It’s been a long time coming but for some, turf lawns are finally starting to fall out of fashion. If you live somewhere inhospitable to traditional grass or are looking for a more sustainable option, you may have already thought about installing a red creeping thyme lawn of your own.
Red creeping thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’) is by far one of the most popular ground cover species available. It is drought-tolerant and holds up to moderate traffic. It’s also beloved by butterflies and other vital pollinators.
In this article, I’ll dive into the many pros and cons of swapping out regular turf grass for red creeping thyme. I’ll also walk you through the steps required to replace your existing lawn with this attractive alternative.
- What Is A Red Creeping Thyme Lawn
- Why Grow Creeping Thyme As Lawn
- Replacing Grass With Red Creeping Thyme Lawn
- Planting a Creeping Thyme Lawn
- Types of Creeping Thyme For Lawns
- FAQs Red Creeping Thyme
What Is A Red Creeping Thyme Lawn
Grass lawns started gaining popularity midway through the Victorian Era. In many parts of the world, they’re still the most dominant type of residential landscape.
Recently, more and more homeowners have become aware of the downfalls of traditional turf grass. I even know of some who have done away with their lawns altogether. For most people, replacing turf grass with a different type of ground cover is the most realistic option.
Red creeping thyme is a close relative of the culinary herb thyme. While creeping thyme is aromatic and technically edible, it is most commonly grown as a ground cover ornamental.
Red creeping thyme is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. It tends to act as an evergreen in warmer climates. In cooler regions, creeping thyme will change color in the fall and die back during the winter. New growth will emerge as soon as the temperature warms up again come springtime.
Unlike upright thyme varieties, red creeping thyme grows to just 2 to 3 inches tall at maturity. The purple-pink flowers are slightly taller than the normal foliage. Each creeping thyme plant produces above-ground stems that can spread between 12 and 18 inches wide.
Why Grow Creeping Thyme As Lawn
Creeping thyme is just one example of a ground cover plant. There are countless other species that also mimic the growth pattern of turf grass and can be used to create alternative lawns. So why is red creeping thyme the go-to option for so many homeowners looking to get rid of their existing grass?
Creeping Thyme Makes An Attractive Ground Cover
While sometimes impractical, turf grass is pretty universally seen as attractive. There’s a reason its use in residential lawns has continued for so many decades. So any worthwhile alternative also needs to be pleasing to the eyes.
Creeping thyme is easily mistaken for grass from a distance. It has a blue-green color and remains short and tidy in most growing conditions. In the spring and early summer, the red creeping thyme’s green color is replaced with a temporary flush of colorful flowers.
A Drought-Tolerant Alternative to Grass
Red creeping thyme requires less water than turf grass on average. In many areas, it can thrive off of natural rainfall alone. Irrigation is usually only needed during periods of severe heat and drought — if at all.
Creeping thyme is a great option if you’re searching for a way to conserve water while still enjoying the look and feel of a traditional lawn. Keep in mind, however, that this ground cover species does not tolerate poor-draining or waterlogged soils.
Fast Growing But Non-Invasive
Creeping thyme is a unique example of a plant that readily establishes and spreads without becoming a nuisance in the landscape. Red creeping thyme is categorized as non-invasive and very unlikely to turn weedy in most environments.
You can confidently plant creeping thyme next to manicured garden beds or natural plantings without worrying about the ground cover overtaking the other plants.
Dense Growth Crowds Out Other Weeds
One of the benefits of growing a ground cover plant like turf grass or red creeping thyme is its ability to crowd out unwanted weeds.
Any plant that grows in a thick, spreading manner will accomplish this goal well. But creeping thyme’s low-maintenance nature and drought tolerance make it particularly adept at choking out competing weeds.
Creeping Thyme Is Easy To Maintain
I’m willing to bet that many homeowners stick to traditional turf grass because they’re unsure how to care for other ground cover options. However, red creeping thyme requires even less maintenance than the average grass lawn.
Red creeping thyme will thrive with minimal fertilizing and infrequent watering. It grows in a variety of soil types and qualities. It also doesn’t require routine mowing to maintain a clean, uniform appearance.
Replacing Grass With Red Creeping Thyme Lawn
I’m all for replacing turf grass with a more sustainable alternative like red creeping thyme. But I also think it’s important to do your research and weigh all of your options before deciding which ground cover species is right for your property.
Red Creeping Thyme Versus Grass
In theory, swapping out existing grass for a low-maintenance, sustainable alternative sounds great. But what does life actually look like with a red creeping thyme lawn versus one made of turf grass?
In my opinion, the main benefits of red creeping thyme are that it stays short and tolerates drought. However, it doesn’t necessarily look and feel exactly like turf grass up close.
Creeping thyme is a worthwhile alternative for areas of the lawn that don’t get much traffic but aren’t ideal for other types of landscaping. It’s similar enough in appearance to grass that many homeowners’ associations will permit its use.
On the other hand, I don’t recommend creeping thyme for areas that receive a lot of wear and tear from children, pets, or just day-to-day life. Despite its drawbacks, turf grass still reigns supreme in the traditional suburban backyard.
Can You Seed A Lawn With Creeping Thyme?
Creeping thyme is pretty easy to grow from seed. For the best results, I recommend starting creeping thyme seeds indoors in early spring. You can then transplant the young plants as plugs into your lawn.
Creeping thyme can also be direct-sown but with varying results. Thyme is typically slow to germinate, especially when compared to popular turf grass species. So it may be hard to keep foot traffic off of your lawn while the seeds sprout and establish.
Can Creeping Thyme Take Full Sun?
Yes. In fact, creeping thyme needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day to grow and bloom properly. Creeping thyme is not an ideal turf grass substitute for lawns with a large percentage of shade coverage.
Does Creeping Thyme Stay Green All Year?
Creeping thyme is an evergreen perennial that retains its color in mild climates such as USDA zones 8 and 9. While red creeping thyme is hardy down to USDA zone 4, it tends to die back in these colder climates.
Can You Walk On Creeping Thyme?
Creeping thyme tolerates foot traffic better than most other ground cover plants. An established creeping thyme lawn can withstand moderate foot traffic multiple times per day.
Personally, I’m comfortable planting creeping thyme in most areas. If your backyard is regularly used as a makeshift sports field or houses several large dogs, red creeping thyme might not live up to your expectations. To be fair, though, few species of turf grass can stand up to this level of wear and tear without constant maintenance.
Pros and Cons of Creeping Thyme Lawn
- Grows in a wide variety of soil compositions
- Requires minimal maintenance
- Does not need frequent mowing
- Very drought-tolerant
- Produces attractive flowers in spring and early summer
- Looks like regular grass from a distance
- Easily outcompetes aggressive weeds
- Will not become invasive
- Only suitable for USDA zones 4 to 9
- Not evergreen in cooler climates
- Will not tolerate heavy wear and tear from children and pets
Planting a Creeping Thyme Lawn
Similar to turf grass, creeping thyme can be started using seeds or young plants called plugs. This is best done in the spring when the weather is mild. Creeping thyme seedlings can’t handle frost or the intense heat of summer.
Once planted, creeping thyme takes a year or so to become fully established. While creeping thyme will never grow taller than a couple of inches, it does spread across the ground horizontally to create a dense carpet of foliage.
Creeping Thyme Lawn Seed
Starting creeping thyme from seed is incredibly cost-effective but impractical in most circumstances. If you do decide to start your thyme lawn from seed, I recommend sprouting seeds indoors rather than sowing them directly into the ground. Direct-sowing should only be used to seed very small areas of lawn — e.g., gaps between stone pavers.
Creeping thyme takes 2 to 3 weeks to germinate. Both the seeds and seedlings are very small. There’s a very high chance of creeping thyme seeds becoming damaged or washing away if left unprotected.
Alternatively, you can germinate creeping thyme indoors using standard seed trays. This can be done very early in the year — even before your region’s final frost date — to give your new lawn as much time to establish as possible in its first growing season. While this process is a bit more labor-intensive than direct sowing, it yields far better results on average.
Creeping Thyme Plugs and Spacing
Whether you germinate your own or purchase young plants from a local greenhouse, I think transplanting individual plugs is the best way to start a creeping thyme lawn from scratch. You will see faster results than from direct-sown seeds.
I recommend spacing creeping thyme plugs 8 to 12 inches apart. Tighter spacing will create the appearance of a filled-in lawn more quickly. Wider spacing, however, is more cost-effective.
When to Plant Creeping Thyme
I recommend planting creeping thyme in the spring after the risk of frost is gone. You can start creeping thyme seeds indoors before the last annual frost to get a headstart on the growing season.
If your area experiences mild winters, creeping thyme plugs can also be transplanted in the fall. Avoid planting creeping thyme during the peak of summer.
Creeping Thyme Growth Rate and Spreading
Creeping thyme has a slow to moderate growth rate during its first year. Once your creeping thyme lawn is well-established, however, it will become much more vigorous.
A single creeping thyme plant typically covers up to 18 inches of soil. Creeping thyme spreads via horizontal stems that grow along the soil’s surface. These stems also produce roots of their own, anchoring the plant, choking out weeds, and preventing erosion.
Mowing Creeping Thyme
Since creeping thyme grows only a couple of inches tall, routine mowing isn’t necessary. You can, however, mow a few times per year to get the most out of your thyme lawn.
I recommend mowing in the early spring to remove excess material from the previous year and create a clean slate for the coming growing season. You can now again after your creeping thyme lawn finishes flowering in the summer.
Feel free to clean up any leggy stems as needed during the growing season. Just be careful not to pass over the same sections of lawn too many times, as creeping thyme doesn’t always tolerate mowing to the same extent as regular turf grass.
Cost Of Planting A Creeping Thyme Lawn
There’s no getting around the fact that replacing a grass lawn with creeping thyme is both expensive and labor-intensive. While you’ll reap several long-term benefits throughout the life of your alternative lawn, it’s sure to be a big investment upfront.
Even if you don’t hire any extra help, purchasing enough creeping thyme to fill a small section of lawn is costly. Prices vary based on things like location and plant size but you should expect to pay at least a couple of dollars per plug.
Types of Creeping Thyme For Lawns
Creeping thyme is a common name that can reference several Thymus species and their cultivars. Generally speaking, any thyme plant that has a spreading growth habit is known as creeping thyme. Nearly all types of creeping thyme are appropriate for use as ground cover and have very similar care requirements.
Red Creeping Thyme
Red creeping thyme (T. praecox ‘Coccineus’) is extremely popular as a turf grass alternative. It’s also widely available from many greenhouses and seed retailers. This cultivar is sometimes known as pink creeping thyme due to the color of its flowers.
Purple Creeping Thyme
Purple creeping thyme typically refers to the cultivar T. praecox ‘Purple Carpet.’ Purple creeping thyme belongs to the same species as red creeping thyme but is genetically unique.
In terms of appearance, it’s very hard to tell the difference between red and purple creeping thymes. Both have purple-pink flowers and grow about 2 inches tall. Purple creeping thyme, however, rarely spreads further than 14 inches.
Another key distinction between these cultivars is that purple creeping thyme can survive slightly cooler temperatures. It’s recommended for USDA zones 4 to 8 but is also successfully grown in parts of zone 3.
Elfin thyme (T. serpyllum ‘Elfin’) is a separate species but, in practice, is incredibly similar to the other creeping thymes. Most notably, it boasts the same spreading growth habit and dwarfed size as T. praecox cultivars.
Elfin thyme is supposedly slightly more cold-tolerant than red creeping thyme. However, both are appropriate down to USDA zone 4.
Varieties of T. serpyllum, including elfin thyme, tend to bloom later in the year than T. praecox. Flowers may not appear until late June or July and can last well into September.
White Creeping Thyme
White creeping thyme (T. praecox ‘Albiflorus’) is much less common than the other varieties mentioned here. However, I find its snow-white flowers to be incredibly attractive in a number of landscapes.
This cultivar is a bit taller than other members of the species, growing up to 4 inches tall at maturity. It also spreads up to 19 inches across.
White creeping thyme is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. Keep in mind, though, that it performs best in the warmer half of zone 4.