Xeriscaping: Using Herbs in The Garden

When we talk about Xeriscaping the emphasis is always on harmony. Water conservation is a guiding factor, but at the very root of the concept is the idea that a landscape should be populated by native species of plants that are better adapted for survival in any particular area. But what about herbs? The vast majority are not native to America, so is it against the rules to talk about them in a Xeriscape? I argue no.

The beauty of herbs is their ability to survive just about anywhere. Most originated in Europe, Persia and Asia in wildly different climates and conditions, and yet a plant like Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) can be found flavoring cuisine in Italy, in the apothecary shops of Russia, and growing high in the Andes in Peru. With this kind of hardiness these plant types are a great choice for the Xeriscaped garden.

Herb gardens yield wonderful aromas, textures and sounds. Brushing against a border of Oregano (Origanum spp.) or Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) will deliver the senses a waft of pungent sweetness; stroking a leaf of Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) is more like the touch of a pet’s fur; and bees and hummingbirds constantly hum around Salvias looking for nectar. In other words, growing herbs is a sensory experience. It is also one that connects us to the ancient past. Herbs have been flavoring our food, healing our ills and salving our wounds for thousands of years. Perhaps that is why they are such welcome additions to so many gardens.

But what of growing herbs in our locality? Perhaps the biggest obstacle we have in Central Texas is the temperature range. It can be eighty degrees one moment, then into the mid-twenties the next, then back up into the seventies – all within a few days. Most plants prefer a hardening off period as the seasons change and most often we just don’t get that in the south. It seems to be more of an on/off switch! This can be very hard on herbs, but let’s not get too discouraged. Even though most herbs are shallow-rooted you can help protect them with a good, thick layer of mulch. This can stop the soil temperature from dropping drastically and give the plant time to adjust. Another problem is the heat and humidity. When the sun comes out after a shower some plants simply steam to death. Again a good layer of mulch and a well-drained soil can help alleviate some of this stress.

But let us not be down-hearted! The rewards of herb growing far outweigh the challenges. I have some Lavender in my front yard that continues to grow despite having little or no water and no mulch. So here is a short list of herbs that would do well in this part of the world.

We have already mentioned Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Lamb’s Ear and Lavender. There are many different types of these herbs, but the most successful tend to be regular upright Rosemary, Rosemary “Lockwood De Forest”, Creeping Thyme, Lemon Thyme, and Mexican Oregano. Artemesia, also known as Southernwood or Wormwood (Try the Powys Castle variety). Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violecea), Santolina (S. chamaecyparissus), Mint (Menthe .spp) and Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis). There are several different types of Salvia that do well, among them are Salvia greggii, Salvia farinacea, Salvia guaranitica, and Salvia leucantha. Dill (Anethum graveolens) and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are great for attracting butterflies, as are Alliums like Society Garlic. Ginger (Zingiber spp) is a good choice for the shadier part of the garden and comes in a variegated variety.

So, when considering a Xeriscape garden, don’t forget about herbs. They not only smell great and attract hummingbirds and butterflies, but they are also invaluable for use in the kitchen. There’s nothing like being able to step into the garden and snip a few fresh herbs to flavor one’s meal.