By Marianne Binetti
Herbs are flavorful, medicinal, fragrant, and endlessly useful. My favorite way to grow herbs is as a lawn substitute.
Instead of a thirsty lawn in areas where the sprinklers barely reach, I lay down a gravel base, and set stepping-stones in areas that get the most foot traffic. Then I plant a patchwork quilt of different thymes and low-growing sedums.
The taller golden thyme (Thymus ‘Aureus’) frames the paver patio, and I planted the shorter woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) next to the stepping-stones.
After more than a decade, my thyme lawn has stood the test of (ahem!) time. I do not fertilize or water the low-growing thymes. But every few years I trim the excess growth away from the top of the stepping-stones with kitchen scissors. This hand-pruning on a warm spring day is a wonderfully fragrant experience. In spring, when the soil is soft and moist, I hand-pull any weeds that dare to pop up.
Because the area is partly shaded, moss grows on the pavers and stepping-stones. But I like the weathered patina of the moss mixing with the stones and herbs.
There’s a bit more sun in my blue-and-yellow garden, so the low-growing woolly thyme smothers the moss and serves as a blue-gray carpet around the blue birdhouse. I use low-growing gray and yellow sedums along the sides of this lawn and under the birdhouse.
The best thymes for a lawn are low-growing creeping thymes. I use ‘Elfin’ thyme (Thymus praecox arcticus ‘Elfin’), woolly thyme, and Mother of Thyme (Thymus serpyllum), with accents of golden thyme. Those thymes are edible but don’t have much flavor, so I don’t use them for cooking.
Here in the Northwest, our biggest problem with an herb and sedum lawn is poor drainage. To ensure the roots of your thymes and sedums don’t rot during our wet winter weather, be sure to build up the area with a 2-inch layer of gravel. I have had good luck with 5/8-inch sharp rock, with the fines or sand included. (This is the same gravel used for driveways.) The creeping thymes thrive in dry, sandy soil. To keep the gravel from spilling into my beds, I contain it with a brick border. You can see the size and shape of the sharp gravel in the photo, pictured. You also can see how I use interlocking pavers as stepping-stones and as a border next to the brick.
You can purchase thyme in 4-inch pots and divide it into quarters using a serrated knife. Then plant the plugs directly into the gravel, spacing them 4 to 6 inches apart. At Lowe’s you can find low-growing sedums sold in flats called “garden tiles.”
Practice herbal renewal in your own garden, and replace sections of thirsty lawn with a carpet of gravel, sedum, and thyme. It’s the best-smelling lawn you never need to mow!