Want a lesson in water-wise gardening? Try a sage.
Not just any salvia, although many members of this large and diverse plant family are quite at home with limited irrigation. Traditional culinary sage – Salvia officinalis – can prove to be an exceptional gauge for the low-water garden.
And it comes with a bonus: This herb smells and tastes good.
“They’re wonderful teachers, especially when you’re adjusting to a water-wise garden,” said Rose Loveall-Sale, owner of Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville. “They teach you patience and discipline.”
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Mediterranean herbs – such as sage, thyme, rosemary and lavender – have become popular additions to California gardens of all kinds. They grow great here. And they offer multiple benefits.
“Herbs do more than look pretty,” said Loveall-Sale, who grows more than 2,000 varieties at her nursery. “They’re multiple-faceted culinary and medicinal plants that add color and texture – and beauty – to our gardens.”
But they also come with a learning curve. For example, if you overwater one of those temperamental but delicious sages, they die.
“They won’t stand it,” Loveall-Sale said. “They turn up their little toes and just keel over. It’s root rot and it can be sudden and ugly. I know; I’ve killed plenty of them.”
Culinary sages usually die of kindness. The initial stages of root rot make the plant droop and appear wilted.
“What’s your first reaction? You give that plant a drink,” she said. “That just makes it worse.”
Learning plant preferences is part of the challenge of any new kind of gardening; low-water landscapes are no exception.
Too much water – the amount delivered by two- or three-times-a-week schedules that seem “normal” – can be fatal for drought-tolerant plants. Or it can turn them into garden thugs that quickly overgrow their bounds.
Loveall-Sale recommends Purpurea and Berggarten culinary sages for the Sacramento area. They can stand the summer heat as well as winter chill. They form low-growing woody perennials that look handsome in the low-water garden. They grow best paired with other plants with the same water requirements; don’t mix them in with squash or basil such as in a summer vegetable garden.
These culinary sages demand well-drained soil – making them a challenge in local clay soils, too.
The answer? Plant them on mounded soil – like atop a little hill – to encourage good drainage and happy roots, Loveall-Sale recommends. Then once the sage gets established (usually its first full year in the ground), deep-water these perennial herbs once every three or four weeks.
Keep sage high and dry, and those roots will stay happy, she said.
During that “establishment” period, irrigation can be a little tricky. Too much, and the plant can develop rot. Too little, and it becomes dehydrated. In sage, both conditions look similar. Before watering, feel the soil. If it’s still moist, then you know what your sage is trying to tell you – too much!
Loveall-Sale’s advice: Start with weekly irrigation, then adjust.
Fall is the best time of year to add these flavorful and often fragrant favorites, Loveall-Sale said.
In the case of lavender, it leads to spring flowers. Native to the Mediterranean, fragrant lavender has become a mainstay of low-water landscapes.
“Lavender planted in fall is the secret to success,” she said. “Most people plant their lavender in the spring when it’s already in bloom; that’s when they see it in nurseries. But planted in spring, it doesn’t have a chance to really get its roots down and growing. By summer, they're just like the rest of us – trying to survive the heat. They don’t produce flowers.
“When you plant lavender in the fall, its roots grow strong. They have all winter to develop. In spring, you have beautiful blooms. If you prune it hard after blooming – about 30 percent of each stem – it grows more flowers in fall.”
If you plan to eat those flowers, choose English lavender varieties such as Hidcote Blue or Folgate; they have a delicate sweetness. The French and Spanish lavenders tend to taste soapy, although they can be used in savory Herbs de Provence.
“I love lavender ice cream,” Loveall-Sale said. “Can you tell?”
Thyme, another herb with many variations, has become increasingly popular as a low-water ground cover or lawn replacement. It’s a versatile culinary ingredient with cute little leaves, compact size and pleasant scents.
An evergreen perennial, thyme can thrive for a couple of seasons, then suddenly dry up and die, leaving gardeners perplexed.
It’s normal, Loveall-Sale explained. Thyme has a limited lifespan, usually three years, then dies back to be replaced by its young and succulent offspring. So if you seem to kill thyme, you're not alone. Like sage, thyme prefers life on the dry side. Over-watering will hasten its demise.
Rosemary, another low-water Mediterranean staple, can be exceptionally long lived. In Italy, some woody examples have lasted more than a century. Treat it like sage, and it will be happy, and so will the bees who love its blue flowers.
Oregano benefits from less water – and so do its neighbors. With too much irrigation, this trailing herb grows rapidly, suffocating nearby plants. Less water tames its wild habits. Treat it like mint; keep its roots restrained, Loveall-Sale recommends. Trim it regularly.
All these herbs do best planted now, she added, especially in our Mediterranean climate.
“Nurseries do 90 percent of their sales in the spring,” she said, “but fall is for planting.”