Herbs at Your Fingertips. . .
and Beneath Your Feet!
Ground covers and stepables are an important part of the herb garden. Herb ground covers such as creeping thyme make fragrant stepables for garden paths, walkways and herbal lawns. They work well between pavers, in low-use areas of the yard, or as a transition from the path to taller plants beyond. They give "patio plant" a whole new meaning - not just a plant in a pot on the patio, but a part of the patio itself! The appeal of herbal groundcovers as a low maintenance alternative to lawns shows little sign of fading. We have a short list of favorite groundcovers that we have used successfully in our own gardens and have had positive feedback from customers in using them in their own gardens (see sidebar.)
For many years we had Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) in the path of our Medicinal Garden. Chamomile is one of the oldest herbs in continuous use since the time of the Egyptians, who dedicated it to the gods. It forms a dense evergreen mat that smells deliciously like apples. This wonderful perennial grows to a height of around 6" and can take either full sun or part shade.The daisy-like white flowers can be used to treat the symptoms of colds and to soothe the stomach and nervous system. As a groundcover, Roman Chamomile has the benefit of being able to endure being mowed with a lawnmower or weed whacker to keep it at lawn height. After a few times of being mowed the plant will begin to dwarf making upkeep even simpler. Another superb medicinal that can be used as a lawn is Common Yarrow.
But topping the list for the most desirable groundcovers and stepables are by far Creeping Thyme and Corsican Mint.
A Path Through Thyme:
Growing a Thyme Lane or Thyme Lawn
Creeping Thyme is at the heart of our garden. When we began The Thyme Garden in 1989, our fascination with the thymus genus was immense. We became collectors, with as many as 70 varieties of low growing thymes in propagation. Because thyme varietals can cross pollinate quite easily and produce rogues, we have even developed a few our own Thyme Garden varietals: Snow White Thyme, a low growing variety with true green leaves and abundant pure white flowers and an upright we call Tropicana Thyme that has delicate leaves with a tutti-frutti fragrance. Since cross pollination is a concern with thyme, it is very uncommon to find seeds for low-growing varieties like Elfin Thyme or Wooly Thyme which will be propagated by cuttings to insure that offspring are true to the desired characteristics of the varietal.
That being said, we do offer four varieties of thyme by seed that will show uniform traits: Mother of Thyme, Creeping Thyme, Magic Carpet Thyme, and Mixed Creeping Thyme.
Mother of Thyme (Thymus serpyllum), also known as Wild Thyme, is a low growing subshrub (4-6") with green oval shaped leaves and lilac to pale pink flowers that stand up on about 4” stems. The leaves are fragrant and the flowers are abundant. It prefers full sun but can tolerate partial shade (shaded plants will be lankier and flower less). This is not our lowest growing variety, but it does withstand some foot traffic. It can be used as a low maintenance thyme lawn and makes a gorgeous ground cover for hillsides. You can also plant it as a living pathway for light use areas and enjoy its pretty blooms throughout the summer. Mother of Thyme can be used in the kitchen as well, but it doesn't pack quite as much thyme flavor as other culinary thymes, such as French Thyme or German Winter Thyme.
Although this variety of thyme is commonly found for sale as "Creeping Mother of Thyme", that is a bit misleading. Mother of Thyme does not "creep" like other varieties but grows upright (though not very tall) from a woody stem. The nice thing about this thyme is that it is hardy and evergreen and can be bought in bulk quantities, but it is not the type you are probably looking for to grow between pavers. We offer Mother of Thyme in bulk quantities for growers desiring to cover a large area. To figure out quantities for your project, see How Much Thyme Seed Do I Need?
Our Creeping Thyme seed is a very low growing variety (measuring in at a ground-skimming ½”!) of Thymus serpyllum that is hardy in zones 4-9. This type is especially useful between stepping stones because it forms a tight dense mat of dark green leaves that give rise to a profusion of pink to rose flowers. Creeping Thyme spreads quickly and roots all along the stems which helps it hold up to being tread upon.
Another very low growing thyme we offer is our Magic Carpet Thyme. This cultivar blooms about a week earlier than our Creeping Thyme and the flower stems are slightly longer. It produces masses of pink flowers that look beautiful spilling over rocks and between pavers. Magic Carpet is hardy in zones 4-8.
We also offer Mixed Creeping Thyme which is gathered from all of the varieties of low growing thyme in our garden and will create a tapestry of colors, textures, and scents. Because thymes cross pollinate, you may even end up with a one of a kind specimen!
Tips for Germinating Thyme Seed
Once you have selected the variety of thyme you’d like to start, you have to make a decision on how you want to plant them. Thyme seed is very small and needs to be kept moist while germinating – just one instance of drying out and that seed is dead. For that reason, we suggest starting your seeds in plug flats. What is a "plug flat"? It is basically a bunch of tiny pots all connected together for convenience.
When you use a plug flat, the roots of your seedlings stay separated making transplanting easier. Each cell has a hole for good drainage. We use plug flats with 1" square cells (called "128's" for the overall number of cells per flat -see picture at right.) You can purchase plug flats at your local nursery supply store or online. You will want to fill your flats with sterile seedling mix and pat it down to firm the surface. Sprinkle the thyme seed on the surface and gently press into the soil – do not cover. Mist thoroughly when planting and be sure to keep moist as all times. Transplant to a 4”pot or into your path once seedlings have established. Check out the success of one of our customers in Oregon using this technique with Creeping Thyme. Note how quickly the plants fill in - in just 3 months!
You can also direct sow your thyme between pavers or as a path. You will first want to prep your soil by removing weeds and breaking up the topsoil. Depending on your soil type, it may be favorable to add sand or mulch for the seeds to germinate in. One method for spreading your seed evenly is to use the saltshaker technique: mix the seed with sand in a saltshaker and then shake them into the crevices you wish to fill. Press the seed lightly into the soil to make contact and then moisten the soil with a mister hose attachment or fine sprinkler. Be sure to keep them moist while germinating and in the sensitive seedling stage.
How Much Thyme Seed Do I Need?
Thyme seed is very, very small so the amount of area you can sow really depends on your sowing method. For planting a 1” space between pavers, I would recommend one packet per 6-10 feet. For example, if you are planting a path that was two feet wide made with one foot square pavers with a one inch gap that was eight feet long, you would have approximately 22'7" of linear space to plant. If you rounded that up to 23' to be on the safe side and figured 8 feet per pack, you would need about 3 packs of seed. You may want to have a "just in case" back up pack on hand in case something goes awry because we do sell out!
If you have a large lawn or hillside you are wanting to plant, you might want to consider a bulk quantity of Mother of Thyme. You can expect to receive approximately 500 seeds per packet, but 150,000 seeds per ounce! An ounce of seed will cover about 500-600 square feet if you use the saltshaker method.
The Thyme Garden remains one of the leading purveyors of organic Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii) seed in the country and we can rarely produce enough to meet demand. With its heavenly minty fragrance (it's the source of mint in crème de menthe!), Corsican Mint does have a place in the culinary garden, although it is not as commonly used as its larger leaved relatives and is mostly enjoyed for its aroma when rubbed by hands or feet. One customer said she planted it on her path to help mask the scent of a stinky-footed dog – now that’s using your herbs in a constructive and creative way!
Even those without odorous dogs have plenty of good reason to grow this native of Corsica, Sardinia, and Italy along the garden path. Corsican Mint grows well in Zones 7-9. With its bright green leaves and miniature pale purple flower, Corsican Mint is the lowest of the low when it comes to low growing herbs. When grown in full sun, it measures up a mere 1/2” tall when flowers are present and forms a dense mat barely a quarter inch tall without flowers. Corsican Mint can also be grown in part shade to shade but the plants will be taller and less tightly formed.
How Much Corsican Mint Seed Do I Need?
As with thyme, it can be tricky to figure out how much Corsican Mint seed you will need for your project. It depends on how you plan to get you plants started. One method we suggest is to start your seeds in sterile planting mix in 1" plug flats, available at your local nursery supply store. Because these seeds are tiny (as in smaller than a grain of sand) they can dry up quickly outside and will be overwhelmed by larger plants/weeds as they are getting established. On the other hand, Corsican Mint does not like to be soaking wet, so over watering can be an issue. Starting them in a controlled environment can give them a leg up. Once your plugs are full and green with baby mints, you can transplant them directly into your prepped soil or transplant them into 4" pots and let them fill out some more. Corsican mint creates roots all along the surface so one simple way to spread your starts is to take a sharp knife and cut them into strips or 1" squares to transplant.
For direct sowing, we suggest sowing them onto prepped soil that is weed free. Do not cover the seed but lightly press it into the soil to make contact. Water them in and then keep moist with a mister hose attachment so that you don't wash the seeds away. We also suggest sowing with the salt shaker method mentioned above.
If you do sow directly, how much seed will you need? Let's say you have constructed a path that is made of 1' x 1' square pavers spaced about an inch apart and set three wide and nine long for a total length of about 9'8". I am going to round that up to 10' to be on the generous side and make our demonstration easier. We will need one pack to cover each vertical length of the path, so two packs for that. We will also need to fill the horizontal strips in the path, of which there are 8. Each horizontal strip is approximately 3'2" long.
25'4" divided by 10 (each pack does 10')=2.5packs
So we will need about 2.5 packs for the horizontal strips. Add to that the two packs we need for the vertical length and we will need 4.5 packs for our project. You decide if you want to round up or down because we don't sell half packs!
Hello Thyme Garden,
Earlier in the spring I ordered a whole bunch of packets of “creeping thyme 1/2” (thymus serpyllum sp). Even though your online description of this thyme cautioned against direct-seeding it as a lawn (& gave your own story of trying this), because I live in a wet temperate climate (coastal Maine) and it was spring, I decided to risk doing just this. I needed a ground cover beneath my raspberry rows that could be easily mown and choke out other weeds, and I figured it would be an affordable experiment. I’m writing back today just to let you know that this worked absolutely wonderfully. I am in the process of keeping it weeded while it gets established, but not in an over-whelming fashion. I just weed a bit each day, maybe 10-15 minutes.
Gail in Blue Hill, Maine