From ‘Elfin’ Thyme to ‘Stargazer’ Lilies

Question: My wife and I planted several flats of ‘Elfin’ thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’) in an area near our driveway to fill in around some stepping stones, pretty much in full sun. It was doing very nicely, until recently when the plants just started dying from the center out. About half of the plants have died. I talked with a couple of the local nurseries for some advice, and I was told the plant cannot take full sun, and it needed more water. I looked at three different websites on plant care, and found ‘Elfin’ thyme can take full sun and is somewhat drought tolerant. We like the plant and would like to reuse it, but don’t want to replant if it is going to die on us again. Any advice?
– Steve Woodward
Answer: Planting between stepping stones can be tricky since the soil in those cracks is frequently compacted, while many of the plants recommended for stepping stone planting, such as your ‘Elfin’ creeping thyme, require perfect drainage. My guess is that your plants began to die as the result of a root fungus that developed due to imperfect drainage.
By the same token, thyme in very hot areas may not thrive unless provided some protection from afternoon sun. Try to mix some aged compost, such as Kellogg’s Nitrohumus, into the soil around your stepping stones before replanting.
You might consider Dymondia margaretae, a perennial ground cover with tiny yellow daisies and silvery leaves, as an alternative to thyme.
You might also want to check the website www. Go to the Perennial Catalog tab and scroll down to Stepables. Click that selection and you will find photos and descriptions of more than 70 plants recommended for planting between stepping stones.
Plant finds
I recently discovered an attractive, low-growing perennial known as bloody dock (Rumex sanguineus).
This plant sports curvaceous leaves and blood-red foliar veins. It grows from a robust root system and is cold hardy. You can divide it every few years and spread it around your garden.
It can handle sun and shade, and grows well on the edge of ponds. It brightens up herb gardens and its leaves are edible but should be consumed with restraint because of high oxalic acid content.
French and garden sorrels (Rumex scutatus and Rumex acetosa), whose foliage is pale green and floppy, are more commonly seen than bloody dock and, for now, these sorrels are what you will find when searching for sorrel in your neighborhood nursery’s herb section.
Just the other day, I was privileged to witness the appearance of deerweed in a place where dying oleanders were removed.
Don’t be fooled by its dull- sounding epithet. Deerweed (Lotus scoparius) has been called “the best butterfly plant for Southern California” by the North American Butterfly Association.
Unfortunately, you will not find it in many nurseries because of the difficulty of transplanting and potting it. You would be wiser to plant it from seed. Deerweed seed is readily available and may be procured through numerous seed companies that an Internet search will reveal rapidly.
I have come upon four stunning butter- to golden-yellow flowers recently that I wanted to bring to your attention.
There is no hardier plant than Mexican tulip poppy (Hunnemannia fumariifolia), as it feels at home in California’s coldest climates. It is a stunning selection with cupped golden flowers and lacy, silvery blue foliage. It reseeds in fast-draining soil so try planting it in decomposed granite.
Yellow four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) has the purest yellow flowers you will see and, like all four o’clocks, it reseeds prolifically in almost any soil type.
Island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii), endemic to the Channel Islands, has clear yellow flowers and striking blue foliage.
‘Stella de Oro’ daylily (Hemerocallis hybrid) has a dwarfing growth habit, reaching a height of only 2 feet, and is laden with sumptuous 3-inch gold flowers.
Downside to artificial turf
While examining a patch of synthetic turf (grass) not long ago, I noticed weeds growing in it. Apparently, not all synthetic turfs, or synthetic turf installers, are created equal. I had always thought that artificial turf hermetically sealed the ground below and that their was no possibility of weeds growing through. Clearly, this is not necessarily the case.
It is interesting to note that artificial turf has been embraced by certain environmentalists who emphasize that it requires no water, no fertilizer, no pesticides and no gas-powered equipment to maintain. Still, it should be noted that the nylon or polyurethane blades and the rubber cushioning of which synthetic turf consists are petroleum- based products. In heavy rain, the rubber crumbs that soften synthetic turf could run off and become a source of pollution.
Also, don’t think of cooling your bare feet in synthetic turf – like you might do in the real stuff – on a hot summer’s day. Artificial turf may heat up considerably, to as much as 150 degrees, so keep your shoes on when walking over it.
Another problem with artificial turf is that it does not absorb rainwater like natural turf so that, in a serious storm, sewage systems and flood channels could become overburdened and overflow.
Tip of the week
I have yet to find a better plant for pervasively perfuming a room than ‘Stargazer,’ an Oriental hybrid lily. Flowers are as big as 9 inches across, blushing in pink-magenta and covered with burgundy freckles. You can grow Oriental hybrid lilies in the Valley in half-day or filtered sun exposures.

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