Thyme – this cool season herb is the one every backyard gardener or homesteader should have in his or her herb garden. You can grow thyme along the edge of a walkway, bordering a short garden wall, or even in a container inside your home. It even makes a gorgeous groundcover for an area you just don’t want to weed!
With a myriad of health benefits and culinary applications, thyme is the herb you should grow this summer. Here are some tips on how you can cultivate it in your own backyard.
Why You Should Grow Thyme
Thyme is a perennial plant that will come back each year in zones 5 to 9 (for most varieties). It’s easy to grow and requires minimal care besides a regular pruning each year. From classic Italian seasonings to bouquet garnis, there is very little that thyme can’t do.
Originally from the Mediterranean area, this herb is drought-tolerant and pollinator-friendly. Most people harvest in the summer months, but it can also be harvested into the fall or even during the winter in some locations.
Thyme is not only easy to grow, but it also has a number of dietary, ornamental, and medicinal purposes. Traditionally, thyme has been used to treat conditions such as stomach aches, sore throats, diarrhea, and even arthritis.
An herb in the mint family, thyme has an impressive range of use. Here are some of the health benefits of this plant:
- It can be used as a tincture to treat acne.
- Thyme extract can help lower blood pressure.
- Thyme essential oil can help soothe a nasty cough.
- Thyme can help improve your immune functioning.
- Thyme oil can be used to disinfect your home.
- Thyme can get rid of many outdoor and indoor pests, including rats, mice, insects, bacteria, and viruses.
- Thyme is used in many organic and natural skin care products.
- Essential oil of thyme can be used aromatically to boost your mood.
And the most important, most significant reason to grow thyme? It tastes really, really good!
Varieties of Thyme
When you’re preparing to plant your thyme, keep in mind that there are two main types of thyme – ornamental and culinary.
Most varieties of thyme are ornamental, falling into smaller categories of French, caraway, and lemon.
Culinary thyme is a hardy perennial that will survive in most gardening zones. It is both drought-tolerant and pollinator-friendly.
Here are some of the most common types of thyme:
- Common thyme – typically used for cooking, produces yellow foliage
- Lemon thyme – grows in an upright fashion and produces a strong lemon aroma
- Creeping thyme – also known as mother-of-thyme, this plant grows in a mat and only reaches two or three inches tall
- Wild thyme – this natural plant has cultivars that range in color from red to purple
- Elfin thyme – this creeping variety of thyme only grows an inch or two tall and is an excellent choice for a rock wall
You might also have an interest in growing one of the following less common thyme cultivars:
- Red compact thyme
- Pennsylvania Dutch Tea thyme
- Caraway thyme
- Reiter creeping thyme
- Pink Chintz thyme
- Orange balsam thyme
- Lemon frost thyme
- Lime thyme
- Silver thyme
- English thyme
- Italian oregano thyme
- Leprechaun thyme
- Doone valley thyme
There are over 300 thyme varieties in this family, so this list is by no means exhaustive! Try a few varieties out to get an idea of which ones you like best.
Ideal Planting Conditions
Thyme grows best in full sun. use young plants and set them out in the spring sometime after your last frost. Only transplant strong thyme plants, as they do not transplant easily.
You should plant your thyme in soil that has superb drainage. The pH should be around 7.0. Make sure you test your soil long before planting and amend it, if needed, with a balanced fertilizer such as aged compost.
This will also improve the soil texture so that it is easier for you to tend. You will also need to fertilize your thyme regularly throughout the growing season, which you can do with an organic fertilizer or with a natural compost or worm tea.
Thyme prefers dry, sandy soil – therefore, you should avoid planting thyme in dense, waterlogged soil. It’s important to control weeds in your thyme garden because they can compete with your developing thyme for nutrients in the early stages.
A good way to prevent and control weeds is to surround your thyme with a thick layer of mulch. This also makes it easier to harvest your thyme, as the dirt from watering won’t splash back up on your leaves.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Thyme can be challenging to start from seed, so it’s best to start it indoors, or purchase potted plants from your nearby nursery.
Thyme seeds aren’t difficult to grow indoors, but they do take a long time to germinate – anywhere between two weeks and a full month. You can encourage more rapid germination by covering your container with a layer of plastic wrap.
To help encourage germination, sow your thyme seed in a sterilized growing medium. Plant in shallow rows or scatter them on top of the soil with minimal soil coverage (if any at all).
Once the seedlings take root, you can transplant them to 2-¼” peat pots. They can be transplanted outdoors once they have reached a height of two to three inches.
You can transplant thyme plants or even propagate it from cuttings. Whichever method you choose, wait to plant your young thyme plants until the ground temperature has reached at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit / 21 Celsius (roughly two or three weeks before the last expected frost).
If you are propagating from cuttings, you will need to clip a three-inch cutting from the tip of a stem. Apply a bit of rooting hormone on it and then place it in sterile sand.
Your roots will emerge in about six weeks. You can then transfer it to a small pot where the root ball will form before you plant it directly in your garden.
If you are planting starter plants, select a site that contains well-drained soil with the appropriate pH. Make sure it receives plenty of sunlight, and intersperses your plants among other drought-tolerant perennials that have access to lots of sunlight.
Taking Care of Thyme in the Garden
You will need to prune your thyme every year after the first year, if you are growing it as a perennial. Wait to do this until after the last spring frost, as this will prevent your plants from becoming woody and brittle.
You can simply pinch the tips of the stems to allow the plants to grow in a bushy fashion, but make sure you avoid burning a month before the first expected frost date so that any new growth is not destroyed by the first cold snap.
When you prune your thyme, cut it back by a third in the spring. You should cut above the places where you can see new growth and avoid cutting into the leafless woody stem.
If you live in a northern climate that is subjected to heavy frosts and harsh winter, you may be able to protect your thyme throughout the winter months by covering it why pine boughs.
This will protect from winter damage but you must wait until the soil has frozen to do this.
Unfortunately, if you live in zone 10 or warmer, thyme can only be grown as an annual as it is often killed by high temperatures in mid-summer.
You don’t need to water thyme often. Because it is drought-resistant, it only needs a thorough watering when the soil is completely parched. This plant is a vigorous grower, however, so you’ll want to give it room. Space your plants at least a foot to two feet apart.
Once your plants reach three or four years of age, you will need to divide and replace them. Older plants become woody and their leaves are less flavorful.
Otherwise, you can usually collect two or more crops from a single plant in just one growing season.
Pests and Diseases
As an aromatic herb, there are few diseases and pests to which thyme is prone. You may find that it is affected by spider mites during periods of hot, dry weather.
You will also need to watch out for root rot and fungal disease, both of which can be prevented by engaging in good watering habits and providing proper air flow and circulation. Proper spacing between your plants can also help prevent fungal disease.
One of the few common diseases you will notice affecting your thyme plants is Alternaria blight. This is a fungal disease and causes yellow, brown, or black spots with concentric rings to appear on your plants.
This usually occurs first on shaded leave, but then it will also cause leaf drop, lesions, and holes in the leaves. If left untreated, it can kill your plant.
This disease is usually caused by infected seed, but spacing your plants adequately and clipping infected leaves can help to treat it.
Companion Plants for Thyme
Thyme does well when grown with companions. Because it grows well in sunny areas, you will want to plant it with herbs that have similar watering and light requirements, such as rosemary or lavender.
You can also plant it alongside strawberries, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, eggplants, cabbages, and tomatoes, all of which provide mutual benefit to your thyme plants.
Thyme is great at repelling cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, flea beetles, and corn earworms. It therefore provides plants many benefits by keeping these pests away.
Honeybees also seem to have an affinity for thyme – have you ever heard of wild thyme honey? – and so planting thyme near your garden can help attract beneficial pollinators.
Growing Thyme in a Container
Thyme is a perfect candidate for container gardening as it grows no taller than 15 inches. It produces lovely purple flowers that make it an excellent ornamental plant that can also be harvested for culinary use.
While you can keep thyme outside in a container throughout the winter in many areas, if you live in an area cooler than zone 5 or warmer than zone 9 you will need to bring it indoors during times of temperature extremes to protect it from the cold or heat.
Thyme has a very sturdy root system, so you will want to keep your thyme in a pot that is no smaller than a full gallon. Your container will also need excellent drainage.
Use a well-drained, loose potting mixture and add a time-release fertilizer to keep the soil light and nutrient-dense for your plants.
You can either start your thyme from seed using the recommendations above and then later transplanting it into a larger container, or you can purchase a small start plant at your local nursery.
When you are selecting plants, choose those that are compact and bushy. After you plant, water your thyme immediately. It should be placed in a location with bright sunlight and will need watering every five to seven days.
Thyme is ready to be harvested after just a few short weeks of growth. You can harvest the leaves as you need them. In some places, you may even be able to take a harvest during the winter months.
The flavor of thyme is best just before the plants bloom, but you don’t have to worry about it ever truly losing flavor.
To harvest, simply clip the woody stems. You can then strip the tiny leaves from the plant, after which you can use them fresh or dehydrate them for maximum flavor and longevity.
This herb is easily refrigerated, frozen, or dried. You can also store it in oil or vinegar. When it has just been cut, you can store it in the regenerator for one to two weeks as long as it is wrapped gently in plastic.
Remember that the more you harvest your thyme plant, the more it will grow. The best time to cut your plant is first thing in the morning. Allow at least five inches of growth to remain so that the plant has enough left in reserve to flourish.
Cooking with Thyme
There are so many potential uses for thyme that it doesn’t make sense to list them all here! However, most people use thyme with slowly-cooked meats, sauces, stews, soups, vegetables, or beans.
Lemon-flavored varieties of thyme make excellent additions to desserts or teas, but they’re also a popular choice for seasoning and garnishing seafood.
With a delightful pungent, clover aroma and a delectable flavor, thyme is the herb you must consider growing in your garden. Does anything say summer quite like a gorgeous patch of thyme?
With so many varieties to choose from, and a hardy nature that allows it to grow partially anywhere, thyme is an all-star herb that should be in every homesteader’s backyard.
Are you growing thyme? Do share your tips in the comments below, and don’t forget to pin this to your favorite Pinterest boards for later.
David Dornbrack is a permaculture designer and author from the Austin area of Texas, USA. He first achieved his PDC in South Africa in 2013, and has since traveled to the world’s prototypical intentional community and ecovillage, Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He has gardened in three different climate types – Mediterranean, Cold Temperate, and Humid Subtropical. His favorite plants are tomatoes, chilies, and potatoes. He believes that humans function best when interdependent – able to take good care of themselves so that they can be generous and giving to others. He would like to gain experience in house-building, carpentry, and solar electricity installation.