Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

From the Inbox: Getting Started with Herbs

From a Correspondent:

I am not a gardener, but my goal this summer is to grow a few herbs and see how I do. I thought a couple of small pots on my back patio might be the easiest route to go. I have found some conflicting advice on the Internet about what I could plant. Here’s what I wanted to start with: chives and basil – what do you think? If you could get me started, hopefully my experience will grow from there.
Thanks,
Lisa
Chandler, Ariz.

Good morning Lisa,

You're in luck: in the Desert Garden you can grow almost any culinary herb worth growing. Many of our best herbs are Mediterranean in origin, which means with a little bit of care they tend to thrive in our hot and dry environment. Just glancing out the window here at the Ranch I can see Lavender, Rosemary, Oregano, Marjoram, Summer Savory, Epazote, Bay, Italian Basil, Thai Basil, Thyme, Chamomile, Mint, Sage, and Petunias. Petunias aren't herbs of course, but they volunteered all over the herb garden and seem to get along well.

As you can tell, there's no doubt that you can grow herbs in the desert, and Basil and Chive are excellent choices.

The more critical part of your question is really whether growing them in pots is the easiest route. I will admit to a certain bias against growing plants in pots in the Desert Garden, primarily because of the realities of our Summer weather, and the care and attention that can require. As you consider putting plants in pots, keep in mind that as our temperatures soar above 100°, soil temperatures in your pots will also rise. Hot soil combined with the limited water-holding capacity of pots can be very hard on plants. More sensitive plants, especially those in full sun, may require water twice a day or more in order to stay alive. If you do use pots, consider using large pots with lots of soil, and try to keep your potted plants out of mid-day sun.

Both Basil and Chives will do well even planted now. You'll want to buy started plants at this time of year, rather than growing from seed, and move the plants gradually into bright outdoor light, so they have a chance to adjust. Morning sun exposure, and bright light or very filtered sun the rest of the day is ideal for both. Don't let the plants dry out completely, but don't keep them soggy either. Basil will tell you when it needs water by wilting slightly; try to time your watering so that it gets moisture just before you see the wilting leaves.

For planting a more extensive herb garden, Autumn is the best time for planting. The combination of warm soil and cooling air temperatures is perfect for establishing the plants. If you have the space, try to find a spot for your herb garden that will have filtered shade mid-Summer and 6 to 8 hours of sun the rest of the year; under a deciduous tree can be a good spot. Most of your herbs are perennials or sub-shrubs and will go for years. Basil is a tender annual, and will generally freeze dead in the late-Winter frosts; replace it in the spring with new plants or scatter seed around and let it grow. I have Basil that has been volunteering in the garden for years.

You can plant a very formal herb garden if you wish, but I take a pretty casual approach and let everything jumble together. Many herbs do tend to sprawl as they grow, so keep them about a foot apart as you're planting but then let them grow as they will. As long as they get enough water to keep them from wilting and failing, herbs will pretty much thrive on neglect. And you get to eat them.

I hope this helps,

Tyler

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