See more of the story

Over the years, the popularity of lavender has been building like the scent itself -- in a sweet, subtle way. In fact, the plant, once associated with all things French, has become the second most widely used herb in the United States. (Can you guess what's No. 1? If you said basil, give yourself a pat on the back.)

Although grown for its unique shape and gray-green color, lavender is most prized for its incredible scent, which is derived from oils within the leaf and flower. When distilled, those oils are used in everything from cosmetics to laundry soaps to sunscreens.

But you don't have to go to the drugstore to get a whiff of lavender. You can grow your own.

Growing lavender

Lavender isn't difficult to grow, even here in Minnesota. It just requires plenty of sun and well-drained, alkaline soil, said Theresa Mieseler of Shady Acres Herb Farm in Chaska.

But not all lavenders are winter-hardy. Mieseler said that several of the English lavenders (including Lavandula angustifolia, Lavandula angustifolia 'Munstead' and Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote') have proven to be "pretty hardy," although she does mulch the plants with straw or leaves in mid- to late November.

If you don't want to bother overwintering lavender or want a plant that blooms profusely the first year, Mieseler recommends planting French lavender.

Using lavender

Most lavenders bloom in late July to early August. If you want to use the blossoms, harvest them early.

"You want to get them when they're in bud form, before they open up," said Mieseler.

However, both the leaves and flowers carry the scent, so you can harvest lavender even when it's not in bloom.

Here are some ways to use lavender:

• Bundle sprigs of lavender in cheesecloth or netting and place them in the linen closet. The fresh scent will linger on pillowcases and bath towels.

• Cut fresh flowers and stems and use them to cloak musty odors in poorly ventilated rooms.

• Cut and tie a few flowers and stem onto gifts in place of ribbon.

• Dry leaves and add them to greeting cards to carry the essence of your home through the mail.

• Lavender blossoms also make fabulous additions to desserts or garnishes for meats and cheeses. Add lavender flowers to sugar cookies, to whipped cream or mix with sliced strawberries for a fresh, late-summer treat.