Plant thyme in your herb garden, at the edge of a walk, along a short garden wall, or in containers. As a special garden treat, put a few along a walkway and between steps, and your footsteps will release its aroma. It even makes a pretty patch of small ground cover. Growing thyme provides an anchor in an herb garden in areas where it is evergreen in winter. Thyme is also perfect for containers, either alone or in combination with plants that won’t shade it out. The flowers open in spring and summer, sprinkling the plant with tiny, two-lipped blossoms attractive to bees.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Thyme does best in full sun. Start from young plants set out in spring after the last frost. Plant in well-drained soil with a pH of about 7.0; it prefers slightly alkaline conditions. Add lime to the pot or ground to raise the pH if needed. Also add a slow-release fertilizer to the soil at or before planting and again each spring. Thyme must have excellent drainage. Mulching with limestone gravel or builder’s sand improves drainage and prevents root rot. German thyme is perennial in zones 5 to 9, lemon thyme in zones 7 to 9. Easy to grow, thyme needs little care except for a regular light pruning after the first year. Do this after the last spring frost, so that the plants do not get woody and brittle. Pinching the tips of the stems keeps plants bushy, but stop clipping about a month before the first frost of fall to make sure that new growth is not too tender going into the cool weather. Cut thyme back by one third in spring, always cutting above points where you can see new growth, never below into the leafless woody stem. Lemon thyme is more upright and more vigorous than the other thymes. In the North and cold climates, cover with pine boughs after the soil freezes to help protect from winter damage. In zone 10, thyme is usually an annual, often succumbing to heat and humidity in mid-summer.
Spider mites can be a problem in dry weather. Also watch out for root rot and fungus diseases in humid climates. Good drainage, good air circulation, and proper planting as described above will help prevent disease.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest leaves as you need them, including through the winter in places where it is evergreen. Although the flavour is most concentrated just before plants bloom, thyme is so aromatic that the leaves have good flavour all the time. Strip the tiny leaves from woody stems before using.
Thyme is easily dried, refrigerated, frozen, or preserved in oil or vinegar. The tiny leaves air-dry quickly. Add thyme to butter or mayonnaise to taste. Use thyme in dried beans, meat stews, and strong vegetables such as cabbage. Thyme is also great with any slowly cooked soup, stew, vegetable, meat, or sauce. Use lemon-flavoured varieties in teas, on seafood, or in just about any dish calling for a lemony zing.
My thyme was beautiful a few months ago. Now it has a lot of bare stems with a few leaves. What happened?
Thymes tend to get this dead look from time to time, and they need a trim to get them looking good again. Sometimes this happens due to winter damage, or it may be like this in late summer after steamy, wet weather. Cut plants back lightly, and then water with a solution of soluble fertilizer to help push them back into growth. Then prune lightly throughout the growing season to prevent this from happening again. Also, gravel mulch will help lower humidity around the stems and leaves, reducing the likelihood of rot and foliage diseases.
My thyme doesn't seem to lie on the ground and root like my neighbor's. What's wrong?
Yours is a shrubby thyme as opposed to your neighbor’s creeping thyme. Both taste good. They have different growth habits, but nothing is wrong with either one.
How do I divide my creeping thyme like I do other perennials?
Leave the parent plant and the original roots in place to avoid the risk of a total loss. The safest approach would be to use a sharp-edged trowel or knife to carve out sections of the mat of creeping thyme that has rooted into the soil. Transplant these. If a section of the mat does not have roots, leave it in place and attached to the main plant. In time, it will send roots into the soil. After removing sections to transplant, fill the holes with compost, and water the plant well.
How do I gather thyme for the kitchen?
Gather small clusters of stems and cut them with pruning shears or kitchen scissors. Try not to cut into the leafless portions of stems, as these are not as likely to regrow. When you have enough, rinse and pat dry between towels. Take one stem at a time, holding it by the growing tip. Use the thumb and forefinger of your other hand to grasp the stem lightly near the tip you are holding and slide them toward the cut end. This will strip off the small leaves. Use them whole, or pile them up on a cutting board and chop them into smaller pieces.