Garden Spaces: Plant a Water-Wise Garden

Readers Katie and Jeff Fosselius challenged us to design a lush, low-water garden that will thrive in their arid climate.


Click on the IMAGE GALLERY for the planting key.

Illustrations by Gayle Ford

Content Tools

• Design Plans: Water-Wise Garden

• Web Exclusive: To see photos of the Fosselius' garden as it was when they first wrote to us, click here.

Dear Herb Companion,

We recently moved into the home of our dreams—a log home on 1½ acres in the beautiful foothills of Morrison, Colorado. We see the beauty to come in our home, but most people see a dirt yard. Help! My dream is to grow organic herbs and flowers. Yet we are overwhelmed with where to start.
And we don’t have water rights for irrigation. …

—Katie and Jeff Fosselius

Dear Katie and Jeff,

With a gorgeous slice of the Rocky Mountains as your backdrop, you can plant a carefree, productive garden that sweeps across the landscape and becomes a part of the scenery. Even a garden with no irrigation and little supplemental watering, once established, can be lush and spread out to replenish itself year after year.

Choose Your View

As a starting point, choose your view, lucky you. Judging from the photos you sent, you’ve got breathtaking scenery in many directions, but look at it from the vantage point of the area where you’ll likely spend most of your time. With dramatic rocky mounds in the distance, look to the outer edge of your property in that direction and put the beginnings of your garden there. Think of big swaths of herbs and flowers in the middle distance, all drought-tolerant perennials and reseeding annuals, their colors and textures weaving and drifting seemingly in the random, happy abandonment of nature itself.

Choose Your Plants

To transform this into a landscape that will yield a bounty of harvest materials for a wide variety of herbal products, choose your plants in anticipation of your needs; not knowing where your interests lie, I chose a dozen hardy, drought-tolerant herbs I’ve found useful in a variety of ways, from harvests for medicinal tonics and teas, to the raw material of wreaths, potpourri and other fragrant crafts, dried arrangements, and herbal bath products. You have many plant choices and the space to experiment.

If you’re a hardy English lavender fan, buy or propagate flats of them and plant them together in drifts for more visual impact. You can be bold and try some useful herbs that are too aggressive for smaller backyards, such as Silver King artemisia, lemon balm, yarrow or whatever other aggressive herbs are on your wish list. Plant them together and let them fight it out for space; take a shovel to a clump’s perimeter to keep it in bounds if it’s too rambunctious or claiming too much space. Choose tough, hardy old roses, which can become beautiful, big mounds in the herbal landscape.

Choose Your Pace

And choose your pace. Start as big or as small as your time, ambition, budget and business plan allow. Plant one or two starts of different varieties, be patient and let them multiply on their own over time; or plant in bigger sizes and larger quantities if you’re looking for a faster start or bigger crop. Starting small, with perhaps just the plants you know you’ll use, allows you to expand the garden as you expand your herbal interests. If you have a vision for a finished garden, you can take however long you want to get there. Many of the herbs on the list can be grown from seed, which is inexpensive but takes longer. It’s a fair trade-off: A little more effort and time for more plants at a much lower price. 

You mentioned elsewhere in your letter that you’re looking into water-conservation measures such as rain barrels and catchment areas, which will be particularly useful near sections of your yard that will need regular moisture, such as a vegetable and culinary herb garden. This garden is in the distance, so once established, it should be fairly low-maintenance and drought-tolerant. But all the plants will need adequate moisture in the beginning, probably through the first growing season, to get their roots down and establish their independence and carefree ways. Plan how to meet these initial watering needs; this might be another reason to start slow and grow as you go.

Preparing and Planting

Many hardy herbs will grow well in your climate and soil, which is probably rocky and slightly alkaline. When you’re starting in a new location, it’s always a good idea to check with a county extension office about suitable soil amendments for your area. Also, try to connect with gardeners in the neighborhood. Most of these plants will do fine in un-amended soil, but if you have compost, digging that in will improve drainage and lighten up heavy clay, as well as even out pH problems.

Start in early spring working the soil, pulling out weeds and roots. Plant it up, perhaps one section at a time through the spring and early summer. Keep the bed weeded and water the new plants regularly; once established, they will choke out or shade out the weeds and develop the roots for greater drought tolerance.

Regular harvesting will keep the plants shapely and tidy and encourage more bloom. This bed will require little fertilizer and eventually little more than a yearly cleanup. A thick layer of protective mulch will help it through its first winters.

Challenge Us

If you have a challenging garden site and would like a design solution, or simply want to create a new look for a border or bed, write to us. From time to time, we select a reader’s challenge and provide a simple “Garden Spaces” design solution. Send requests to, with “Design Challenge” in the subject line.

Contributing Editor Kathleen Halloran lives and gardens in Austin, Texas.