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.

How To Create A Community Garden

There are over 10,000 community gardens in cities across the United States. This popular trend provides fresh produce, exercise, and a place to socialize with friends and neighbors. Community gardens are also attractive and inviting spaces that benefit the environment through composting and recycling. Consider doing a little gardening – whether you have some basil and oregano growing in your kitchen window, tomatoes planted in a container on your patio, or if you decide to take it a step further and organize a community garden.

The first step to organizing a community garden is finding people who are interested in getting involved. Start by asking around and see what kind of response you get. If after this informal research you feel there is significant interest, organize a meeting. Be sure to invite fellow residents, your apartment manager or superintendent, a representative from a local horticulture group, business leaders in the area, etc. At the meeting have an agenda that covers topics such as: Are there any issues or reasons we can’t create a community garden? If we are given the green light, what type of community garden do we want – a vegetable garden, a flower garden, or both? Do we want a strictly organic garden? Who will be allowed to participate? Will we need liability insurance, and should everyone participate sign a liability waiver?

It is possible, especially in a suburban apartment complex, that you’ll be able to get approval to have the garden on the apartment community grounds. If not, look for alternatives: the roof of your urban high-rise, for example, or perhaps an empty lot located nearby – check with local government agencies to find out who owns the lot and see if you can get permission to rent the lot or perhaps even buy it. You want the garden within walking distance so people will stay involved. Also, be sure the location gets plenty of sunlight – about six hours a day.

If you think you have a good shot at getting the space for the garden approved (or rented), the next step is to form a planning committee. You’ll want people who are committed and reliable and who are willing to dedicate a good chunk of time to the project, especially in the beginning stages. The committee will be responsible for getting the garden set up – this includes a weatherproof bulletin board for schedules, events, and notices; a composting area; and if you are using an off-site lot and not a space on the apartment community property, a fence with a locking gate. You may also want to consider sponsors, such as local business leaders, nearby colleges, etc. You’ll need money for rent (if you are renting a lot), donations of tools and seeds, and funds for other expenses. If you don’t want to find sponsors, consider having membership dues (or consider a combination of both).

Before planting anything, the soil should be evaluated. Take a sample and have it tested for possible pollutants. Next, develop the garden. You’ll want to organize the garden into sections and put a sign with the gardener’s name in each section. Use the perimeter of the garden for rose bushes, blackberry bushes, shrubs, and trees that will act as both a deterrent for thieves or vandals and to make the garden attractive to those passing by. Be sure to have spaces for tool storage. Also, leave space for walkways between each garden plot.

You’ll need to keep track of who is planting where, so if they allow their garden to become a bed of dirt and weeds, you know who to contact. Set up some garden rules and post them to the community garden bulletin board. Be sure to include annual clean-up in the rules – everyone with a plot should participate. Also, everyone should have a time when they are responsible for weeding and maintaining the common areas and the perimeter of the garden.

Don’t forget to create common spaces within the garden for people to gather, even if it is just a couple of benches. One of the purposes of a community garden is to help bring people together, so consider holding fun events for garden participants, as well.

In addition to being good for the environment and providing fresh produce for healthier eating, gardening is great exercise and lowers stress.

10 Steps to Starting a Community Garden

The following steps are adapted from the American Community Garden Association’s guidelines for launching a successful community garden in your neighborhood.

1. Organize a Meeting Of Interested People

Determine whether a garden is really needed and wanted, what kind it should be (vegetable, flower, both, organic?), whom it will involve and who benefits. Invite neighbors, tenants, community organizations, gardening and horticultural societies, building superintendents (if it is at an apartment building)—in other words, anyone who is likely to be interested.

2. Form a Planning Committee

This group can be comprised of people who feel committed to the creation of the garden and have the time to devote to it, at least at this initial stage. Choose well-organized persons as garden coordinators Form committees to tackle specific tasks: funding and partnerships, youth activities, construction, and communication.

3. Identify All Your Resources

Do a community asset assessment. What skills and resources already exist in the community that can aid in the garden’s creation? Contact local municipal planners about possible sites, as well as horticultural societies and other local sources of information and assistance. Look within your community for people with experience in landscaping and gardening. In Toronto contact the Toronto Community Garden Network.

4. Approach A Sponsor

Some gardens “self-support” through membership dues, but for many, a sponsor is essential for donations of tools, seeds or money. Churches, schools, private businesses or parks and recreation departments are all possible supporters. One garden raised money by selling “square inches” at $5 each to hundreds of sponsors.

5. Choose A Site

Consider the amount of daily sunshine (vegetables need at least six hours a day), availability of water, and soil testing for possible pollutants. Find out who owns the land. Can the gardeners get a lease agreement for at least three years? Will public liability insurance be necessary?

6. Prepare And Develop The Site

In most cases, the land will need considerable preparation for planting. Organize volunteer work crews to clean it, gather materials and decide on the design and plot arrangement.

7. Organize the Garden

Members must decide how many plots are available and how they will be assigned. Allow space for storing tools, making compost and don’t forget the pathways between plots! Plant flowers or shrubs around the garden’s edges to promote good will with non-gardening neighbors, passersby, and municipal authorities.

8. Plan for Children

Consider creating a special garden just for kids–including them is essential. Children are not as interested in the size of the harvest but rather in the process of gardening. A separate area set aside for them allows them to explore the garden at their own speed.

9. Determine Rules and Put Them In Writing

The gardeners themselves devise the best ground rules. We are more willing to comply with rules that we have had a hand in creating. Ground rules help gardeners to know what is expected of them. Think of it as a code of behavior. Some examples of issues that are best dealt with by agreed upon rules are dues, how will the money be used? How are plots assigned? Will gardeners share tools, meet regularly, handle basic maintenance?

10. Help Members Keep In Touch with Each Other

Good communication ensures a strong community garden with active participation by all. Some ways to do this are: form a telephone tree, create an email list; install a rainproof bulletin board in the garden; have regular celebrations. Community gardens are all about creating and strengthening communities.

Creative Organic Green Household Helpers

Ever wonder if those commercial cleaning products and indoor pesticides you use might do more harm than good? You’re not alone. Natural home-care products {many of which contain herbs} are growing in popularity as more homemakers become aware of indoor toxins. The use of certain cleaning products has been linked to higher rates of asthma, inducing the condition in some people, as well as aggravating the condition in those who already have this chronic inflammatory disease. And although you can buy many excellent nontoxic products for your home, it’s easy and fun to make your own. Just remember that even plant products can be toxic under some circumstances, and the same cautions given for other herbal uses also apply here.

SIMPLY CLEAN SOLUTIONS

With just a few basic ingredients, you can make safer “green” cleaning products for a fraction of the cost of the commercial products and without the scary ingredients. Distilled white vinegar {which contains acetic acid} has anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties and can eliminate mineral deposits from sink and bathroom fixtures, as well as cookware. Acidic lemon juice kills germs on countertops, cutting boards, and more. Baking soda deodorizes and dissolves grease and dirt. Mixed with other ingredients, it makes a gentle but effective scrub. All-natural castile soap made for centuries with olive oil, not only washes dirt and grease from your body, but also from household surfaces and laundry.

Many herbs have potent disinfectant properties, too. Basil, bay, cardamom, clove, coriander, eucalyptus, ginger, hyssop, lavender, lemongrass, oregano, peppermint, rose geranium, rosemary, sage, spearmint, and thyme are cleaning powerhouses. All contain a multitude of plant chemicals that possess antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, and antiviral actions. By adding a few drops of these essential oils to your homemade cleaning products, you can boost their cleaning power and impart a delightful fragrance that makes cleaning more pleasurable.

Because essential oils break down plastic over time, it’s best to store your homemade cleaning products in labeled, dark glass containers. Plastic spray bottles are fine for short-term storage of smaller quantities. Also, remember to store all cleaning products, even those made with natural ingredients, in a cool, dark location where children and pets cannot reach them.

KITCHEN COUNTER-TOP SPRAY

Use this fragrant solution to disinfect countertops, refrigerator shelves, and painted surfaces, including walls and wood trim. Feel free to experiment with other antibacterial essential oils, such as basil, thyme, or lemon.

1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

1/2 cup water

10-12 drops rose geranium essential oil

In a small, dark glass jar, combine the vinegar, water, and oil. Stir. Pour small amounts into a spray bottle as necessary.

GENTLE SPEARMINT SCRUBBER

This non-scratching, chlorine-free paste is perfect for cleaning cookware, countertops, and porcelain sinks and tubs. Lemon and lemon verbena essential oils also work well in place of the spearmint.

1 cup baking soda

1 tablespoon liquid castile soap

10-12 drops spearmint essential oil

Warm water {90 to 110 degrees F}

In a small, dark glass jar, combine the baking soda, soap, and enough water to form a thick but pourable paste. Stir in the essential oil. Apply to surfaces, wait for 5 minutes or more, then scrub with a sponge. Rinse off the residue with water.

Windowsill Gardening

As long as you have enough sun streaming in through your window or can provide artificial light suspended directly over your plants {for when the sun’s angle is low, in winter, or if the window is on a northern wall}, you can successfully grow herbs. You’ll have to pay attention to the sun-pattern, noticing when the light is direct and indirect. More than 2 to 3 hours of direct sunlight on the herbs daily will mean that you’ll need to water and feed the plant more often. Without enough light, however, your herbs will become leggy and their growth will be soft and lax. Believe it or not, the biggest mistake people make with windowsill growing is neglect.

In a very sunny window, you can experiment with setting pots of herbs in a tray filled with stones and adding water to the tray. {The stones prevent the water from soaking directly into the pots, so take care that the water level doesn’t reach the pots themselves.} This technique provides some humidity, which cuts down the dramatic effects of direct sunlight. Check your pots morning and evening, and let them dry out before watering, but don’t allow the plants to wilt.

Try growing thyme. basil, oregano, rosemary for the first time “windowsill gardeners”!