How to Grow Thyme

Thyme has taken over one of my planters. I planted it next to some mint to see which one would win (and because I thought it would be the mint that won)… I was wrong.

This species of thyme was given to me by a gardener on instagram, @little_green_thumbs. At the time, it had been included in a box alongside some philodendron cuttings that had taken root. I think they were meant for me to eat, but I ended up sticking them in cups of water and seeing which would survive. More than a few did, and I got to planting them. After a few weeks, I had pared down the little cuttings to the strongest one. It’s certainly proved me right, sitting fully with a never-ending batch of leaves.

I tend to take just a few sprigs at a time as needed, or around 20 when it’s time to run the food dehydrator. I’ve used the leaves in just about everything, and these plants never seem to disappoint on flavor and scent.


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Characteristics

Thyme is a genus of plants (Thymus), closely related to oregano (Origanum), in the family of mint (Lamiaceae). Many species of thyme are grown for eating, smelling, or medicinal use. The most common for eating is Thymus vulgaris. There’s many forms and many distinct scents or flavors. Some will grow in a shrub appearance, some will spread like mats, and some will cascade. Some will smell like lemon, some like caraway.

This plant is typically a low-growing woody perennial. This means it stays short (6-12″ tall), gets wood on the branches (after it’s gotten a little older), and lives year after year… with proper care and pruning. In especially hot or cold climates, the plant may die during summer or hibernate in winter – making it behave more like an annual. They will produce many tiny flowers. These flowers can be allowed to go to seed, or pinched off to increase the bushiness of the plant.

Different species will thrive in somewhat different conditions. For example, German thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is hardy to zones 5-9, while lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) is hardy in zones 7-9.



Origin

Mediterranean

Thmye stands strong under recent rain

Care

Water

Water when the first inch of soil becomes dry, or even a little further along. It’s more resistant to drought than it is to continually wet conditions. When you water, water the plant in saturation and hold off watering until the soil is drying or has dried.

Light

Prefers full sun. If it’s in a pot, get it into a place where it can have sun as much as possible. Or, if you’re at home during the day, move the pot around to chase the light. If the plant is indoors, put it on a windowsill to catch as much light as it can (bonus points if it goes into a solarium of some sort).

Temperature

Start thyme in the spring, once there’s no more danger of frost. Ground temperature should get to around 70 F, if possible.

Thyme can act like an annual above zone 10, as the heat and humidity may cause it to wilt. I’ve grown mine in as a potted plant on the balcony, surviving Los Angeles heatwaves. Just make sure to give it a bit of shade when that happens.

It handles warm and dry conditions better than cool and damp.

Fertilizer

Mix some fertilizer or compost into the soil before you plant it to really help it along. I touch up the soil with a slow-release plant fertilizer every 4 months.

If the plant is highly fertilized, it will grow a large amount of foliage and reduce the concentration of aromatic oils.

thyme standing strong in the summer sun

The Dirt

Soil

Well-drained soil with a Ph close to 7 (6 – 8 preferred). Mulch with a bit of sand to help drainage and prevent root rot. Loamy, sandy soil.

These plants can also grow stunningly well in hydroponics, if you want to go the soil-less route.

Root & Pot

Space plants about a foot apart when they start to grow, or plant them in individual planters with room to grow. They don’t get too large individually, though they grow quickly and survive quite rough conditions.

A clay pot can be useful for wicking away moisture from the soil and preventing it from staying too damp.

Size & Speed

Thyme can be planted at almost any time. As long as the seedlings don’t experience too extreme of conditions, it’ll take root and grow heavily. It thrives best if planted in the spring, so it can take advantage of the summer growing season. If planted in winter, it may not be happy or capable of surviving. Grows the most in the summer, around the time the flowers bloom.

Thyme benefits from some light pruning. Prune after the last spring frost, to keep the plant from getting woody and brittle. Pinching off the tips helps keep the plant bushy, as it will often split where the branch was pinched off. Stop your pruning efforts before the first frost of fall, to keep tender new growths from being damaged by winter. To harvest, prune back to above new growth, and don’t cut into the woody stems at the base.

After three or four years, the plant may be quite woody and the flavor may decrease. This is a good time to start over with cuttings from the parent plant.

Thyme grows quite thickly. I never seem to eat enough of it. My plant has survived its first winter and seems to have stopped growing in circumference, though there’s a never-ending bunch of leaves and stems.

A single shoot of thyme getting pinched so it'll split
A single shoot of thyme getting pinched so it’ll split

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Later Life

Propagation

These plants are very easily propagated by cuttings. Get a snippet of the plant about 5″ or longer, preferably not a woody section. Trim off the bottom leaves, so there aren’t any that will sit submerged in water. Then, stick the cut end into water and wait. After a couple of weeks, there should be some healthy roots forming. When they’re 1″ long or so, go ahead and stick that plant in the dirt! (I don’t mean in a rough way… make a little hole with your finger, place the end in, cover it up with dirt.)

Alternatively, you can try to root the cutting in soil directly. This is sometimes a bit slower and more prone to root rot, but you get the added benefit of already being in dirt when the roots develop. Keep the soil consistently moist until the roots develop. After six weeks or so, the plant should be hardy enough to transplant into a larger pot.

Growing from seeds can be difficult at the start. Seeds suffer from slow, uneven germination. Once established, though, the new plant is hardy like all the thyme.

The best time is to get your new plant ready to go about 6 to 10 weeks before the last spring frost, that way they’re ready immediately to transplant as the weather warms.

Flower & Fruit

These plants typically flower in the summer, which is also when they grow the fastest.

The herbs are very attractive to pollinators such as bees.

Edibility

This plant is highly edible.

My favorite method is to cut the sprigs just above the woody section, early in the morning (before the sun cooks the leaves and the flavor turns bitter). I grab the cutting by the tip with one hand, then pinch the twig with the other, about 1/2″ down from the tip. With a gentle tug, you can strip all the leaves off of the cutting in a single motion – except for the tip, which you can just pinch off.

Avoid harvesting more than 1/3 of the whole plant at a time.

The leaves are more flavorful before the plant flowers, though they’re highly aromatic all the time. Sometimes you’ll even smell them when you water the plant!

Some good uses – thyme-seasoned olive oil, thyme and garlic chicken, slowly dried and powdered for a more flavorful seasoning, thyme tea, essential oil production, natural air freshener, etc etc.

Problems

Pests & Diseases

Spider mites can be a an issue, especially in drier weather.

In more humid environments, root rot and fungus could become an issue. Good drainage and good air circulation can largely prevent this.

Trouble Signs

Not really…

Other Notes

Works well growing alongside rosemary, which has similar sunny conditions and watering needs.


Thanks for stopping by! I hope you had a pleasant time checking out the plants. If you’re in the mood for more nature, please stay in touch!

3 thoughts on “How to Grow Thyme

  1. I’ve been growing thyme for a few years. My favourite part is the aroma. I can’t get enough of it. I grow mine from seed. While I have about a dozen plants already in the garden, I planted more this year. They are just starting to come up this week.

    I dry a lot of mine, then strip the leaves from stems. I enjoy it for months after harvest, even after the garden is covered with a thick layer of snow. I put boughs over mine, and they survive quite well here in Nova Scotia. The variety I mostly grow in German Winter Thyme.

    I didn’t know I could take cuttings. I’ve never tried it before, but I will this summer. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to put in more thyme! I love that right when I start watering, the thyme and the mint each put up a little puff of aroma. Such a great way to start the day.
      Good luck with your cuttings!

      Liked by 1 person

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