The Time to Grow Thyme
Guide to growing and cooking withThyme
Some say that thyme is the spice of life. Actually, it’s more of an herb. What makes this seemingly insignificant plant so important to people? It isn’t expensive or hard to grow, and neither is it hard to find. Yet, for a variety of reasons, many prize this common, basic herb. Nature lovers are stirred by the aromatic scent that floats upward when the plant is touched or stirred. Chefs value its flavor in special recipes. There is nothing quite like a thyme-touched soup or stew on a cold winter day. The legend and lore of this miniscule plant reflects courage in the human spirit and delight to the palate. Thyme is tasty and easy to grow, and it enjoys an exciting history of useful and magical properties.
The Plant History
A perennial, thyme has tiny foliage on a many-branched shrub that grows low to the ground. When the blossoms burst out along their stems, a lilac to pink blanket of thyme trails over the nearby landscape. Bright sun warms the plant, and oils erupt in a sensation of delicious aromas. Native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, the legend and lore of magical thyme pulls us deeper into the mysteries of the plant and its many practical uses throughout history.
Finding reasons behind the names of ancient plants often leads us in various directions. Such is the with this interesting herb. Thymus means both “courage” and “to fumigate” in the Greek language, which belongs to the families deriving from the parent tongue of Indo-European that spawned today’s European languages.
Our ancestors burned thyme to keep bugs at bay in their homes, which would certainly suggest a good reason for the plant’s name. The website MoonMuses.com suggests that the smoke of thyme treated victims of poisonous bites, while the herb eased symptoms of women’s problems, sprains, and stomach disorders. A more elegant line of thought prefers the courage route. Sauce Magazine reports longstanding use of this herb that was recorded over many centuries. For example, during the time of chivalry and knights, the invigorating scent of thyme was offered to knights from maidens and wives. Throughout the ages, thyme played a role in culture as a symbol of style and elegance to the Greeks, and represented the republican spirit in France. Historical lore includes tales of fairies who made their homes among fragrant beds of thyme, and in fact, many people planted a bed of thyme for just the purpose of attracting the wee folk. Some went as far as to claim that eating thyme might help you actually see the fairies!
Beyond the symbolism and historical significance of thyme lies its usefulness. Well-known to the culinary world, sprigs of thyme added to soup, stews, lamb, poultry, beef, breads, butters, vinegars, and just about anything a chef can concoct imbues a delicious depth to dishes. Fresh thyme is preferable to dried, but in a pinch, any thyme is better than none at all. It is easy to store when dried, and lasts indefinitely in a covered container on the shelf.
Medicinally, the herb was fashioned into “simples” by housewives who wanted to help a family member with stomach troubles. Apothecaries made a tea of thyme to overcome shortness of breath and congested lungs. Infected sores were soothed with a pasty poultice made from thyme. Today, we know that thyme contains the essential oil thymol, which can be hazardous to health if not used in appropriate amounts. It’s always wise to consult a homeopathic doctor or personal physician before using thymol for health purposes.
A bed of thyme gives a plush look to a garden. Rather than growing it from seed, it may be easier to purchase healthy plants from reputable garden centers or greenhouses. If this is your first foray into the world of thyme, begin with common thyme. Plant the seedlings directly in the garden where they will receive full sun to partial shade. Make sure the area is well drained; nothing kills thyme faster than standing in water. When planting your infant herbs, keep in mind that odd numbers yield thick, lush growth. Purchase and grow thyme plants in threes or fives. If you’re going to use them among stepping-stones in your lawn or patio, depending on the size of the plant, you can carefully break the seedling into several pieces. Creeping thyme growing over pavers lends an aged appearance to the walkway.
After several years of growth, it is a good idea to divide plants or take cuttings to expand the presence of thyme in your garden and yard. Snip off three-inch sprigs of new growth. Carefully tuck the piece into moist sand and water for two weeks. Tiny roots should make an appearance eventually. Once the thyme has rooted, you can transplant the small plants into containers that hold them comfortably but are neither too large nor too small. Or you can plant them directly into the garden soil. Just be watchful of the fledgling plant. Thyme, like crusty bread, is hearty and seldom needs much attention. The very sturdiness of so small a plant is part of its allure for the seasoned gardener or herbalist.
Types of Thyme
Due to its garden-variety popularity and simplicity in cultivation, the species and varieties of thyme now number into the thousands. The selection is so vast that it’s hard to resist going overboard in buying and raising new varieties. Once you begin growing these simple little sprigs, there’s a good chance you will want to increase the varieties used for planting. Following is a list of thymes that every garden should have for multiple everyday household uses: common thyme, lemon thyme, caraway thyme, creeping thyme, nutmeg thyme, mother of thyme, wooly thyme, English thyme, French thyme, fairy thyme, elfin thyme, and the list could go on and on, but the idea is that there are many types to choose from.
There is no substitute for thyme in the garden or in the kitchen. A cup of tea infused with thyme brings back the memory of scented thymes in a lovely summer garden. The connoisseur’s mouth waters with anticipation of that first taste of a soup laced with the flavor of fresh or dried thyme. At the end of the day, a bath bag filled with dried thyme soothes the soul and sets the mind to daydreaming of medieval knights and fair maids gathering courage for the coming day. Simply put…grow thyme for the love of the plant and its lore.
You can choose from a plethora of gardening guides to help you choose the best variety of thyme for your soil and garden space. For example, a window box garden for an apartment dweller might provide better growing conditions for a certain type of thyme, while a sprawling herb garden on a farm could be the perfect site for another type, or several. Check soil conditions and growing needs for the thyme that you choose to grow. If you haven’t had much luck growing roses or ferns, try easy-going thyme for a better shot at gardening success.
Heavily scented leaves are used to season fish, shellfish, poultry stuffing, soups, or vegetables. Perennial; to 1 foot tall. Zones 1–24.Thyme is a highly aromatic herb which grows especially well in somewhat dry, sunny conditions. A Mediterranean herb, thyme holds its flavor in cooking and blends well with other flavors of the region, like garlic, olive oil and tomatoes. Thyme is also considered to have antiseptic and preservative properties and has long been used medicinally as well as when preserving meats. You’ll even find thyme in perfume.
Varies with variety. Thyme is generally low growing, spreading, 6 - 10" in height. Some varieties form an almost flat carpet.
Days to Harvest:
Established thyme plants can be harvested at any time. Simply snip a few stems. The blossoms are also edible and are at their best when first opening. Thyme grows slowly from seed and should be allowed a few months of growth, before cutting.
Thyme is a low growing, woody perennial. It is extremely fragrant and flavorful and grows well in tough, dry conditions. The pink, lavender or white tubular flowers are very popular with bees. Tiny gray-green leaves remain evergreen. There are about 350 different species.
Thyme is often used as a ground cover and is happy to grow in the cracks between pavers and rocks. You can also buy seed in bulk to create a thyme lawn.
Trailing varieties look well in pots, especially the golden and variegated varieties.
Thyme can be used as an edger, but it has a tendency to die out in spots, so be prepared to fill in with new plants.
- Thymus x citriodorus ‘Aureus’ - Lemon-scented thyme with a true lemon scent, the minty quality of thyme and golden variegated leaves.
- T. pseudolanuginosus ‘Woolly Thyme’ - Very soft, flat spreading carpet. No scent. (Zones 6 - 5)
- T. herba-barona ‘Caraway Thyme’ - Low growing, with pale pink flowers and the scent of caraway. Also look for thymes with the scents of orange, rose and lavender and check out other suggestions in Creeping Thyme Plants.
Growing Requirements & Maintenance:
Thyme pretty much grows itself. In fact, the more you fuss with it, the less hardy it will be. Thyme is most fragrant and flavorful when grown in dry, lean soil. Too much moisture will rot the plants.
Thyme plants are usually propagated by division or cuttings. Thyme may be grown by seed, but the different varieties will cross pollinate and hybridize, so it may not grow true from seed.
If trying to cover a large areas, space new plants about 6" apart, to form a cover.
Thyme will grow well indoors, if given a bright, sunny window. However, since it survives quite well outdoors all winter, you might want to consider giving it a sheltered location outside, where you can continue to harvest.
Maintenance: When grown in warmer climates where it can get shrubby, prune hard, in early spring, to prevent the plant from getting too woody. Additional shaping can be done after flowering. Otherwise all that is needed is to prune by harvesting and to remove and replace any areas that die out.
Pests & Problems: Ants like to build their nests in thyme beds and can disrupt the roots. If grown in damp or humid conditions, molds and rots can become a problem. Care should be taken that thyme plants are not sitting in wet areas throughout the winter months.
Uses: Thyme is flavorful fresh and dried. It makes a nice complement to tomato sauces, cheeses, eggs and vegetables. It can also be used to flavor jellies, breads, vinegars, marinades, sauces and in bouquet garni.
Preserving: Thyme can be frozen, but it dries and keeps easily.