Thyme is a low-growing, woody perennial herb grown for garden beauty and culinary uses. Use these tips to grow thyme in your garden so you can enjoy this beautiful and versatile herb.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a perennial shrub belonging to the Labiatae, or mint, family. It is native to southern Europe from the western Mediterranean to southern Italy. This highly aromatic Mediterranean herb performs especially well in somewhat dry, sunny conditions.
Thyme has a subtle, dry aroma and a slightly minty flavor that pairs well with meat, summer soups, and vegetable recipes. It holds its flavor in cooking and blends well with other flavors of its native region, such as garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes.
Common Types of Thyme
There are well over 300 varieties of thyme that range from small evergreen perennials and all are easy to grow. Some are ornamental plants only and some serve double-duty as an edible ornamental plant. Whatever use you have for thyme, there is a variety just right for your garden.
French, English, and German thyme are the most well known culinary varieties that you will find at your local nursery. Each variety bears leaves of slightly different shapes, colors, and flavor.
- English thyme is a low-growing plant with flat, pointy, green, fragrant foliage. English thyme is also referred to as garden thyme or common thyme.
- French thyme has upright stems with small, narrow gray-green leaves. French thyme is also called summer thyme and it offers a flavor that is slightly subtler than that of English thyme.
- German thyme has smaller, slightly rounded leaves than the other varieties, but the foliage is packed with lots of flavor. German thyme is also called winter thyme because it is very cold hardy thymes.
Other thyme varieties you may discover at your local garden nursery include:
- Archer’s Gold forms a dense, low-growing mat of yellowish-green leaves. The leaves have a light lemon fragrance and flavor, making this thyme variety ideal for fish or chicken recipes.
- Variegata is a low-growing plant that has variegated leaves and lemon fragrance. This thyme variety also produces pink leaves and is grown for appearance instead of culinary uses.
- Bertram Anderson will create small mounds of yellow-leafed herb plants that have a mild flavor. It is an ideal plant for edging or garden borders.
- Silver Queen creates a large evergreen shrub with silvery leaves that are edible. The leaves have a mild lemon flavor and are used for soups and stews.
Tips for Growing Thyme
Most varieties of thyme are hearty perennials that come back every year when grown in plant hardiness zones 4-9.
Thyme prefers growing in well-drained soil in full sun, but can tolerate partial shade as well. Select an area with sandy, dry soil that receives 4-6 hour of sunlight per day. Thyme is not a heavy feeder, so soil should only receive a moderate amount of organic fertilizer at planting time to help the plant settle in.
Thyme is relatively drought tolerant and trouble free once established. Water new plants until they show signs of growth, and then water only when experiencing extremely dry conditions.
Thyme can be started from seeds, cuttings, divisions, or purchased seedlings.
How to Start Plants from Seeds
Sow thyme seeds indoors 10 weeks before your average last frost date, or sow outside 1 to 2 weeks after average last frost.
Thyme seeds are tiny and temperamental. The seeds are difficult to germinate so plant 2-3 times more seeds than you really want. The seeds will take a long time to sprout, so patience will also be needed when starting thyme from seeds.
Start with a good quality seed starting mix in a shallow tray. Sprinkle seeds over the top of the soil. Thyme needs light to germinate so do not cover seeds. Mist the soil surface thoroughly with warm water from a squirt bottle. Tightly cover the entire container with a humidity dome and place the tray in a warm location under lights.
Seeds can take anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks to germinate. The seeds won’t all sprout at the same time either, so give them time. When sprouts are visible, remove the humidity dome from the tray, water seedlings, and adjust lights to 3-inches above the plants.
When the seedlings are 4 inches tall, harden off the plants, and transplant them into their permanent home after all danger of frost has past. Plant your thyme seedlings about 8 to 10 inches apart. Limit harvesting the first year to allow the plants to grow healthy and become established.
How to Root Thyme Cuttings
Propagate thyme by cutting stems and rooting in water. The best time to take cuttings is in early spring once the plant begins to grow new shoots. Avoid taking cuttings after the plant begins blooming because buds and flowers will slow or prevent rooting.
Select soft shoots from new, green growth and avoid woody, brown stems. Snip 4 to 5 inch stems, remove the lower leaves, and place the cut end of the stem immediately into a jar of water.
Place the jar in a warm area out of direct sunlight. Change the water every few days to increase oxygen and prevent bacteria and algae growth. You should see roots begin growing within 4 to 8 weeks.
Once the roots develop, plant the stem cuttings into containers. Fill a 4-inch pot with slightly damp sandy potting mix for each cutting. Use a pencil to make a 3 to 4-inch hole into the soil. Place the rooted stem carefully into hole without damaging the roots. Cover gently and water thoroughly.
Locate the newly potted thyme plants in indirect light or in filtered sunlight until roots become established, and then move to direct light, at least 6 to 8 hours per day. Keep the potting soil moist until you see new growth.
Once the plants are established in the container, you can harden them off, and transplant to the garden after all danger of frost is past.
How to Divide Mature Thyme Plants
You can divide thyme plants that are healthy and at least 2 years old. The best time to dig up and separate plants is in early spring, or late fall.
Dig up the entire plant, and then cut through the root ball with a spade or knife to create two or more clumps. Re-plant the sections into the garden or transplant into containers. Keep the plants well watered until they begin to show new growth.
Growing Thyme in Containers
A terra cotta pot is a great container for growing thyme. An established thyme plant needs to dry out between watering and the porous nature of terra cotta containers will promote that needed drying stage. Other containers will work for growing thyme but terra cotta clay pot will produce a healthier herb plant.
Grow thyme in well-draining, sandy potting soil. Mix equal parts all-purpose potting mix and sharp sand, or use a cactus-potting mix. Transplant thyme into the container, and place thyme plant in a sunny location where it will receive at least 6 hours of sun daily.
Feed thyme with a water-soluble plant food, such as fish emulsion mixed at one-half the recommended rate every other week during the growing season.
The key to successfully growing thyme indoors is to find the perfect balance of sunlight and well-drained soil. Thyme grows best in a warm area that receives at least 6 hours of full sun each day.
Grow thyme in 8-10 inch containers filled with a loose, well draining potting soil. Blend equal parts all-purpose potting mix and sharp sand or perlite, or use a cactus-potting mix. Pot up into larger containers once you see roots coming out of the drain holes at the bottom of the container.
Thyme prefers a relatively dry soil. Be careful not to overwater thyme plants as this can cause root rot. Water thyme once or twice a week when the soil feels dry. Thoroughly soak the soil and let the extra water drain. Let the soil dry before watering again.
Feed potted thyme plants every 2-4 weeks with a weak liquid fertilizer, such as fish emulsion mixed at half the recommended rate for indoor plants.
Thyme as a Companion Plant
Thyme and rosemary make ideal companion plants when grown in a container since they both have the same soil, sun, food, and moisture needs.
In the garden, thyme makes a great companion plant for broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, potatoes, strawberries, and tomatoes.
Pests and Diseases
Thyme is a hardy herb that rarely experiences pest infestations or diseases. When the herb plant is showing signs of distress the problem can usually be traced back to improper watering or not enough sunlight. Too much moisture can cause fungal leaf diseases and roots and stems to rot. Allow soil to dry out between watering.
Thyme can grow in partly shady locations, but growth will be slow and the stems will have less foliage. For the best results, grow thyme in a location that receives morning sun and an additional 4-6 hours of sunlight during the day.
Aphids and spider mites can be a problem with thyme plants that grow indoors.
How to Harvest Thyme
Thyme is an evergreen perennial, and can be harvested fresh all year round. The best flavor is early summer before the plant flowers, or in late summer after flowering. Harvest in the morning just after the dew has dried off the plants.
Harvest thyme just before the plant flowers by cutting off the top six inches of growth. The plant can be heavily harvested 2-3 times per year, or small quantities of leaves can be clipped as needed for meals throughout the growing season.
Use thyme sprigs whole in sauces, stews, crockpot meals, and roasted chicken. Or strip the leaves from the stem by sliding your thumb and finger down the sprig from tip to cut end.
A light pruning after flowering will keep the plants looking neat and promote new growth to provide harvests well into fall.
Ways to Preserve Thyme
Fresh harvested thyme stems can be wrapped in a damp paper towel and refrigerated for up to two weeks.
To dry a large harvest, tie the stems into small bundles and hang them in an airy place out of direct sunlight to dry. Alternatively, you can spread thyme out on a drying screen to dry naturally, or use a food dehydrator.
Once the thyme is completely dry and brittle, remove the leaves from the stems and store loosely in glass jars with airtight lids in a cool, dark place, away from heat, humidity, and temperature fluctuations.
Thyme is easy to care for herb that doesn’t need a lot of attention once it becomes established. It spreads slowly, and won’t take over your garden like other perennial herbs. Once the plant is established, simply cut foliage as needed for meals, and prune woody stems to keep the plant healthy and compact.
Thyme may be small in stature, but it is big in flavor. Use thyme in your favorite Italian recipes, soups, stocks, stews, roasts. Add to tomato sauce, Italian salsa cruda, chicken stock, and turkey noodle soup.
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