Growing Thyme

growing thymeFor those that can’t get enough of Mediterranean cuisine, growing thyme should definitely be on your ‘must-grow’ list this season. Native to the warm climates of the Grecian coast, thyme has long been used as both a landscape plant. And, it’s even a savory addition to a multitude of dishes made with eggs, meat and almost any vegetable. The Scottish highlanders even praised tea made from thyme for its courage-boosting and strength-giving properties.

Not only is thyme beautiful to look at and delicious to taste, it also plays nice with other garden plants. Rather than sucking away every available nutrient and taking over space, thyme keeps to itself. Yet thyme also provides every gardener with a tasty harvest all season long.

Today there are over 400 species of thyme available. The various types range from small evergreen perennials to woody shrubs with a mix of white, purple and pink flowers. You can find a variety of thyme to match just about any flavor profile. Plus, the variations in color and size make it an herb that looks stunning anywhere.

Start Growing Thyme

Though it’s possible to plant thyme directly from seed, the process isn’t worth it for most gardeners. Because thyme has such a low germination rate and needs plenty of babying before it even sprouts, most people prefer to propagate it from cuttings or plant it from nursery transplants. Not only is it dead easy to propagate thyme this way, it’s also a simple to strategy to ensure your plants stay true to the genes of their parent.

When and Where Should You Grow Thyme?

As a naturally perennial plant, thyme thrives in warm climate zones and when grown in containers that allow it to be brought to warmer spaces when the weather gets too intense. This hardy plant stays evergreen throughout the year and is both drought and pest tolerant. Thyme is best planted in the front of garden beds or next to ornamental plants that need something to offset their hues. Many gardeners enjoy growing thyme near footpaths and walkways as a subtle decoration because thyme tends to be hardy enough to handle foot traffic.

Propagating Thyme From Cuttings

The horizontal growth pattern of thyme means it’s easy for side branches to root themselves in the soil. To start a new plant, clip off a three inch section from the tip of a mature one and apply a rooting hormone to the exposed stem pieces. Within six weeks, roots should start to form, at which point you can transfer the cutting into a small pot until it reaches transplanting size.

Growing Thyme in Containers

Not only does thyme grow great in containers, keeping a pot on your kitchen windowsill makes it easily accessible for when you need it most. Grow your thyme in a container that’s at least six inches deep and make sure it gets plenty of sunlight to ensure you always have a constant supply handy.

Preparing a Thyme Bed

This heat-loving herb requires full sun and well drained soil to really thrive. For optimal growth, try to keep the pH of your soil between 6.0 and 8.0. It’s best to fertilize your soil with plenty of organic compost in the early spring to ensure there are plenty of nutrients available for it to feed on.

Moving Thyme Outdoors

Once the weather heats up above 70 degrees, your cuttings and transplants are ready to go outside. Loosen up the soil with a light misting of water and space your plants between 12 and 24 inches apart, depending on how big you expect the variety to get.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

As far as horizontally growing plants go, thyme is extremely well-behaved and spreads slowly. It requires plenty of water throughout the first season in order to help it get established enough to thrive. Once thyme is established, it only needs to be watered when the soil below is completely dry. Pruning off dead and dying stems in the spring and fall will help keep each plant healthy for the coming season.

To help your thyme survive a rough winter, add a thick layer of mulch to the plants to prevent them from freezing.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

Plenty of garden plants do well with thyme, but rosemary is the perfect herb to pair with it because they both have the same watering needs. Out in your garden, you can plant thyme next to strawberries, cabbage, eggplant, broccoli and cabbage for the benefit of all species.

Common Pests and Diseases for Thyme

Because thyme usually does a good job of attracting beneficial insects, it doesn’t have many problems with harmful pests. The worst insects that gardeners have problems with for their thyme are aphids and spider mites, but both can be kept away through a healthy ladybug population or the occasional use of an organic insecticide.

Though thyme doesn’t have any serious disease problems, it occasionally suffers from root rot in too wet conditions. Allow the your thyme bed’s soil to dry out completely before watering in order to avoid this condition.

Harvesting and Storing Thyme

Don’t be afraid to start harvesting your thyme, as in most cases the more you harvest the faster the plant grows. You can start to harvest your thyme within the first year through occasional cuttings. Simply snip off branches sparingly until the plant is robust enough to handle more involved harvesting. Thyme leaves are great in recipes when both fresh and dried, but be sure to harvest your plants in the early morning for peak flavor. Always leave at least five inches of each plant left to ensure it has enough stored energy to keep growing.

Saving Thyme Seeds

If you choose to save thyme seeds for future planting, you can collect them off the plant in the early fall. Because the seeds spring from the plant the moment they are ripe, the best way to collect them is to cover your plant with a tightened brown bag that will collect all the seeds when they spring. When stored in a cool, dry place, thyme seeds should last for about three years.

Choosing the Best Thyme Seeds for Your Climate

There is a wide variety of thyme to choose from for growing in your garden. Here are some of the most popular varieties you can grow at home.

  • French or Common Thyme: The classic kitchen garden thyme, this variety is as tasty as it is beautiful.
  • Red Creeping Thyme: Because the tiny leaves of this thyme variety don’t have much flavor, it’s used as a predominately ornamental ground cover that produces purple flowers. Common varieties include ‘Doone Valley’ and ‘Albus’.
  • Lemon Thyme: Reaching over a foot tall, this shrub-like thyme is great for cooking and full of flavor. Some of the best cultivars include  ‘Aureus’, ‘Golden King’, and ‘Silver Queen’.
  • Caraway Thyme: Growing up to five inches tall and full of pretty pink flowers, this type of thyme thrives in southern gardens.

Additional Growing Tips for Organic Thyme

Once it’s well established, thyme will largely thrive on its own. If you’re looking for some extra tips on how to keep it growing great, read these tips below.

  • Let the soil dry out between watering. Not only will this produce the best tasting thyme, it also lowers the risk of your crop contracting root rot.
  • Keep the weeds under control. Weeds that compete for the nutrients in the soil are a bad idea for horizontal growing plants like thyme, so keeping the weeds in check will help your thyme to thrive.
  • Don’t over-fertilize your thyme. Once they start to flourish, thyme doesn’t need much nutrition in order to thrive. A simple infusion of compost in the spring and fall should be plenty.
  • Cut your crop back each spring. It’s the best way to encourage bushy growth and tender stems rather than a scraggly, woody shrub.