Where did the Thyme Go?



Guest Rant by Kathleen McCoy

A few years ago the town repaved the street and put in new curbs on our dead
end block in Montclair, New Jersey.  Instead of reseeding the strip
between the sidewalk and the street in my front yard with grass, I put in a rock
garden. This fit into my agenda of reducing the size of the lawn. 
It would be xeriscapic, kid-friendly and beautiful.

As I pored through plant catalogues and gardening books, I envisioned a
luscious, creeping mat of thyme interspersed with blue and silver fronds of
festuca, succulents, and ice plants with pinkish-orange flowers.  I
stumbled on anchusa and was smitten with its description (italics mine):

One of
those legendary plants that you always see in pictures but seldom see offered
for sale …This rare little Borage forms tufts of bristly grayish green linear
leaves …If well grown it will reward you by covering itself with insanely
blue Eritrichium flowers
.  It
nearly disappeared from cultivation in recent years and we will do our best to
see that our limited stock goes first and foremost to gardeners with the
propagation skills needed to maintain it in cultivation.  It must
be frequently rooted from cuttings or you will lose it to complacency. 
Let us know if you think you are worthy and will promise to propagate

I told the folks at Arrowhead Alpines I was worthy.

This is a list of plants I bought from 2005 to 2008 for the rock garden:

  • Thyme
  • Liatris aspera
  • Dracocephalum grandifolum
  • *Anchusa caepitosa
  • Santolina 'morning mist'
  • Gazania krebsiana 'tanager'
  • Crocus
  • Delosperma 'Kelaidis'
  • Edraianthus graminifolius
  • Eryngium amethystimun 'Sapphire blue'
  • Festuca gautieri 'Hobbit'
  • Festuca glauca 'Boulder Blue'
  • succulents

Early summer each year I would find much had been lost over the winter, but
the thyme was happy and spreading. I would fill in with something different and
it would die over the winter. This year most of the thyme died out. In May I
mulched with pond gravel to improve the odds that the thyme would revive. So now
the swath looks like the parking lot of a veterinary clinic, a place for the
dogs to pee before going inside.  

I figure too much moisture from snow piles and road salt killed the plants:
an overabundance of salts in soil means plants can’t manufacture a
gradient to pull water in, and plant roots desiccate.

Now I’m stuck.  If I’m going to establish anything there
before the winter comes, it’s almost planting time. My mom said, “Plant grass.”
After I pay to have the rocks removed, Mother?  It’s hard to plow
more money into this $1000 failed project, costs itemized below.


  • plants                            $ 769
  • masons to place stone     200
  • premium vodka for me       31

Ever curious, I’ve been looking at a list of plants that
tolerate being roadside.  I’m attracted to the heathers…Just a few
maybe, as a test.

Kathleen gardens in Montclair, New Jersey.  Besides beautifying her own corner of New
Jersey, she is engaged in graft, patronage, nepotism, cronyism, kickbacks,
unholy alliances, organized crime, money laundering and human organ


  1. You paid someone to put in those piddlin’ little stones?! Think of the calories you could have burned, the muscles you could have developed! You could have chiseled arms. But seriouslly, if you cannot use those stones somewhere else in your landscaping (and I am a firm believer that one can never have to many stones), you could probably recoup some of your cost or at the very least get them removed for free by someone who wants stones. How are rocks more kid friendly than grass? That looks like a prime area to stub toes and to trip unwary people getting out of their cars. Salt and piled-up snow are hard on plants. Hate to say it but your mother is probably right, put some tough mixture of grass, clover, creepng charlie, etc in there.

  2. My curbside garden is filled with foolproof plants from elsewhere in the garden – no money spent. THey are: daylilies, purple coneflower, ornamental grasses, carex, flowering cherry, garden phlox, and this combo of beautyberry, sedum ‘autumn joy’ and sedum acre. The only loss has been one flowering cherry tree due to insect infestation. Everything has withstood dog pee, snow-melting ice, etc for years now.

  3. I’ve had excellent luck in Maine in a similar roadside location that gets lots of abuse with sedums, daylilies, and bee balm.

  4. You could get rid of some of the stones and then plant some of the smaller ornamental grasses…Little Bunny Fountain Grass, Hamlen Grass, etc along with Rudebeckia, Cornflower, Day Lily.

    I think thyme is not so long lived. It seems after 4 or 5 years of flourishing in my yard it disapears. I have no salt or chemicals to blame!

    I think a variety of clovers would be a better investment with a little more soil and a little less rock!

  5. A house up a few blocks from me (in Michigan, where we’ve got more salt and snow than you could dream of) has a lovely side walk strip planted with prickly pear cactus and a mix of sedums. I’d imagine sempervivum would thrive as well, though I don’t know how salt tolerant they are.

  6. If they salt your roads as much as they do mine, I’m not sure what will survive…even the tougher plants mentioned by others may not survive if the winter brings lots of frozen precip which translates into lots of salt here in NJ (I’m northwest of you).

    Do you absolutely have to have plants??
    I think the rocks already there are very interesting and I say add more–maybe some pretty Delaware River pea gravel (our stone guys have it and its very nice). Or the black and white Mexican beach pebbles–although that’s more mega bucks.

    I like the looks of assorted rocks and I’m not sure you could plant anything that is going to tolerate copious amounts of salty slush when the classic NJ winters hit–since they salt before, during, and after each promise of snow, sleet or ice.

  7. You might try rugosa roses. They will thrive but not kid friendly. Prostrate junipers may be an option too. I think you should try the heathers if only because I love them but there is no way I can grow them.

  8. Don’t know how it would do with the salt, but geranium macrorhizum (SP? It looks wrong any way I do it) is one tough cookie. Needs no maintenance at all, except if you are feeling ambitious you can give it a haircut once a year but it won’t sulk if you don’t, and it will give you puce flowers in the spring which are quite agreeable.

  9. Sounds like you need to plant seaside salt-tolerant plants. Also, once a year see if you can flush out some of the salt with a heavy watering as the snow starts to melt. Or place plastic over your hell strip for the winter to keep the road salt off.


    Stick to the graft, and nepotism etc.

    One of the more rediculous excuses for getting rid of a lawn I have evr heard of.

    Not to mention the liability should a kid fall and hit his head on those kid friendly stones.

    The TROLL

  11. Actually I really like the parkway as is even without the plants. But much as I hate to admit the troll actually brings up a valid point – the parkway is city property and should someone be injured there could be some liability issues.

    I have a 18 inch strip of flagstone on my parkway – to get around our ordinances and safety concerns I made sure mine were leveled in paver base correctly so people could get in and out of their cars safely and there were no sharp points sticking out.

    Perhaps you could level in some of the flatter stones that stick out and reuse the larger ones elsewhere on your property. As another poster mentioned I’ve had really good luck with many of the creeping sedums and creeping jenny on my parkway in spite of the plows and salt. I wouldn’t give up (I think you are off to a good start). I would just rethink it a bit more.

  12. I had to laugh, because I spent my last gardening hour of the day edging my own highly successful groundcover for icy salty roadsides–CRAB GRASS! Not only has it choked out the lawn grass we so foolishly seeded, but the vast majority of other weeds as well…
    In all seriousness, the plants that have withstood the salt spray and piled up snowbanks best are juniper, rugosa rose, and bayberry. Generic daylilies are probably a good bet, too, as they seem impossible to kill.
    Thanks for the post–it was quite timely!

  13. I think sedums are your best bet…we have sedum acre growing through blacktop at the edge of a country road…plenty of snow & salt.
    Also good would be the indistructible Liriope, or a patch of mondo grass.
    The stones look great.

  14. From Zone 5, southern Wisconsin: My street side garden gets so much salt that I have actually rolled up matted leaves in the spring and just tossed the disgusting top layer. But seriously, bigroot geraniums and mini dayliles are great as are most Hostas. Also have some lily of the valley and mint growing at the curb along with daffodils and Ladies Mantle.

    My traffic island bed (which is in the middle of the street) has iris, assorted bulbs, catmint, sedums etc. and is going great guns. Not only is it salted like crazy each year, but periodically someone hits the traffic sign and the city folks come out and shove it back in and still everything seems to grow — even with bad soil and disturbances.

  15. You are east coast. Try Salt Cedar. Tamarix sp. (‘Pink Cascade’, etc. Invasive along the dry western state river corridors but a great plant for eastern salt and curbside situations. To control height just cut back and treat as a buddleia every spring. Tall enough to be a curb plant if cut back every spring.

  16. cerastium is salt-tolerant. we have it next to a heavily-salted sidewalk. it can spread aggresively but would be contained there, it seems. cerastium would look nice next to some of the grasses & sedums mentioned.

  17. I’m just impressed the alcohol budget stopped at $31.

    Interesting plant / design challenge you have there. Best of luck.

  18. Ah… finally made it back to this post (I read it when it was made, but a contribution didn’t occur to me until several weeks later!).

    I have faced similar challenges and planted/renewed groundcover from seed for relatively cheaply. Highly recc. you checkout:

    Even if just for ideas… they do a great job of describing groundcover by function (deer resistant) and conditions (dry, sunny, poor soil, etc.) and a benchmark price.

    I wish I had available to post a picture of a 140′ x 10′ border that I planted with Sweet Alyssum that has absolutely filled in great and smothered all weeds in the space. I even give it a “prune” with the line trimmer halfway through the season to have it come back with renewed density…

    Disclosure: I’ve ordered from outsidepride.com and haven’t had any reason to complain.

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