Plant thyme in your herb garden, at the edge of a walk, along a short garden wall, or in containers. As a special garden treat, put a few along a walkway and between steps, and your footsteps will release its aroma. It even makes a pretty patch of small ground cover. Growing thyme provides an anchor in an herb garden in areas where it is evergreen in winter. Thyme is also perfect for containers, either alone or in combination with plants that won’t shade it out. The flowers open in spring and summer, sprinkling the plant with tiny, two-lipped blossoms attractive to bees.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Thyme does best in full sun. Start from young plants set out in spring after the last frost. Plant in well-drained soil with a pH of about 7.0; it prefers slightly alkaline conditions. Add lime to the pot or ground to raise the pH if needed. Also add a slow-release fertilizer to the soil at or before planting and again each spring. Thyme must have excellent drainage. Mulching with limestone gravel or builder’s sand improves drainage and prevents root rot. German thyme is perennial in zones 5 to 9, lemon thyme in zones 7 to 9. Easy to grow, thyme needs little care except for a regular light pruning after the first year. Do this after the last spring frost, so that the plants do not get woody and brittle. Pinching the tips of the stems keeps plants bushy, but stop clipping about a month before the first frost of fall to make sure that new growth is not too tender going into the cool weather. Cut thyme back by one third in spring, always cutting above points where you can see new growth, never below into the leafless woody stem. Lemon thyme is more upright and more vigorous than the other thymes. In the North and cold climates, cover with pine boughs after the soil freezes to help protect from winter damage. In zone 10, thyme is usually an annual, often succumbing to heat and humidity in mid-summer.
Spider mites can be a problem in dry weather. Also watch out for root rot and fungus diseases in humid climates. Good drainage, good air circulation, and proper planting as described above will help prevent disease.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest leaves as you need them, including through the winter in places where it is evergreen. Although the flavour is most concentrated just before plants bloom, thyme is so aromatic that the leaves have good flavour all the time. Strip the tiny leaves from woody stems before using.
Thyme is easily dried, refrigerated, frozen, or preserved in oil or vinegar. The tiny leaves air-dry quickly. Add thyme to butter or mayonnaise to taste. Use thyme in dried beans, meat stews, and strong vegetables such as cabbage. Thyme is also great with any slowly cooked soup, stew, vegetable, meat, or sauce. Use lemon-flavoured varieties in teas, on seafood, or in just about any dish calling for a lemony zing.