One of the challenges of dry climate gardening is keeping the ground covered with lovely lush looking foliage between Christmas and Easter. Or, how to avoid the gaps that occur when it feels like half the garden has succumbed to heat and drought.
Luckily there are lots of easy plants to do the trick and some of the absolute easiest are culinary herbs.
For years I kept my herbs corralled in pots near the kitchen door. Then one joyous day I realised they mostly originated in the Mediterranean, were adapted to hot dry summers and would be perfectly happy out in the garden.
Not only that, many are acceptably decorative and even a short list of the most basic includes a variety of leaf shapes, sizes and colours.
Ogden Nash said “parsley is gharsley”, but common old parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is actually a brilliant ground cover with dense, curly, bright green leaves. The variety P. crispum ‘Crispum’ has extra tight, curled foliage, and taller Italian parsley P.c. ‘Neapolitanum’ has bigger, flatter leaves.
No on-trend flower border is complete without a few ornamental sages or Salvias and S. officinalis, the sage of sage-and-onion seasoning, also boasts some smart varieties. ‘Icterina’ has textured cream, gold and green leaves, and grey and purple ‘Purpurascens’ is equally pretty, especially when its mauve flowers emerge.
Tarragon is a glorious culinary herb, but only the tender leaves of variety A.d. sativa have the powerful but delicate, characteristic tarragon flavour.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has tiny, dark green leaves and pink flowers and is an excellent edging plant. Slightly taller, upright, fragrant lemon thyme (T.x. citriodorus) includes golden and silver striped forms.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is worth growing for ‘Aureum’ alone – a shiny gilt carpet in sun or shade with tiny white flowers. ‘Kent Beauty’ has quite different flowers resembling pink and green hops, but I struggle with this plant. It probably needs moisture, shelter from hot winds and TLC, all in short supply in my garden in February.
No-one could accuse chives (Allium) of needing cosseting, they flower for months and thrive on neglect. Onion chives (A. schoenoprasum) have small, round heads of mauve flowers and hollow leaves; garlic chives (A. tuberosum) have white flowers and flat, grassy leaves.
For a change, try Tulbaghia violacea aka society garlic because, unlike the real thing, you won’t be broadcasting what you had for dinner. There’s a pretty, variegated form with leaves striped white.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is a glorious culinary herb, but only the tender leaves of variety A.d. sativa have the powerful but delicate, characteristic tarragon flavour. Any other form is useless.
All the above are perennial apart from biennial parsley, which you sow in spring and keep damp until it’s up and running. It flowers in its second year and self-sows, though not aggressively.
If you’re in Melbourne on March 16-17, Di and Clive Larkman’s annual Herb and Chilli Festival (herbchillifestival.com.au) at 125 Quayle Road, Wandin is under an hour’s drive away. Stallholders offer a massive range of herbs, with more than 40 varieties of chilli, food, music and entertainment.