Among the easiest gardens to establish, maintain and use, even here in the challenging Mojave, are herb gardens. This of course, begs the question: “What’s the definition of an herb?” There really isn’t any clear-cut definition; we could simply describe it as a plant that isn’t a tree, a vine or a shrub. Frequently (but not always) it has a noticeable flavor or an aroma that attracts us. We usually think of them as seasonings, but many of them have a history of medicinal. Before people had local pharmacies where they could obtain medications for their various ailments, they went out to the garden or field to find whatever possible remedies were growing around. The healing properties of some herbs are still widely recognized; think of aloe for burns and other skin problems. Even if people do not now produce fennel and mint to ease an upset stomach, or grow “rosemary for remembrance” as old English herbalists would say, they’re still attractive plants that survive in the Southern Nevada environment.
These days, even though we rarely have to rely on herbs to deal with our infirmities, many of them are pretty and simple to grow. Gardeners in this region have good reason to complain about our difficult environmental conditions, but with just a little extra attention, many herbs grow easily in Southern Nevada landscapes. Even more are perfect for a windowsill garden.
Here are a few herbs you can try here Southern Nevada. They thrive in full sun, although they might not all do terrifically well during the hottest days of July and August. Then again, who does?
Aloe is the genus of a large number of desert plants that are common in xeriscape, but they can grow perfectly well in pots. Some can grow to be four feet tall and as just as wide when they’re planted outside. Since they did not originate in the Mojave, they need to be protected from chilling. Botanically, what we call aloe vera is actually Aloe barbiensis, but say the word “aloe”, and it means the same thing to most of us.
Fennel can grow to be four to five feet tall. When planting the seeds, just put a very thin layer of soil over them, and keep them about one foot apart. Don’t try transplanting them; this isn’t one to start indoors.
Some of us think of garlic as a vegetable, even a food group unto itself, but for others, it is a culinary herb. This, despite research indicating it may be beneficial for anything from atherosclerosis to tuberculosis. Individual cloves are planted, pointed end up - four inches deep and four inches apart – in the fall and harvested in the spring. Healthy plants have rich green leaves that contrast with other colors in the garden. They are also reputed to repel insects and diseases from other plants.
Peppermint is often used for digestion. It can get up to three feet tall. If you’re planting it in a bed put the plants about 18” apart. Remember though, that this and any of the mints are mighty aggressive. To prevent it from overrunning your entire garden, grow it in a pot.
Rosemary is so common in Southern Nevada landscapes that we might forget it’s an herb. And, In addition to its supposed memory-improving properties, some research indicates it might be a baldness cure! Some varieties can grow to six feet tall, although there’s also a prostrate cultivar that can be a ground cover.
Duke University Medical School has a demonstration herb garden that’s part of its History of Medicine collection. If you look at the University of Maryland website there’s an extensive list of herbs and their medicinal uses, along with precautions concerning them. That’s definitely something to take a look at before you start thinking about using any herb medicinally.
For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.