Thyme, an ancient herb plant long known to gardeners, can be added to every garden space. This plant is native to Mediterranean area, and the first documented use of thyme was by the ancient Egyptians. Thyme was originally used for cleansing and incense but now is one of the most widely used culinary herbs, often found in soup, egg and meat dishes, sauces, bread and vegetables.
Cultivation Information and How to Grow Thyme
Botanical and Common Name – Thymus is the botanical name and thyme is the common name.
Plant Category – Thyme is an evergreen perennial herb.
Hardiness Zones – Thyme is hardy zones 4-9 depending on the variety.
Bloom Time & Color – Thymus species plants usually have tiny, fragrant flowers that appear in late spring through summer, and the flowers are usually white, pink, or purple.
Foliage – Thyme leaves are highly aromatic and are the source of the essential oils once used for medicinal purposes. Now, thyme foliage is the part of the herb used for cooking. Thyme leaves are small and usually green or gray-green, except some bush species which have variegated foliage.
Growth Habit – Thyme grows primarily in two different forms: “Creeping Thyme,” which is a spreading form of thyme, and “Bush Thyme,” which grows into a more upright, shrubby plant.
Dimensions – Creeping thymes grow 2-8” tall and 12” wide, while bush thymes grow about 1’ tall and wide.
Preferred Conditions – Thyme prefers full sun to part shade and well-drained soil. In fact, one expert has recommended a thick layer of gravel mulch to keep the roots of the thyme from sitting in overly wet soil, especially during rainy seasons.
Maintaining Thyme in the Garden
Maintenance – Thyme should be mulched during the winter months to prevent frost heaving, so the gravel mulch would be suitable for use all year. As thyme spreads and grows, the inner stems can become woody and die back a bit, especially in the center. After the thyme is about four years old, or as needed, gently cut out any woody dead parts and replant the rooted outside parts of the plant.
Pests or Diseases – Thyme has no major pests or diseases.
Propagating Thyme and Using it in the Garden
Propagation Methods – Root cuttings or division is the easiest way to propagate thyme although you can plant seed directly in early spring. All but the variegated thymes will self-sow or spread gently, never invasively. Variegated thyme plants are generally sterile and would need to be propagated through division.
Using Thyme in the Garden
Companion Plants – Plant thyme around your vegetables and ornamental flowers and you may find that the thyme serves to repel harmful insects from the other plants. Otherwise, consider other herbs or spring flowering plants, such as lavender, dill, garden phlox, roses, chamomile or coreopsis.
Seasons of Interest – Year round interest is provided in the garden when you plant thyme! Thyme has bright, aromatic foliage all year, as well as tiny flowers spring through summer.
Uses in the Garden – Thyme is great in a wide variety of garden situations. Its small size makes it easy to plant a few varieties as a ground cover around other plants in a mixed bed or border. Creeping thyme works great for rock gardens, small spaces, containers, raised beds and between stepping stone paves. Bush thyme works equally well for mixed borders, vegetable plots or herb gardens. Heirloom thyme was also commonly used in cottage gardens.
Other Uses – The herb is used medicinally for immune boosting, and thyme has also been used in cleaning products for its antibacterial and antiviral properties. In fact, I use a cleaning product certified for use in daycares, restaurants and hospitals that has thyme as the base of the cleaning effect but is also less toxic for use around my kids and pets.
Popular Varieties & Cultivars of Thyme
With over 400 species and subspecies of thyme, it would be impossible for me to list them all here, so I’ve included a sampling of the most commonly grown in home gardens.
- Thymus vulgaris – Common thyme: Usually cultivar of this thyme are seen in bush form and grow 1’ tall with purple flowers.
- Thymus praecox spp. articus – Creeping thyme: One of the many varieties with creeping thyme forms, these make excellent ground covers, alternative lawns, or pathways.
- Thymus citriodorus – Lemon thyme: This is the main species of lemon thyme, although other varieties also have a citrus scent and can carry the common name “lemon thyme” in garden centers and catalogs. Hardy to zones 4-9, the species has dark green leaves and white flowers. “Gold Edge” is one cultivar, with green and gold variegated leaves and pink flowers.
- Thymus pseudolanuginosus – Woolly thyme: Hardy to zones 2-9, this thyme has silver grey leaves that turn shades of purple in the winter, although they are evergreen and will hold color year round even in very cold climates. These thyme plants are usually not fragrant.