last stocks of a nursery and was very pleased with how awkward shaped they were - closer to how they would be in the wild when sculpted by the harsher weather and terrain. 

The demonstration bed showing the type of plants that grow alongside Lavenders. 

If he was to just recommend one he would choose Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ which he had an entire field of, a cultivar that originated from the 1960s and one of the most widely grown for its oil. L. angustifolia tend to be shorter more compact types, whilst intermedia tend to be bigger, freer and more expressive in form which I myself tend to favour. Downderry though are breeding some shorter versions of intermedia. He says that the interest for this field of lavender starts in May where it grows in satisfying rounded forms, when they begin to flower it is as if the field switches on and becomes alive and animated with bees, and in high summer on a hot day one can smell and hear the field before you see it. The cooler temperatures and wetter weather this year has resulted in them going over earlier and even Richard suspects not flowering as vibrantly. 

A field of Lavandula x intermedia 'Grosso'

In terms of cultivation he prunes as soon as they have finished flowering - this is usually end of August and September, L. angustifolia finish flowering earlier (spoiler alert: expert advice that contradicts commonly perpetuated advice) - L. angustifolia can tolerate being cut hard back, to old none shooting wood even! and can even tolerate grazing. it is L. x intermedia that can’t be cut like this this but the over arching view is that this can’t be done to all lavenders! I will definitely be trialing this to see for myself. If installing new planting, really year one should be not to let them flower, but he never has the heart to do that. When clipped back tight the lavenders will last a lot longer and one gets a sense of the adult size that they settle down to. His Grosso lavender field is about 12 - 13 years old. He uses a strimmer with a blade cutter, hand garden shears and says that the one handed garden shear Darlac is actually very good. When he needs to regenerate his collection he takes heel cuttings in March/ April time - about 2” in length and puts half of this  - 1” into a growing medium composed of 75% multi-purpose compost and 25% sharp sand. One can take cuttings at other times, but he found he had a far higher success rate when taking cuttings during this time.These are done in plug trays and then potted on into 9cm pots and then planted out from this size once they are ready to do so. Planting wise he puts approximately a two foot gap between rows. 

Demonstration of Lavender cut back

He doesn’t really grow the lavenders for his business, he has farms that grow lavender on his behalf and he buys from artisans that utilise lavender in products that they manufacture, so the lavender display fields are really a labour of love as well as being an attractive feature for the shop and cafe. And there is nothing so satisfying as seeing undulations of different lavenders - in all manners of purples, blues, whites and pink offsetting each other. It was a real treat to walk around the fields with Richard, and for him to point out all the small details that set one lavender apart from another, showing us that no two lavenders are the same. I hope that he won’t mind me sharing and adopting this idea too, but when he retires he would like to make a ‘laundry’ garden based on Elizabethan times when sheets were placed over scented herbs like lavenders to absorb their fragrances when drying - back before the days of scented washing powder - ingenious. 

Richard and Lavandula x intermedia 'Abrialli'

We bemoaned how the Lavender market was dominated by Munstead and Hidcote, and agreed that Munstead was overrated - maestro plantsman and garden writer Christopher Lloyd said something along the lines of Lavender being the nations most loved tattiest shrub, it is probably because of this particular cultivar that gives lavender bad press. He commented that ‘true’ Hidcote is good and he definitely has the genuine one (I have been told in the past that even Hidcote garden doesn’t have the true Hidcote), but he also has so many more excellent varieties, and that the lavender generally used for scent is L. angustifolia ‘Folgate’, which he did not rate and thought L. angustifolia ‘Maillette’ was better as it had a ‘cleaner scent. Having smelt both of these for comparison I am inclined to agree. I love that in this little corner of the world Richard advocates for diversity and these differences. 

Lavenders of different flower heads, scents, shades and habits etc.

The true Hidcote lavender story - this lavender originated from France and was brought to England by Lawrence Johnstone, which he named after said famous Oxfordshire garden. Once upon a time former Loddon Nursery in Berkshire, Twyford owned by Thomas Carlile had exclusive rights to propagating the true Hidcote. Richard acquired his directly from Wendy Bowie daughter of Thomas - surprisingly little can be found on this nursery considering its legacy of well known ‘Loddon’ plant cultivars.

Here is a low down of some of the selection that he has:

- Lavandula ‘Abrialli’ - one of the earliest lavenders cloned (in the 1920s) for oil production, this was superseded by ‘Super’ and then ‘Grosso’
- L. Nana Alba - an ancient one, small white and compact
- Beechwood Blue* - very vibrant blue, has a great dome shape 

- Gros Bleu* - not much scent but prostrate stems good for cutting

- Olympia* - an excellent variety
- Heavenly series - hard to overwinter - needs sharp drainage - can work well in half barrow pots and then one can make the ideal growing medium more easily
- Lavandula chaytoriae is a good looking species one but like the above needs sharp drainage - Richard Gray is a well known cultivar of this. 

- White Edelweiss* - is like the white version of Grosso - Richard recommends it as the best white.
- Little Lady is great for a formal hedge and controversially he would recommend this over Munstead. National Trust garden Mottisfont has a great lavender hedge comprised of ‘Maillette’
- Loddon Pink - is better young
- Blue Ice - sprawly, hard to prune
- Miss Katherine* - best of the pinks* (Little Lottie doesn’t over winter well)
- Sussex* (my personal fave) - an excellent variety and research says it is best for bees.

- Folgate - long lasting - good for cuts
- Royal Purple works well for cuts but unreliable.
- Felice Compact - is interesting and looks like it has a long season of interest but it keeps it colour in different flowering stages - even when the flowers have essentially gone over.
- Matherone - has a great scent but does not unfortunately distil into a great perfume

*(My top picks for the garden)


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