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Thyme: A Versatile Herb for Your Garden

Nicolette Goff is a watercolourist, writer, and dedicated gardener. Her books, articles, and paintings reveal her love of nature.

This guide will provide you with plenty of information to begin growing your own wonderfully scented thyme.

This guide will provide you with plenty of information to begin growing your own wonderfully scented thyme.

Never Met a Thyme I Didn't Like

Although I have not yet met all the 50 or so types of thyme, I have yet to meet a thyme I did not like.

A low-growing and hardy evergreen perennial related to mint, thyme is one of the most fragrant and pleasing herbs any gardener can grow. It is hard to pass a growth of thyme and not run your hand over the soft, small leaves and tiny blossoms that smell so inviting.

Types of Thyme

Thymes grow in one of three ways.

  1. There are creeping thymes that hug the ground closely, sending out shoots that root and form more silvery, green or gold leaves. As these thymes blossom, they reveal a carpet of colour: purple, pink or white.
  2. Other thymes form low mounds of wiry branches with larger leaves that can be green or variegated. The lower branches tend to root wherever they touch the soil, increasing the size of the mound.
  3. The third type grows into a small upright shrub, with a miniature woody trunk and side branches. This one rarely roots itself, unless a branch is held to the ground with a bent wire or a stone.
Creeping thyme drapes over walls and rocks or fills the cracks in patios and pathways.

Creeping thyme drapes over walls and rocks or fills the cracks in patios and pathways.

Landscaping With Thymes

Creeping thymes are rarely used in cooking, but are valuable landscape plants. The mats of creeping thyme hug the ground closely, expanding in all directions with rooting runners. Plants will trail over rocks, and are an attractive sight draping casually over stone walls or steps.

In summer, these trailing and creeping thymes are covered with small lilac blooms that hum with honeybees. Use these tough low thymes between paving stones in a path, where they will release their scent as they are trod upon.

Creeping and mounding thymes should be planted only where weeds and weed roots have been removed, since competition will prevent them from thriving. Air-borne seeds will catch in the thatch of thymes and root, so the mats will need to be weeded periodically.

Like all drought tolerant and heat-loving Mediterranean herbs, thyme requires well drained soil. It will grow in most soils as long as drainage is good.

This thyme forms a pretty mound of greenery and scented blossoms.

This thyme forms a pretty mound of greenery and scented blossoms.

Upright Culinary Thymes

The culinary thymes are upright varieties. The three most popular ones are English thyme, lemon thyme and caraway thyme. This almost universal herb pairs well with fish, poultry, meats, vegetables, egg dishes, stuffing, sauces and soups. The small leaves have a pungent scent and taste, similar to oregano but milder.

Thyme dries easily, the flavor becoming even more pronounced as the aromatic oils are concentrated. Lemon thyme, with its mild citrus scent and taste is one of the most popular culinary thymes. As you prune the culinary herbs to shape them, dry the cuttings.

Upright or bushy thymes are well suited to container growing.

Upright or bushy thymes are well suited to container growing.

Medicinal Uses

Thyme has been used for centuries as a potent antiseptic. In ancient Egypt it was one of the ingredients in embalming ointments. Throughout the Middle Ages, many of the nobility used aromatic herbal bouquets of thyme to fend off both bad odours and germs.

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The plant contains thymol (a plant-based phenol specific to thyme) that is known to control or neutralize certain bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections.

The powerful oil is so strong it can kill certain bacteria in a minute. If you have thyme in your healing garden, make a tea by steeping it in boiling water for 5 minutes, adding honey as a sweetener.

Thyme is a home remedy for coughs, bronchitis and other respiratory complaints. It can be taken orally as a tea, inhaled, or used as a gargle. There is clinical evidence of its efficacy.

Information Guide to Growing Thyme

Climate and Siting

Zones 5–9, full sun to partial shade

Soil Conditions

Sandy well drained soil is best, pH 6.0–6.7

Growing Habit

Height 6–15 inches, hardy perennial, woody stems, tiny aromatic leaves

Flowering Time

Midsummer, clusters of tubular blossoms, lilac to pink

Disease Prevention

Well drained soil prevents root rot

Harvesting

Snip as needed or clip to 3 inches when preserving

Special Tip

Thyme repels cabbageworms and whiteflies.

How to Harvest Thyme

Harvest culinary thymes by removing the top six inches of stem. Fresh thyme cuttings will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks if wrapped lightly in plastic.

Always harvest early in the morning, after dew has evaporated but before the sun has had the opportunity to warm the plants. Essential oils are what give your herbs flavor and aroma. These oils can evaporate or lose their quality when exposed to heat. For best flavor, harvest all herbs just before the flower buds open.

Harvest perennial thyme very lightly the first year. Give the plants the chance to establish themselves, and to encourage strong root formation. Once established and growing vigorously, you can harvest up to two thirds of the foliage at one time. Cut back the harvest to one third in the fall, allowing the plants a month or two before frost to gain strength.

Any place that is dry and well ventilated, and either dark or shaded, is a good spot for drying herbs.

Any place that is dry and well ventilated, and either dark or shaded, is a good spot for drying herbs.

How to Preserve Thyme

Clip branches in early morning while the oil content is highest.

Gather six to eight stems together, and tie them with string. Place them into a brown paper bag with the stems protruding through a hole you've made in the bottom of the bag, and hang them up in dark warm place. If you don't have a dark spot, don't worry—the paper bag will keep them from light. It also keeps dust and dirt off the drying herbs.

Any place that is dry and well ventilated, and either dark or shaded, is a good spot for drying herbs.

Another method is to lay a single layer of herb sprigs on a screen, cover them with paper towels, and place then in a warm spot. This could be an attic, on top of the refrigerator, or even in a shady spot outdoors. This is a good method for herbs with short stems and smaller leaves, like thyme.

Once the tiny leaves are dry, remove them from the stems and store in an airtight jar.

Blossoming thyme is a magnet for pollinating bees.

Blossoming thyme is a magnet for pollinating bees.

Growing and Propagating Thyme

  • Water only when the soil is completely dry.
  • Plant in full sun for the most fragrance and flavour.
  • Prune in spring and summer to encourage new growth.
  • Fertilize with a light compost dressing in early spring.
  • Lightly mulch with straw in the fall if your climate is colder.
  • Propagate from cuttings as thyme is difficult to start from seed.
  • Replace culinary thyme plants every four years.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Nicolette Goff

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