The absolutely best way to prune English lavender beautifully

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: August 28th, 2016 In: Gardening know how, Town gardens

I’ve been making a big mistake when I prune English lavender.

I couldn’t work out why next door’s lavender is still healthy and bushy after fourteen years. Some of my lavender bushes have barely lasted four.

How to prune English lavender

My lavender in 2013. It was planted in 2010, and the lavender by the obelisk had gone woody and gappy by 2014. It had to be taken out.

Prune lavender well and it'll last longer

A neighbour’s lavender – it’s been there for over 14 years and still going strong.

The lavender is a major feature in my garden. There are four big clumps around a pot in the centre. At midsummer, it is humming with bees and other pollinating insects.

But it is starting to look gappy and woody. There was also some lavender around the beds and that went completely woody and stalky. It was so ragged that I took it out.

How to prune English lavender

The central lavender is beginning to get too stalky. Holes are appearing in the neat mounds.

August is the time to give my lavender its summer chop. The flowers have gone grey, and there are no bees humming amongst them. So I looked for the best English lavender advice. (French lavender has the little ears and needs different pruning).

I have always pruned my lavender rather warily. I snip rather than hack. I’m too frightened I’ll kill it. Everyone always says that if you cut into the wood, then it won’t regenerate. My mother told me that I would kill lavender if I cut it back too much. Even the RHS cautions against cutting into the woody part of lavender.

But the lavender specialists at Downderry say that English lavender needs hard pruning. You need to cut right down into the brown part, where little lavender shoots can just been seen.

‘Don’t be frightened to cut it back to 9″ just after flowering,’ they say. ‘It will love it!’

It’s true that I hardly pruned the lavender on the edge of the beds at all. I followed advice to ‘prune lightly in spring’ Those are the bushes that I took out because they got so spindly within a few years.

Last year, I asked Salvatore, the Italian gardener, to cut the lavender in the centre of the garden. He cut it right back to the brown, especially in one part that was beginning to look gappy. It plumped up again before Christmas, and made elegant grey mounds for the winter garden.

Prune lavender into a sculptural shape for winter

Lavender is a lovely sculptural presence for the garden in winter. It looks especially good in the frost.

This year I’ve taken my courage – and my secateurs – in hand. I’ve chopped back the lavender mounds. I haven’t quite dared to take it down to 9″, but I have remembered that next door do cut their lavender very low.

How to prune English Lavender to make it last longer

I’ll pin this to a Pinterest board as an easy way to remember what to do.

The experts also say that you should use good secateurs for cutting lavender. This makes the job a lot longer than using shears, but it seems to give a tighter, more sculptural finish.

I use these Felco secateurs, which have lasted for around fifteen years, and always cut well. That’s an Amazon affiliate link which means you can buy them there. I may get a small fee if you do.

Can you really prune English lavender right back into the wood?

Yes and no. Secateurs also mean you can see what you’re doing. You do need to cut just above those tiny shoots at the bottom of the stem because if you cut the lavender down below them, it won’t regenerate. It will die. So wear your glasses!

Take a good thick bunch of lavender in one hand, and chop down to where you see tiny little lavender shoots in the brown wood. And repeat. I find it easiest to do sitting down. My trousers have got very grubby.

There’s a video of the technique here:

You can use the lavender for pillows or in bowls to scent the house. In this post here from Doddington Place Gardens, Amicia de Moubray explains the difference between English lavenders, which help you sleep, and French lavenders which make you feel more alert.

How to prune English lavender

Here you can see one mound of lavender pruned to just under half its height. It looks brown and woody, but if you look closely you can see tiny lavender shoots on the lower branches.

Most lavenders are ready to be pruned when the flowers fade. So that’s any time from August onwards. So if you have English lavender, be tough! And do spread the word by sharing, using the buttons below – thank you!

Pin for reference

Prune lavender beautifully - most of the advice you see is not correct! This is how lavender growers and professionals prune lavender and it's easy (and you do prune 'into the wood'!)



15 comments on "The absolutely best way to prune English lavender beautifully"

  1. Reg Mitton says:

    I purchased my French lavender plants in October and planted them out They were in two litre pots. They were in full flower and have taken very well. The flowers are still visible but not as coloured. When is the best time to prune them ?

    1. Generally the best time to prune lavender is once the flowers have faded, so now sounds good. The technique in this post is for English lavender, not French lavender but the method is similar. French lavender is shorter-lived and less hardy, so more likely to be affected by frost or poor weather. As with English lavender, some experts say ‘never cut into the wood’ and others say ‘cut down into the wood to encourage new shoots’. I haven’t personally grown French lavender so I can’t comment, but I’d suggest clipping it fairly firmly to encourage bushy growth. And experiment a bit to find the right way for your garden and climate – although it can be annoying to buy new plants when one has died, plants do die and it’s not necessarily anything you’ve done wrong.

  2. Helen Sterling says:

    I planted two rows of English lavender last year either side of a large stone staircase and it has thrived this year, I’m so pleased as I’m definitely an ‘amateur’ gardener. My concern now though, as one other lady mentioned last year, is that there are still so many flowering stalks and so many bees (Sept 2nd 2017). I don’t know whether to prune but obviously would rather not because of the important wildlife value (butterflies also visit). I have started literally pruning out the spent flower stalks and areas around the flowering stalks, time consuming but hopefully the lavender won’t mind this sporadic pruning? (and the bees will appreciate!).

    1. I have the same debate with myself, but I believe that the lavender needs the last few weeks of summer to put on a bit of growth before the winter, so I am going out into the garden today (September 3rd) to prune my lavender. But it will be with regret as I love the long grey stalks.

  3. I too was told at some point that it wasn’t possible to cut lavender back down into the woody bit – but as mine looked so straggly, I ignored the advice one year and it grew again! Some of my plants are VERY old though, 25-30 years, and the wood is warped,splinters easily, and no longer throws out new shoots lower down, so these are probably now past hope.

  4. That’s a good tip Alexandra. I don’t think I cut severely enough. At the moment there are still flowers though, even new ones coming, it seems a shame to cut them off and I end up leaving it too late. Lavender is always a struggle down here anyway, it’s far too wet.

    1. Yes, it’s such a dilemma, isn’t it? I think we probably need to cut now to give the plant some growing time before the winter comes, but it’s sad to cut off even a single flower in full bloom. And it does hate wet – a friend of mine has lost three lots of lavender, probably because there’s an underground spring or pond in what appears to be an absolutely dry area.

  5. Claire says:

    Thanks for this post. I am just about to prune an ancient English lavender bush and will be braver than usual. I too do this job sitting down, mainly so I can drink in the beautiful smell.

    1. Hope it goes well, I rather expect to fall asleep if I breathe too much English lavender in.

  6. Sarah says:

    Perfectly timed advice. I’m looking out at some lavender that’s ready to be trimmed, but is already starting to look a little leggy in the middle. I was just about to Google it when your newsletter popped into my inbox. So it’s secateurs in one hand, mug of tea in the other and I’ll be outside being brave in a second or two!

    1. Great. The secateurs method does take alot longer than clipping it with shears but I briefly went back to shears this morning. Not good. You just can’t see where the little buds are, and you really need to make sure you clip as far down as you can, but leaving at least one or two buds on to create new growth. Definitely not a job I should do without my glasses!

  7. Caro says:

    This is a very informative post on the hows and whys of cutting back English Lavender. I always cut mine back in August/September since Jekka McVicar told me that she feels a dual cut (autumn and then a tidy up in spring) is best for the plants due to climate change. She used to cut springtime only which I think is the traditional way but found this system suited the plants best, particularly in the south of England.

    1. Thank you – I think Jekka McVicar is indeed the ultimate guru. I haven’t quite dared add the ‘tidy-up in spring’ yet, but I will give it a try. I’m just amazed at how many plant sellers say ‘just give lavender a light prune in spring’. When I followed that advice, my lavender got very twiggy very quickly.

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