Creeping Thymes Make Wonderful Borders for Garden Beds, Paths, and PatiosBy Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist)
May 22, 2008
Creeping thymes provide fragrant, often evergreen accents for your landscape. The contrasting textures and colors of different varieties offer a wide range of possible effects. Single-variety borders have a simple formality that's altogether different from the crazy-quilt effect of using half a dozen varieties as groundcover throughout a bed. Once established, creeping thyme is tough. It tolerates both drought and moderate foot traffic. Most varieties have an added bonus of wonderful fragrance and delicate flowers.
Use low-growing thymes to border sunny garden beds. I've edged many of my landscape beds with rocks. I love combining rocks and thymes. Thymes planted here and there just behind the rocks cascade over them, and thymes planted in front of the rocks create a mowing edge. I run one wheel of the lawn mower right over the top of the thyme, and the adjoining turf is neatly trimmed with no need to break out the weed whacker.
Creeping thymes also make a wonderful border for hardscape features such as patios and paths. They soften the look of bricks, cement, or gravel surfaces, allowing them to blend better with adjacent lawn and garden areas. Once established, they'll tolerate some foot traffic. Low growing thymes also work well between stepping stones or patio pavers, even in high traffic areas. Any foot that steps on them will also be stepping on the surrounding stones or pavers, so the thyme won't get really smashed.
Thyme can be both a filler and a spiller in container plantings, adding texture, scent, and delicate blooms. It also makes a great filler or groundcover in the garden, too. It seems especially at home in formal rose gardens: softening stepping stones, accenting individual plants, or carpeting entire planting beds.
Although some thymes can be grown from seed, most specific cultivars of thyme are commercially propagated from cuttings, so they'll remain true to type. How many thyme plants do you need? The answer to that depends on how patient you're willing to be. You'll need to either make an investment in thyme or make an investment in time. With patience, you can turn one or two $3 pots of creeping thyme into enough plants to edge a bed or border a walkway.
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Creeping thyme is easy to propagate. My favorite way involves layering the thyme rather than taking cuttings.
Layering is just a way of encouraging the plant to do what it does naturally, sending down roots where a stem comes in contact with the ground. A single thyme plant in a 2 inch pot can be layered along the surface of a window box planter or 12 inch bowl. By the end of the summer, the container will be filled with top growth and roots, ready to be divided into plugs or chunks for planting out.
Establishing thyme as a border or groundcover can take a couple of seasons, depending on how much you're willing to initially invest in plant material. Creeping thyme will spread along the ground as its name implies, sending down roots where it touches the ground. But until it forms a dense mat, you'll have to pull out any weeds that try to invade. I find that if I leave more than an inch or two between plugs (4 or 5 inches between larger clumps), it takes more than one season to really start filling in.
Try to create optimal conditions at the soil surface to encourage layering when you plant out your clumps of thyme. Loose, moist soil will encourage roots to form where stems come in contact with the surface. I till and amend the soil where I want the thyme to spread, adding a bit of time release fertilizer and polymer moisture crystals. After the thyme is planted, you can spread out the stems and pin them down here and there with small rocks or with clumps of moist soil.
As with most herbs, good drainage at the planting site is crucial. It's a myth that herbs need to be dry. They don't like "wet feet," however, so if your soil is not well draining be sure to amend it with organic material and plant in raised beds or on mounds. With good drainage and full sun, daily watering will get your new thyme established quickly. Herbs don't mind being pampered! Thyme can get by with less water, but if you want it to spread as much as possible, regular watering is the key.
Some creeping thymes have wonderful, strong scents. ‘Caraway Thyme' has a pungent scent and deep green, pointed leaves on fast-spreading plants. ‘Doone Valley' is a low-growing lemon scented thyme. ‘Spicy Orange Thyme' has just the wonderful scent you'd expect from its name, plus wonderful fluffy-textured foliage. ‘Rose Petal Thyme' may not be low growing enough to qualify as "creeping," but it's my new favorite for luscious aroma. ‘Translucent Golden Thyme' and my seed-grown English thyme have traditional herbal aromas.
Other creeping thyme varieties have little scent but make up for the lack with especially attractive foliage or flowers. ‘Elfin' has less scent than grass, but it forms a dense mat of tiny, bright green leaves. ‘Wooly Thyme' has some scent but is popular more for its fuzzy silvery leaves and very flat-growing habit.
The magenta blooms of T. praecox ‘Reiter's Red' and the lavender blooms of ‘Hall's Wooly' thyme make them two of my favorite varieties, despite their faint herbal scents.
Look around your sunny garden beds, walkways, or patios. Find an area that might be enhanced with a carpeted nook or textured border of scented thyme. Choose a variety or two to propagate and plant out. Soon, you'll be convinced that every gardener needs more thyme.
Thanks to Cottage_Rose for sharing her wonderful photos of 'Elfin' thyme and 'Woolly' thyme and to Grampapa for sharing the beautiful image of her miniature rose underplanted with thyme. All other photos in the article are by the author.