An Herbaceous Endeavor

Growing herbs in the desert is easier than it seems.

September 9, 2016

HomesteadIssue 20: September/October 2016

It is a common misconception that herbs are finicky and difficult to grow. I’ve heard many woeful stories of herbs that never thrived, only to give up the ghost after a mere month or two of the most devoted plant pampering that a gardener can dole out. I know that the stories are true, too.

These precious plants are often placed in prominent spots near the kitchen, or on countertops or windowsills inside the house. They’re planted in charming, labeled containers, protected from the harsh elements, and watered multiple times a day. Why would any plant wither under such careful, doting supervision?

Even the most seasoned green thumbs will admit to losing an herb now and then, but great gardeners usually want to investigate what went wrong and try again under the right conditions.

Those who do some digging into herb gardening first learn that the word “herb” isn’t descriptive enough to specify the type of care a plant might require. There are a lot of different types of herbs, and they don’t all prefer the same treatment. We can, however, learn a lot about what an herb will want by discovering whether it’s an annual or a perennial.

Annuals do all of their growing in one season, and this fast growth means that they’re generally the thirstier herbs. They’re also more likely to be shade-tolerant, and to do well in petite containers in protected locations, as many of them are small and herbaceous (nonwoody).

In Baja Arizona, annual herbs are planted in spring and fall. When their season is over, they often bolt, putting all of their energy into producing flowers and seed before they succumb to the change in weather. Some may straggle along past their due date, but leaf production and visual appeal go downhill. Once this happens, they’re cleared to make room for the next season.

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Perennials stick around for a few years or more. Some may go dormant for a season or two, but they regrow from woody stems or hardy roots when the conditions are right. These herbs are more likely to be larger in stature, needing bigger containers or a spot in the garden to spread their roots and grow.

As it happens, many of our favorite savory herbs are from the Mediterranean, where summers are bone dry and winters are wet. Perennial herbs from this region stay quiet and still through the heat of the summer, and begin to grow again when temperatures cool down. They prefer fast-draining soil, a sunny location, and good air circulation. Our summer monsoons are a tough time of year for this group of herbs because they dislike having their roots wet for extended periods of time, especially while they’re dormant. In fact, wet soil is the No. 1 killer of Mediterranean perennials. Make sure that these herbs have ample drainage, and allow at least the top inch of soil to dry before watering.

Speaking of drainage, when growing herbs in any kind of container, it’s important to ensure that the container has a drainage hole. Very few herbs will tolerate boggy soil for very long. When grouping herbs together in containers or a bed, pair them up with herbs that have similar watering needs for the best chances of keeping everything happy.

Alex Atkin, the farm manager of Tucson Village Farm (TVF), notes that it’s also important to use a quality potting mix for herbs in containers or raised beds. I recently talked to Atkin about TVF’s failures, successes, and what they love to grow in their herb garden. With 6,000 kids passing through the farm on a yearly basis in classes or camps, each of whom gets to plant a seed, the farm gets to try growing a lot of different veggies and herbs in a lot of different ways.

Atkin is very proud of their newly revamped, wheelchair accessible herb garden. She couldn’t wait to get it planted, and admits to transplanting some of the herbs a little too early in hopes of cooler weather blowing in with the rain. There’s a shade cloth covering the mostly inactive herbs to help them along until September or October, when they’ll really start to put some roots down.

TVF gets their herb starts from Lorien Tersey of Dreamflower Garden. Atkin and I agreed that a good, local source is important. Some cultivars do better in our climate than others, and local sources more likely carry the ones that are successful where you live. It’s also easy to start root-layering or making cuttings this time of year if you have a friend who’s growing a fall herb that you’d like to try.

One good lesson that TVF learned from their old herb bed was to keep their mints separated from other herbs, and in containers if possible. Mint is an oddball, a thirsty perennial that tends to grow wherever moisture is present in a bed. It was an endless chore for them to keep it from choking out the other herbs in the garden.

When asked about the farm’s most popular herbs, Atkin immediately says, basil. It’s an easy herb for beginners, and it’s really the only summer annual grown in our region. There are lots of different flavors to try, from cinnamon to Thai.

“Really, though,” she says, “we just like to grow what we like to eat.” Her current personal favorite (and her go-to in the kitchen) is thyme.

Fall is an active time of year in the herb garden. Besides general maintenance tasks like pruning and dividing, there’s a great selection of annual herbs you can plant now and, in my opinion, there isn’t a better time of year to plant many of the perennials. When the thermometer stays consistently under the 100-degree mark, it’s time to get your hands dirty. 

Amy Belk is a garden writer and photographer, a certified arborist, and a certified nursery professional who has been learning from her garden for 15 years. She and her husband homestead on a little piece of the desert in the heart of Tucson.

Herbal Highlights

A quick guide to a selection of the most popular cool season herbs in Baja Arizona.

Fall Annuals:

Borage is a fuzzy herb with a cool cucumber flavor. Flowers and leaves are both eaten. It prefers dry soil and a sunny location, but will accept some shade, and is easy to grow.

Calendula grows through the winter and fades away when things heat up. Its bright, pretty flowers are a nice bonus.

Cilantro is a two-for-one herb; the seeds from this self-sowing annual are called coriander. It does well in the cool temperatures of fall, and can be planted again by seed in spring.

Dill also serves as a spring annual in our climate. It can get fairly tall and needs protection from freezing temperatures.

Fennel is a slow-growing annual that can grow slightly taller than dill. It is a drought tolerant herb with a flavor reminiscent of licorice. Florence is a cold tolerant cultivar, while Zefano tolerates more heat.

Nasturtium has a flavor that is likened to radish. The stems, flowers, and leaves are all edible. It tolerates shade and loves water, but prefers sandy soil.

Parsley enjoys ample moisture and some afternoon shade. Flat-leaved Italian parsley is the most popular kitchen variety.

Fall Perennials:

Bay plants can get very large, but dwarf varieties are available. Give them good drainage and prune in fall if necessary.

Chamomile is an evergreen groundcover that accepts full sun or light shade.

Garlic chives work well in containers. Divide them in fall if they become too overcrowded.

Lavender flowers and leaves are both edible. English lavender has great flavor and Munstead is a cultivar that grows well in our climate. Spanish lavenders also do well here.

Lemon verbena loves the full sun, but tolerates some shade, too.

Oregano dislikes having wet roots. Make sure it has a sunny spot, good drainage, and good air circulation. Allow the soil to dry between water applications.

Rosemary does extremely well in our climate, as long as it has excellent drainage. Upright varieties that don’t produce too many woody stems are ideal for culinary use.

Sage is a spring flowering perennial that comes in many forms, but usually thrives in fast-draining soil and full sun. Hummingbirds enjoy the flowers, while people savor the leaves. The flavor begins to decline after a few years of growth, so it’s recommended to replace culinary sage every three years or so.

Tarragon freezes to the ground for many of us in the winter, but comes back from hardy roots in spring. It takes full sun, and does very well in containers with good drainage.

Thyme comes in many forms with many varieties that are well-adapted to our climate. Some make great groundcovers; there are even a few that you can walk on. Replace every few years for the best flavor.







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