Healing in the Desert: Grow A Drought Resistant Medicinal Garden

With a little planning, even gardeners in arid climates can enjoy the healing power of plants and herbs. Grow your own healing garden with these medicinal plants of the southwest.

Drought conditions are common in states like Arizona, California, and New Mexico. And many times, city officials may restrict how often residents can water their gardens. Smart gardeners choose native plants in these climates since these plants can thrive with less water and drier conditions.

Planning the Medicinal Garden In a Dry, Arid Climate

Dedicated gardeners know how difficult it is to entice edible crops out of dry ground. However, many have also learned how to work with the land instead of against it to grow many beautiful, edible, and medicinal herbs. 

Drought tolerant herb garden with blooming lavendar along the footbaths

A good start is to research, both by books and nature walks, which medicinal herbs may grow wild in your area. Native peoples have used some herbs for hundreds, if not thousands of years. You can bring some of these herbs into your own drought-tolerant medicinal garden, where they can thrive and offer their healthful qualities will be close at hand.

Some garden plants have been bred to be drought tolerant. Some physical features of drought-tolerant herbs are:

  • Small leaves that limit moisture evaporation
  • Hairy leaves that help prevent water loss.
  • Plants that develop long, tuber-like roots systems to tap into deep water supplies.
  • Plants such as succulents with thick, tough “leaves” or thick stems that store moisture for dry seasons.

Although raised beds are not necessary, they can help in organizing and containing spreading herbs. Some shrub herbs can become quite large. These herbs work well along fences or as natural barriers around the garden area. 

There are also some herbs in your medicinal garden that may benefit from a layer of mulch. You may want to group these plants in one bed to enjoy the extra moisture-retaining treatment.

Drought-Tolerant Medicinal Plants of the Southwest U.S.

The arid climate of the Southwest United States contains a plethora of herbal remedies. Native peoples have taken advantage of these natural remedies for centuries to treat ailments from upset stomach to arthritis. 

Medicinal Plants of Arizona and New Mexico

Medicinal plants of arizona and new mexico photo collage - prickly pear, juniper berries and jojoba

Just a few of the more common medicinal plants of Arizona and New Mexico include:

  • Prickly Pear Cactus: A natural anti-inflammatory, its fruit is a good source of antioxidants. It makes an excellent protective barrier but should be kept away from children and pets.
  • Juniper: Is used as a barrier shrub. The berries are used to treat urinary tract infections, and the plant’s distinctive scent is used therapeutically in spas.
  • Jojoba: This herb is found in several commercial skincare products. The oily plant can be rubbed directly on the skin to treat acne, sunburn, or psoriasis. 

Medicinal Plants of Colorado

Medicinal plants of colorado collage - lavender, choke cherries and yarrow

Colorado also has many drought-resistant native plants that can add beauty and usefulness to any home herb garden. 

  • Yarrow: A highly desirable first-aid herb, yarrow is a natural astringent and antiseptic for treating scrapes and cuts.
  • Lavendar: Once established, lavender can become a dependable perennial. Its scent is often used to calm nerves, and as tea has similar effects on the digestive system. Mixing lavender in with other perennial, medicinal flowers can help create a colorful, low-maintenance herbal display.
  • Choke cherries: This low-growing bush cherry’s fruit is a natural astringent. Its berry is high in antioxidants and makes an excellent jam.

Medicinal Plants of California

Medicinal Plants of California collage - hedge nettle, california sagebrush and lilac

Many Southwestern states share common medicinal herbs. But some are unique to each state. 

California has many beautiful flowering plants with medicinal properties. As with any native plants, care should always be taken to thoroughly research any plant’s uses before trying them on yourself or your family members.

  • Hedge Nettle: Like yarrow, hedge nettle is a native plant with healing properties. It can be used as an astringent for cleansing wounds. Despite its name, hedge nettle does not irritate as other nettles do.
  • Lilac: This ubiquitous evergreen is known for its colorful flowers. The blooms can be used to make soap or can be combined with the leaves to brew a tonic tea. 
  • California Sagebrush: This popular herbal garden shrub is a natural insect repellant. The shrub can grow up to four feet high and make an excellent outlying addition to a backyard herb garden.

Common Drought-Resistant Garden Herbs

Along with regional natives, some common medicinal herbs that will grow in almost any climate include the following:

  • Rosemary: This herb varies greatly in size, depending on the variety planted and the soil conditions. It may grow from 1-3 feet high. It makes a great container plant, as it doesn’t care for cold weather, so you can bring it in when the weather cools. Rosemary is a culinary favorite but also beneficial for digestive issues and increased brain function.
  • Oregano: Once established, oregano is a dependable perennial, culinary herb. Medicinally, oregano can be useful for a wide range of maladies, from lung function to arthritis. 
  • Chives: Chives are yet another persistent perennial with both culinary and health benefits. Chives are even said to help the body fight cancer.
  • Thyme: This low-growing medicinal herb thrives well in dry conditions. Thyme is antibacterial, antifungal, and can be useful for lung, digestive, or urinary tract disorders.
oregano thyme and rosemary in wooden spoons over a bed of dried healing herbs

Planning a Medicinal Herb Garden

Here are some important steps to remember as you plan your home garden space.

1. Soil Preparation

Even in arid locations, you’ll need to dig down far enough to ensure no large rocks will block the path of root systems seeking deep moisture. You may want to add some initial nutrients to the soil at least the first year, as perennials establish themselves.

2. Placing the Plants

Make sure you know how much room fully mature plants will need before putting them in the ground. Don’t overcrowd. Leave plenty of room so growing plants will not have to compete overmuch for sun or moisture.

Herbs can vary greatly in height. Leave plenty of room, even a walkway, between larger shrubs and shorter ground-hugging herbs. Some gardeners like to keep the same herb planted together, while others prefer a more natural-looking hodge-podge. 

Researching photos online or in books will give you an idea of how different plants will look together. Planting the same herb in several interspersed beds rather than all in one spot will add more visual interest to your garden space.

Dig holes deep enough to accommodate the plant’s root system and leave room to grow. Adding a bit of peat or other potting material into each hole will make it easy for roots to initially spread into new spaces below and around the plant.

closeup of gardener planting oregano in mulch covered ground

3. Add Mulch In The First Year

Although many drought-resistant plants may not need mulch in the long run. However, it’s still a good idea for the first year. Give your arid plants the maximum chance for a good start by protecting tender new roots from extreme weather or garden pests.

4. Watering Your Medicinal Plants

It’s a good idea to water well about once a week during the garden’s first growing season. Once the plants have established themselves, they will require much less attention, if any. In cases of extreme drought, you’ll want to check the soil. If it becomes dry to three inches or more, you’ll need to water to maintain healthy plants.

5. Creating Interest and Variety

One rule of thumb for the creative gardener is to try something new each year. Gardeners in the Southwest U.S. may try to incorporate Mediterranean or Eastern medicinal herbs. Herbs such as Black Cumin, Aloe, or Acacia are becoming more popular in the west and offer many medicinal options.

If you incorporate containers into your space, remember the type of pots you use can make a huge difference in the outcome. Unglazed pots won’t hold moisture for long, so water more often to avoid having your plants cooked by dry heat. Check all pots regularly and water once the soil is dry to around two inches.

And remember, plants that some consider weeds may have great medicinal value and visual appeal in a well-planned herbal garden. 

Summary

There are many beautiful medicinal plants of the southwest to choose from. A medicinal garden in an arid climate can be a low-maintenance use of space. There is no end to the possibilities for both beauty and health benefits.

Many species of medicinal plants are all around us. We have only to bring them home and put them to good use to reap a more fit and vigorous lifestyle.

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