Save Water by Growing Food: How to Add Edibles to a Low-water Garden

Growing edibles can be a smart xeric strategy, especially for anyone looking to begin a garden or use less water in the lawn and garden. Many edibles are attractive and some are evergreen. If you live in an arid zone, applying more water to edibles than to ornamental plants is the right thing to do. Here are a few strategies for making your lawn and garden attractive while saving water and helping to feed your family.

container edibles
Tomato and rosemary make gorgeous edible container plants, especially interspersed with herbs and flowering plants.

Grow perennial herbs and vegetables

Luckily, several delicious and useful perennial herbs require little water. My favorites are rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme. All of these plants thrive in our xeric garden at zone 6B, and many are hardy to even colder temperatures. Providing well-drained soil helps these herbs survive; some of the only diseases that attack them are related to prolonged wet roots or poor air circulation around wet leaves. Other useful perennial herbs for the xeric garden include bee balm, yarrow and oregano.

Lavender is one of the prettiest xeric herbs. Use it in recipes, to make gifts, or to attract pollinators to your garden.
Lavender is one of the prettiest xeric herbs. Use it in recipes, to make gifts, or to attract pollinators to your garden.

Once you’ve mastered a successful season growing food, consider a perennial vegetable such as asparagus. One plant can survive for more than a decade. Growing asparagus requires some patience until the plant produces and a commitment, but harvesting fresh asparagus for several years would be worth it. Although the vegetable requires more water than some for the first few years, you’re likely to use less water over the life of the plant than you would by planting a crop of zucchini or other vegetable year after year. Asparagus is hardy in zones 3 to 8. Some spears showed up along our ditch bank last year. They were leggy, but the plants have survived several winters with no irrigation or other effort on part, since we didn’t know about them. Here’s an article from Gardener’s Supply Company on how to grow asparagus.

This apricot looks beautiful all year long and shades parts of the house, patio and garden, even though frost has kept it from producing fruit for a few years.
This apricot looks beautiful all year long and shades parts of the house, patio and garden, even though frost has kept it from producing fruit for a few years.

Shade with trees that produce food

Shade is a must for lawns in hot, dry climates. If you’re going to plant a shade tree, why not choose one that produces food? I believe that fruit trees get a bad rap as being “messy.” It takes less time to harvest from the trees or pick up dropped fruit every few days than it takes some of us to make a grocery trip! Enjoy the shade of an apricot or apple tree and delicious, fresh fruit in summer, depending on the year’s frost. Fruit trees also have beautiful spring color and attract pollinators. Some nut trees thrive in warm climates.

We had to climb ladders and compete with birds for our tart cherries this summer, but they were worth it.
We had to climb ladders and compete with birds for our tart cherries this summer, but they were worth it.

Dwarf fruit trees provide less shade, but use less water and space and produce a more reasonable amount of fruit. Busy working parents likely will appreciate that dwarf fruit trees entail less work than full-sized ones in an abundant year. Dwarf trees require less climbing and pruning, and often produce fruit earlier than their larger counterparts. A single dwarf tree that requires no companion for pollination can add a little shade, color and interest to a xeric lawn or garden. Just be sure to choose a variety hardy for your zone. Many dwarf pears, plums and apples are hardy to zone 5; Stark Bro’s helps you choose a dwarf variety based on your zone. Mulching around the tree can reduce water needs.

Use shade for other edibles

Trees provide shade for people and plants. Take advantage of shade to grow edible crops under trees, shrubs or other vegetables. Many herbs and vegetables tolerate partial shade or grow best during cooler weather. Planting basil where it gets afternoon shade can help the plant thrive and use less water. Just be sure to estimate where the shade will be come the height of summer, not where it is when you plant.

These containers grew short-season tomatoes, basil and marigolds. We could move them to adjust to shade, then back into more sun as late summer shadows shifted.
These containers grew short-season tomatoes, basil and marigolds. We could move them to adjust to shade, then back into more sun as late summer shadows shifted.

Planting edibles in containers is a smart water choice and can give the gardener more flexibility in controlling sun exposure. I planted several tomatoes in containers and moved the pots slightly as summer became hotter, giving them plenty of sun, but afternoon shade on our patio. Of course, you need a properly sized container for the plant you choose. Grape and cherry tomatoes need a little less space than full-sized varieties. You can place containers in the shade of trees, right in the garden, to complement your garden’s design.

Choose cool-season crops

Providing shade extends the season of crops that grow better in cooler temperatures. Choosing some cool-season crops also can save water because these edibles produce in early spring or late fall, using less water than those grown in hot summer sun. We’ve used shade to grow lettuce mixes and spinach. Again, using containers for these crops allows you to easily move the container when summer sun or drought stress the plants. And containers help you grow edibles close to your kitchen for more months of the year.

spinach in metal container
Lettuce and spinach prefer cooler temperatures; our apricot provided afternoon shade for a spinach container.

Although you might not think you’re saving water when soaking tomatoes, consider the amount of water that goes into tomatoes you buy at the store, along with the energy used to transport them. Most of all, take a bite of a tomato right from the vine and you’ll quickly lose your taste for any store-bought fruit.

Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers fresh from our kitchen garden.
Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers fresh from our kitchen garden.

Getting Crafty With Plants

Since there’s not much we can do outside until after the first of the year, weather permitting, I’m playing with plants indoors. And it’s been fun, because we’ve made a few gifts from plants we’ve grown or by combining plants with other found objects. It’s way more fun than shopping and I won’t even get into how I feel about Christmas and commercialism this year.

air plant terrarium
Combining air plants with found garden objects, we made an inexpensive air plant terrarium as a gift.

I hope recipients enjoy the handmade gifts as much as I enjoy making them, because that’s what the holidays should be about. And maybe my attempts at being crafty with plant materials will inspire ideas in others.

Air Plant Arrangements

My daughter expressed the desire for some easy-care plants and showed me examples she really liked while we were catalog browsing over Thanksgiving. Never one to disappoint, I ordered a pack of three air plants from Juicy Kits and had fun making a few terrarium arrangements to give Rebecca and Dave for Christmas. I’m counting on her being way too busy to check my blog before I see her.

All three Juicy Kits air plants were easy to arrange.
All three Juicy Kits air plants were easy to arrange.

We already had a few mini-terrariums left over from another project; they seemed perfect for this one. We lined them with some decorative rock and then added objects we’ve saved or found out in our rock garden, including black rock, a shiny red stone, dried wood and a piece of shed deer antler Tim found in the yard. We added sphagnum moss, and I even colored some with green food coloring.

air plant terrarium in coffee pot
The coffee pot still has writing, but we enjoyed using objects from our place, including a piece of shed deer antler.

We placed one air plant in an old coffee pot. It didn’t look as good as I’d hoped, but I love how the top pops up, and it’s a bit of a private joke because our guests used to go through the tiny coffee pot on their first cup in the morning. If anyone knows how to get the writing off of the side, I would love advice! We tried combinations of a razor blade, Goo Gone and CLR. I ran out of patience, so I hope they get the joke. But we liked the arrangements enough that we decided they only need two and we’ll keep one (sorry, kid). We’ll enclose Juicy Kit’s care instructions in the gift bag.

Lavender Sachets

Since we decided to plant more lavender – the perfect xeric plant – I’ve been trying out ways to use the aromatic herb. This year, women in our family get a lavender sachet filled with dried buds and leaves from our garden. Drying and harvesting the lavender was the easy part of the project, and it was a great use of the stalks I wanted to leave on the plant longer so we could enjoy them in our garden. If you harvest lavender for wands or arrangements, you have to cut it earlier, before the buds fully flower.

Lavender bunches even look gorgeous when hanging to dry in an old shed.
Lavender bunches even look gorgeous when hanging to dry in an old shed.

For sachets or potpourris, you can simply run the flower stalks back and forth between your fingers, catching the buds in a large container. I did most of this outside on a sunny fall day. Then I stored the buds in an airtight container until I could fill the sachet bags.

Dried buds come off easily by simply rolling stalks between your fingers. Have a large container handy to catch them.
Dried buds come off easily by simply rolling stalks between your fingers. Have a large container handy to catch them.

I ordered the muslin bags and stamp set online. It was an easy project to complete, but the muslin didn’t take the fabric ink as well as I’d hoped. Next year, I’ll try a soft cotton. The lavender smells magnificent! I’m having to keep the sachets packaged in zipped bags until gifting them or the scent might mix with some manly beef jerky or white work socks in our gift pile. Can’t have that.

These aren't fancy, but they come from our garden and the heart. Oh, and they smell wonderful!
These aren’t fancy, but they come from our garden and the heart. Oh, and they smell wonderful!

Dogwood Branches

The redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is my favorite winter plant. In fact, it’s arguably more colorful and striking in winter than in summer, at least here. After shedding all leaves, the shrub’s red and grayish-brown branches make an eye-catching statement, especially when the ground is covered in snow. Each spring, I have to shape the shrub and thin it by cutting out the dead, gray wood. I keep most of the trimmings.

The redtwig dogwood is a striking winter plant. And the branches make great arrangements.
The redtwig dogwood is a striking fall and winter plant. And the branches make great arrangements.

At Thanksgiving, I used a few dogwood branches in our table centerpiece, and I’ve added them to a few other projects. My favorite is the small dry arrangement of branches in our home’s entryway that I made our first summer here. So simple, with nothing but a clear vase, decorative rock and dogwood cuttings.

dogwood arrangement
A simple arrangement includes nothing but decorative rock and dogwood branches.
Close-up of dogwood branches.
Close-up of dogwood branches. The mirror reflects the colors (and my mother’s Hummel nativity scene).

My goal this year is to find a few more uses for dogwood branches. Watch out, friends and family!

New Mexico Holiday Tradition: Biscochitos

The New Mexico state cookie is unique, crunchy, slightly sweet and uses an unusual herb. The biscochito (or bizcochito) is also easy to bake. What makes the biscochito different from a typical sugar cookie is incorporation of the herb anise, or aniseed, into the recipe.

Biscochitos, the New Mexico state cookie, have spicy cinnamon, the herb anise and just enough spirits to make the holidays bright.
Biscochitos, the New Mexico state cookie, have spicy cinnamon, the herb anise and just enough spirits to make the holidays bright.

I’ll admit to not favoring these cookies in the past only because I tend to shy from the rather strong flavor of anise, which resembles black licorice. But when I made my own, I found the recipe used just enough anise seed to give the cookies a hint of the herb without overpowering the buttery crunch  or sweet and spicy taste of the cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top.

With a mixer, it's really easy to cream the sugar and shortening, then stir in anise and a sweet wine or brandy.
With a mixer, it’s really easy to cream the sugar and shortening, then stir in anise and a sweet wine or brandy.

Apparently, anise is used medicinally to help with upset stomachs, and as an expectorant. The plant (Pimpinella anisum) dates back thousands of years, and is native to Egypt and the Near East. Meditteranean plants typically do well in warm, dry climates. In fact, once seedlings are established, anise does best if the roots are allowed to dry between watering. The herb prefers sun, but only grows as an annual.

Anise seeds are similar to fennel. I found these in the Mexican food section of our store.
Anise seeds are similar to fennel. I found these in the Mexican food section of our store.

But back to the cookies, because right now, I’m all about the holidays. I’ll worry about my garden after I open some garden-themed gifts (hint, wink).

I don’t have my own biscochito recipe, but the one I use is from a Southwestern cookbook put out in the 1980s by the Junior League of Albuquerque called Simply Simpatico. It’s a great cookbook in general

Here’s a link to New Mexico Magazine’s recipe, although I used shortening instead of lard, no orange juice, and much less anise. Suffice it to say that if you are not fond of anise, or uncertain, go easy on it your first batch; I suggest a teaspoon of anise for each pound or stick of shortening. The other secret to making these cookies so good is the little bit of liquor. My recipe called for a sweet wine, but several use brandy instead.

The dough is easy to roll out, and you can use a biscuit cutter or fun Christmas shapes.
The dough is easy to roll out, and you can use a biscuit cutter or fun Christmas shapes.

The cookies should be a sort of cross between sugar cookies and shortbread, crumbly but crispy, with plenty of cinnamon and sugar on top.

Cinnamon and sugar set off the crispy biscochito and anise flavoring perfectly.
I cut small and large ones for a little variety, but with a traditional shape. Cinnamon and sugar set off the crispy biscochito and anise flavoring perfectly.

Try this New Mexico favorite and be a hit at your family or office holiday party. Feliz Navidad from New Mexico!

Easy Thanksgiving Napkin Holder With Fresh Rosemary

I’ll use rosemary, one of my favorite low-water herbs, tomorrow when cooking our Thanksgiving turkey. I also wanted to incorporate it into our table arrangement. Earlier this month, I pinned some napkin holders made with rosemary sprigs. These were shaped into small circles and tied with floral wire, but I’m baking pies today and working a little bit, and they seemed beyond my skill (or patience) level.

Thanksgiving craft project
This was a quick project on a busy day and matched the centerpiece I made last week. The pies are baked, and now all I need is family gathered around the table.

Besides, I wanted to match the easy Thanksgiving centerpiece I made last week using lots of natural items from our yard, and I had pretty French-themed ribbon left over. So I sat down while the pecan pie was baking and made these in just a few minutes using rings we already had on hand, some napkins I bought recently, my leftover centerpiece ribbon and rosemary from our xeric garden.

First, I folded the napkin into a triangle, leaving just enough border on the underside to keep it from overlapping. If you have a large ring and a big table to set, you can fold it up less and make the napkin longer in the ring, adding proportionately longer ribbon and rosemary stalks.

folding napkin
I made a simple triangular fold and rolled the napkin loosely to fit in my ring. But there are plenty of folding techniques shown online for people with skills and patience.

Next, I put the napkin in the ring and then cut my ribbon to a length I liked, angling the cuts.

I had enough ribbon left for plenty of length to go with each napkin.
This ribbon tied the napkins in with my centerpiece and a table runner on our hutch.

Finally, I added the rosemary stalks, also cutting them to a length that works, and playing with the “arrangement” a little to keep it from looking like lined-up soldiers. So easy!

These were simple, but I like how they match the centerpiece and tablecloth and give this Thanksgiving a slightly different feel and color theme. And the rosemary...
These were simple, and I especially like how they give this Thanksgiving a slightly different feel and color theme. And the rosemary…

I’ll put the fresh, unwashed rosemary in an open plastic bag and store it in a door of my refrigerator to keep it fresh until ready to set the table tomorrow. I guess I should go cut some more for the turkey in case it’s dark when I start cooking. Happy Thanksgiving!


Use These Tips to Overwinter Rosemary Outside

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is the perfect low-water herb, and for that matter a perfect xeric ornamental. This year, we have two we keep as ornamentals and allow to bloom, and two for culinary use in containers, because I have a hoarder-like fear of running out of rosemary.

rosemary bloom
It’s so pretty to look at, smells wonderful, tastes delicious, and thrives in dry climates. Why not have rosemary all year long?

I understand that rosemary (and lavender, my other favorite low-water herb) can be somewhat difficult to grow in wetter climates. Well, let us desert dwellers have something, OK? We can’t in all good consciousness, or with much success, have tropical bloomers. And even having more than one hybrid rose seems wrong in areas with so little annual rainfall.

rosemary in container
This year’s back-up rosemary plant, placed into a container, is now outside on our south-facing patio. It’s doing well after several nights below freezing.

That’s exactly why rosemary does so well here. Once established, the plant thrives with less water. Depending on the variety, rosemary is hardy in zones 8 through 10. A variety called R. officinalis ‘Arp” is hardy to zone 6, however, and to zone 5 with some effort from the home gardener.

And I mean just a little effort. It’s generally easier to overwinter rosemary outside than indoors. Here are a few ways to push the zone a bit on rosemary, and my tip for keeping rosemary (and lavender) healthy through winter.

  • Plant your rosemary in full sun if possible, especially considering the sun’s winter path.
  • Use rocks or a wall to reflect heat in winter and help keep your rosemary warm as temperatures drop. You can also add some gravel mulch, as long as it doesn’t enclose the plant and retain water.
  • Use a container for rosemary and move the container to a protected, warm location (even though it’s still outdoors). I have one container on the southwest side of my patio for easy access and another against a southern wall that gets full sun all day in the winter.
  • Harvest! Harvest some rosemary for culinary use well before the first frost so that the plant is healthy and not blooming. Or if your plant is ornamental, a few blooms are fine, as long as you avoid pruning, and especially cutting into woody stems, anytime from four weeks before the first frost until early spring.
  • Water sparingly all year, but especially in winter when the plant dries more slowly. Wet feet cause root rot on rosemary and lavender plants.
Trailing rosemary
This is one, not two, trailing rosemary plants. The big gap in the center is where Tim had to trim out dead, black branches ruined by a heavy snow in Albuquerque one winter. We had to save this plant because it was so pretty and attracted loads of bees, and we learned our lesson about brushing snow off of rosemary.

And here’s my best tip for keeping rosemary happy and healthy in the winter! You know when you can’t wait to get outside and play after a snowfall? You take the kids, the dogs, the camera, your companion of choice…outside to enjoy the snow. Stop for a second and head straight for your rosemary in the garden or container. Carefully brush as much snow off of the plant as you can, especially over the center, main branches. We nearly lost a beautiful trailing rosemary bush several years ago before I knew how important it was to do this. The slow melting of snow amounts to setting your drip hose to run on the rosemary for days. It can destroy part or all of the plant.

This week, I used my bare hand (until I couldn’t feel my fingers) and then a soft broom to brush off all of my rosemary and lavender plants while the snow was still flaky. And yes, I pulled out my camera…

snow on rosemary plant in New Mexico
This is not a ton of snow, but is enough that the slow dripping from melting could damage some of the branches or roots of this rosemary plant.

Favorite Green: Arugula, Even the Wild Ones

Arugula, with its bitter flavor, is considered a gourmet green by many and way too bitter by some (namely, my husband). But the green is one of my favorites, partly for the flavor and partly because it’s so easy to grow in containers or in our high desert garden. It also grows wild around our property!

Wild arugula growing in a patch in the orchard. I just want to reach down and eat those bitter leaves!
Wild arugula growing in a patch in the orchard. I just want to reach down and munch on those yummy bitter leaves!

Maybe arugula grows so well here in New Mexico because the plant is native to the Mediterranean. We don’t water the wild bunches that grow near our house or out in our orchard, and I have no idea how they came to be there. I just know that I kept getting a whiff of arugula when mowing in certain portions of the lawn. This year, conditions were such that I was able to spot the leaves and have a bite. By late summer, the yellow flowers followed and I have asked Tim to join me in not mowing a few bunches. I prefer to grow a milder variety for my salads, but I like having the wild plants around for their scent and appearance. And there are much worse plants spreading in our yard than these tasty greens!

The wild bunches later flowered, making them pretty to smell and look at.
The wild bunches later flowered, making them pretty to smell and look at.

The taste of arugula is strong, but I love to add it to spinach or mesclun mixes, or really any greens. In fact, traditional and tangy mesclun mixes usually include arugula. The green is particularly good with blue cheese dressing and can spice up a chicken or turkey sandwich!

A single leaf of Astro Organic arugula. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.
A single leaf of Astro Organic arugula. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Baby arugula is harvested when the leaves are younger, and offers a milder flavor than mature plants. Like most greens, arugula grows best in your garden in cooler spring or fall weather. You can typically harvest the greens within 4 weeks. And if you let it go to flower, the flavor might become too intense. Most garden varieties of arugula have edible, attractive white flowers with purple veining. The wild variety has yellow flowers.

Arugula in our garden in early summer. It's best to cut from the outside. I also plan to cover it a little longer this year to keep bugs off.
Arugula in our garden in early summer. It’s best to cut from the outside. I plan to cover the young plants a little longer next year to keep bugs off.

Arugula also is called rocket or rocket salad. Some people use arugula more as an herb, sprinkling it sparingly on dishes for the peppery flavor. All fresh greens are healthy, but apparently arugula is packed with vitamins and antioxidants. To me, it’s packed with flavor and aroma!

Learn more about growing arugula in your garden in this article from Bonnie Plants, and check out Johnny’s Seeds for several varieties of wild arugula.

Five Reasons To Plan Now for Next Year’s Farm-to-Table Garden

As the first frost threatens, I know it’s time to plan next year’s vegetable and herb garden. And I’ve got five reasons for new or seasoned gardeners to do the same. I might be a little late for some of these ideas; that’s what happens sometimes! But I’ll hold onto them for next year and share some I’ve learned – like use of cover crops (no. 4), something I want to learn more about for waterwise gardening.

fresh tomato and basil from home garden
Mourning the end of the gardening season is easier with some planning, and while enjoying home-grown tomatoes and basil on some fresh mozzarella as a snack or side. Add salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic and you have a yummy and easy Caprese salad!

1.Extend Your Season

First, can you extend the edible growing season with some fall or winter crops? If your zone allows, and it’s not too late already, then get started! We’ve planted some spinach, head lettuce and more carrots under a small hoop house with row cover fabric. Aside from many greens, favorite cool-season vegetables of gardeners are cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and several forms of broccoli. Several types of onion and garlic also grow in winter or are perennials in many zones. For example, chives are hardy to zone 3.

Our simple mini-hoop house uses Hoop Loops, twine, row cover fabric and inexpensive brick pavers. We’ll see how long we can grow a few cool-season crops.

2. Add New Herbs

Speaking of perennials, maybe you want a perennial herb to thrive next year, and if you live in a zone that offers time to establish the plant before your fall freeze, head out and get it now! Low-water perennial herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary survive down to at least zone 4 or 5. Or consider a window herb garden if you can’t let go of your favorite herb as the season ends, or want to try a few out for next summer! Here’s a great article on growing herbs indoors from Grow a Good Life.

close-up of thyme leaves
Thyme is an attractive herb even before it blooms. It can spread nicely in a low-water garden.

3. Prep Soil and Plan

Clean up and prep soil; make a winter to-do list. Your soil is even more tired than you are after a season of growing food for you and your family. If you’re using the same space or turning part of your lawn into a new edible growing space, you’ll likely need to prep and enrich your soil. Pull up spent plants (or whatever takes up the space now) and be sure to discard any diseased plant materials. Add compost and let it cook. Here’s what we did early last spring (did I say I’m often late?), and an article from Mother Earth Living in 2012 that has some great ideas. This is also the time to make a to-do list of fall and winter projects, such as repairs to fences and drip lines or adding raised beds. Or, let’s say you want to expand because you’re nuts like us.

Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.
Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.

4. Plant a Cover Crop

If it’s still warm enough to sow cover crop seeds, this is one of the best strategies for enriching your soil, depending on your zone. Field peas, hairy vetch, many clovers, oats, rye and buckwheat are popular nutrient-restoring crops that can grow in winter in your edible garden. Plant cover crops with a few caveats, however: First, in drought-stricken and normally arid areas such as New Mexico, it only makes sense to plant cover crops that can grow in our typically dry climate. I’d like to investigate more about using water for something I will mow down and mulch into the ground after a few months vs. the benefits such as erosion control and soil improvement. And I hinted at another important caution: keep cover crops mowed or otherwise under control so they don’t go to seed, and be sure to cut them down in late winter to mulch into your garden. Otherwise, they can seed and spread, becoming invasive.

5. Note Ups and Downs

Finally, if you’re like me, you want to take notes about this year’s successes and “issues” now, because it was so hard to keep up with that during the peak of the working summer and harvest season. If you didn’t create a map or somehow record where you planted each crop, make a quick inventory before cleaning up so you can easily rotate next year’s planting. Think about how to improve your garden. I need to plant a few of my crops further apart (the reason for the expansion, or perhaps more accurately, the justification for the expansion!), and I need to time my succession planting a little further apart, just tweaking it enough to spread out the harvest, but still allow seeds to sow and fruit to grow within our normally short season. Something tells me that we won’t be so lucky with our frost date next year. We also want to invest in a better seed starting setup. I can’t wait!

confused tomato
No wonder I’m up and down. I’ve got confused tomatoes. New blossoms are appearing in mid-October, but the fruit isn’t ripening and the leaves on the apricot tree in the background are turning and falling.

Personal/bonus reason: Planning now might help overcome the impending sense of loss. Maybe it’s just me, but the unseasonably warm mid-October here that has me still harvesting a few tomatoes and cucumbers is dragging out the inevitable. When the hard freeze finally hits and I wander out to the garden the next morning to see what resembles a scene from a horror movie, I know I’ll be devastated and in need of a project. If planning while enjoying my last tomato with some fresh mozzarella cheese and basil gets me through, then so be it.

I'll miss the fresh salad ingredients!
I’ll miss the fresh salad ingredients, too!

Yard to Table: Harvesting and Drying Herbs

Several perennial herbs grow well in waterwise gardens, and are worth their ornamental value alone in xeric landscaping. My favorites are rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender. They’re also useful in the kitchen; I keep several rosemary plants close at hand in containers for fresh use. As long as I move them near the south wall of the house and brush off winter snow, they should make it through the winter in our zone (6B).

fresh herbs from waterwise garden
I enjoyed clipping these stems of fresh herbs about as much as I’ll enjoy them in recipes later. From left to right: culinary sage, thyme, oregano and basil.

I prefer to dry thyme, and this year I’m drying sage for the first time – we have plenty of the plants for their violet flowers and pollinator value. Sage is the perfect companion for chicken, and I’d like to use more in recipes this winter.

Fall came on suddenly this year, and with it plenty of rainy days in a row. But I was able to head out yesterday between rains and take cuttings from our sage, thyme and a groundcover the nursery labeled oregano. I’m not sure yet of its culinary value, but I’m going to give it a try.

Fall actually is late for drying many herbs. The best time to harvest is as flowers bud, but just before they open. I missed that window of opportunity on my sage, but many of the thyme stalks still had not budded. And I’ve been harvesting basil all summer, preventing the plants from flowering.

harvesting perennial herbs
I had to rush to harvest the thyme in the foreground before a storm rolled in. One of several culinary sage plants shows in the background, just before the rock wall.

Drying herbs

The first step is to rinse the herbs and shake them loosely to remove excess water. You can dry herbs in a dehydrator, especially if you live in a humid climate or want to dry them quickly. The dehydrator thermostat should preheat to about 115 degrees before placing your herbs on trays in a single layer. For extremely humid climates, you might have to bump up the temperature to 125 degrees. Most herbs dry within 1 to 4 hours, so they should be checked often after an hour on the trays. Dehydration works best for tender-leaved herbs such as basil, oregano and mint.

rinsed and bunched herbs for drying
Herbs rinsed and bunched, ready to hang for drying.

For herbs such as sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary and summer savory, bunch drying works fine. I bundled each of the herbs with rubber bands, including the oregano, since we don’t have a dehydrator and I’m experimenting. My bundles are probably a little larger than recommended, but drying is typically so much easier in our area, where humidity normally is below 20 percent, or nonexistent.

You can dry herbs outdoors, but the sun can fade some of their color and flavor. They need to hang upside down in a dry spot with plenty of air circulation. Our shed fits the bill. It has a window on one side and slats on the other for a nice cross-breeze, but seldom to never gets wet inside.

hanging herb bunches in old apple shed
It’s not pretty, but it works. Our old all-purpose shed was likely used to store apples in the past. I hung a piece of metal fencing from nails to give me more spots for hanging. The only other tools needed were jumbo paper clips and rubber bands.

Most herb bunches dry in a few days to a week. No matter the method you use, herbs are dry when the leaves crumble upon touching.

Other drying methods

Hang a bag loosely around or under tender herbs such as parsley to catch leaves as they dry, especially if using a garage or shed. Just be sure to keep it loose or cut plenty of holes in the side. The herbs won’t dry and can easily get moldy if you don’t let air circulate around them.

You can also dry tender herbs in the microwave because their moisture content is so low. It works well if you only want to put aside a small quantity. Rinse the stems, pat them dry, and pull off individual leaves. Air dry the leaves on paper towels, then lay them in a single layer on a paper towel that is placed on a microwave-safe plate or paper plate. Lay another paper towel on top. The amount of time required depends on your microwave, but should be no more than few minutes. I would recommend microwaving the first batch for about 40 seconds, then in 20 to 30 second increments so that you don’t overdo it.

Use the single-layer method for conventional oven drying by placing rinsed and dry leaves on a shallow cookie sheet and leaving them on low heat (about 180 degrees) in the oven for 2 to 4 hours. Just recognize that this method cooks out some of the flavor.

I’ve already made and frozen lots of pesto, so I decided to preserve the rest of my basil short term by placing the rinsed, clipped stems in a jar of cool water on a sunny windowsill. The basil will last at least as long as the remaining tomatoes from our garden. It’s amazing how fresh the leaves stay using this method!

preserving basil in jars of water
The jar on the left contains basil I harvested nearly two months ago; it’s not only fresh still, but has grown roots! I added a new jar of freshly cut stems that will outlast my late-season tomatoes.

Storing and using dried herbs

The best way to store dried herbs is in labeled, plastic containers. You can crumble the leaves before storing so they’re a better size for cooking. Remember that drying concentrates the herbs’ flavor and requires less quantity in recipes that call for fresh herbs.

Culinary Lavender: Potato Salad Recipe

When we purchased more than a dozen lavender plants last spring, we chose one that was touted as a superb culinary lavender (Lavandula angustiolia Buena Vista) and placed it in a container, the way I usually prefer to grow herbs. The stems are not as long, but the buds are supposed to have better flavor. I love having it near the patio table, where it still looks pretty and I can walk by and rub my fingers on the leaves or buds anytime to enjoy the scent.

buena vista lavender
Culinary lavender is a perfect container plant near your kitchen.

I’ve seen plenty of recipes for lavender, usually in pastries. The only one I’ve tried so far (and loved!) is a lavender potato salad I’ve adapted from the book “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb” (Stackpole Books) by Ellen Spector Platt. By the way, this is our go-to source for growing and harvesting lavender. We combine some of the book’s information with local sources because of our differences in zone and water. Other than that, Ellen knows lavender! And the book has several recipes I plan to try.

herb stripper with lavender
This herb stripper makes it easier to strip fresh lavender buds from stems. If dried, you can roll the buds between your fingers.

To me, lavender is the most versatile of all herbs, right up there with its close relative, rosemary. If you don’t have one of the culinary varieties, it’s a great plant to add to your garden. But I made this recipe several times before we got this plant, and it tasted great! So try it with any lavender.

Lavender Potato Salad

  • Servings: about 4 to 6
  • Difficulty: easy
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About 12 – 14 small red potatoes with skins on

1 cup of plain Greek yogurt

2 cups chopped celery

1/3 cup chopped chives

1 Tbsp fresh lavender flower buds (less if dried)

2 Tsbp Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste


Boil potatoes until tenderness desired. Drain and cool enough for handling. Cut into bite-size pieces. Mix all ingredients and chill.

(Adapted from Ellen Spector Platt’s recipe in “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb”)

Easy Pesto From Garden Basil

My basil isn’t perfect; I think I can blame mostly grasshoppers. But with all of the bugs around here and the cloudy, damp weather of late, it’s really a toss-up. I’ll stick with grasshoppers and snails for now, because I dislike them the most. Next year, I will definitely cover the basil plants with white row fabric.

basil plant for pesto
Basil is pretty even when it’s not perfect. And the scent! These are the leaves left after I cut off sets for pesto.

Still, the plants grew, and some of the stalks were about to flower. Time to harvest! A neighbor, who shares a portion of her land to host a wonderful community garden, pointed us to some information on harvesting basil. I realized I have always been too shy about harvesting, taking too few leaves. Instead, it’s best to take the top few sets of leaves, above the second set of leaves from the soil. That assumes, of course, that the plant has at least three to five sets of leaves. If so, the sturdy topping should help the plant generate new growth.

I picked off and rinsed the leaves and dried them in a salad spinner and then on paper towels, choosing not to use some that were really chewed up. Then, I chilled them in the refrigerator until that evening. Even with some bug destruction, I got a good cup of basil leaves from one larger plant and two small ones. Then, I made pesto. And it was really easy. I modified a recipe I found online a few years ago and then used it right away to make dinner.

pasta with homemade pesto
Pesto pasta with chicken and garden zucchini. Other than the tomatoes and pasta (OK, and the chicken), this is all garden to table. And I hope to have tomatoes to add to my lettuce and carrots soon!

Take a look at the recipe below, and feel free to print or Pin it. And adjust it as necessary. I didn’t use a lot of garlic, so it’s all a matter of personal taste. After making the pesto, I whipped up a quick dinner of pasta with a chopped chicken breast and our first zucchini of the season, sautéing both in olive oil. I just added about a cup (measured raw) of cooked pasta to the skillet and a heaping tablespoon or so of pesto. The rest of the pesto went in the freezer!

Easy Pesto From Garden Basil

  • Servings: about 4, or a yield of 1/2 cup
  • Difficulty: easy
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1 cup of packed fresh basil leaves

1 clove of garlic (mine was already minced)

1/8 cup of pine nuts

1/3 cup of virgin olive oil

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse ingredients until coarsely chopped. Add a portion of the olive oil, processing the mixture until all ingredients are incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Season as desired with salt and pepper.

If using the pesto immediately, add the remaining oil and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Scrape into a serving bowl and add parmesan cheese.

If freezing, do not add the Parmesan cheese. Place in an airtight container and pour remaining oil over top of pesto. It will freeze for up to three months. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese after thawing.