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!

How Do Gardeners Conserve Water?

I’m a member of the Garden Writers Association, and one of the benefits to membership is access to research conducted by GWA’s foundation on consumer gardening trends. The Fall 2013 report explored how gardeners conserve water and provided three years of historical data for comparison. I have to say that the results gave me pause.

About 68 percent of consumers surveyed said they have a lawn or garden in 2013 and of those surveyed, here are the top ways they conserved water this summer:

  • Used more mulch (28 percent).
  • Used more drought-tolerant plants (17 percent).
  • Watered with drip irrigation (15 percent).
  • Used a rain barrel (12 percent).
  • Didn’t water at all (30 percent).

OK, not bad overall, but my concern is that on every water-conservation measure, the percentage was down — from two to five percentage points — from the 2010 survey. Is it a matter of awareness that peaked, then waned? Or is it simply an anomaly, something to attribute to the size or randomness of the sample surveyed? Probably not the latter, because GWA says that the sample balances the population geographically. In that case, we’ve got work to do to raise gardeners’ awareness of water conservation. That’s certainly a goal of this blog.

rain barrel
This rain barrel soon will connect to another barrel and we’ll add a third barrel on the southwest side of the house. One barrel can fill with a good summer rain.

Here are a few more findings to ponder, though. An additional 28 percent of respondents said “Didn’t think about it,” and 8 percent responded “not sure,” or refused to answer the question. So that means more than one-third of gardeners are doing nothing at all to conserve water in their lawns or gardens. It could be that many of those people, like a portion of the 30 percent who didn’t water, live in lush, rain-heavy areas that require no supplemental water. It made me think of how envious I would get when visiting the northeast or Hawaii. I get it; nature takes care of most of the watering there. Then again, the last time I went to Maui, restaurants only served water upon request because the island was experiencing a drought. That’s right. I know a tropical drought is not the same as a desert drought, but it’s all relative, and an island (even though surrounded by water) has finite resources.

plant in fence post
Plants grow just about anywhere in Maui, even during a drought.

We’ll discuss more ideas of how to conserve water, including rain catchment and whether it’s a good idea not to water at all, in future posts. For now, I just really want to raise awareness. I’m not perfect in my conservation efforts either, but I’m learning more as I write these posts. And there’s a certain degree of natural conservation that comes with the territory when you live in the desert Southwest.