Living mulches are those low growing plants that cover the ground like a carpet. These provide the garden with the same benefits as a mulch of pine bark or wood chips by reducing the room for weeds to grow, retaining the moisture in the soil and creating the perfect environment for microbial and worm activity to break down organic matter.
The added benefits of a living mulch of herbs are that they are edible, fragrant and very beautiful. And, contrary to what many believe, most herbs are very tough and hardy plants that don’t require a lot of effort if planted in the right conditions.
As the name suggests, carpeting thymes, Thymus spp., form a carpet of tiny leaves and flowers that provide a tight coverage over the soil and can take light foot traffic when used in paths and between paving. There are several varieties of carpeting thymes and all are very similar in both their appearance and requirements. As with all thymes, these perennial plants are quite hardy and do best in full sun and fertile soil with a thorough watering every two or three days in summer. The main difference between the varieties is the colour of the tiny flowers that are produced in a mass throughout summer. These can be white, pink, mauve or purple. Although they are all very pretty, the white flowers are worth including as they can look especially attractive in a night garden.
Lawn chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile, is a living mulch worth considering for areas that have had compost or manure added and have part or dappled shade in summer. The small daisy-like flowers of this plant sit just above lush feathery foliage that grows to only 10 centimetres tall and spreads by runners. Lawn chamomile is a perennial that can take light traffic and looks beautiful planted within paving, as a lawn or in a container. The flowers of lawn chamomile can be dried and used as a herbal tea.
Winter savoury, catmint and even oregano are very hardy and tolerant herbs that are fantastic planted amongst any shrubs in full sun garden beds that receive just a few waters during the week. These plants will grow to cover the gaps amongst the larger shrubs and their pretty flowers will add a touch of colour throughout the warmer seasons. Winter savoury is particularly under-rated by gardeners as it is extremely tough but very pretty and the leaves add a wonderful flavour to soups, stews and casseroles.
As a living mulch for a slightly shady but neglected area, nasturtiums, Tropaeolum majus, are brilliant. The large leaves and masses of orange, yellow and red flowers cover the ground quickly and keep the soil underneath shaded and free of weeds plus they lure snails away from favourite plants allowing them to be collected and discarded easily. And, to add to the versatility of nasturtiums, the peppery flavoured leaves are delicious in egg dishes, salads and sandwiches and the leaves are a pretty garnish for a summer platter.
Living mulches planted throughout the garden bed are a simple but attractive way to reduce weeds, watering and effort. And, a living mulch of herbs adds a flavour dimension to the garden that is surely irresistible.