Lush lawns demand lots of water, and resource-conscious homeowners are always looking for alternatives to thirsty expanses of green grass. Thyme, a fragrant, low-growing perennial herb that is indigenous to the Mediterranean, is a perfect choice for replacing that high-maintenance turf.
A member of the mint family, thyme is known for its heady contribution to sauces, stuffing, and other recipes, but its hardy nature makes it useful in the xeric landscape, too. Just as with planting a lawn, however, establishing healthy “thyme turf” requires preparation.
Prior to replacing a lawn with thyme, it is vital to kill the existing grass; if any is left behind it will grow into the thyme and create an unmanageable tangle.
For those who don’t mind using chemicals, a nonselective herbicide like Roundup or Finale will do the trick. For the more organically-inclined, the old lawn can be thoroughly watered (to a soil depth of four to six inches), and plastic sheeting can be stretched over the plot. The perimeter of the plastic is tacked down, and the sun’s rays then superheat the covered area, effectively killing the grass.
Once the lawn is killed (two to six weeks, depending on the method chosen), the area can be stripped with a sod cutter or simply tilled under.
Many soils that have previously supported grass are lacking in sufficient organic matter. While thyme is very drought-tolerant in well-prepared soils, its fine root system leaves it subject to heat stress if it is planted in soils with poor structure.
To increase the soil’s moisture-retaining qualities, well-rotted compost or another humus-based fertilizer should be tilled in to a depth of six inches. Bone meal, applied according to package instructions, will help new plants establish strong root systems and improve flowering.
Inorganic or granular fertilizers can be added to humus-based amendments, but they must be watered in before planting so tender roots are not burned.
Those varieties of thyme that are the lowest-growing (one to three inches) will remain tidy without mowing. Appropriate choices include “Pink Chintz“, “Reiter”, “Ohme Garden Carpet”, “Caraway”, “Spicy Orange”, “Albiflorus”, or “Elfin”.
Depending on the cultivar (some spread more than others), thyme plants should be spaced 6 to 12 inches apart. Holes should be large enough to allow spreading the roots without crowding.
The transplants should be watered twice weekly for two to three weeks. When new growth is noted, watering can be reduced to once weekly, depending on weather conditions.
Once a thyme lawn is established, watering can be markedly reduced; indeed, it is better to keep the soil slightly dry, as overwatering will cause foliage to yellow. Even in arid regions, a well-designed thyme lawn may only need watering once monthly.
Most thyme cultivars produce a profusion of small, whitish-pink to reddish-purple flowers. If desired, faded blooms can be deadheaded with a mower set high enough to clear the foliage.
Each fall, a single application of fertilizer, followed by a deep soaking, will prepare the thyme for winter. In spring, a light raking will remove old foliage, and an application of organic fertilizer (manure, fish or kelp meal, etc.) will prepare the site for the oncoming summer.
Thyme will stand up well to intermittent foot traffic, but it is advisable to set some flag stones or build pathways through the lawn. It’s always tempting to run one’s feet or hands through thyme…the aroma is intoxicating!