August 1, 2013

A Brown Mess

I knew that creeping thyme had a reputation for melting out in humid weather, leaving brown patches. But most of what I read simply said "dig out the brown areas, fill with a little gravel for sharpest drainage and it will spread and fill in".

Oops. Not.

This is the first of the month, and Joene encourages us to share garden mistakes, or GOOPs. Check out her blog for more.

I planted Thymus serpyllum 'Alba' on a little raised mound that edged our driveway pavers.

I fell in love with it. It spread quickly, held back the soil from sliding down the little rise, and it turned out to be pretty in bloom.

It was fragrant when I walked on the edges or knelt to tend the plants nearby. The tiny white blooms went on for weeks, and then after it bloomed it stayed dense and green, even into winter.

The natural draping effect over the pavers was exactly the right look.

This worked out perfectly until it didn't.

After the first year or two it started to melt out during the heat of summer, and no amount of patching it could recreate the dense mat.

I fussed with it constantly, adding gravel and replanting divisions, which were easy to dig up and move. But all that tinkering was a lot of work to get a groundcover that looked so bad.

Usually when a plant is not performing, I quickly replace it and try something else. With this patch of thyme, I kept trying and trying for several years, and it kept getting worse.

I did not want to give up on it. In addition to the easy-breezy advice that all I needed was a little gravel in the bare spots and it would recover, I simply loved the look of it when it was healthy.

My mind's eye only saw the pretty, fragrant, thick carpet of thyme, even when reality showed me a brown mess that I couldn't repair. I stuck with it, hoping all would work out when damp summer weather passed, but each year has increasingly proved that Thymus serpyllum in this spot is an oops.

This fall I will dig it all up. It is another one of my unhappy experiments with plants that need sharp drainage and dry soil, like lavender and rosemary and other Mediterranean plants that do not like New England very much, even when I labor to give them the conditions they want.

I need suggestions for a fairly dense and low ground cover that will hold back the rise, keep weeds out and frame the stepping stones by the gate. It is south facing, hot and sunny, and gets bright reflection from the driveway.

 

32 comments:

  1. I'm so sorry you've had an unpleasant experience with this thyme. I use common thyme as a groundcover and edging all over the place but even common thyme does not like wet conditions. I hope you move your thyme to another, drier place where it will thrive. It's such a low maintenance plant. Don't waste it.

    You could try a low growing sedum, either one variety or a mix of these easy care groundcovers. Mine survives spring to summer rainy periods with little notice, even in soils that stay wet for extended periods.

    Thanks for playing in the GOOPs sandbox, again!

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    1. Joene, I'm not sure where I could move this thyme, as this south facing small slope near the pavers is the driest, sunniest, sharpest drainage I have! I do lament losing it, and would love to find a place for it that it might like.

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  2. I hate when that happens. I remember seeing your lovely thyme in an earlier post and longing for it. I agree with Joene about a low growing sedum (I have Sedum sexangulare "Watch Chain" and it's going gangbusters). And a nice ajuga could work - maybe even a little too well.

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    1. Sarah, a low growing sedum might be the best choice. I'll have to do some research to see if Watch Chain would be good in between the steps by the gate -- it will get walked on a little there. Ajuga in hot sun might not be so aggressive --- you have me thinking!

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  3. I can understand you trying so hard and for so long - the picture of the thyme in all its glory is just beautiful. But, sometimes, we gardeners have to admit defeat and move on to something that will be happier in order for our gardens to be prettier, and thus for us to be happier, too. I hope you find just the right plant, one that replaces thyme in your garden and in your heart.

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    1. Holley, admitting defeat is hard! I know I will find a replacement, but boy do I hate losing this pretty thyme.

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  4. Ah shucks! It was so very beautiful! I have no doubt with your mad skills that you will recreate this look with another low grower!!! Keep us in the loop with what you choose! I have sedums rocking but I know that is a completely different look....Good luck!!!!

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    1. Nicole, sedums will probably be the choice -- I just have to find the right one that will do okay around the steps to the gate. I already have 'Angelina' and might use that, it's a real workhorse and a spreader.

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  5. Laurrie, you can't beat a sedum quilt for what you want where you want it.

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    1. Lee, I like that description -- a sedum quilt!

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  6. Laurrie, I have no problem admitting defeat!

    In fact, sometimes my successes turn into defeats!! ;-)

    (Right now, I'm digging up one groundcover that spread way too far too fast and I'm going to have to remove a couple thriving native honeysuckle vines from my porch railings for safety reasons.)

    Are you going to replace with another groundcover? In that case, I'd like to suggest Hardy Blue Plumbago or Creeping Raspberry. Or maybe Veronica "Georgia Blue"?

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    1. Aaron, great suggestions -- I need to do some research on each of them and see some pictures!

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  7. I agree with the creeping bramble suggestion. Plus, it has great fall color and roots where it touches to hold the soil. Vinca is also a tough, cheap solution. I'm not sure how well ajuga would do with reflected heat. Sedum might be your best choice. This website should give you a few ideas: http://www.stepables.com/default.asp

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    1. Tammy, Stepables is a great resource -- and in fact I researched thyme on their site and of course they recommend Thymus serpyllum it as long as there is enough drainage. I'll spend some more time looking over other wonderful recommendations on their site, it's fun just to shop around for ideas.

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  8. "It worked perfectly until it didn't." This could be said of so many gardening endeavors.

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    1. Jason, I agree-- so much of gardening is one long experiment to see what works and what will thrive over time.

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  9. You just never know until you give it a try. It's terrific that you didn't give up on it quickly though. At least you can say you gave it your best efforts. Now it's time to have a little bit of fun and try something new.

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    1. Bernie, I did keep trying with this, and ignored what was right in front of me -- a brown mess. Time to experiment with something new.

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  10. Maybe try Sedum album? In my garden, it is thriving in both poor, gravelly soil and in moist loamy soil. Heck, I harvested a bunch of it from a neglected alley where it was growing in trace amounts of soil over blacktop and I just threw the scraps on the ground to root. I guess that's a warning, too--any tiny scrap that is broken or dislodged by foot traffic will root where it lands. ALso, if you still want thyme, you might try a different kind...I used to have a thyme medley between some pavers and most of it got all stringy and died out after a while. The "minus thyme" continues to thrive, though.

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    1. Emily, interesting about the thymus minor -- I looked it up and it says the same thing as all the other thymes, that it needs dry conditions, but your experience makes me hopeful. It's funny how some specific plants behave differently than their relatives. I have Sedum 'Angelina' in other areas and it does exactly what you say. A scrap that falls on hard pavement roots and spreads. That might be good here as well.

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  11. Hi Laurrie, I have a similar struggle with thyme-my soil is too good and not well-drained enough. It does okay in summer, but overwinter it gets patchy or dies.
    If you go with ajuga maybe choose something like 'Chocolate Chip' or one of the varieties with interesting variegation. As others have suggested I think sedums are a nice choice if it is hot and dry. Creeping Babies Breath somewhat mimics thyme flowers. There is also Creeping Veronica and Creeping Speedwell with pretty blue flowers. I love white flowering Arabis, but it can look a bit ratty in summer. Creeping phlox is also nice and there are many varieties to choose from.

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    1. Jennifer, I need to check out the creepers you mention -- they sound intriguing,especially if they flower like the thyme did. I had trouble getting some creeping phlox going, it just stayed in one lump and did not spread, but when I see mature patches of creeping phlox, they are stunning. I may have to try a different variety. You gave me some great suggestions!

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  12. I haven't found a thyme yet that lives up to the hype. They are beautiful for a season but then.... blah... If you ever find one that grows according to plan let me know.

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    1. Lisa, other gardeners have also said thyme doesn't perform the way the catalogs say it will. Most that I have talked to say exactly what you mention -- great for a year then they don't do well. Mmmph.

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  13. You know that it's going to shape up, now that you've threatened to ship it out, right? Plants are so annoying that way. I was going to suggest Angelina, I'm glad you were thinking the same thing. She's a bit of a thug out here but she's such a pretty one.

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    1. Heather, I wish it worked that I could threaten my plants and have them perk right up. Unfortunately, my non-performers don't respond. Angelina does seem like a logical choice, but I'm not sure I want so much more if it. I already have big areas covered in it. It is pretty and spreads well and takes no care, so it might be what I end up with!

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  14. I can see why you kept "tinkering" with it--gosh, it looked beautiful when in bloom! I tried another thyme cultivar in similar conditions, and it's pretty much turned into a brown mess, too. I plant alyssum along the sidewalk in the spring, but of course, it has to be replanted every year. I'd love to find a similar groundcover to your thyme that I could plant and forget.

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    1. Rose, alyssum is one of my favorites, and it gives that dense flower-carpeted look that I really want. But as you say, it is a pain to have to plant each year, and early in spring there isn't much to look at until it fills in. It must look nice along your sidewalk when it is at the height of the season!

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  15. Darnit, I missed GOOPS this month. Very sorry to see this didn't work out as it looked incredible initially. Drainage though is key to these plants. I wonder if your soil is much like ours - so much heaving in winter, too much clay. I've lost a few plants due to this. I don't have a good alternate suggestion unfortunately but would suggest you avoid ajuga. I have chocolate chip and am thinking of ripping it out as I've found a similar problem with great big dead patches. Poor drainage and heavy snow was the culprit I think.

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    1. Marguerite, I do think it is both winter and summer that stress thyme in my garden. We have such long, cold wet winters, but then we get really humid summer weather too. Thyme just isn't going to be happy here.

      That's disappointing about the Chocolate Chip ajuga. I just put in a large patch by my patio and have loved it this season -- am I being set up for brown patches and dieback in coming years? I really hope not!

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  16. Sad when the garden has other ideas...it was beautiful but with all the wonderful suggestions, I bet you will find another lovely ground cover.

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    1. Donna, it really did enchant me for a while, but I know I have to find an alternative, sigh.

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