You may not think that we need drought tolerant herbs in the UK with our notoriously wet Summer months, however they can and will thrive in most gardens.
There is often a confusion that plants that are drought tolerant will also enjoy full sunshine. A lot of the drought resistant herbs are from the Mediterranean and therefore enjoy heat, sunshine and poor quality soil. Good drainage is the key to keeping roots rot free. Summer months without rain can also be coupled with long Winter’s or floods.
We hope to cover the entire range here so that you can find the perfect herb for your zone and climate.
Drought Tolerant Herbs
- Lovage prefers a slightly shaded part of the garden and will reward you with tasty celery like leaves. For a leafy herb it is unusual that it be drought tolerant as most of the moisture is lost through the leaves. However it is the long taproot that allows lovage to find water from below the surface. We use lovage leaves in salads or added to stews when finely chopped at the last minute. We pop the stalks into the slow cooker when making stews but use a bouquet garni method.
- Rosemary is the perfect herb for a lazy gardener. Once you have good drainage added to soil you can pretty much leave it to it. As a perennial shrub rosemary will grow on each year. It can take full sunshine and you will be able to harvest pretty much all year round. Even once rosemary has flowered it will still have plenty of pine like leaves ready to cook with and create meals with a real taste of the Mediterranean. Cooking rosemary with roasted garlic is a natural companion and you can really rely on this herb for so many dishes.
- Thyme grows on rocky outcrops and generally poor quality soil. It can be great drought tolerant ground coverage for under tree canopies and will do well planted in pots with oregano. You will love the variety of flavors that you can get from thyme as it is one of the most aromatic of herbs. Make sure to buy your plants from reputable nurseries and get good quality herbs that will be a stable perennial in your garden.
- Borage is a super herb for ground cover and weed suppressing. It is also a super herb for feeding pollinators as it replaces it’s nectar every few minutes. The feathery leaves help to retain moisture and the long tap roots of borage will make it drought hardy. That tolerance means it can self seed and become a keen invader of many gardens. So keep it as green manure and use those properties to encourage pollinators into the garden.
- Oregano is the taste of Italian cuisine. It can make or break most dishes and the main reason that people contact us to ask about theirs dying off is actually over watering. Oregano grows wild in Italy and the Mediterranean, choosing sites that are sunny and offering good drainage. Very much a drought tolerant herb that will benefit from periods of missing watering. Oregano will still be tasty after and during the flowering period, so another great herb for all year round.
- Lavender loves having dry roots and good drainage. It is the perfect drought tolerant herb as it will be a perennial to fill borders and line garden paths. You can use dried lavender in cooking or crafting alike. It will be an easy herb to get wrong if grown from seed as there is a long period from germination to the first flowering season. So we recommend growing from strong and healthy plants by taking cuttings and propagating that way.
- Sage is another slightly feathery leafed plant that will resistant long periods of drought. It has such a strong and aromatic flavor that we think it should be a staple in most herb garden. Sage is a perfect perennial that will clump and benefit from division, this means that it is a very cost efficient herb to grow. It does not need full sunshine to grow, but good drainage will really benefit this plant. Dig through some well rotted organic matter to help improve it. Sage can be much more exciting when grown at home than bought from the supermarket, because you can go for unusual favors like a tangerine sage, or pineapple sage. Sage is the ultimate hardy perennial for any garden as the flowers are so attractive too.
- Hyssop is quite an overlooked herb, however please do look again at this gorgeous clumping perennial, drought tolerant herb. Once it has established in your garden hyssop will be fine in full sunshine with little to no water. The thick study leaves do not lend themselves to releasing too much moisture in hot, windy days. When it is in full flower there will be an abundance of flowers that bring in the bees and make hyssop a really helpful herb to grow.
- Echinacea is one of those herbs that you can plant and leave to get on with it. You will find a variety of echinacea plants and seeds when you shop in a specialist store. They will happily fill any space and become a clumping perennial that are extremely reliable over the years. Great for insects and it is so easy to grow and use division to get new plants. Super easy for kids to grow as well, they love the flowers and really can’t over water or under water!
- Fennel as a herb can be great for architectural wow factor. It plants well towards the back of a garden bed as it will grow to a great height. We do not find that it needs full sunlight, rather partial shade, but it will find and store water in times of heavy rain and will then survive in times of drought. You can eat all of the aniseed tasting herb and we harvest leaves throughout the year for herbal teas. When you harvest the bulb then the herb stops being a perennial and will be great in a gratin or stew.
- Bay Laurel can actually really struggle with over watering and when grown in pots we would always advise being careful in particularly wet periods, moving them to a more sheltered location. When you notice yellowed leaves on a bay tree, that is when you know it has had too much water. The leaves are thick and will not release moisture in the hottest times of day, just lovely essential oils. We use bay leaves in lots of different recipes and would advise getting familiar with how to remember to take it out again as those hard, sharp leaves are pretty horrible to come across in cooking!
- Lemon Verbena is a great shrub to grow in pots or the ground. Depending on the zone you live in you may need to overwinter it, if there are heavy frosts and harsh rainfalls. We grow ours in pots to minimize the risk of frosts and bring the plants inside to a more sheltered location. Lemon verbena is drought tolerant and will benefit from a period of no watering. The most intense of all of the citrus scented herbs. Lemon verbena is also a great bug repellent and will keep you happy during family meal times outdoors.
What Is Drought Tolerance
When a herb thrives in drought conditions it is because it has built up a tolerance in any number of ways. Some have been specifically bred this way, mainly crops like corn or wheat. We are looking at ones that have evolved to make the most of their environment. Meaning that if we treat them like other plants and try to over water them, they will struggle.
This ability to maintain its biomass production during drought conditions is what has allowed the herb to survive in arid conditions that they would find on the side of a hill in Italy for example.
- desiccation tolerance in terms of drought tolerance means that your plants will have adapted to reduce the effects of dryness. So leaves that are thick and don’t contain too much mositure, like lemon verbena or bay laurel are perfect. Then you have leaves with like hairs on to reduce water loss in dry conditions, like borage or sage.
- detoxification is the process of removing harmful enzymes in a plant and will reduce its need for water to do this.
- repair or xylem embolism is the main route for moisture and nutrients to be pulled up from the ground. Borage and lovage have these amazing long tap roots that will allow the xylem embolism to draw moisture from below the surface of the soil. They bring nutrient and nitrogen with them, making them great nitrogen fixers as well.
Drought tolerant herbs are the perfect solution to hanging baskets that need watering twice a day in Summer! For more information on growing a herbal hanging basket have a look at our latest article.
For more on understanding the gardening terms and language that we use have a look at this article here.
I hope to have gone some way to showing you that no matter the zone or climate of your area, you can still grow a healthy herb garden. One where you will be able to create a culinary masterpiece from!
Check out some of our growing guides and see if anything strikes you are exciting to grow!