herbs for a dry garden


Is there anything better than fresh herbs from the garden?

For years I had herbs in my fairly dry veggie garden. Some of the herbs herbs thrived. Others sulked. Some died.

Fortunately, if you’re trying to cut down on watering, you still have a huge number of herbs to choose from. For instance, many of the plants that you think of immediately when you hear the word “herb” originate in the Mediterranean, and many of them prefer less moisture than other garden plants.

Below, I’ve listed some common herbs that have done well for me dry spots, along with others that I’ve seen doing well in quite dry conditions. There are lots of other selections, but this list can get you going with more than a summer’s worth of recipes.

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): You can pick from forms that sprawl, form a shrub, or grow straight up in spires.
  • dryland-herbs_purple-sageSage (Salvia officianalis): European Garden sage comes in lots of versions in leaf color (green, golden, tri-color or purple) and flavor (“sage” flavor, pineapple, or grape).
  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
  • Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
  • Thyme (Thymus spp.): Some thymes, including many of those sold for ornamental groundcover use (such as T. serpiphyllum) are only slightly scented or not at all. The culinary bush forms generally have more scent and flavor, and they come in a wide range, including lemon and lime. They also tend to be more tolerant of dry conditions.
  • Lavender (Lavandula spp.): There are several lavender species, as well as plenty of hybrids and varieties. All are at least somewhat drought tolerant. Some extremely so.
  • dryland-herbs_rose-geranium Scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.): Take your pick of rose, apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, pineapple, lemon, lime, apricot and others.
  • Wormwood (Artemisia spp.)
  • Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens)
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): Beautiful and tasty plants, but they’re considered invasive in many locations (including the entire California floristic province). Research before you plant! There’s an attractive bronze version that’s reputed to be less invasive. Still, I wouln’t plant it if regular fennel is a problem in your area.
  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus): With edible, peppery leaves and flowers, some people consider this an herb. As with fennel, above, it can be invasive. Don’t plant it if it could escape. (Many of the moister hillsides here in San Diego are covered with the stuff.)
  • Lemon grass, both West-Indian (Cymbopogon citratus) and East-Indian (C. flexuosus): Sources tell you these plants like water, but I’ve found that they don’t mind going dry occasionally, especially if they’re given some shade.


Good eats!

5 thoughts on “herbs for a dry garden”

  1. I’ve tried rosemary and oregano repeatedly, both from seed and in 4-inch pots, and lavender once, from a 4-inch pot. In all cases, they’ve died within two weeks of transplanting or, when I tried to grow them from seed scattered directly in the garden, they died within two weeks of sprouting.

    Any idea what I could be doing wrong? I have a dry garden with native plants growing successfully. I just can’t seem to get the hang of Mediterranean herbs.

  2. Tina, I agree that it’s great to have easy-care plants that give back so much.

    Country Mouse, absinthe also derives its flavoring from an artemisia. There are piles of different artemisias, not all of them wormwood, so I probably wouldn’t go nibbling on branches of unknown species…

    Nell Jean, good that you point that out. Some of the dryland herbs will die with extra water, others will celebrate.

    Gayle, my successes with these two come from dry spots with soil that drains well. That said, if you’re starting plants from small containers, they’ll need to be established before they can take the dryness, and that will mean keeping them semi-moist and then letting them dry out gradually over 2-3 months. A 4-inch pot will probably require watering every 2-4 days the first month, depending on your weather. Of course, if your putting them into wet soil that makes the swamp sedges happy, you might want to try a raised bed instead to let the Mediterraneans dry out. Good luck with them!

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