Sunday, January 15, 2012

Killing Thyme

or Dumbo's Feather

In Disney's 1941 animated film, Dumbo is a baby elephant with ridiculously oversized ears.  Both his own life and his mother's are made miserable by the other circus animals' cruel teasing, until some crows and a mouse convince him that he can use his ears to fly.  To shore up his confidence, they give him a "magic" feather to carry.  His belief in the feather encourages him to take the leap into flight when he doesn't quite believe in himself.

All to say, I can never get thyme to overwinter.  Culinary, ornamental, creeping, woody—it doesn't matter.  It grows beautifully all summer, looks great through fall and the first half of winter, and then sometime between about now and the middle of February, it dies.  I suspect water issues, but which ones?  Sometimes I give the garden a little water in February if we haven't had any moisture for a couple of months, and that's probably the culprit.  On the other hand, it could be the months of preceding drought.  Plagued by indecision, I solve the problem by growing speedwell instead.

Thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis)

Thyme-leaf speedwell is easy and reliable, and it's perfectly happy to stay alive all winter long and then keep growing come spring.  A tolerant plant, it doesn't seem to care one way or the other about water, soil, temperature, or light.  (I do think it cares about drainage, for what it's worth.)  It spreads a few inches a year and makes itself unobtrusively at home.  Then, somewhere around tulip time, it turns into a carpet of delicate, blue blooms.

April 2011

I was looking for more information about it online, though, and came across one site (which I can't find again) that said something to the effect of, "If you can grow thyme, you can grow this plant."

Augh!  No!  I can't grow thyme!  If I'd known the two had the same requirements, I'd never have planted speedwell!  Suddenly Dumbo's feather has been whisked out of my hands.  The last few years of growing V. oltensis successfully have obviously been a fluke, an accident, never to be repeated.  The poor little things are doomed.

What did I do last year to manage not to kill it?  I page frantically through my garden journal.  On February 9, 2011:  "Thinking about watering."  Then nothing.

Great.  What does nothing mean?  Did I do nothing?  Or did I do something and not write it down?  If an oncoming car doesn't have its turn signal on, does that mean it's going to go straight at the intersection?  Or is the driver being careless about turn signals?  Surely there's a better way of communicating "I have nothing to communicate" than just...not communicating.  Maybe something on the lines of "This page is intentionally left blank"?  Then again, if I have to start keeping track of every time I don't do something in the garden... No.  That's too much work.

Pressured now to decide the late-winter water issue one way or the other, and with the suddenly keen awareness that lives hang in the balance, I'm opting in favor of dry roots.   To be perfectly clear, just so that my next year's self has no doubt:  I am not going to do anything.  I will not water the speedwell until spring.  At least if it dies no water will have been wasted. 

Does anyone have an extra magic feather they'd be willing to loan out for a few weeks...?

23 comments:

  1. Well, maybe thyme that doesn't overwinter isn't such a bad thing. Mine looks so dreadful the second year I sort of wish it wouldn't survive. Still, it has that lovely herbal scent, ratty or not. Your Veronica is beautiful!

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    1. Thyme begins to sound like one of those "be careful what you wish for" kinds of things... Or maybe "you can't win for losing" as my grandma always used to say. I do love the Veronica but miss the thyme fragrance!

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  2. All the thymes die on me except for the common variety which looks a bit the worse for wear by the end of the winter! The speedwell is a very acceptable alternative and similar to our wild variety except for more pointed petals. One of my pro gardening friend was very keen that i keep a diary ( she keeps a notebook with her at all times) but i'm just not up to it. I'm hoping the blog will be an " aide de memoire" for next year. Loved Dumbo as a child. Found it quite uplifting...

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    1. It's good to know that I'm not the only thyme-icide around. Why can't we have the same effect on weeds? "For some reason I just can't keep the thistles alive from one year to the next." I must admit that I usually fill in my garden notebook (just an appointment calendar, really) after the fact from old blog posts...

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  3. FWIW, I have some non-ground cover veronicas that I don't do anything to in the winter and they come back every year. They're my favorite early bloomers.

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    1. Thanks for the tip, GirlSprout. I'll just ignore mine, then, and let them figure things out on their own. I haven't tried the non-ground cover types here--please show us pictures this spring!

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  4. Now I'm worried. I have several thymes at the Priory and they sail through the winter, no problem. What am I doing right? I have no idea! Oh, dear now I shall start thinking about them and perhaps helping them. Poor things. They’ll die, no question.

    Love the speedwell.

    Dave

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    1. No, no! Don't help them! Unless they need it. Do they? How would you know? Sometimes I wish plants would put up flags with little notes in good, clear penmanship that say, "Help me now and in this particular way" or "Leave me alone. I'm fine." Just turning brown and shriveling--what use is that?

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  5. What enchanting little blue flowers, bettee eye value than thyme.

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    1. The flowers really are lovely, Diana--they stay around for several weeks, too, which is extra-nice in a spring bloomer.

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  6. Love to give you my feather...I won't post any pictures of my thyme that is growing above and below the snow...now I have it in well draining areas that are hot and even some shade in the PM areas...but we get lots of water...I have killed it with too much water...I thought thyme was more drought tolerant and loving sun...I love your speedwell...you have been successful with it and will be again...gorgeous flowers.

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    1. Donna, I wonder if the good drainage isn't the difference--if with the feet and feet of moisture you get every year you can get thyme to stay alive through mud season... The drainage isn't bad here, though. The dirt has a lot of sand in it. Hmmm. Yes, please, I'd love to have your feather for a while if you don't mind... That's clearly the only real solution!

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  7. The speedwell is lovely. I have an iffy history with thyme; it will do fine for a few years and then mysteriously die off. Maybe I should pay more attention to the patterns of winter moisture and see if there's a correlation. -Jean

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    1. I detect an Excel spreadsheet in the making, Jean...

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  8. I have the same issues with thyme and yes I have the ground cover veronica also. lol.

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    1. Ha! Great minds, Greggo, great minds...

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  9. Well, I can't grow thyme, and I was considering this plant, until the feather was whisked away. Is there any magic plant out there we can't kill?

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    1. Oh, now there's a stumper. Poison ivy? Dandelions? Sorry to have been the feather-whisker, Holley!

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  10. I think the problem is that the term "over-winter" was not penned for the climate in NM. Eg. Foxglove plants in the UK need to be over-wintered or they wont flower.

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    1. Oh, I wish we were too balmy to over-winter things! We're not, really, though it's kind of you to envision us being warm and toasty all winter over here. Temperatures really drop once the sun goes down!

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  11. Pretty pictures! Here in Ireland Thyme can be a very tricky customer. It seems to need dry hot conditions and all our soil is so damp. I have discovered that there are a lot of varieties but I haven't found the best one yet. Thanks, for the food for thought!

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    1. When I think of Ireland, Foxglove Lane, dry and hot are not the first two words that come to mind... The range of fragrances is amazing in thymes--I used to have some that was "rose-scented", or at least, that's what it was called. It didn't quite smell like roses unless someone had planted that idea in your head already, but it was lovely. (Before it died.)

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  12. My problem with thyme is weeds! Mine grows between rocks on a small sandstone terrace. We get fairly regular rain but usually a super dry august. It does pretty well.
    nellie

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