Herbs Reward Water Conservation

July 31, 2004

By Mary Giambalvo,
Master Gardener

If we live on
the Central Coast of California for more than a few years, we will, inevitably, experience a drought.In the 1980s, I watched in despair as my lush, thirsty gardens drooped and declined for the better part of the decade.In desperation, I turned to drought-agreeable Mediterranean herbs, and became a lifelong fan.Even as the winter rains finally returned, my herbs remained and increased in number every year.

Now, I am told, weíre back in
the drought mode, and it is high time to give herbs their rightful place in our gardens if we havenít already.Why?We have the perfect climate and soil for them.Those fragrant fields of lavender in France and rocky cliffs of heady rosemary and oregano in Italy and Greece can be ours, too.These herbs, along with sages, marjoram and dozens of other Mediterranean Basin herbs grow all by themselves in wild places.They can surely survive in our gardens with little or no care.

Every fall, I plant a few more lavenders and rosemary plants in places where little else will gain a foothold.A new marjoram or sage gets tucked in, as well.The natural soil is sandstone, alkaline, and often steeply banked, just
the way those feisty herbs like it.One or two waterings to get them settled, and I leave them alone.The sometimes meager fall and winter rains keep them thriving, and, by summer, they are on their own.

I dig out and replace lavenders and sages every five years or so because
they tend to get woody and gnarly.My earliest rosemary plants, however, are from the 1980s, and although they have never seen a drop of water that did not fall from the clouds, they still look good.Those in warmer areas might want to give some supplemental watering, but then, I doubt any part of San Luis Obispo County gets any warmer and drier than the wild hills of Sicily and Crete in the summer months.

As for fertilizing,
the answer is I donít.Mediterranean herbs prefer not to be fed and coddled.They donít mind a haircut any time of the year, though.I regularly harvest the oregano and lavender and give the rosemary an occasional trim.Beyond that, they take care of themselves.For my neglect, I am rewarded with fragrance, culinary delights, and honeybees in abundance.

The best part is
there is no guilt from spending Californiaís precious water, and we all can enjoy Mediterranean ambience between or instead of junkets to southern Europe.

University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers can provide additional gardening information upon request.Call the San Luis Obispo office at 781-5939 on Mondays and Thursdays from 1 to 5 PM, the Arroyo Grande office at 473-7190 on Wednesdays from 9 AM to 1 PM, or the Paso Robles office at 237-3100 on Wednesdays from 9 AM to Noon.  The San Luis Obispo Master Gardener website is at http://groups.ucanr.org/slomg/.Questions can be e-mailed to mgsanluisobispo@ucdavis.edu.