The Best Drought Tolerant Herbs for Your Summer Garden

Lambs Ears
Planting drought tolerant herbs can make life easier in the garden. If you live in an arid location, even intermittently, choosing water loving plants for your garden means extra work and expense -- or a big disappointment somewhere down the road.

Hot, dry conditions stress plants and cause problems a number of ways:

  • The soil becomes compacted.
  • After a few seasons, cracked, dry soil can lose essential nutrients necessary for good plant growth.
  • Hot winds may send plants into a sudden decline.
  • What moisture does fall may come as big cloudbursts where water rushes into gutters and storm drains before it has a chance to soak into the soil.

The whole thing can be a meteorological, botanical and budgetary guessing game. So, is this going to be a good year or a lousy one for rain and predictable weather?

One way to hedge your bets in the herb patch (and out) is to plant a nice sampling of relatively drought tolerant specimens. This is easier than you might think. Herbs are nature's "make do" plants. They are often considered weeds in their native habitats, which makes them tough, resilient and enduring. Although most plants NOT grown for desert habitats require a reliable source of water, the herbs on this list are pretty hardy. Many are native to the Mediterranean, a spot that can get and stay  dry in summer.

Short List of Drought Tolerant Herbs

Sage - although Russian sage is often promoted as a drought tolerant plant, which it is, Perovskia
atriplicifolia doesn't have the culinary reputation of classic salvia sage varieties like garden sage. By most accounts, though, it is edible. Both Russian sage and Mexican sage (S. mexicana) are primarily ornamentals that can help create a green space in a hot summer garden and even provide shade for shorter, less drought tolerant herbs. Both can grow from 3 to 5 feet in height and spread almost as wide, with spiky purple flowers reminiscent of "cottage garden" sage.

Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is also somewhat drought resistant. Steer clear of pineapple sage and a few other specialty varieties unless you plan to keep them near a downspout or close to the garden hose. One other warning: Although garden sage and some of the colorful varieties like tri-colored and yellow sage can take some punishment, when they do begin to droop, it's hard to bring them back from it.

Thyme - It may seem counterintuitive, but little garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is scrappy. This plant can survive drought conditions and heat, even though its tiny leaves look delicate and vulnerable. Remember, this herb is native to the Mediterranean, so it knows its way around hot
summer afternoons.

Lavender - The lavenders are typically drought tolerant, but some fair better in humid conditions than others. There are also lots of cultivars available these days; you'll likely find one that suits your garden and your culinary or crafting plans. If you're in an area with four distinctive seasons a year, prefer varieties that can withstand cold as well as heat. English lavender is one, but there are

Chives - This onion relative is surprisingly drought, cold and humidity-proof. Its lavender flowers are charming in spring, and it's handy in the kitchen, too. This one never lets me down.

Artemisia – A large group of shrubs and bushes, the artemisias can look, smell and grow quite differently from one another, and have different characteristics to recommend them. Artemisias are often hardy and can have attractive feathery or silvery foliage. The herb bitter wormwood (Artemisia absinthium L.) is a type of artemisia used as a digestive aid and in bitters. Silver mound is an example of an artemisia cultivar (Artemisia schmidtiana) with good drought tolerance. There are others, too.

Lambs ears - Wooly Lambs ears (Stachys byzantina) has few herbal uses these days, but once it was considered a great wound dressing. Today it's used primarily as a landscape plant. It's quite lovely,  with fuzzy leaves and lavender stalks that can reach 18 inches high or a bit more if it's happy. It fills in so well it can become a bit of a pest. Children love it, though.
Flat Leaf Parsley

Flat leaf (Italian) Parsley
- Plants with long taproots, like flat leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum) fare well in dry conditions. Their long, thick roots retain moisture and nutrients when the going gets tough. As a rule of thumb, if a plant has a long taproot, it's less likely to be a drought casualty. Flat leaf parsley is the preferred parsley variety for cooking, too. Fennel is another example of a drought tolerant herb with a long taproot.

Here are some other  drought tolerant herb candidates that deserve an honorable mention: rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), Greek oregano (Origanum spp.) and Yarrow, (Achillea filipendulina).

Tips for Dealing with Drought Conditions

Before we get to the list, though, here are a few tips for making the most of what water nature does have on offer:

Afternoon shade - When conditions get hot and dry, plants that would otherwise thrive in full sun may need afternoon shade. In anticipation of a dry year, plan to offer plants some shade (or dappled light) during the hottest part of the day. Moveable screens or fences, tall screening plants and shade netting can help.

Mulching - Providing moisture for plants is only part of the challenge, the rest involves getting that moisture were it needs to go (to plant roots) before it evaporates or runs off. Mulching can help. A layer of almost any mulch product will help increase moisture retention in the soil around plants. Mulching will help potted plants retain water, too.

Smart watering - When water is scarce, every drop is precious. Watering methods like drip irrigation make the most efficient use of any water you have to share with your green growing things. These systems can be pretty cost effective and will save you money on your utility bill over time.

If you have to stick with supplementing water with your garden hose, avoid watering during the hottest part of the day. Prefer morning or evening watering. I like morning duty because it's less likely to contribute to plant problems like powdery mildew. Another option is to install a rain barrel and use the harvested water on your ornamental plants. (Harvested water may not be wholesome for plants you plan to use for culinary or medicinal purposes.)

Fill your beds - I like keeping my flower beds, herb and vegetable patches fully stocked. Although more plants means a higher water demand, the presence of all that greenery helps create a more humid, thriving microclimate and favorable growing conditions. This doesn't mean you should crowd specimens. Just create a healthy community of plants instead of leaving big, open spaces between plantings.

Plant commuters - This is more work, but you can always plant favorite specimens in self-watering pots filled with moisture control potting soil. Move the pots around your deck, patio, balcony or even flowerbed as needed. A spot that's perfect in May could be brutal by August. Moving plants to a shadier location could keep them healthy for the duration. In fall, plant the pot in a flowerbed for safekeeping outdoors, or bring it inside.

Feast or famine - Drought tolerant plants are superstars at surviving with less water. They may be somewhat more persnickety about dealing with an over-abundance of water, though. This can happen in heavy, clay soil that tends to stay soggy after a rain. You'd think that extra moisture would be welcome, but the roots of these plants are often ill suited for soggy conditions and unable to handle being waterlogged. The roots die off, and without healthy roots to take in water and nutrients, the plants starve.

For the best results, take care to provide drought tolerant plants with soil that drains well. If you're dealing with clay, consider adding organic amendments like compost and leaf mold to lighten and loosen the soil. To do the job right, have your soil tested if you haven't already. After a few years of preliminary prep in spring, your landscape will be rich, loamy and the envy of the neighborhood.


Sage Photo - Salvia_officinalis.jpg By Takkk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lamb's Ears Photo - LambsEars3_Wiki.jpg By Stan Shebs GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2


  1. Great list; I always enjoy reading your take on growing herbs.

  2. I have a terraced wall that gets scorching heat in the summer. I used this article when planting in it and it's doing amazing. So well, I need to figure out how to thin out some of these. Holy cow the lambs ear can fill in and quickly! I am also surprised at how the sage is growing outward and not really upwards. Which is fine. Looks great but it's early spring and I'm going to be in deep this summer if I don't thin some of these. Any advice? My preference would be to try to split and share the herbs if possible.

    1. If you do share herbs, sooner is better than later. Starts in hot summer locations don't do well. Aside from the water issue, thinning now is actually a great idea. Crowded herbs can suffer stress that makes them more vulnerable to pests and disease. With the sage and other leafy herbs, you can try harvesting thinned specimens and freezing or drying their leaves, stems and roots if applicable.I actually do this with cilantro and dill. They both grow fast early and tend to bolt if not constantly monitored. Thinning just makes good sense, and young leaves taste wonderful.


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