Age-Old Wisdom meets Modern Tools
Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Thyme
Thyme is a wonderful herb with a pleasant, pungent, clover flavor. It smells like summer to us! There are both fragrant ornamental types as well as culinary thyme varieties which add a savory note to summer soups, grilled meats, and vegetables. Here’s how to plant and grow thyme.
A low-growing hardy perennial, thyme is a fragrant herb with small, fragrant leaves and thin, woody stems. The culinary varieties are evergreen.
Thyme comes in over fifty varieties with different fragrances and flavors. Fresh or English thyme are used most often in cooking.
Originally from the Mediterranean area, this herb is drought-friendly so it doesn’t have high watering needs. It is also pollinator-friendly! Let some thyme plants flower, since the herb attracts the bees.
While thyme is usually harvested in the summer months, we have harvested ours well into late fall!
Thyme can grow in the ground or in a container. Either is left outside in wintertime. New leaves will emerge within the early spring.
- Thyme thrives in full sun and loves heat. If you are growing in a pot indoors, plant near a sunny window.
- Soil needs to drain well so there aren’t “wet feet.” In the garden, plant with other drought-tolerant perennials.
- In early spring, you may fertilize with organic matter, like compost, but not much soil amendment is necessary.
- It’s hard to grow thyme from seeds because of slow, uneven germination. It’s easier to buy the plants from a garden center or take some cuttings from a friend. Over time, you can propagate from your own cuttings.
- For a head start, plant the cuttings indoors 6 to 10 weeks before the last spring frost. (See your local frost dates.)
- Plant cuttings or young thyme plants any time after the ground temperature reaches 70°F. This is usually 2 to 3 weeks before the last spring frost in well-drained soil about 9 inches apart.
- Space young plants 12 to 24 inches apart, depending upon the specific variety.
- The plants should grow 6 to 12 inches in height.
- In the garden, plant thyme near cabbage or tomatoes.
- If you are growing thyme in containers, plant with rosemary which also likes sunny conditions and has similar watering needs.
- Water deeply only when the soil is completely dry.
- Prune the plants back in the spring and summer to contain the growth.
- If you have cold winters, remember to lightly mulch around the plants after the ground freezes.
- Three to four year old plants need to be divided or replaced because older plants are woody and the leaves less flavorful.
- You can take some cuttings and plant them indoors in pots, too.
How to Take a Cutting:
Clip a three-inch cutting from the very tip of a stem, apply rooting hormone on the exposed portion of the stem, and plant it in either sterile sand or vermiculite. Roots will emerge within about six weeks. Transfer to a small pot, let the root ball form, and then transfer to a large pot or directly to your garden.
- Harvest thyme just before the plant flowers by cutting off the top five to six inches of growth. Leave the tough, woody parts.
- It’s best to harvest thyme in morning after the dew has dried. Clean leaves should not be washed, because it removes some of the essential oils.
- Two or more crops may be gathered during the season.
- Or, if you keep trimming your thyme plant, it will keep growing (and also keep a compact shape). But always leave at least five inches of growth so plant will continue to thrive.
- Trim thyme whenever it gets leggy.
- Fresh thyme should be stored refrigerated and wrapped lightly in plastic; it should last one to two weeks
- To dry thyme, hang the sprigs in a dark, well-ventilated, warm area. You can also just dry the leaves by placing them on a tray. Once dried, store them in an airtight container. Crush just before using. Under good conditions herbs, will retain maximum flavor for two years.
- Freezing is another method of storage.
The three most common varieties of culinary thyme are:
- French or English thyme (most common)
- Lemon thyme, for a hint of lemon
- Caraway thyme, for a nice fragrance of caraway and thyme
Wit & Wisdom
Thyme adds a gentle flavor to just about anything, especially eggs, tomatoes, meats, soups, beans, and potatoes.
It’s taste has been described as a bit earthy with lemony and minty tones. Some thing it has a slight floral flavor.
Fresh thyme can be used with or without its stem. However, if a recipe calls for a “sprig,” the stem should be left on. The leaves will fall off in cooking, and then the stem can be removed prior to serving.
If a recipe calls for a “sprig” of thyme, the leaves and stem should be used together, intact. When adding a whole sprig of thyme to soups, stews or other recipes, the leaves usually fall off during cooking and the woody stem can be removed prior to serving.