Some gardeners grow herbs for their culinary uses, and others grow them for their medicinal applications. Still others grow herbs to brew their favorite teas or to make flavorful vinegars, butters, and oils. Some, like me, have them purely for the pleasure of growing them and working among them. Few, however, realize that some herbs can be "scentsational" groundcovers.
Most of the time, herbal groundcovers are behind-the-scenes players with supportive roles in the garden. They simply blanket the ground with a mat of green. Visitors to the garden seldom notice the creepers, but they’re sure to ask about the bright flowers that grow among them.
Many times these ground-hugging, little-noticed green plants make the difference between a garden with a disjointed appearance and one that is cohesive with all elements seeming to blend and belong together. Groundcovers transition from the taller plants to the ground and provide resting places for the eye and visual relief from too much color and “busyness.” Although many folks pay them little attention, these small herbal groundcovers richly deserve their space in the garden.
Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) growing in a sunny bed between the circular driveway and the street is a personal favorite. Hugging the ground at about two to four inches tall, this small thyme is sometimes used as a filler between stepping stones. When used like this, its fragrance is released every time someone steps on it. Several cultivars are available, and they differ in flower color which may be lavender, white, pink or purplish red, as well as in flavor. Plants spread to about two or more feet in width and are embellished with flowers that appear in late spring and early summer. Maintenance is easy as they do not take over like some more vigorous groundcovers, and they can be used in cooking and potpourri. They need a sunny place out of range of the sprinkler system, especially in the humid southeastern United States.
Creeping oregano (Origanum vulgare humile) is another groundcover that has found a home in my garden. It grows into a brilliant evergreen mat that smothers out weeds and other encroaching vegetation. Nearby is creeping golden marjoram (Origanum vulgare aureum). Off to the other side is a beautiful variegated cultivar. Together they make an interesting contrast in color. Mix them carefully, however, or the dark green form will overtake the less vigorous yellow-green and variegated cultivars. It is not these tiny groundcover oreganos that are grown for the pizza. If the seasoning herb is wanted, look for Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum).
The lavender cotton out front vies for my attention. Two species grow in my garden. Santolina rosmarinifolia (syn. S. virens) grows into a 12-18-inch mass of finely textured, aromatic bright green foliage with interesting button-like yellow flowers appearing in spring. Santolina chamaecyparissus has a similar growth habit, but a decidedly different look since its foliage is gray. Both species have scented leaves that are useful in herbal crafts and for their insecticidal and medicinal properties.
Creeping rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) spreads along the edge of a landscaped area. Leathery, green aromatic branches tumble over each other as they grow outward. Prostrate rosemary drapes attractively over the edges of garden walls, raised beds and containers. Creeping rosemary can be used in cooking, but its flavor is milder than the upright types.
Two flavorful plants that make useful groundcovers are society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). Although not creeping, stepable groundcovers, they are clumping plants that can attractively cover a large space. Growing into clumps a foot or so tall (taller when in bloom), they can be used as a solid mass or as border or edging plants. Society garlic produces clusters of lavender flowers while those of garlic chives are white. Both are edible, and both make excellent additions to bouquets, floral designs, or to the salad bowl.
Continuing my perusal of the garden, several other herbs capture my attention. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) grows along the edge of a path where its lemony fragrance is released when I brush against it. The silvery foliage of curry plant (Helichrysum angustifolium) grows in a sunny place out by the street. Growing into a mound less than a foot tall, it releases its scent into the air on sunny, still days.
The lesson in all this is that herbs have many uses that extend beyond their medicinal and culinary applications. Use them for these purposes, of course, but do not overlook them as possibilities for attractive, “scentsational” groundcovers.