Copyright © Sheryl Williams - Yardfanatic 2016. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Spot of English "T"

I am a repressed English Cottage-style gardener.
Thyme as of March 2012, one year after transplanting.

For years I have cultivated huge delphiniums, lush peonies, lilies and bulbs of every kind, hellebores, violets, hydrangeas, witch hazels, all of which were inspired from the pages of Fine Gardening magazine.

Then I moved to Austin Texas.  Goodbye big-leaf lush flower water-sucking landscape, hello prickly pear and agave!

The transition has been interesting to say the least, and I still have people saying to me “oh, that won’t survive here”.  The latest casualty is my love affair with hardy fuchsias.  I think of my shrub back in Oregon and tears spring to my eyes.  The bees!  The hummingbirds!  Those dainty little flowers!  The crispy critter it would become in the hot Texas sun!

I’ve repressed most of my urges and have swallowed the “I only plant native” kool-aid mostly for gardening survival.  I only dabble on the edges to see what part of my old gardening life I can get away with in Austin.  I have made a happy discovery.  I can grow Thyme between my pavers.

I’ve always loved the different varieties of Thyme, both culinary and those best suited for landscaping (woolly thyme is not the most pleasant thing to eat) all of which are easy to grow in Oregon.  However there has always been one particular variety that has always impressed me with it’s robust growth habit, tolerance to clay soils, and most important, didn’t need watering; Thymus serpyllum, or Creeping Thyme.  It forms loose mats that you can even walk on.   Yes, yes, in Western Oregon it rains all the time.  However there is a drought period from July 5 to October 15 where it doesn’t rain much at all and my Willamette Valley Dayton soil would crack open from thirst.  I never watered my creeping thyme and it thrived from year to year.

Would it grow in Austin?  More importantly, would it SURVIVE in Austin?  I was determined to find out.

Since I had no idea if it would survive here, I opted to grow my own plants.  The area I wanted to plant in is 120 square feet and would have taken at least 5 flats of plants that could cost $150 to $250.  So I ordered a ¼ ounce of seed from one of my favorite Oregon seed sources, Territorial Seed Company.  They are very nice folks and are even recommended as a supplier by the Travis County Master Gardeners because they sell many of the recommended varieties.  Lucky for me they have a large mail-order business.

Planting bed.  You can tell where the soaker hoses were!  Seeds planted October 2011
I planted the seed in October 2010 in one of my 6’ x 4’ raised beds.  I scattered the seeds evenly in the bed to encourage it to grow into a mat.  I watered them regularly through the summer and fertilized them once.  (I use homemade compost high in organic material in all my planting beds so don’t have to fertilize often.)

Transplanting the plugs March 2011
In March 2011 I cut 4 to 5 inch “plugs” out of the planting bed and transplanted them in between limestone pavers I had half buried in bark mulch.  I spaced the pavers and the plants  6 inches to a foot apart, making them true stepping-stones versus a spaced paved area.  My thinking was that with the summer heat load the pavers would fry the plants if everything were too close together.  By spacing them out I gave the new plants some breathing and cooling room to grow.  I tucked bark mulch around the plants to also buffer them from the heat.

My garden was on a tour in May and they made it fine through the foot traffic.  During the run of those 100 degree days we had Summer 2011 I hand watered every other week or so.

And now?  They survived!  I lost a few plants that got shaded out by my monster Mutabilis roses, but for the most part the planting is thriving.  A few weeks ago they really started growing again so I watered in some fish fertilizer and now they are deep green and getting ready to bloom.  I am thrilled and plan on seeding in a new bed this fall so I can extend my pavers.

For me, the key takeaways are these:

  1. Plant your own plugs.  My plants had well established root systems that hadn’t been constrained by pots.
  2. Mind your heat load.  
  3. Give them room to grow. 
  4. Mulch around the new plantings.  Eventually the plants will cover the mulch if you are not crazy about the look. 

Could someone living on the escarpment do this?  I’m not sure.  My clay soil was not amended, but it IS soil.

Please share your experiences in the comments section.  I’m curious to know what successes, challenges, or crispy critters you’ve grown.


  1. You'd have to ask Jenny Stocker if she added any soil to her thyme garden...

    I just got three 4" pots of thyme to put in my hell strip, hopefully they'll do as well as yours.

    1. In my experience, culinary thyme - Thymus vulgaris, never holds up in my clay soils and must be watered. I've had much better luck with the Thymus serpyllum. I had some amazing lemon thyme in my unwatered rock garden in Seattle that got really tall but opted for the lower growing creeping variety for my pathway.

      I have abandoned growing culinary thyme and instead grow Winter Savory (Satureja montana) which, for me, is a great substitute. My plan "b" was to try it in the pathway had the thyme failed. It's a lot woodier though and not as ideal to walk on.

      Good luck with the hell strip! If it doesn't work, try the winter savory or marjoram instead. I've had good luck with both in the strip and they are good attractants for pollinators. My neighbor's cats also liked to come across the street and sniff them. Funny.

  2. Great info, Sheryl. I haven't tried thyme before, but your patient trial is good to know about.

    1. Thanks Pam. I'm really glad it worked because I love incorporating herbs where ever possible. Thyme is a great bee magnet too - although one might not appreciate them in the footpath! That's what the pavers are for I guess. LOL

  3. Your thyme bed looks really nice. A great success story. I have 4 different types of thyme growing and only 2 of them are a real success story. The culinary thyme and the creeping thyme. I trip the latter constantly to keep it in check. The culinary thyme I have had for 10 years. The lemon thyme grows quite well and I have had some success with the silver. The big watch out is the late summer when a small pink moth ravages the plants. It happens every year even though I say I will not let it happen. BT is the answer. They don't attack the culinary thyme just the ornamental ones. So, watch out. They are all planted in fast draining sandy gravelly soil. Even Prince Charles call his thyme bed a lot of work.

    1. Thanks Jenny for the tips!

      Luckily the moth hasn't shown up at my house but now I will keep an eye out.

      I have had absolutely zero luck with culinary thyme in heavy clay soils. Somehow I have a knack for buying houses that lack sandy soil. Glad to hear yours are thriving. You have given me hope. I'll amend a nice spot and give it another go.

  4. That's so cool! Glad your experiment is working. We have a rock path that I'd love to tidy up and plant something beautiful and useful such as the thyme. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. Your thyme looks great. I have some in a pot that I was sure was dead. I went ahead and re-potted it, gave it a good dose of fish emulsion and a little tlc. It's come back to life. Amazing.

    1. I've had good luck using fish emulsion as a revitalizer too. Although the time I used it on my front yard the same day as my neighbor's barbecue was an interesting experience. LOL.

  6. This site represented a beautiful garden that shows the quality of nature as well as medicine of people.

    1. Thank you! I love my yard and all the creatures I share it with.