A Water – Wise Herb Garden

Combine drought-tolerant varieties with water-saving techniques for a garden that takes the dry weather in stride.

Herb gardeners are not the kind of people who give up easily. A few years ago, when we nursed our garden’s through a drought with heavy water {the type carried by hand}. We learned the value of special planting techniques borrowed from the native people of the arid southwest and gained a new appreciation for the natural drought tolerance of lavender, rosemary, and other Mediterranean herbs.

Those of us who grow herbs have a big advantage when it comes to water-wise gardening because we have so many beautiful drought-tolerant choices available to us.

By combining herbs that thrive under dry conditions with several time-tested strategies for reducing moisture loss, you easily can grow a herb garden that requires little or no supplemental water.

Strategy # 1:

Create Moisture Zones

In water-strapped communities across the country, gardeners have found that placing plants that share similar moisture needs together makes watering more effective and convenient. For example, you might place St. John’s wort, lovage, marshmallow and other herbs that prefer moist soil together in a spot shaded from hot afternoon sun. Should the rain clouds disappear for weeks at a time, you can efficiently water the heavy drinkers until they are satisfied. In similar fashion, herbs that need little water, such as horehound, Santolina, and all succulents, can be grouped together in hot spots that are difficult to water.

Strategy # 2:

Water-Seeking Roots

Newly planted herbs need moist soil until they establish a functioning network of roots. But after a few weeks, you can fine-tune your watering practices to push plants to develop bigger, better root systems.

Covering the soil’s surface with any type of mulch will block weeds and slow evaporative moisture loss, but there’s a catch. In dry weather, hurried watering sessions that moisten only the mulch and top inch or so of soil encourage plants to develop roots close to the surface, where they quickly dry out. Weekly deep watering, on the other hand, encourages the growth of deeper water-seeking roots.

Using drip or soaker hoses for several hours {or overnight} is the easiest way to deeply water established herbs. Or let the water run freely from a hose laid on the ground as you do other things nearby. Avoid using sprinklers, which are inefficient and must be left on for a long time to soak roots deeply.

Strategy # 3:

Lessons from the Past

Few places are as hot and dry as the desert southwest, where Zuni gardeners developed an ingenious method called waffle gardening. As the gardeners dug the planting beds, they shaped them into squares or rectangles. Within each one, the Zuni used their hands to mound soil into a waffle pattern. Like warm syrup in a waffle, water collects in each basin when it rains. Between rains, the berms shelter roots from drying the sun and the wind.

Most gardens receive more rain than Zuni gardens do, but you can adapt the waffle garden concept for your temperate-climate herb garden.

A Bountiful, Water-Wise Herb Garden Bed.

Water conservation is built into our planting of more than a dozen herbs and other useful plants. Lavender, Santolina, and others that require excellent drainage and dry conditions occupy raised berms. The irrigated heart of the bed is filled with herbs that prefer a little more water, with front door space set aside for hand-watered culinary herbs.

Use a similar “water-zone” approach when planting your favorite herbs. A 5-by-12 footbed can be created on level ground or on a slight slope. If desired, a second soaker hose can be installed atop the berm. You also can make the garden longer to create a border along a fence.

Make the berm just a few inches high and the sunken interior area about 4 to 5 inches deep. After you plant, add a generous layer of mulch; the interior surface will be just slightly below the original surface. Do include an opening that can serve as an open floodgate should a heavy storm drench your planting of water-wise herbs.

Outer berm:

Lavender {Lavandula spp.}, 30-36 inches, Zone 4-8. All varieties adapt to dry conditions; Spanish lavender {L. stoechas} is especially heated tolerant.

Rosemary {Rosmarinus officinalis}, 24-48 inches, Zones 7-10; curling leaf tips indicate a need for supplemental water.

Hens-and-chicks {Sempervivum spp.}, 6 inches, Zones 3-8; heat- and cold-tolerant succulents form robust mounds. Can be grown in a pot.

Sedums {Sedum spp.}, 4-8 inches, Zones 3-8; these hardy succulents come in a range of sizes, colors, and forms.

Sage {Salvia officinalis}, 24 inches, Zones 4-8; choose between varieties with gray-green leaves or variegated strains, which tolerate less cold.

Ice plant {Delosperma spp.}, 12 inches, Zones 4-8; heavy-blooming succulents can be grown as annuals or perennials.

Thyme {Thymus spp.}, 12 inches, Zones 5-9; all species show the high tolerance for dry conditions after they are well rooted.

Oregano {Origanum spp.}, 16 inches, Zones 5-9; small, thick leaves hold up well under dry conditions which often enhance flavor.

Gray Santolina {Santolina chamaecyparissus}, 12 inches, Zones 6-8; stiff plants form tight mounds of foliage; require dry conditions.

Echinacea {Echinacea spp.}, 36 inches, Zones 3-9; enjoy flowers in summer, and make healthful tea from the roots in the fall.

Inner Bed, rear tier:

Horehound  {Marrubium vulgare}, 28 inches, Zones 4-9; most drought-tolerant member of the mint family. Leaves used for cough medicine, candy or tea.

Fern-leaf yarrow {Achillea filipendulina}, 36-48 inches, Zones 3-8; produces long-lasting yellow flower clusters in summer; finely cut foliage good for arrangements or crafts.

Russian Sage {Perovskia atriplicifolia}, 3-5 feet, Zones 6-9; arching branches clothed with luminous gray foliage all season, with lavender flowers in summer.

Borage {Borago officinalis}, 36 inches, annual, all zones; fast-growing plants produce flushes of starry blue flowers; cut back to prolong blooming time.

Inner Bed, rear tier:

Anise hyssop {Agastache spp.}, 2-3 feet, Zones 4-9; fragrant foliage topped by spikes of bee-friendly flowers from mid-summer onward.

Basil {Ocimum basilicum}, annual, all zones; 12-18 inches tall.

Cilantro {Coriandrum sativum}, grow as annual; about 6 inches tall.

Parsley {Petroselinum crispum}, a biennial in Zone 6 or grow as annual; about 3-4 inches tall.

A mulched herb garden requires only half as much water as the same space kept in a bluegrass lawn.

Use X-rated Plants:

The word xeriscape always has been a mouthful, so it’s no surprise that the practice of gardening with little or no supplemental water {xeriscaping} has picked up a bit of verbal shorthand. in short, a good xeriscape plant is rated x. Depending on where you live, X-rated plants might include cacti or yucca, or perhaps native grasses or vines. Among herbs, gray Santolina, horehound, and rosemary are rated X. For more information, visit Colorado Water Wise Council at http://Xeriscape.org or Eartheasy at http://www.Eartheasy.com

Native Plants for Your Area.

NORTHEAST {ZONES 2A-7B}

Pink Turtlehead {Chelone Iyonii}: wildflower perennial.

Butterfly Milkweed {Asclepias tuberosa}: wildflower perennial.

Creeping Wintergreen or “Checkerberry” {Gaultheria procumbens}: evergreen perennial/groundcover.

Blue False Indigo {Baptisia australis}: herbaceous perennial.

Sweet Pepperbush {Clethra alnifolia}: deciduous shrub.

NORTHWEST {ZONES 3A-9B}

Showy Fleabane {Erigeron speciosus}: wildflower perennial.

Common Camas {Camassia quamash}: wildflower perennial/groundcover.

Spiraea or “Hardhack” {Spiraea douglasii}: shrub perennial.

Hooker’s Onion {Allium acuminatum}: perennial groundcover.

Trailing Blackberry {Rubus ursinus}: vine/shrub/deciduous perennial.

SOUTHEAST {ZONES 5B-10B}

Rose Verbena {Verbena canadensis}: perennial groundcover.

American Elderberry {Sambucus nigra}: deciduous perennial shrub.

Trumpet Honeysuckle/Coral Honeysuckle {Lonicera sempervirens}; vine perennial.

Swamp Milkweed {Asclepias incarnata}: wildflower perennial.

Blazing Star {Liatris spicata}: wildflower perennial.

SOUTHWEST {ZONES 5B-10B}

Skunkbush Sumac {Rhus trilobata}: perennial deciduous shrub.

Desert Sand Verbena {Abronia villosa}: wildflower annual.

Silver Buffaloberry {Shepherdia argentea}: perennial shrub.

Rocky Mountain Columbine {Aguilegia caerulea}: wildflower perennial.

Western Wallflower {Erysimum asperum}: wildflower biennial.

NORTHERN MIDWEST {ZONES 2B-6A}

Purple Prairie Clover {Dalea purpurea}: wildflower perennial.

Greek Valerian {Polemonium reptans}: wildflower perennial.

Sneezeweed {Helenium autumnale}: wildflower perennial.

Bunchberry {Cornus canadensis}: groundcover perennial.

Cattails {Typha latifolia} grass perennial.

SOUTHERN MIDWEST {ZONES 4B-9B}

Blue Larkspur {Delphinium carolinianum}: wildflower perennial.

Spicebush {Lindera benzoin}: shrub.

Coreopsis {Coreopsis grandiflora}: wildflower perennial.

Wild Hyacinth {Camassia scilloides}: wildflower perennial.

Inkberry {Ilex glabra}: shrub.

Not sure what zone you’re in? Go to http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone to find out.

Creating A Native Plant Garden.

By sticking with species indigenous to your area, you can help save the environment and yourself some back-breaking labor!

In the face of an often bleak midwinter, we do have one joyous event to look forward to the steady arrival of garden catalogs. Those glossy pages tempt us with a dazzling array of flowers, herbs, and vegetables, offering yet another chance to dream and plan for the perfect garden. With fancy foliage, pristine blooms, catchy names, and a color palette that rivals a Monet painting, these myriad choices call out to us, saying “buy me!” And often, in a cabin-fever-induced frenzy, we succumb, putting our hard-earned money toward a host of exotic species.

But later, sometimes years after we’ve planted our seeds, we find that those Asian, bittersweet, multiflora roses and that Japanese honeysuckle have taken over the entire garden, choking out any plants in their path. Where did we go wrong? These wondrous species that looked too good to be true are the culprits. By choosing plants unsuited to the region in which we live, we invite, quite literally, an alien invasion of the plant world.

You don’t have to look far to create a garden filled with gorgeous, carefree blooms and healthy herbs and vegetables. Native plants, those species that have grown in your region for eons, are not only aesthetically pleasing, they support the local ecosystem. A healthier ecosystem means a heartier garden and a happier gardener.

Native Know-How:

One of the main benefits of native plants is that they’ve acclimated to your region. With no need for special pruning, or fertilizing, these species require less maintenance. Native ground covers allow the gardener to cut back on weeding time, and the more plants you grow, the less lawn upkeep you have to stay on top of. {They also prevent soil erosion.} Native plants are also the perfect candidates for companion planting. Growing two or more different kinds of native plants close together can help repel pests, attract beneficial insects, provide shelter for smaller plants, and add important nutrients to the soil. This all translates to less work for the gardener.

Of course, these perks also benefit the environment. Essentially recreating the natural landscape {as it was before humans arrived on the scene with their exotic tastes and penchant for wide expanses of green grass}, a native plant garden provides shelter and food for birds, insects, bats, and other organisms. And, unlike foreign plants, which can be extremely susceptible to your region’s various diseases and pests, native species prove much more resilient because they’ve acclimated over the centuries. You don’t have to resort to harmful pesticides and herbicides to thwart these plant killers.

Plants native to a particular region are also accustomed to the climate and seasonal weather conditions. They require less watering and are often drought resistant. In areas where water use is sometimes restricted during the summer months, native species fare much better than exotic plants.

Native plants {and trees} increase biodiversity by providing wildlife with food in the form of leaves, berries, fruit, and insects. Biodiversity is essential to the stability and existence of most ecosystems. Microorganisms break down decaying matter in the soil, providing energy for plants to grow. Plants provide food and shelter to larger insects {and even some animals}, and these larger insects are often food for animals. It’s a continuous, finely-tuned cycle. Because exotic plants can be toxic to insects {even beneficial ones} and often kill off native plants, they reduce biodiversity, damaging the ecosystem as a result.

Butterfly populations, in particular, are dwindling because native plants serve as their main source of food. For a garden to attract butterflies, two types of plants are necessary: those that provide nectar for adults and those that serve as host plants for larvae. Many exotic species only provide nectar, offering no place for these adults to lay their eggs. Birds, spiders, predatory insects, and even rodents rely on larvae for food, while plants look to these future butterflies to help pollinate.

Yet another benefit, many of these native species are used in herbal medicine. Planting a garden full of local flora gives you easy access to remedies for all kinds of medical conditions and symptoms.

Worried that your native plants will attract deer? These four-legged creatures actually find native plants less appealing, because they grow prolifically in the woods. Like humans, deer find exotic rarities much more desirable!

Getting Started:

Rather than transform your garden all at once, start slowly and incorporate a few native plants into your existing plot to complement your annuals and exotic perennials. If you do decide to start fresh with natives, try a small bed no larger than 3 x 8 feet.

Native plants attract and restore wildlife habitats and also attract beneficial insects. Remember to design your garden around the three pillars of a sustainable habitat: food, water, and shelter. Don’t forget to include some trees and shrubs, which also provide shelter and food.

Many nurseries now carry native plants. Make sure that the plants you intend to purchase were cultivated in your area, preferably from seeds or cuttings. Avoid purchasing cloned cultivars or horticulturally enhanced plants.

Sticking with native plants doesn’t mean giving up your neat and tidy garden beds for a wild field of weeds, nor does it mean resigning yourself to unappealing blooms. A native plants garden virtually cares for itself, while offering a safe haven for wildlife and insects. Help sustain your region’s biodiversity and enjoy the unending beauty these species have to offer.

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