Thyme is a hardy, perennial, evergreen herb that is perfect for those winter stews and soups. The leaves are small but incredibly flavorful. Outside of the kitchen, growing thyme as a landscaping plant in rock gardens and alongside patios is hugely popular, thanks to its tolerance for dry, hot conditions.
Lots of cooks consider thyme to be a staple herb, and it's often used in conjunction with other Mediterranean herbs like oregano and parsley. Having fresh thyme available will enhance your cooking and make your kitchen smell like summer.
Thyme has a wonderful pungent flavor that often reminds people of clover. It smells so lovely that in ancient Greece, it was a compliment to tell someone they smelled like thyme.
Thyme Plant Info
- Hardiness Zones: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
- Soil: Loamy, sandy, pH between 5.5 and 7.0, well-drained, rich in organic matter
- Sun Exposure: Full or partial sun
- Planting: Sow seeds outdoors in early spring, 2 to 3 weeks before the last frost date
- Spacing: 6 to 12 inches between plants and 16 to 24 inches between rows
- Depth: ¼ inch seed depth
- Best Companions: Cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, brussels sprouts, strawberry, eggplant
- Worst Companions: Oregano, onion, garlic, marjoram, turnip
- Watering: Water regularly to keep the soil moist, especially during dry periods
- Fertilizing: Not necessary in fertile soils, you may apply low-nitrogen fertilizer before planting
- Common Problems: Alternaria leaf spot, root rot, botrytis rot, aphids, spider mites
- Harvest: Harvest leaves and flowers as you need them, 105 days after planting
Thyme comes in ornamental and culinary varieties. Ornamental varieties are often the ones we plant in rock gardens. Culinary ones are prized for cooking. But that doesn't mean you can't use culinary varieties to add some color to your garden.
There are over 300 thyme cultivars. You can find the more common ones at your local nursery, but if you go online you'll find more options. Mountain Valley Growers offers a diverse selection.
This is easily the most popular variety and the one we most associate with cooking. It's an upright grower fit for zones 5-9. It grows to 12 inches tall. This variety is sometimes referred to as common or German thyme. The name doesn't matter. To verify that it's the type you want, look for the scientific name Thymus vulgaris.
Lemon thyme is an upright form with attractive, variegated leaves that have a rich, lemony scent. It tolerates cold well and can be grown in planting zones 4 -11. Fast-growing.
With reddish stems and pretty pink flowers, this is an attractive variety that is both culinary and ornamental. It looks beautiful along pathways and has a fresh scent.
Caraway thyme can be used as a substitute for caraway and blends nicely with roasted meats and baked in bread. A vigorous grower in zones 5-11.
Juniper thyme grows upright to only six inches tall, which makes it ideal as a container plant. Small silvery leaves give it the nickname moonlight thyme. You can grow it indoors to enjoy thyme all year. Great for on the deck in summer and in a sunny window during the winter.
This variety is a creeper, prized for rock gardens and in between pavers. It only gets four inches tall and has gray, slightly fuzzy leaves, hence the name. This one does not produce many flowers.
Another ornamental variety prized for rock gardens. Also known as mother-of-thyme, it grows in low mounds or clumps. Produces attractive flowers which bees love.
I really want to add this type to my fairy garden. It's a creeping ornamental variety with tiny leaves and petite lilac flowers. Only grows to four inches across and slow-growing. Zones 5-9.
How to Plant Thyme
Thyme is one of the European herbs that evolved in the rocky, sandy coastal climate of the Mediterranean Sea. Growing thyme is the perfect choice for arid locations and makes an ideal plant for xeriscaping. Once established, thyme will tolerate drought conditions well.
Thyme does well in USDA zones 5-9.
Thyme loves the sun and the hotter the better. Give it full sun, at least 6 hours a day.
Thyme likes slightly alkaline soil with a pH between 5.5-7.0. If your soil is acidic you can add lime to raise your pH.
The soil where you are growing thyme should be well-draining and loose. I add sand to my earth since I started out in heavy clay. The sand helps to loosen the soil, allow the roots to spread out, and helps water to drain.
I have my thyme planted in two locations. One is in an outdoor raised bed for herbs and the second is in my greenhouse. In both cases, I plant thyme with like-minded herbs such as rosemary, oregano, and sage. They all share similar growing conditions and do well in close proximity.
Starting From Seed
Like rosemary and mint, thyme can be difficult to start from seed and has low germination rates. If you decide to start from seeds, add four seeds per pot and put them in a warm room of over 70°F.
Both cutting and layering work well as a propagation tool. In addition, you can purchase thyme plants online or from a local nursery. Make sure you get the cultivar you want – either culinary or ornamental.
To learn more about layering check out our guide on how to propagate new plants. Or watch this video to get started.
You can transplant your seedlings outside after the soil has warmed to 70°F and the danger of frost is gone.
Depending on the variety, place thyme 12-24 inches apart. The creeping varieties will need more room than the upright ones. Keep in mind when you are planting in between pavers that the plants will also creep onto your pathway.
Thyme does well in containers and is a welcomed houseplant. It has a delightful aroma, especially if you choose a cultivar such as lemon thyme. When growing indoors, you want to place in a sunny window or have it under grow lights.
When putting into a container, use a light seedling mix. I have often mixed cactus soil in with a seedling mix to please thyme. Cactus potting soil contains sand which helps with drainage. In addition, I add in a scoop or two of well-aged compost when potting up.
Caring for Thyme
Thyme is a hardy herb and easy to care for. Thyme will die back in winter, but my outdoor plants often stay green into December. In a warm winter, my greenhouse plant has green leaves throughout the dormant season.
Thyme is extremely drought tolerant, so let it dry out well between watering. A thorough watering after the soil is dry to three inches is much better than a light sprinkle every few days.
Like most herbs, thyme does not like to be over-fertilized. While growing thyme, I mulch mine with two inches of well-rotted compost in the spring. This seems to do a good job of keeping the plants healthy.
Thyme benefits from being divided every four years. After a few years, the stems become thick and produce fewer leaves. Dividing your plants will encourage new growth – and you can share with a friend.
Mulch is useful, especially in winter. In late fall, add a thick layer of straw or wood chips around your plants to offer winter protection. This is necessary for cooler climates so that your thyme does not die as the chill moves in.
Problem and Solutions for Growing Thyme
Thyme is hardy and relatively trouble-free, but there are a few things you want to keep an eye on.
One problem thyme can develop is root rot. Root rot causes the roots to decay and they become unable to absorb nutrients.
Thyme likes light, well-drained soil and hot, dry weather. If your thyme is in heavy soil and you have a wet spring it may develop root rot and die.
Gray Mold Or Botrytis
Thyme can also get gray mold, which appears as gray spots on the leaves. It is caused by too much moisture or high humidity. It's hard to control your outdoor plant conditions when the weather is wet, so you may want to keep your drought-loving herbs in containers if you live in a wet area.
Make sure your thyme is in well-draining soil and have plenty of room for air to circulate around the leaves. You can spray with neem oil to help control the fungus.
Companion Plants for Growing Thyme
Some plants that benefit from growing thyme near them are:
- Brussels sprouts
Honey bees and other pollinators love thyme. For the most part, we are probably going to harvest our thyme before it flowers (that’s when the essential oils are the strongest). However, you may want to let a plant or two flower for the bees.
Don't plant thyme with:
Harvesting, Storing, and Using Thyme
Harvest thyme using sharp scissors. Snip the sprig off the plant. Thyme is most potent just before it flowers, but you can harvest leaves whenever you need them. Thyme responds well to pruning and will grow vigorously when it is trimmed, so don't hold back.
Store fresh thyme in the crisper section of the refrigerator for up to two weeks. You can also dry it. Cut sprigs before they bloom and tie in a bundle. Place them in a paper bag with holes to keep the leaves clean and together if they fall off the stem. Leaves are ready to store when they are crunchy and crumble in fingers.
One excellent way to use your thyme is to make a delicious marinade.
Thyme in Natural Medicine
Thyme is not only great in your cooking pot, but it has medicinal qualities as well. It's is well known for its antiseptic properties, and it's a popular ingredient in many health care products.
It was especially popular for mouth and tooth care in ancient times and is still in some products today. Thymol is one of the ingredients in the mouthwash Listerine and Vicks Vapor Rub.
The Bottom Line
Herbs are an essential plant for any garden – or even if you only have a little space on a windowsill. Of all the herbs out there, thyme is one of the best to have around because it's versatile and easy going.