Denizens of the Drylands

Whether your garden spot boasts sandy or gravelly soil that drains too quickly or reflected heat from a concrete walk, ­driveway, or foundation wall, it’s an ideal position for a whole host of xeric herbs.

| April/May 1999

  • Many sun-worshiping herbs find the dryland garden ideal because they originated in some of the world’s harshest environments. Sun, heat, and quick drainage help these plants thrive.
    Photograph by Rob Proctor
  • The large leaves of Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’ hover above a flock of Verbena ¥hybrida ­‘Imagination’ blossoms, creating a contrast of scale.
  • Subtle tones dominate this grouping of sea holly (Eryngium bourgatii), love-in-the-mist (Nigella spp.), and beach wormwood (Artemisia stelleriana).
    Photographs by Rob Proctor
  • The white-felted leaves of ­Verbascum bombyciferum are striking accents in the ­dryland garden.
  • The white-edged leaves of horehound ­(Marrubium rotundifolium) lend a spicy aroma to an early-spring partnership with grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.). Photographs by Randy Tatroe
  • Easy-going soapworts (Saponaria ¥lambergii ‘Max Frei’) make themselves at home in many parts of the garden, flowing early in the growing season.

Those of us who garden in the arid west likely have more than a passing acquaintance with dryland herbs. Any water-conserving landscape plan worth its salt contains a sampling of culinary favorites such as rosemary, sage, thyme, and lavender. The capacity to withstand dry conditions is a real attribute in dry climates, where water for irrigation may be costly and limited or simply unavailable.

Whether your garden spot boasts sandy or gravelly soil that drains too quickly or reflected heat from a concrete walk, ­driveway, or foundation wall, it’s an ideal position for a whole host of xeric herbs.

Westerners aren’t the only ones who have a place in their gardens for xeric (low-water) herbs, however. Regardless of how generously nature provides rainfall where you live, some part of your property is inevitably too dry for most plants to survive without supplemental irrigation. There’s that stretch of the Sahara running along the front sidewalk, the bit of the Gobi on top of a stone wall. The soil south of the garage under an overhanging eave is so dry it resembles the Mojave in Massachusetts or the Sonoran in South Carolina.

Nurturing dryland herbs

Fortunately, hundreds of herbs not only tolerate but prefer dry conditions. In fact, constant moisture spells certain death to plants that hail from some of the world’s harshest regions. Whether your garden spot boasts sandy or ­gravelly soil that drains too quickly or ­reflected heat from a concrete walk, driveway, or foundation wall, it’s an ideal position for a whole host of xeric herbs. No sacrifice is required, either, because these are some of the most aromatic and elegant plants in all herbdom.



Most dryland herbs are sun worshipers, requiring as many hours of uninterrupted sunshine as your climate can deliver. Equally essential is quick drainage. If you live where the annual rainfall is more than 15 inches, you have no choice but to remedy poor drainage or risk fatal rot. Choosing a sloping site to speed runoff is one option; installing drainpipes to carry off water beneath the surface is another. In hot, humid climates, it might be best to plant dryland herbs in raised beds containing 6 to 12 inches of coarse builder’s sand.

In more moderate climates and in sites where drainage is already fairly good, several inches of coarse sand or fine gravel mixed into the existing soil will create the mineral-rich, humus-poor soil favored by drought-loving herbs.



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