Authored by: Carol Shirk
Fresh herbs are easy to grow and delicious to use. Versatile thyme can be used either fresh or dry, can be grown for edible uses or as a perennial ornamental that will attract pollinators. It is easy to grow, does not require special conditions, and can be easily moved indoors when winter threatens.
Thyme (Thymus), like most herbs, hails from the Mediterranean area. There are more than 300 different species of this versatile herb from the mint family. It has been cultivated for centuries and has been used for culinary, medicinal, and ornamental purposes.
Thyme will appreciate well drained, nutrient-poor soil, and full sun. In fact, thyme grows best in coarse undesirable soil that is unsuitable for most plants. Once established, it is quite drought tolerant. It can be grown from seed; however, because of slow germination, transplanting seedlings is an easier way to get a good start. Do not fertilize thyme to any great degree as the result will be leggy overgrown plants. Simply add some compost to the soil in the spring for a light boost when necessary.
While thyme is hardy in our Zone 5a, it will appreciate some protection from a cold, wet winter. The one thing that thyme does not tolerate is “wet feet,” so make sure it has good drainage and protection from winter winds.
Thyme is a low growing, woody perennial. As such, it needs to be pruned back to contain the growth, once mid-summer and once at the end of the season. Cut it back to 4–5 inches above ground level to encourage new growth. If you want to move a plant inside for the winter, take a 3 to 6 inch cutting from the very tip during the last pruning session. Dip it in rooting hormone and plant it. You can also propagate new plants for the outside in the same way.
Divide and replace plants every three or four years as they tend to get woody and the leaves lose some flavor. You can take cuttings as described above and keep your plants growing indefinitely.
Harvest thyme as needed or when inspiration strikes when you are in the kitchen. When doing a major harvest for drying, do it right before it flowering for the best flavor. As with most herbs, harvest early in the morning, after the dew dries. Always leave at least five inches of growth so that the plant will continue to produce. If the plant has flowered, keep in mind that the flowers are also edible, so go ahead and try them as well.
The most widely grown variety of thyme is Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). With striking purple flowers favored by bees, this mat-forming plant is great for rock gardens and patios. It also has the classic clove/mint flavor and is widely used in cooking.
Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus), a mat-forming variety with pink flowers is favored by bees. However, this variety has a hint of lemon that makes is a great accompaniment for fish and chicken dishes.
While not used for cooking, Woolly Thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus) is extremely attractive in a rock garden. It will tolerate foot traffic, has fuzzy gray foliage that just begs to be touched, and stunning bee-friendly pink/purple flowers.
Everyone needs a little more thyme. Try a variety out this summer.
Master Gardener Volunteer