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Akos and the Lavender Massacre

For The Herb Companion
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

I've always been resistant to learning the metric measuring system. It's pure stubbornness on my part, dating back to my childhood when I read Americans were going to have to adopt the rest of the world's measurements. "Why"? I remember asking. No one consulted me or let me vote. I intend to live out my lifetime ignoring the difference between a millimeter and a kilometer. Neither measurement evokes a mental image for me.

With our native measurements, I know in my mind what they look like. Tell me to hold up my fingers and measure an inch, and I can, because I have a mental picture of an inch. Tell me to walk a mile and I will know how far to go. But ask me to point out a millimeter, or a decimeter, or any of those other foreign terms, and there is just no mental picture that comes in my mind. Just because the rest of the world does something, is not reason enough for me to change. Usually the world and I just agree to disagree. But for some years I hosted foreign exchange students. They came, one at at time, to work with me and learn my methods of herb growing and marketing. These students were in their twenties, had a degrees in agriculture and were reasonable fluent in English.

Akos was my first exchange student, arriving in March from Budapest, Hungary. I got him settled into a little apartment on my farm and within a few days began giving him work assignments in the garden.

Akos' first assignment was to prune my lavender plants, readying them for spring. I explained I'm very particular about my lavenders. I've learned over the years they require a raised bed in this climate; otherwise their roots rot and die. I've learned they want a bit of mulch, so I use pine needles. Too much mulch will choke them, I explained to Akos, and every year they get a light application of garden lime and never, ever, should one dig around the base of the plant. The lavenders have very shallow roots which are easily damaged.

The young man stood patiently, nodding his head and eagerly trying to absorb everything I was saying. When I would ask, "Do you understand?" he would nod a polite "Yes."

I didn't want to hover around as if I didn't trust my new student, so I handed him a pair of trimmers and explained how I wanted him to prune the lavender plants. I explained "Eight to ten inches is plenty." He nodded that he understood. I pointed out where the trimmings should be thrown over the garden fence to the goats, who, most likely, would have them for lunch.

Lavender plants do best when pruned each spring. I cut mine back in late February or early March, just when there are the tiniest green leaves beginning to appear on the old limbs. With an annual pruning, the plants will be more robust and produce a greater supply of blooms. Then, after the early summer blooming, the old bloom shoots are removed to make way for a second, late summer flowering.

I looked out the window some time later and Akos was still working diligently on the lavender bed. I could see piles of the old limbs and trimmings piled carefully to the side. I went back to my other work. When he came indoors later and said, "I'm done, come to see," I went out to inspect his work.

What I saw caused my mouth to drop open. Instead of plants which were cut back to eight inches or taller, the stark lavenders were cut nearly to their main trunks. Trying to not scare the fellow on his first work assignment, I carefully chose my words and tried to lower the pitch of my voice to near normal. But I wanted to scream or cry.

"How did you decide eight inches was not enough?" I finally managed to ask. He blushed red. "Inches?" he asked. I don't know that measurement. I cut these back to eight centimeters."

I was certain that the lavenders would die, but over the following weeks I saw the severely pruned plants were putting up new growth. I thought to myself possibly within a couple of seasons at least some of the plants might be back to their former glory.

To my continuing surprise, by mid summer my lavenders were blooming more than they had ever bloomed. The spikes were longer and more numerous. Not a single plant had died as I had so dourly predicted.

Now each spring, I laugh as I prune my lavenders, remembering Akos and my mistake relating measurements to him. I always prune them back more severely than I used to, cutting them down to four of five inches above the main stem. I give them some compost and a light sprinkling of lime, scattered on top of the bed before laying down a new layer of pine needles.

My lavenders have continued to thrive with this treatment and I send an annual thank you email to Akos to remind him of our first misunderstanding and how much I learned from it. Maybe it's time I learn a new set of measurements. Lavender is versatile and resilient, so maybe I can be, too.

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