Ground Cover Herbs from Seed

By Conrad Richter

I often get asked what herbs are suited as ground covers. Customers tell me, "I hate cutting grass," or "I like trying something completely different, and I don’t mind if my neighbours think I’m crazy to dig up my lawn." Herbal ground covers are very different, but their pleasing leaf textures and often showy masses of colour are becoming more popular in place of grass. Being the tough little critters they are, they need next to no care once established. And if you don’t mind foliage and flowers that tickle your ankles and beyond, you can dispense with the weekly trysts with the lawnmower to keep things trim and proper.

The biggest problem with herbal lawns is the start up cost. Regrettably, some of the finest low growing herbs are only increased by cuttings or division – the flowerless variety of english chamomile, Treneague, is a notable example. You need the payroll of a CEO to afford enough plants for an instant lawn. Or, you need the patience for many seasons of divide and spread to cover much ground starting with a few plants.

Fortunately there are several good choices for herbs you can grow from seed. By far the most popular is wild thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. articus), also known as mother-of-thyme. It grows 4 to 6 inches high, has masses of rose-pink flowers in July, and grows fast enough to crowd out weeds. At 110,000 seeds per ounce, the seeds are very fine, much smaller than grass seeds, so it is a good idea to mix seeds with a filler like sand to avoid dropping 90% of your seed in 10% of the area to be covered. We recommend an ounce of seed per 1000 square feet. In the kitchen wild thyme is not commonly regarded as a culinary herb in North America, but European cooks have long used it in meat dishes just like the more famous English and French thymes (Thymus vulgaris). If nothing else, wild thyme will at least drive you from drink should you dare to consumer alcohol and the leaves at the same time. The combination causes a mother-of-a-hangover!

Another popular choice for lawnless lawns is yarrow (Achillea millefolium). While its white, red or pink flowering stalks can reach a foot in height, its dense, many-divided leaves make for a cushion lawn that just invites a picnic, a snooze or other prostrate activities. I have seen yarrow used very successfully in small urban settings. especially under partial shade. If the flowers get too high, one or two runs a season with the lawnmower will keep things in check. Yarrow seeds are small and light, lighter than wild thyme. there are 175,000 seeds per ounce, and an ounce per 2500 square feet is the recommended sowing rate. Yarrow tea is insurance for colds and flus, which is a good thing if you are going to lie around in your lawn a lot.

If you don’t mind a more rangy and taller cover, Fassen’s catnip (Nepeta xfaassenii) is a good aromatic choice, growing up to 12 inches in height. Don’t worry, cats are not as enamoured by this variety as they are by the much taller growing regular catnip (Nepeta cataria). Sow an ounce per 600 square feet.

Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a good choice for warmer, sunny locales. It is a perennial, hardy to zone 6, with finely divided emerald leaves. The small daisy-like flowers are, of course, used to make the popular herbal tea. Be forewarned, there are those who insist that tea made from the Roman (sometimes also known as ‘English’) is superior to the annual German or Hungarian variety (Matricaria recutita), and there are others who argue just as strenuously the other way. As sides ten to fall along ethnic lines, we prefer to stay out of the debate! In any case, a Roman chamomile lawn is pure enchantment in many landscape settings. Again the seed are very fine – 155,000 per ounce – and one ounce will cover 2000 square feet. As with all seeds this small, it is crucial not to plant too deep; best simply to press the seeds, once broadcast, into the soil using a board or other object with a flat surface.

Conrad Richter is Vice-President of Richters Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario, Canada.

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