Creeping Thyme ‘Coccineus’ growing in my French drain
Alternatives to Lawn
When is a lawn not a lawn? When it is a lawn alternative – something other than grass!
Lawns are everywhere, and for better or for worse they are a deeply ingrained part of our culture. Even though you can grow lawns more sustainably, some gardeners choose a more sustainable and low-maintenance option.
Typically, lawn alternatives are more suitable for low–traffic areas where the plants won’t get trampled on too heavily, or to fill the gaps between pavers, a role in which they excel. Lawn alterative plants do a great job filling in gaps where weeds grow, in they are quite effective at suppressing weed growth when they form a nice thick mat, reducing any weeding to almost zero.
Some examples used here in Australia include:
- exotic plants such as Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii), Lawn Chamomile, Lawn Clover (Trifolium repens & others), Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), and Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum varieties and other Thymus species)
- native plants such as Kidney Weed (Dichondra repens), Common Pratia (Pratia pedunculata) and Native Violet (Viola hederacea ).
There is a lawn alternative plant suitable for each and every location, some prefer moist soils, others prefer shade, some cope with hot and dry conditions, so be sure to match the lawn alternative plant to your location and soil conditions.
In this article we’ll look specifically at Creeping Thyme as a lawn alternative.
My Experiment with Creeping Thyme
In a previous article, I tackled the problem of water runoff over concrete by constructing a French Drain that was cut into the concrete and filled with gravel
French drain construction showing water diversion
The the gravel-filled drain worked well and water diverted nicely back into the garden, that part was a success. What I didn’t foresee is weed seeds washing into the gravel and growing into strong, healthy weeds! As far as Nature was concerned, that drain was a viable environment to support plant growth, and Nature did what Nature does, she uses whatever species are available for the role, primarily the seeds of pioneer plants that are blowing around in the wind ready to colonise and stabilise and disturbed soil in even the harshest conditions.
The best way to control weeds is to plant something in their place, so Nature doesn’t have to fill the spot for you!
This French drain is a very harsh location for plants, concrete all round providing lots of reflected heat, the location gets sun from all directions, including the hot midday and afternoon sun. The gravel is 10cm deep, very fast draining and doesn’t hold much moisture. The ideal plant to fill this space would tolerate full sun, heat, and would prefer a very fast draining rocky soil.
Enter Creeping Thyme, the ideal plant for the location!
Two varieties of Creeping Thyme filling the French drain
For the sake of experimenting, I planted two varieties of Creeping Thyme, the taller growing regular Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and Coccineus Thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’). If I wanted it to look pretty, I would have planted one variety only, but the point was to compare the growth habits of the two.
Also, as an aside, the question comes up whether lawn thyme is edible. It actually has very little aroma or flavour, but it has been bred to flower well, so the answer is no, it’s ornamental, but it attracts lots of bees, it’s a great bee forage plant for your garden.
This is what the taller growing Creeping Thyme looks like, it can be trimmed or cut lower if desired.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
By comparison, the Coccineus Thyme grows very low to the ground, and flowers more heavily, and never needs pruning.
Coccineus Thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’)
Other Lawn Thyme Varieties
With lawn thyme you not only have a choice of height, but leaf and flower colour as well.
Here are some examples:
- Flower colour – Creeping Crimson Thyme if you prefer red flowers, ‘Pink Chintz’ Creeping Thyme for pink flowers or Creeping White Thyme for swathes of white flowers.
- Leaf colour – Woolly thyme has a woolly silver leaf and pink flowers, ‘Doone Valley’ Thyme has lemon-scented gold and green variegated foliage which takes on red tints in winter and has lilac flowers.
Planting Lawn Thyme
Lawn thyme is available in seed, which is more suitable for planting up very large areas, but there are less varieties available in seed. The seed planting time varies depending on your climate but in temperate climates seed is sown in spring either directly into the soil or in punnets and then transplanted.
Small seedling plants can be bought as ‘tube stock’ and planted in spring or autumn. Evenly space plants across the planting area and they will eventually spread and fill it out. Many more varieties of lawn thyme are available in small tube pots, and the advantage is that you can see exact;y what the plant will look like, even the flowers in summer when choosing the plant you like.
Maintaining Lawn Thyme
Lawn thyme, just like culinary time, is a low-maintenance affair. With the taller growing varieties you can clip or mow them when they get a bit too high, but don’t prune or mow too low or they might not grow back! When using a mower, set it to the higher settings to maintain adequate height.
Water during times of extreme heat to keep your thyme lawn looking lush, and a bit of spot weeding here and there will keep it looking tidy.
Being a herb, lawn thyme has low fertilizer requirements, add a slow release fertilizer, preferably a natural one, in spring.
If you need to propagate lawn thyme to fill in any bare spots or dead patches you can divide established plants in early spring and replant them.
UPDATE – here’s a photo of what the creeping thyme planting looks like three years later, totally free of weeds! Nothing much manages to grow there because it’s all planted in gravel and the plant carpets quite densely. On the rare occasion that anything manages to grow there, it stands out quite starkly and is easily spotted and removed. Any weeds growing there lift out easily with no digging whatsoever.
So, if you like your lawn to be more than just grass, low maintenance, very drought tolerant, flowering, and able to support beneficial pollinator insects such as bees, then give Lawn Thyme a go, even if it’s just a small patch, it’s a great plant!
Brilliant. The praecox is just what I need.
But I can’t locate a mail-order nursery that has the seeds. Any suggestions?
You can usually find small seedling plants instead, that’s what I used.
Um … where?
It’s funny, I only mentioned lawn thyme the other week in a post! I’ve got a perfect place for it too. Any suggestions where to buy tube stock and get it mailed out? I’ve sown the seeds but I don’t know how they will go to germinate in the summer. The red flowering one sounds majorly pretty too.
Where did you get the seeds, Monsieur Hippy?
I bought them off eBay from memory. 🙂
Nice article. What are the growing zones. Can this work in N coastal NSW, QLD Border?
Hi Paul, if you can grow culinary thyme (the kitchen herb) in your location, then this will grow too!
Very interesting reading, I’ve always considered a lawn made up solely of clover as the only real viable alternative to grass, but I stand corrected. The flowers add a nice icing on the cake too!
Is that really Coccineus? Not pink chintz, or something else?
This is so cool Angelo! I have always wanted to put creeping thyme in the garden. I also wanted to tell you how much your have been an inspiration to me and my husband to do our own permaculture suburban garden!
I would also add Corsican mint, Sagina, Bishop’s weed and Dichondra to the list of grass alternatives. They look great and require very low maintenance. Cheers!
I really like the idea of having small patches of lawn/plants in between stone slabs, it helps soften the look.
Very cool article. I’ve been looking for a new fun idea for my yard. Thanks for sharing.
You’re welcome! I might write up some other lawn alternative articles soon as there are quite a few choices of lawn alternative plants for different conditions, so stay tuned for more!
Can you give us an update of this (I know that updates are a rarity among permaculturalists, but something that needs to change if we are ever to be taken seriously).
How did this go over the medium term? Did weed seeds simply wash in and grow among the thyme in a similar way that they grew among the gravel?
I grow a handful of different varieites of thyme and have to remove grass and other weeds from them, so I don’t expect it would be different when growing as a lawn.
Hi Chris, I’ve posted an update to show the weed resistance of the creeping thyme lawn alternative!