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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Mind the Gap: Planting Between Pavers

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Creeping thyme

Gaps between stepping stones can be among the most awkward spaces in the garden. The same goes for those narrow channels of dirt between loosely set flagstones or large pavers that compose rustic patios.

Too often, the gaps are neglected and a catchall for weeds. But it’s just as easy to fill the cracks with creeping plants. These little guys will travel the gaps, don’t mind being stepped on and may even smell good in the process. They can also choke out weeds for good.

Full Sun

Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum or Thymus praecox) is a perfect fit for hot, sunny paths in Central Coast gardens. The petite perennial herb comes in many variations, all of which bear tiny, rounded fragrant leaves in shades of dark green, lime green, and even gold with a white edging. Creeping thyme is tough. It will grow in difficult soils, from sandy to heavy clay, and it tolerates inconsistent watering.

Elfin thyme on the right is flat as a pancake, compared with mother-of-thyme on the left.

A dwarf version is Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’), which bears leaves so small that one is hardly discernable from the next. Elfin’s foliage and occasional lavender flowers stay phenomenally flat.

That’s something to be aware of, with the various thymes. While most varieties form low-growing mats, some, such as Victor Reiter, bear summertime flower spikes that grow tall enough to stub toes. The taller spikes are pretty along the edges of paths or patios, but pose tripping hazards when planted in the midst of foot traffic.

Dymondia, flanked by gold coin and Silver Dragon grass.

Also, thyme’s rosy pink and lavender flowers attract honeybees. While that’s great for enhancing pollination in your garden, you might not want to plant it in within a primary patio or pathway next to your front door.

Dymondia (Dymondia margaretae) is a good alternative. It is extremely flat, and bears slender, oval leaves that are green on top and gray underneath. A slight upward curl on the edges of each leaf provides a frosted, two-tone look.

Dymondia occasionally bears tiny, flat yellow daisy flowers. But its best attributes are its tidy appearance, uniform height and low watering needs.

Sun or Some Shade

These creepers are content with full sun to partial shade along the coast. Inland, all prefer some protection from the hot, mid-day sun.

Many of the flattest stonecrops (Sedum) form prostrate mats of succulent stems, and will cooperatively traverse the gaps between stones.

Goldmoss sedum (Sedum acre) is a dainty succulent perennial that bears lime-green leaves and yellow, springtime flowers. Its trailing stems send out new roots as it ventures out. Pinch it back if it attempts to bust loose. Dragon’s Blood sedum (Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’) trails as well, with small, succulent leaves that are a dark, purple-red.

Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a fluffy, moderate-water perennial that presents a meadowy appearance. Its dime-sized, white and yellow daisy flowers rise above apple-green, ferny leaves that are soft to walk on. It’s reasonably fragrant, although the more intensely aromatic chamomile tea is made from the flowers of Matricaria recutita, an annual species that reaches 2 feet tall.

Pink cranesbill

Cranesbill (Erodium reichardii) grows in low, tidy clumps of dark-green, heart-shaped, overlapping leaves. Its cup-shaped flowers bloom in pink or white most of the year.

In clay soil, cranesbill starts to decline after a few years. In loam or sandy soil, it is much longer lived. Cranesbill requires regular water and is fine with overhead irrigation.

Jewel mint of Corsica (Mentha requienii) also requires regular water. It forms an inch-high mat of miniature green leaves that look like moss, yet are highly aromatic. Think toothpaste or ice cream when you step on it.

A number of other sun-to-shade creepers, including dichondra, green carpet, blue star creeper, Irish moss and baby’s tears, are far thirstier. While they tolerate full sun along the coast, they won’t dry out as fast in filtered shade.

Dichondra

Dichondra (Dichondra micrantha) bears lime-green leaves that look like a string of dainty lily pads. It was a popular lawn “grass” in the 1960s and 70s. But vast expanses require a huge investment in water, fertilizer and care.

Instead, it is better suited to slipping between stepping stones or edging a pond. Keep it barely wet enough to grow well and stay low. With too much water or fertilizer, it can become invasive.

Green carpet (Herniaria glabra) forms a fluffy, spring-green mass literally smothered in tiny leaves. It spreads via trailing stems as well, but it’s not difficult to control. Green carpet rarely blooms — and when it does, the flowers are so small that they’re easy to miss. Instead, it provides a punch of color in winter, when its leaves turn dark red with colder temperatures.

Blue star creeper

Blue star creeper (xPratia pedunculata, Isotoma or Laurentia) bears starry, pale-blue flowers atop a bed of very flat, light-green leaves. It blooms most heavily from spring through summer, with flowers appearing occasionally during the rest of the year.

Irish moss (Sagina subulata) is not a moss, technically speaking. But it sure looks like one, forming a dense carpet of miniature, velvety leaves.

It’s often sold in flats. Use kitchen scissors to cut it into strips or irregular shapes that you might need to fill between your stepping stones.

Shade

In full shade, Corsican sandwort (Arenaria balearica) forms a dense mat of slender, green leaves. Masses of simple, wildflower-like white flowers bloom from spring through summer. This sandwort grows best where the soil stays damp but not boggy. Good drainage is key.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) bears larger leaves than many creepers. Its fragrant leaves are also more distinct, appearing evenly spaced around square stems to form circular tiers of foliage. Small, white flowers bloom from late spring through the end of summer, then go to seed. An army of volunteers may follow. Pluck them early, to prevent them from spreading everywhere.

Planting Tips

Irish moss

Tiny, new plants tucked between stepping stones face challenges that plants romping through the garden don’t.

First, the little ones need room — and soil — to grow.

Stepping stones or loose flagstone patios are often set on compacted soil, compacted base or several inches of sand.

You’ll need to make sure there’s enough loose, fertile soil between the stones, preferably at least half a foot deep, for roots to grow.

Also, the gaps between the stones should be at least a few inches wide.

A dymondia patio.

Next, decide how you’ll irrigate the plants.

This might be by burying soaker hose a couple of inches below the surface; lining the path with pop-up micro-sprayers; adjusting nearby sprinklers so that their overspray covers the plants; or planning to water by hand.

If you’re planting from flats, pull or cut apart 2 to 3-inch wide chunks that contain several plants and their roots. Space the chunks 6 to 9 inches apart in the ground.

Cover the bare spots with topper or some other light, organic material that will help retain surface moisture until the plants fill in.

Seeds of Wisdom

Gaps between stepping stones should be at least 3 inches wide and up to 6 inches deep to provide sufficient room for creeping plants to take root.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

16 responses to “Mind the Gap: Planting Between Pavers
  1. Great article, Joan, thanks! I have baby’s tears around my fountain, and they (they?)thrive on the occasional splash and spill-over! As soon as this rain ends, it will feel like time to get back out in the garden.

  2. Thank you for the list! Perfect timing. Am just starting to rethink the pavers- with the objective to not give in to the temptation to set in cement.

  3. Very nice vigniettes! I like how the plants snug into the stones. I have creeping thyme on my steps and weed them every spring to keep them nice looking. I also have to keep the leaves swept off. I’ll have to look up what zone dymondia is. Pretty!

    • Sue,
      Dymondia is Sunset zones 15-24. Since you’re zone 7, you might have a tough time with it, especially since it has shallow roots. But maybe with a heavy layer of mulch over winter?

  4. Hi Joan! I like the idea of sedum. I suppose if I plant them low enough so the tops of plants are fairly flush with top of stones it will be ok, just wondering though how they fair when stepped on sometimes . . . and I need something that can handle being gently raked for large (torrey) pine needles. Partial shade, little water.

    • Kim,
      You could probably get away with sedum, provided you planted a low-growing one such as hispanicum, then installed the stepping stones relatively high. But sedum doesn’t hold up well to much stepping upon, and raking is likely to break off little branchlets.

  5. Hi Joan

    Love the idea of the creeping thyme and also the dymondia. Just had a beautiful slate stone walk putt in from my drive way around the house to the back yard. We filled the joints with topsoil so we could plant moss in the spring. Now that I have seen your article I am re thinking the moss for either the creeping thyme or the dymondia. Could you tell me which would to best in my location. I am out on the east end of long island New York. The path gets all afternoon sun with shade in the morning.

    Thanks Joan

    • Hi Artie,

      My mild, coastal California climate is so different from yours. You didn’t say what your climate zone is. But I would suspect that the Dymondia might not survive your winters. Here, we go by Sunset zones, and Dymondia is listed as zones 15-24, which means it should withstand winter lows down to about 20F. Creeping thyme, on the other hand, is listed as zones 1-24, so would be a better bet.

      Good luck!

  6. Lovely article Joan!

    We live in Central Florida and were thinking of the creeping Thyme. that or maybe Diamondia? What do you think?

    • Hi Phil,

      Once again, unfortunately I’m not all that familiar with your climate.

      However, I think dymondia might be a better choice. It’s generally more forgiving about too much or too little water, especially during summertime, when I imagine you get rain. (Summer is our dry season.)

      Creeping thyme, on the other hand, tends to die out if it gets too much water or sits in water-logged soil for too long.

      Good luck!

  7. Thanks for these tips–a question for you. I was hoping to lay my flagstones in sand on top of landscape fabric (to control weeds), then plant dymondia and elfin thyme around the stones–but would they get enough soil on top of the fabric, or should I plan on cutting through the fabric where I plant them so they can get into the topsoil? Thanks! (P.S. We’re in a not-too-hot location in the East Bay Area.)

    • Hi Ian,

      Definitely cut slits in the landscape fabric. Scoop out the sand in the gaps. Then fill the gaps with loose, rich soil to just below the tops of the flagstones, to account for settling and the top growth of the dymondia and thyme.

      If you’re laying the flagstones on compacted soil, it’s a good idea to rough up the underlying native soil in the gaps, too, down to about 6.”

      Once they’re up and growing, both the dymondia and thyme should crowd out most weeds. And given the limited space for growing and the loose soil in which you’ve planted the dymondia and thyme, any weeds that do pop up should be relatively easy to pull.

      The East Bay has a great climate for growing both plants.

      Good luck!

  8. Hi Joan,
    We live in San Francisco, in a foggy area near Golden Gate Park. The patio is mostly shaded and we are not planning to irrigate. Do you have a recommendation? I really like Dymondia though it may be too cold. Plus, it’s expensive. Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Maria,

      Dymondia doesn’t like cold, wet, shaded soil, so it’s probably not worth the effort.

      Instead, you might try baby’s tears, dichondra, blue star creeper or green carpet. They all have green foliage instead of gray, but all should do better in the conditions you’ve described.

      I’d suggest starting with just a few plants, to make sure that they’re happy, before planting a large area.

      Good luck!

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