Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a low-growing, woody perennial that performs especially well in somewhat dry, sunny conditions. A beloved Mediterranean herb, it holds its taste in cooking and blends well with other flavors of its native region, such as garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes.
The tiny pink, lavender, or white tubular flowers of thyme plants show up in the spring and summer months and are well-liked by bees. Its tiny gray-green leaves remain evergreen, and most thyme varieties can even be harvested in winter in the zones where it is a perennial.
Thyme can be planted at almost any time. It will mature enough to allow for harvest within a few months, then will reliably return year after year in the climate zones where it is hardy. Providing a thick layer of mulch in colder regions helps protect thyme during the winter.
|Botanical Name||Thymus vulgaris|
|Common Name||Thyme, Common Thyme, Garden Thyme, English Thyme|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Size||6-12 in. tall, 6- to 12-in. spread|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy|
|Soil pH||Acidic to alkaline (6.0 to 8.0)|
|Hardiness Zones||5 to 9 (USDA)|
How to Plant Thyme
Thyme is a widely adaptable herb, able to be grown in the United States Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zones 5 through 9. Different varieties of thyme have different growing habits—some send up flower stalks, others form mats, and others will cascade. Thyme is often used as a ground cover and is able to grow in the cracks between pavers and rocks—you can even buy seed in bulk to create a thyme lawn.
Most varieties of thyme are best left alone to grow—the more you fuss with the plant, the less durable it will be. Give your thyme a spot in full sun; it handles hot, dry conditions better than cool, damp soil.
Thyme plants thrive best in full sunlight due to their Mediterranean origins. Plant them in a sunny, exposed spot in your garden, or in decorative planters that can be moved around throughout the day to chase the light. If you're growing a thyme plant indoors, place it on a sunny windowsill or, even better, in a room that catches a lot of rays throughout the day, such as a sunroom.
The worse your soil is, the better your thyme plant may grow. The easy-going herb prefers sandy or loamy soil instead of moist soil, and can even thrive in rocky gravel. Thyme grows quickly, so space your plants at least 12-24 inches apart from each other when adding to your garden. If you're planting in a pot instead, choose a larger vessel to allow the thyme to grow into it. Opting for a clay pot is also helpful, as it can wick away additional moisture from the soil and help create the right environment for your thyme. No matter what, make sure your soil is well-draining, as thyme is temperamental about wet feet.
To properly nurture your thyme plant, water established plants only occasionally—every other week or even once a month should suffice, depending on your outdoor climate. You should wait until the soil is completely dry, then water to saturation, then allow it to dry out again. Thyme is also drought-resistant, so don't fret if you go an extra few days without giving it water. However, pamper young plants a bit more, checking water more frequently until roots are well established.
Temperature and Humidity
Thyme plants have no special needs when it comes to temperature and humidity and can thrive through most months of the year until there is frost (at which point they will go dormant for the winter). Their largest period of growth is throughout the summer months—this is also when you'll notice their flowers in bloom, which will attract bees and various other insects. However, thyme needs good air circulation, especially in warm, humid climates, to avoid fungal diseases. Space plants well to ensure good airflow.
Treat thyme plants each spring with a diluted all-purpose fertilizer. Keeping the fertilizer at half-strength will keep the plant from producing too much foliage, which can dilute its fragrant oils.
If you want something a little different from common thyme (T. vulgaris), here are a few varieties often planted:
- Golden lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus 'Aureus'): This thyme has a true lemon scent in addition to the minty quality of thyme and boasts golden, variegated leaves.
- Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus): A very soft, flat spreading carpet, this variety has no scent, so it's not used for cooking. It cascades nicely in rock gardens and can grow in patio cracks.
- Caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona): This varietal is low-growing, with pale pink flowers and the scent of caraway.
- Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox): True to its name, this variety grows as a low mat, only two to three inches tall, with pink, magenta, lavender, or white flowers. It's often used as a ground cover.
Once established, thyme plants can be harvested at any time, as the leaves' flavor is retained even after flowering. Simply snip a few stems any time the inspiration to cook with the herb hits. Do not harvest more than one-third of the plant.
Thyme is rather difficult to propagate from seeds, so the more common method is to take stem cuttings and root them.
Clip off a stem tip that is about 3 inches in length—preferably one that is well established but not too woody. The stems should have plenty of new green growth, but the lower part of the stem can be more mature.
Remove all but two or three sets of leaves. You can use a rooting hormone to help boost success if you prefer, but it's not necessary. Plant the cutting in a container filled with ordinary potting soil mixed with sand or perlite. Do not cover the pot with a bag, as thyme needs good airflow.
Set the container in a location with bright indirect light and keep the soil moist until new growth begins. After six weeks or so, the cutting will develop a root system sufficient enough to allow it to be transplanted into a larger container or into the garden.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Thyme has no serious problems, but it can develop root rot if planted into soil that holds too much moisture. Avoid planting thyme in soil that is too dense or too rich.