Create a Water-Wise Herb Garden

Combine drought-tolerant varieties with water-saving techniques for a garden that takes dry weather in stride

| April/May 2008

  • Drought-tolerant herbs, such as sage, Spanish lavender, santolina and ground-hugging thymes, conserve water and prevent erosion on this California hillside garden.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • Yarrow, society garlic, sage, lavender and santolina keep their good looks even when weather turns dry.
    Photo by Saxon Holt

Herb gardeners are not the kind of people who give up easily. A few years ago, when I nursed my garden through a drought with heavy water (the type carried by hand), I learned the value of special planting techniques borrowed from the native people of the arid Southwest, and gained a new appreciation for the natural drought tolerance of lavender, rosemary and other Mediterranean herbs.

Those of us who grow herbs have a big advantage when it comes to water-wise gardening because we have so many beautiful drought-tolerant choices available to us.

By combining herbs that thrive under dry conditions with several time-tested strategies for reducing moisture loss, you easily can grow an herb garden that requires little or no supplemental water

Strategy # 1: Create Moisture Zones

In water-strapped communities across the country, gardeners have found that placing plants that share similar moisture needs together makes watering more effective and convenient. For example, you might place St. John’s wort, lovage, marshmallow and other herbs that prefer moist soil together in a spot shaded from hot afternoon sun. Should the rain clouds disappear for weeks at a time, you can efficiently water the heavy drinkers until they are satisfied. In similar fashion, herbs that need little water, such as horehound, santolina and all succulents, can be grouped together in hot spots that are difficult to water.

Strategy #2: Support Water-Seeking Roots

Newly planted herbs need moist soil until they establish a functioning network of roots. But after a few weeks, you can fine-tune your watering practices to push plants to develop bigger, better root systems.

Covering the soil’s surface with any type of mulch will block weeds and slow evaporative moisture loss, but there’s a catch. In dry weather, hurried watering sessions that moisten only the mulch and top inch or so of soil encourage plants to develop roots close to the surface, where they quickly dry out. Weekly deep watering, on the other hand, encourages the growth of deeper water-seeking roots.

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