The Drought-Tolerant Herb Garden

Drought-tolerant rosemary and lavender | Photo by Linda Ly
Drought-tolerant rosemary and lavender | Photo by Linda Ly

Drought-tolerant plants have always been a big topic among Southern California gardeners, but the chatter has especially increased with our spring storm outlook seeming bleak.

When we think "drought-tolerant," we often picture xeriscaping or California native landscaping which, while attractive and practical, isn't always the most exciting option. There are times when we 1) want to eat our garden, and 2) don't want to see yet another succulent.

That's when we start planning out the drought-tolerant herb garden.

As it turns out, some of the easiest plants to grow in our region are also edible and beautiful with low water needs. Planting an herb garden is a great way to dip your toe into the world of kitchen gardening if you're not quite ready to commit your time (or space) to a full-on vegetable garden.

The most common herbs you see in nurseries (rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano, and sage) are native to the Mediterranean Basin, which shares a similar subtropical climate as Coastal California: relatively mild winters and warm dry summers. Once they establish roots in their first season, these herbs require little water and can tolerate full, harsh sun.

On top of being edible, Mediterranean herbs give a lovely fragrance to your yard, attract pollinators when they flower, and are perennial in our climate, meaning you plant them once and don't have to worry about them dying back in winter or summer.

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Rosemary is a woody herb that can grow upright into a shrub or spread outward as a groundcover, depending on the variety. Oftentimes you'll see rosemary planted as an ornamental as it can grow quite large and be pruned into a hedge. It flowers in spring and summer but can sometimes stay in constant bloom, making it ideal for front yards.

Lavender thrives in dry, gravelly soils with no organic mulching (which can trap moisture around the plant base) and little to no fertilizing — in short, the perfect plant for the lazy gardener. Though many people associate lush, fragrant lavender fields with the South of France, French lavender is actually not the variety to plant if you love the classic lavender scent. Go for English lavender or Dutch lavender for sweet-smelling buds.

Thyme comes in creeping, carpet-like groundcover varieties (the type you often see growing between paving stones) as well as low-growing evergreen shrubs staying under 6 inches tall. Drought conditions actually concentrate the aromatic oils in thyme, so the drier your soil, the better your plant will fare. Like lavender, thyme flourishes in gravelly medium, so mulch with rocks (or not at all).

Oregano means "joy of the mountain" and is derived from the ancient Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). It is a fast-growing, woody-stemmed herb that generally grows in a low mound. Because of these qualities, oregano makes a great groundcover or border plant for ornamental gardens, with the advantage of being edible. The leaves also have natural antiseptic, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties, giving oil of oregano high medicinal qualities.

Sage is native to California and grows wild all over the coast, the high desert, and in some parts of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Abuse this herb by planting it in rocky soil and forgetting to water it, and it will go off (in a good way!). Common sage (also known as garden sage) has velvety grayish leaves, but the more ornamental varieties (purple, golden, and tricolor sage) add a beautiful splash of color to a landscape.

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