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Garden Designer’s Round Table: Thyme for Something Different

August 23, 2011

I can spot a garden designer’s garden a mile off.   It’s the experiments that generally give it away.  Designer’s gardens (in my experience) don’t tend to be the perfect havens that we create for our clients.  Rather they are the try out zones for the latest of ideas.  My own garden is mish mash of things that are in various proving stages of scientific theory – postulation doesn’t always cut it.

marianne majerus image of checkerboard creeping thyme with stone

Last year, I set out to prove that I could have a soft mossy look in a high sun area.   Miniature stonecrop (Sedum requieni) was planted between the cobblestones of a new path and I have been awaiting fresh green mounds mixed with stone ever since.   But it’s not happening….turns out the Stonecrop doesn’t spread very fast and more importantly it doesn’t choke out weeds. Crab grass and clover are having their way with it.  It’s pretty if perfect, but good luck with that.

Scratch another hypothesis from the list.

On to something else – which brings me to today’s Garden Designers Roundtable Topic:   Lawn Alternatives.   Last summer I spent a beautiful couple of evenings at an inn in northern Vermont.  Looking out the upstairs bedroom window you wouldn’t immediately notice that the lawn that rolled right up to the forest edge wasn’t grass.  But when we headed over it on the way to the swimming hole, a wonderful smell arose, and on closer inspection, I realized the whole thing had a purplish hue and was, in fact, a massive field of creeping thyme.

thymus serpyllum

In awe I peppered the hostess with questions.  She was far more casual about her 2+ acres of perfect, ‘lawn-like’, mow-less field than I was.   How did you plant it?  Plugs, seeds? She shrugged … “it’s just always been there” (she, in her 70’s was the 5th generation of her family who had lived their whole lives on this land).  What variety is it? I pressed on (confounded by her harsh zone 3 climate).  Another Shrug.  Ultimately, the conversation went no where and she went back to preparing breakfast.

But coming back to my cobblestones,  I have decided to find a better home for the stonecrop — I am thinking that maybe if I plant it closer to itself, I will survive the excruciatingly long time it will take to get it to grow to a solid mat.  I just need to find the right place….
Thymus pseudolanuginosus (THYME, WOOLY) from

But taking inspiration from the inn in Vermont,  I am starting a new experiment.   I am acquiring large bags of Mother-of-thyme (Thymus serphyllum) seed.  I am on the hunt for  Thymus ‘Coccineus’, and woolly thyme (Thymus psuedolanuginosus) seeds too.   These aren’t great edible thyme varieties (for that, I have my beloved Lemon Thyme for seasoning my famous Beef Bourguignon). My new theroy is that together, they will make an aromatic, drought tolerant ground covering for between my cobbles that I can stretch into the lawn for a nice transition.  My new scientific experiment is to see who, in a plant on plant throw down, will choke the other to death.  The fledgling grass, the thyme, or the persistant other weeds – not sure where to put my money – but I will let you know.   I am a lazy overwhelmed gardener so I am always curious to see how things work with the least amount of physical input.  I want to determine the natural hierarchical order.  I am also curious to see how the seeds stack up against planting plugs or tiny plants for achieving coverage, fast.  But one thing is proven – Thyme makes for a fantastic grass like ground cover – even in zone 3.

I’m taking every opportunity to play with it, mix it up, and get to know it better.

images: Checkerboard thyme from guim. Thymus serphyllum from desert tropicals. Thymus pseudolanuginosus (THYME, WOOLY) from, Thymus praecox coccineus –  degentiaan., Thyme Lawn from gardens co.  creeping thyme from hume seeds.

Today is a big day of garden designers and writers posting about lawn reform and lawn alternatives.  I hope you can take some time and make the rounds to my colleague’s sites and see what they have to say on the subject.

Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD

Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD

Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA

Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform.Org : Saint Paul, MN

Saxon Holt : Gardening Gone Wild : Novato, CA

Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

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  1. Shellene says:

    I LOVE Thyme, it is my most favotire plant, especially the Citrus Thyme and Elfin Thyme, and yes Wholly Thyme. Unfortunately I have tried unsuccesfully to grow it between stone, it does beautifully for about a year and then croaks. The roots are shallow and the stones heat up the surrounding soil and the thyme says I’m outta here. And it does not repress weeds, as I have them comming up through the time, which makes it difficult to pull the weeds out. I live in a dry hot climate (interior San Diego) so the coditions are slightly harsh in the summer months.
    I Hope you have better luck!

  2. Carmine Valpocella says:

    That looks mucho funky Rochelle. Thinking about that checkered look for our front patio. How much should we budget for maintenance? I’m thinking two full-time leprechauns…I dunno…’bout 8 gold pieces & a fifth of Jameson oughta cover it?

  3. Saxon Holt says:

    You gotta go back to that VT inn and get some cuttings of whatever that thyme may be, Rochelle. Twist your arm, right ? But mimicking the success you see there may save you a lot of experimenting…

  4. Whitney says:

    Please write a follow up to this post! I’m struggling with cobblestones that aren’t being filled in by stonecrop as well. And I’m zone 3. And I irrigate from cisterns. I’d love to know how you picked the varieties you’re going with and how exactly you’re going to plant. If you need someone to take on the challenge with you from afar, I’ll happily take up the cause!

  5. Genevieve says:

    Pretty photos, Rochelle! I love the checkerboard pattern the best.

  6. Debbie/GardenofPossibilities says:

    Glad to know I’m not the only one that is constantly experimenting in my garden. My kids are always commenting that they hope the gardens I design for clients are ‘way better’ than ours.

  7. Jenn says:

    Damn. I wonder if the trade would be interested in her thyme. It’s usually not promoted as ‘walkable’ and it sounds like her family has some particularly study stuff.

  8. commonweeder says:

    I confess I am settling for plugs of common thyme in my lawn because they out compete the grass/weeds and only needs mowing a couple of times a summer.

  9. Survival of the fittest is by far my preferred method of gardening. If something needs too much time and energy to establish and care for, then not only is it not worth it to me, but I know my clients will never go for it. I hope there’s a follow-up post sharing the next phase of your experiments!

  10. susan harris says:

    Keep up the good research – it’s needed! Funny how creeping sedums spread at such vastly different rates on the same site – I promise you S. sarmentosum (also known as S. acre) would fill in fast as can be and out-compete the weeds – see the bottom photo on my GardenRant post today.
    And on thymes, i tried a bunch of them and they all died after 2 seasons – sigh. But maybe I didn’t give them good enough drainage – or they don’t like our hot nites – I don’t know, but I’ll keep trying and reporting the results.

  11. Pam/Digging says:

    I enjoyed reading about your experiments with thyme and trying to create a checkerboard garden. Sounds like you’re up for a good challenge!

  12. Yes, I refer to my garden as my “laboratory” – gotta try stuff out *somewhere*! Looking forward to a follow up post(s) on the great thyme (time!) experiment.

  13. Lovely idea in the right soil conditions!
    But wot I loved most was your attitude to gardening, the trying, the experimenting! I wonder whether the rest do it enough?
    Thanks and Best

  14. hayley graham says:

    I am in the process of planting lawn alternatives under my clothesline, i am in zone 9, and have planted a mix of Dicondra repens (Mercury bay weed), a NZ native Pratia angulata, and lawn chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile. May have to add some thyme now too for a bit more diversity!

  15. Caryn says:

    Would love to know two things 1) How did it go with the creeping thyme? 2) what is the name of the inn? 🙂

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