Herbs for Utah Gardens
By Lynsey Nielson, Red Butte Garden Horticulturist
There are few things more satisfying to me than wandering out to the garden, kitchen shears in hand, to collect fresh, fragrant herbs for tea, a cocktail, preserves, or other recipes. Although for a few minutes it seems like it—it is not, in fact, magic. Rather, it is the culmination of a fair amount of effort and patience, thoughtful planning and time spent on my knees. I still relish the feeling. Any time in the garden is time well spent, especially if it literally feeds me and people I care about.
In Utah we are fortunate to have many options for cultivating herb garden magic. Many of us plant a shiny new annual herb garden every year with basil, nasturtium, and others, but planning an herb garden with a perennial backbone is a way to ensure a bit of your efforts return to you year after year. In Utah, it turns out you can have your herbal cake and eat it too.
Some of the perennial herbs we grow in Utah are quite recognizable. Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is a well-loved, useful, drought-tolerant and adaptable herb we can grow in full sun or bright shade. The variety of thymes available to Utah gardeners are vast. Try ‘Pink Chintz’, ‘Elfin’ (Thymus serpyllum), or woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) as a creeper alongside or interspersed into pathways. Lemon thyme, ‘Spicy Orange’ and ‘Silver Queen’ (Thymus x citriodorus) are a bit fussier – well-drained sandy-loam soil is a must. If you are looking for the tough-as-nails varieties, stick to mother-of-thyme (Thymus praecox). Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) have beautiful pink flowers in late spring and fall that I love using in vinegars. Be careful not to let chives go to seed though, they can take over if you let them.
Some types of lavender (Lavendula angustifolia or L. x intermedia) also do really well in our Mediterranean-like climate and there are dozens of cultivars to choose from. I particularly love ‘Wee One’ for smaller gardens, or when you don’t want to devote space to a large lavender. Some varieties of rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) are more ‘cold hardy’ than others so it is important to pay attention to the USDA hardiness zone listed and make sure it is hardy in your area. Along the Wasatch Front, those with well-drained soils are able to grow ‘Arp’ and ‘Gorizia’ rosemary fairly well. Other cultivars are best assumed tender (unable to overwinter) unless you have a warm microclimate with well-drained soil where you can place it. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is consistently a top performer in Utah gardens and pollinators absolutely lose their minds over its flowers, so it has become one of my most-loved.
Some annual herbs will reliably self-seed in your garden, so even though they are not technically perennial, they can feel like they are. Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and borage (Borago officinalis) are my favorite self-seeders. I’m usually amused where they show up so I always let a few of them go to seed every year.
Although the annual herb summer savory (Satureja hortensis) gets much of the glory, winter savory (Satureja montana) is a semi-evergreen perennial that is fragrant, useful, easy to grow, and cute-as-a-button. It’s best to dead-head winter savory to control its re-seeding. If you’re lucky, you can find creeping winter savory (Satureja montana var. illyrica), a highly ornamental, useful, and low-maintenance favorite of mine. Another lesser-known herb worth trying is lesser calamint (Clinopodium nepeta ‘White Cloud’), which is another easy-to-grow pollinator magnet, used for teas or arrangements, and blooms for an astonishingly long time.
A few tips to keep in mind for a successful Utah herb garden are: 1) Be sure to harvest your herbs regularly and correctly to improve aesthetics and plant health; 2) Group plants that have similar needs (sun, soil, water) and; 3) If you want them to last, don’t crowd them! I can’t count how many over packed herb gardens, pots, and baskets I see around town. Another important tip for new herb gardeners, is to only plant mint (Mentha spp.) in pots, because once you have planted mint in the ground, it is very difficult to change your mind - they are notorious bullies that crowd out everything around them.
Perennial herbs are fun to incorporate into your ornamental garden. Many of them have beautiful colors, textures, and even flowers that can add both an aesthetic quality and a usefulness to your landscape. I think gardening should be inspiring and beneficial to you and our ecosystem, so I encourage you to explore thinking outside the tidy rows of herbs and bring them into the ornamental fold. Our native pollinators won’t complain either. Happy gardening!