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If you are looking to add some color and depth to your garden or lawn, you can achieve that with a ground cover plant. Ground covers are low-growing, low-maintenance, and sometimes tolerate being walked on.
There are quite a few varieties to choose from, but one of the best options is creeping thyme, also called “mother of thyme,” a low-growing relative of the herb. It is characterized by tiny oval shaped leaves and flowers. Depending on the variety, the flowers can range from purple to red to white.
Why Plant Ground Covers?
Ground covers can be...
- Used to accent an empty area bordering a yard or property.
- Planted between stones in a pathway to add a colorful accent.
- Used along stone walls or drops and will “spill” over and hang down, creating the effect of a waterfall of flowers.
- Great in borders around tree trunks and can tolerate a wide range of shade or sun.
- More attractive than grass in awkward places and can slow weed growth in the areas they cover.
- Used even in larger container arrangements outdoors to add an interesting bottom layer.
Why Creeping Thyme Is an Optimal Ground Cover
- Grows relatively quickly.
- Can tolerate foot traffic.
- Appears to have more flowers than foliage during its peak blooms.
- Covers the ground in color and breaks up all of the green.
- Is perennial, returning every year and requiring much less maintenance than grass.
- Does not grow very tall—only about 2 to 4 inches maximum, so it won’t steal the show from other plants or shrubs.
- Has tiny, hair covered oval leaves with similarly-sized flowers that grow in clumps.
- Although it is not often harvested, creeping thyme, like any thyme variety, is edible and can be made into teas or other herbal remedies.
- Is ideal for gardeners who are worried about pests, pets, or kids traipsing through their yard and holds up very well if walked on.
- Is deer and rabbit-resistant.
- Attracts bees—you’ll see bees buzzing about it during summer mornings.
- Gives the other plants in your garden the benefit of those extra bee visitors who will facilitate more pollination.
- All varieties have a nice fragrance.
- Grows in USDA hardiness zones 2 through 9, although some varieties do better in warmer climates.
Creeping Thyme Planting, Care, and Propagation Tips
Creeping thyme is available at many garden stores during the planting season. It will come as plugs or small potted cuttings. You can also purchase seeds. From personal experience and from hearing from other gardeners, growing ground cover from seed does not often produce the result you are looking for, so you may be better off going with plugs instead. However, some have been able to do it successfully.
Although it can do okay in shaded areas, it will offer the most “bang for its buck” if planted in a sunny spot.
- It should get at least four hours of direct sun a day.
- It does well in most balanced soil conditions.
- Make sure the soil is loose and free of weeds before you plant.
- Moisten the soil before transplanting plugs or planting seeds.
- You will want to plant it in the late spring or early summer—as soon as you are confident that the risk of frost has passed. Planting earlier on ensures that the plant will root sufficiently and make it until next spring.
- Space plants about 18 inches to 2 feet apart in staggered rows. This gives them room to spread out nicely and eventually achieve an even, rather than a patchy, look.
- If planting from seeds, scatter evenly over the area and cover with a thin layer of soil.
- To plant plugs, dig out a space that is exactly the size of the plug. Insert the plug, and gather the soil around it to make sure it is snug. Make sure the soil is hugging the roots of the plant nicely—this will allow the plant to take root in its new home more quickly.
- If you are looking to save money on plants but don’t want to chance seeds, you can opt to buy fewer plugs and space them farther apart. They will eventually spread out and cover the area; it will just take longer.
- Thyme is pretty drought-tolerant, but new plants will need extra care so they do not dry out. In the early weeks, make sure the soil remains moist but not too soggy. After their first year, you can get away with not watering them as often, and they should still do fine as long as they receive enough rainfall.
- Thyme prevents weed growth when it is established because it prevents sun from getting to the weeds below, but it does not compete well with weeds. To avoid any competition, put mulch around the base of the thyme plugs, leaving a bare area around the stem, 3 inches in diameter. Reapply mulch yearly, as needed.
You don’t need to mow ground covers. This is the beauty of using them. After the blooming season is over, however, you might want to remove the spent flowers. You can do this by passing over the thyme gently with a weed-wacker. If you need to, you can prune the stems that invade the space of other plants, but avoid trimming more than once or twice a season.
You don’t need to fertilize creeping thyme. If you feel it isn’t performing as you had hoped, you can try fish fertilizer or whatever general plant fertilizer you use for the rest of your garden. If you are going to do this, apply it in early summer before growing begins.
Depending on your location, creeping thyme will either remain evergreen or it will lose its leaves and some stems will die over the winter. You don’t need to prune it, but to protect it as much as possible you can cover it with sand or gravel over the winter. Make sure the area has good drainage and some kind of cover to preserve as much of the plant as possible for the following year. If these overwintering tactics are not working, you can always consider treating your thyme as an annual plant and replanting each year.
Most creeping thyme plants are easily reproduced via division or propagation. Thyme is a carpeter, so it sends down more stems into the ground as it expands. Small chunks of it can be dug up and transplanted elsewhere, and those will usually continue expanding in their new home.
Propagation is growing a new plant from a cutting. Here's how you do it:
- Take a cutting from a stem during the late spring or early summer when the plant is thriving.
- Remove the leaves from the bottom third of the stem.
- Have a planting tray ready with a growing medium such as seed starting mix or coarse sand.
- Poke a small hole into the medium using a Q-tip or pencil.
- Place the cut end of the stem in rooting hormone powder, and then insert it immediately into the growing medium.
- Make sure to keep the cutting moist. You may cover it with plastic to retain moisture and then place in a sunny area.
- After a few weeks, you can test the cutting by pulling on it gently. If it resists, it has rooted and is ready to be hardened off and transplanted outdoors.
- To harden off the cutting, place it outdoors for increasing lengths of time each day for several weeks. Then move it to its permanent location.
Varieties of Creeping Thyme
There are several types of creeping thyme that come in different colors and characteristics. Below are some of the most popular types.
- Purple Carpet: This is probably the most-used. It is very low-growing and covered in beautiful lavender flowers during early to mid-summer. It creates a purple carpet that can be walked over, hence its name. Individual plants will spread to 18 inches.
- Pink Chintz: A variety of the genus thymus sepyllum, pink chintz thyme is characterized by its fuzzy, dark green foliage with light to dark pink flowers. It spreads quickly and can reach 24 inches in diameter.
- Mediterranean Creeping Thyme: This plant produces lots of deep pink flowers in big clusters. It spreads up to 18 inches, grows best in full sun, and attracts plenty of butterflies and bees.
- Red Creeping Thyme: Also referred to as coccineus, this thyme can be identified by magenta flowers. It grows flat and covers a lot of area quickly. Its flowers are very small but prolific. It will spread up to 18 inches, but is only around an inch tall.
- Spicy Orange: This variety looks less like a carpet of flowers than the others. It produces more needle-shaped green leaves and pink clusters of flowers that appear sporadically. It only spreads 10 to 12 inches.
- Elfin: This is the slowest grower of all the varieties and also stays the closest to the ground. It will rarely reach even an inch in height. It has gray tinted leaves with tiny, pale pink flowers. It will likely grow only 2 to 8 inches in diameter.
- Highland Cream: This variety produces dark green leaves that are tipped with a creamy white hue, and small lavender blooms. It will usually reach about 2 inches tall and spread 1 to 2 feet.
- Doone Valley: Dark green leaves and light purple to pink flowers that bloom in summer. In cooler temperatures, when not in bloom, this plant can be identified by the gold covered tips at the end of its leaves.
- Wooly Thyme: Wooly thyme has beautiful silver-green oval leaves arranged in tiny spirals. Like most thyme varieties, it is rather drought-tolerant. It is cherished for its leaves, but does produce some pink to purple flowers in summer. This one doesn’t do quite as well in climates that are hot year-round.
Have You Used Creeping Thyme in Your Garden?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can I plant creeping thyme in the Caribbean?
Answer: You could try, but creeping thyme is generally hardy between zones 4-9. The Caribbean is a zone 13, so it may be too warm of a climate for creeping thyme to thrive.
Question: Could I plant creeping thyme in Florida?
Answer: It depends on what part of Florida. The northern parts are in USDA hardiness zone eight, while the southernmost part is in zone 11. Thyme is hardy up to zone nine.
Question: I live in Calgary. What kind of thyme is best for zone four?
Answer: Most creeping thyme varieties are hardy through zone four. However, I think an elfin thyme is a little more cold tolerant than others.
Question: How long do creeping thyme blooms last?
Answer: Mine usually last a good month or more, starting in early July.
Question: Can I put creeping thyme around the base of a tree so I don't have to mow so close to the tree?
Answer: Yes. Just keep in mind that the patches directly under the tree will not receive as much sunlight, and may not flower as nicely.
Question: How do I get clover out of creeping thyme?
Answer: Thyme is a good weed barrier, but it's true that sometimes small weeds like clover can peek through. In my experience, a combination of gently pulling out the clover and a mild "weed and feed" general plant fertilizer should work.
Question: As of June, my lavender flowers are starting to fade. Will they return in Spring?
Answer: They will return next year, yes. Mine only bloom once a year.
© 2017 Megan Machucho
Ruth Coffee from Zionsville, Indiana on April 20, 2020:
I have Elfin Thyme planted in the landscaping in front of my house. It is sunny and often very dry. It has been in place for four years (this will be it's fifth). At the end of last year, I noticed a couple of the plants suddenly had large dead spots in the center of them. I left them to see if they would green up this spring. They did not. They appear to still be green around the perimeter but 70% of the plant from the center outward is dead. Is there any possibility the center will regrow? Do I have to plant new ones? I probably have 20 plants and if I have to replace them every 4 years I will need to plant something else.
Helene pfeifer on April 11, 2020:
I have a large area of ornamental thyme. Over the years, large patches of it have died and it is quite weed infested. It is in full sun and was doing brilliantly when we bought the house 7 years ago....help! Thank you.
Arlene on March 03, 2020:
Will creeping thyme smother my other perennials if I plant these in between my plants for weed control?
Megan Machucho (author) from Milwaukee, WI on January 01, 2020:
Dawn, you could try in zone 6 CT. I have found that it is pretty hardy and may grow even where grass doesn't.
Dawn on November 08, 2019:
Can I use this in spots in my lawn that doesn't grow grass? I am in zone 6 CT. I would like to mow over it and eventually have it take over some areas instead of grass.
StevieKay on October 10, 2019:
Does it grow well in sandy soil? I live in Northwest Florida, and have given up on keeping grass alive in our soil.... Im looking for a ground cover that will handle not only our heat and humidity, but also our sandy soil. I'm willing to add fertilizer, but Im not bringing in truckloads of soil that will wash down our tiny hill in the next flash flood....
Emma Darlene Fields on June 18, 2019:
Live in southwest Pa zone 5 or 6 I need a ground cover for a slope on our front yard. It is on west side of house & gets a lot of hot afternoon sun. I don’t need a fragrant one. Do we have to kill all grass on the slope first, then plant ground cover. I think mulch would slide down slope.
Shirley Cayze on April 19, 2019:
I have creeping Thyme in my zone 4 perrenial garden as a ground cover. Good shoes and socks plant as they say - covers the soil, helps pollinators and blocks weeds. For between steppers I prefer Elfin Thyme - much easier to control and quite flat. If it creeps over the steppers I simply trim the edges
RTalloni on April 06, 2018:
Thanks for really useful info on thyme plants. I hope to establish red creeping thyme in several large areas...a big task that I hope will be well worth the effort! :)
Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on April 01, 2018:
This was very helpful. I have a bare spot up front, between my shrubs that I would like to fill.
Megan Lewis on August 12, 2017:
I have creeping thyme between flagstones on a large patio area. It is absolutely lovely however, it does enjoy where it lives and so grows well therefore needing routine pruning as it spreads over the stones: usually spring and mid-late summer. As I have a lot of it and it is not the tops but the sides that need trimming, this cannot be done with a wacker but is done manually - a rather big job which I do in stages throughout the spring and summer. It was fine when I could hire workers but now I must do it myself and WHEW, what a tedious job! But, I love the look and the smell, although I'm not at all certain I would plant it this way again. Certainly not in such a large area.
Glen Rix from UK on July 13, 2017:
And it smells wonderful !
Megan Machucho (author) from Milwaukee, WI on July 13, 2017:
Creeping thyme is perfect for planting between flagstones! It is beautiful, can be walked on, and doesn't need to be mowed at all. I hope you get a chance to try it!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 13, 2017:
I have plenty of regular thyme growing in our garden but not the creeping varieties. It was interesting reading about them. I like the idea of having some type of greenery between flagstones particularly types that are not hurt by walking on them. This sounds like a perfect candidate for that.