Low-water Herbs for Your Garden or Kitchen

Planning your spring garden or patio plants? You might have limited space, and certainly should consider limiting water use, so I’ve got a few tips for choosing low-water herbs for your garden, kitchen window or patio.

The good news is that like many xeric plants we grow in New Mexico gardens, many herbs have their roots in the Mediterranean. They prefer well-draining soil and low water.

Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) is the first herb that comes to mind, and is one of my favorites, both as an herb and as an ornamental. You can grow a small rosemary in a pot, keeping it trimmed (by cutting the tips and using the herb in recipes, of course) or grow a mounding or spreading form of the plant in your low-water garden. As an ornamental, rosemary has attractive foliage and blooms with light blue or pink flowers. It’s a tough herb that survives cold to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Just watch for overwatering and snow damage. If you get a heavy snow, try to knock the powder off your rosemary plant. Here’s a link to the Herb Society of America’s fact sheet on rosemary.

rosemary-in-container
Established rosemary in pot that wintered over. I took a few cuttings all winter.

Thyme (Thymus) is another low-water favorite. Thymus vulgaris is the common shrubby herb, but several ornamental forms provide interest in the garden, and other flavors provide culinary variety. For example, lemon thyme is a favorite for marinades or sauces. I love to walk around our rock garden and rub my fingers on the leaves of our thyme shrub just to get a whiff of the scent, which is sort of a combination of earthy and salty. We use the dried leaves in several recipes and also enjoy the tiny, delicate lilac-colored flowers in summer. Thyme only needs water in the hottest zones and times of year.

thyme--herb-low-water
Thyme is evergreen even in Zone 6. Some of it dies back, and new growth appears on new stems. This is new growth in early March.

 

Lavender (Lavendula) is a favorite Mediterranean herb, and we are experimenting now with several varieties. Our biggest mistake was to place the mail-ordered plants in the ground a bit early. The soil was not warm enough for the sun lovers. Lavender must have well-drained soil to prevent the roots from sitting in water. In New Mexico, French of Spanish lavender works much better than English lavender varieties. Be careful not to cut into the woody stems when trimming. Check with nurseries or catalogs for the best variety in your area and zone and for the purpose you want. I’ve used lavender in recipes, and have dried stalks of it in vases throughout my home just for scent and attractiveness. We’ll keep trying to improve our lavender-growing skills, and studying ideas for uses. Check out our Pinterest board for more on lavender.

lavender-in-container
A new lavender plant in a container.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) needs full sun and most varieties require no watering. Although not as attractive as the other plants I’ve mentioned, fennel is a versatile herb and easy to grow. We haven’t planted any, but it’s popped up around our garden, presumably from seeds of past plants. The fern-like leaves do have some appeal, and birds love the seeds once they turn brown. With a flavor similar to anise, fennel is a stock herb for many breads and pickling mixes. Learn more from the Herb Society of America.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Russian Sage

The woody Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) “Blue Spire” is a perfect xeric plant, especially for the gardener who wants a easy but showy low-water ornamental. This is one of my favorites! First of all, even though the Russian sage has a pleasant, sage-like scent, deer leave the plant alone. Its spikes of lavender-like flowers bloom all summer with little to no water once your plant has been established. Here’s all you need to do:

Plant Russian sage in a spot where it can grow to three to five feet tall and wide, and give it well-draining soil and full sun. It looks great near yellows like Spanish broom or black-eyed Susans, or a red, such as wine cups or cherry sage. It’s also a great plant to pair with grasses and cacti in rock gardens for a pop of color.

russian-sages-in-rock-garden
Note the pop of color from two Russian sages in the center of this photo. The one in the background was propagated from the large one.

Leave the stalks through winter, which still have an attractive shrub shape. In spring, just as you see some leaves begin to form on the lower branches, cut all of the branches back nearly to the ground. You’ll be rewarded with new, showy stalks. Bees love this plant, as do butterflies, hummingbirds, and many bird species as it seeds out.

As the Russian sage matures, you can trim it for shape and may have to cut out a few dead or crossing branches. But it looks best when full and round.

 

russian-sage-in-landscape
Close-up of mature Russian sage stalks and flowers. This one drew attention of bees, birds and passers by.

The Russian sage can put out runners (rhizomes), so keep an eye on them. I had a Russian sage at my Albuquerque home that bloomed every year for 11 years, and was there when we moved in. So it’s a long-lived perennial in the right spot, and should thrive in all zones, as long as it doesn’t get too much water!

Weed or Wildflower?

Water-wise gardening in the Southwest means accepting the spread of native wildflowers and using them to fill and brighten a landscape or garden. There’s a fine line between weed and wildflower, however.

Some native species spread so easily under the right conditions that they take over a garden. Others might not be native, but were introduced to an area and thrive when Mother Nature cooperates. That’s why we had a “yellow spring.” Last fall, we noticed pretty little spiral seedlings appearing in the dying grass. We wondered what they were, but left them. In the spring, yellow popped up everywhere.

 

yellow alyssum in New Mexico lawn
Is it weed or wildflower that spread like crazy in early spring? It got yellower and was pretty, but weird.

Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. But I spent hours trying to identify the weed. I knew it probably was related to mustard, but it didn’t match any of the typical mustard weeds I could find in my searches. And I searched, and searched, for wildflowers and weeds. Here’s a close-up of it in the garden. And guess what it is?

yellow-alyssum
Alyssum is usually a lovely annual in flower beds. Here is yellow alyssum in our rock garden, where it also grew like crazy.

It’s yellow alyssum, or Alyssum alyssoides,  a member of the mustard family, imported from Europe. And it has both good and bad qualities. I’ve purchased sweet alyssum before as a bedding plant. And in some searches, it’s listed as a great choice to bring beneficial insects. I can vouch for that, because as I walked across our property on a sunny day, there was a low buzz – bees everywhere. I loved it, but it was a little freaky. And I saw one doe get stung on the face.

Alyssum also is listed as a weed in many Western states. It’s got a taproot about a mile long (slight exaggeration) and really only comes up completely if you moisten the soil and pull. I’ve seen conflicting information on whether it threatens native grasses. We’ll know more as spring progresses.

In the photo above is another weed/wildflower: a native verbena (species Glandularia). I’ve bought plenty of verbenas for rock gardens in lovely colors. And these are beautiful too, especially coming up between the yellow alyssum out in open grassy areas. They are more leggy and leafy than the hybrid or garden-variety verbenas, however, and will come up just about anywhere:

verbena-weed-new-mexico-xeric-rock-garden
Wild verbena looks pretty against rocks, not so much all over a gravel path.

Now, I have wildflowers I love that spread like weeds, usually by self-sowing. We usually leave them in place. Some are great for color and flower, some for scent. And the beauty is that they adapt so well to the dry conditions that they fill the garden without us having to purchase, plant, and most of all, water new plants.

An early spring favorite is night-scented stock, also called night stock (Matthiola longipetala). Believe it or not, it’s also a member of the Brassicaceae, or mustard family. The scent in early evening is so pleasant, and we love that these come up near the patio. They’re also reseeding in the grass around the garden!

night-scented-stock
Night stock has a delicate and pleasant scent that comes out with its blooms in early evening.

The blanket flower (Gallardia) has always been a favorite and the previous owners made sure we have plenty in our garden. They thrive in drought and have such vibrant colors, as do Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera).

mexican-hat-prairie-coneflower
Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers, pop up everywhere in our garden. These look terrific next to perennial yarrow.

We even admit to leaving a few alyssums intentionally where they complement another plant or look pretty up against a rock or piece of dried wood. We’ll never be able to pull them all or stop the reseeding, and I’m not sure we should. They do attract bees and offer early spring color. But it’s hard enough to get grass to grow in a drought and through various weeds. If alyssum adds to the competition too much, we’ll probably need help finding a control method.

Update in March 2015: The alyssum didn’t choke out the grass last year. It might have delayed grass taking root in a few spots, but we had a beautiful lawn. And yep, it’s already back. I’ve come to accept it, and just want to keep it from spreading across an irrigation ditch to our orchard area. Tim is trying to pull it out of the rock garden beds. I don’t have the energy to fight it. But it’s fun to watch…

 

High-desert Succulents

They’re the ultimate in low-water gardening. Succulents store water and grow slowly, making them adaptable to the dry climate of the desert Southwest.

Cacti are succulents that usually are small and round and have spines, branches or leaves. Succulents also can have the same characteristics, but the spines don’t arise from a spine cushion, or areole. You’ll only find cacti in the Western hemisphere. The picture that so often comes to mind is the saguaro surrounded by blowing dust in the dry, hot desert.

And that’s often where you find cacti, especially here in New Mexico and neighboring Arizona. My husband loves succulents and we enjoyed a trip a few years ago to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where we saw so many varieties, most of which couldn’t take the cooler temperatures we have at our higher altitude.

barrel cacti in Phoenix
There’s at least one yellow bloom left on one of these great barrel cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

But who says you can’t have succulents at 6,000 feet of elevation? Several natural varieties of succulents thrive in the high desert. Hens and chicks, ice plants, several varieties of agave, and several native plants come to mind, such as prickly pear and devil’s head (also known as horse cripplers).

devils head or horse crippler cactus
The devil’s head blooms in spring with light pink, papery flowers full of seeds. It’s native to southeastern New Mexico.

And you can have all kinds of fun inside your house, assuming you’ve got a good south-facing window, sunroom or greenhouse to winter over potted succulents. I think I mentioned how much my husband loves them? I have a geranium on this wall; the rest of the plants are succulents. He’s even propagating some new ones. We need a greenhouse soon!

succulents on south wall
Yep, that’s a light layer of snow on the ground outside, but the succulents are toasty warm.

In case you think succulents are boring, think again. Aside from the many shapes and growth patterns, many of them flower. I’ll try to get some good photos of the devil’s head flowers, but for now, enjoy the delicate blooms on this crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which blooms all year long in a sunny location. It started out as a tiny plant from a big-box store and now is about two feet tall (after a nice trim to keep it bushy). There are a few propagating on that trombeil wall, too!

crown of thorns flower
The delicate flowers of the crown of thorns.
euphorbia milii
This crown of thorns started out just a few inches tall.

Four low-water Container Plants

I love pots! Actually, I love any kind of container that will hold a plant. We’ve been known to grow herbs in a claw-foot tub and annuals in an old washer. When you grow plants in containers, you increase your flexibility – you can move the container with the sun (maybe not the claw-foot tub so much…) and have color in a shady location by your front door. You also can practice “flower arranger,” creating a few new containers with each season’s annuals, or putting together a group of perennials you can keep outside all year or winter over.

Here are a few favorite low-water plants that grow well in containers:

Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta). Verbena species vary, but the warm-zone, low-water species can grow with very little water. They came up through the gravel pathways in our rock garden, re-seeding from previous years. I’ve planted small varieties of red, white and rich purple verbena in containers. Once established, verbena will spread and using it in container groupings helps tie them together or add pops of color. Verbena requires no deadheading, though removing spent flowers can prolong the bloom period, which usually runs from spring through frost, depending on your zone.

purple verbena
Verbena looks great alone or as part of a group planting. This magelana violet variety, and the photo, is courtesy of PlantSelect.

Chocolate flower (Berlaniera lyrata). Great in a rock garden or container, a chocolate flower always pleases. And in case you’re wondering, it really does smell like chocolate. I ought to know. Anyway, chocolate flower is a wildflower that produces delicate, daisy-like flowers with a light, almost red, center. Its leaves are a pale, almost silvery green. It’s extremely drought tolerant. Planting it in a container means you can enjoy its scent right on your patio or outside an open window.

chocolate flower
I love the chocolate flower buds; they’re delicate and different. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary is equally pleasant smelling and actually edible! I grow it every year in a container, and have several plants growing as ornamentals in our garden. It has evergreen foliage, so if you live in zones 6 to 8, you probably can keep it alive all year in the garden. In zone 6, it also might make it in a container, though I’ve had creeping rosemary burn from cold or snow even in zone 7. So either protect your container or bring it in, depending on the hardiness of the variety you choose. But back to enjoying rosemary! Plant it all alone near your kitchen for easy fresh cuttings, or in a group container. And if you decide not to take cuttings for cooking, your rosemary might eventually bloom lovely lavender colored blooms. At any rate, put it where you can frequently walk by and just rub your fingers over the leaves.

Rosemary_pot
My rosemary has survived sub-freezing temps so far up against the south side of the house. It still smells terrific, even after the wind blew leaves all over the container.
Creep_rosemary
Bees love this creeping rosemary, which requires little to no water in a container or landscape. This is all one plant; we had to cut some away in the middle after it burned. We should have knocked the snow off.

Ornamental grass (try blue fescue, silky threadgrass, or blue avena). Who says a plant has to flower to look great, especially in a container? I love adding a spike of height and texture with a grass, often in the center or back of a container full of colorful annuals. Most grasses need less water than flowering plants, and they look great blowing in the wind or adding height to a container, especially one placed up against the house. Many of them even flower. Just be sure to check the tag to see how high the grass normally grows before making your purchase.

And remember that plants always need a little more water when you first plant them, in extreme heat and when in containers than when in the ground. Containers usually dry out more quickly than ground soil – how much more depends on the container, soil you used to fill it and the location. And containers are microclimates, which means they might place your plant in colder, warmer or drier conditions than you realize.

Maximize Xeric Plant Choices with Microclimates

There already are plenty of fabulous choices for drought-tolerant plants, but we found that our choices narrowed a little when we moved into a slightly colder zone. We’re quickly discovering that our new location has a shorter growing season, but that it can get warm here, so unpredictability makes it a little risky but a lot fun.

With microclimates, I figure we can push the envelope on a few of our favorite xeric plants. First, let’s talk about microclimates. In essence, a microclimate is a pocket of an area that can vary in temperature and exposure to the elements. A microclimate can be large or tiny. An example of a large microclimate might be the area that runs along the river. The grass there is still green and the leaves remain on some of the trees. A combination of shelter, shade, lower elevation, and moisture contribute to the cooler temperatures you feel when you walk through there on a sunny day.

river with grass
Microclimates occur along rivers because of dappled shade, lower elevation, and extra groundwater.

Microclimates can be as small as the few feet you have to plant in front of your south-facing wall or the inside of the plastic bottle you place over a seedling to absorb sunshine and maintain humidity for a mini-greenhouse effect.

bottles_micro_web
Tim covered these transplants with cut-off plastic bottles and set them in a window for a mini-greenhouse effect.

We brought a pad from our spineless prickly pear along and to be sure it made it here, we planted it against the rock wall on the northeast side of our garden (facing southwest) to maximize sun and minimize wind exposure. You also can use microclimates to make plants more drought tolerant. For example, put a plant that needs a little more water than nature usually provides in summer where your terrain naturally comes to a slope and slight pool, creating a natural well. And avoid placing a plant that can’t handle drought on a high southwest-facing spot with no protection. In my area, at least, you might as well be putting the plant up on a clothesline to dry before nightfall.

Micro_prickly_web
This transplanted spineless prickly pear is happy in its southwest-facing wall location.

Here are a few more tips for making microclimates work for you and your plants:

  • Try even large trees and shrubs on south-facing walls to add a half-zone of heat. You’ll likely have more success if you buy a plant that’s slightly established (not a bare root, for example). An unusually cold winter might kill the plant or prevent fruiting or blooming, but it’s worth a try.
  • Take advantage of the shade from the heat-loving tree and fill in around the bottom with perennial or annual bedding flowers that need a little bit of cool shade in summer. They might even provide some natural mulch or protection for your tree on cold nights. Columbine is a great example; it’s a gorgeous flower that grows naturally in higher elevation forests, but might thrive under the dappled shade of a landscape tree.
  • Use raised beds and containers to create microclimates. Raised beds that run east to west warm up faster in the spring, and any new vegetables planted on the south side of the beds should beat others to the punch. You can move containers around to create microclimates for plants indoors and out, wintering over cacti and other heat-loving plants in south-facing windows, but setting them out on the patio in spring. Just remember that pots, especially clay ones, dry out more quickly. That’s fine for succulents, but can become a problem for thirsty annuals in the heat of the summer.
  • Use mulch or landscape fabrics and plastic to cover ground or  seedlings, adding some warmth and protection.

Mostly, what works for a friend or neighbor might not work for you and vice versa. Slight variations in elevation and exposure can make big differences to a plant’s health and happiness. But if you’re willing to take a few risks, you might be able to enjoy your favorite plant right outside, or inside, your window.

geranium_web
I’m wintering over a few geraniums. This one loves its location on a south-facing wall right by the window. Notice another transplant behind it with a plastic bag and my dog enjoying a sunny microclimate on the floor to the left…