“Trample the thyme beneath thy feet; be useful, be happy.”English writer and poet Martin Farquhar Tupper, 1800s
I do think thyme is a useful, happy herb. It is one of the most essential of herbs, used by many cultures in food, and also useful as a folk medicine. And it certainly makes me happy when I ruffle my hand over a shrub and inhale its aroma.
I have always aspired to having a thyme lawn just so I can walk on it (mind the bees please) and have that warm, woody, spicy scent drift up to greet me. (Read more about thyme lawns below.)
The Story of Thyme
There are more than 400 different species of thyme growing around the world. Thyme has been used in healing and cooking for millennia. Like many of our favourite herbs, it’s indigenous to the Mediterranean, loving to grow in those hot, dry conditions.
Ancient Egyptian embalmers used it to prepare mummies for their journey to heaven, while Romans used it as a strewing herb, scattering it on the floor to deter pests. It is also an ingredient in the classic French liqueur Benedictine, created by a Benedictine monk in 1510.
Thyme’s strong healing powers are legendary. The active ingredient in its essential oil is thymol, which is an antibacterial and disinfectant. It was used during the Black Death in Europe, and Victorian nurses often used a solution of thyme when caring for wounds. Thymol is still used in modern commercial mouthwashes to kill germs.
How to Grow Thyme
To grow thyme successfully, think of hot, dry Mediterranean conditions and try to replicate them in your garden. Don’t try to grow it in very heavy soil or in damp or shady spots. Soil should be average rather than rich, and must be well-drained. Never overwater – it won’t mind dry spells, but too much water will kill it.
All forms of thyme just languished in my former coastal garden – my damp clay soil wasn’t their favourite. I only achieved real success with it when I moved to the semi-arid Okanagan region of British Columbia. Here both the bush and creeping forms grow with abandon, self-sowing themselves happily in pavement cracks and forming colourful scented waterfalls that cascade over walls.
Thyme will be as content in a container as it will in a garden bed. You can mulch the soil in the top of the container with gravel to help reflect heat and light up into the plant.
Thyme is lovely when it flowers, sporting tiny mauve, pink or white flower heads in late spring. I recently gave myself a delightful surprise when working near some flowering thyme bushes. I noticed a beautiful, light floral scent nearby. When I investigated I discovered it was the thyme flowers, which I had always assumed smelled like thyme.
In my garden thyme is one of the next plants to flower after the dandelions are over, and bees absolutely love them. When the flowers are done I shear the bushes back and give them a little seaweed fertilizer (otherwise, don’t fertilize thyme at all). They grow back pretty quickly.
Thyme is fairly hardy even in my cold Zone 5 winters. It’s wet winter conditions they’ll hate. If your temperatures tend to freeze in the winter, try laying cut evergreen branches lightly over the plants, removing in spring when temperatures warm above freezing.
PRO TIP: Don’t crowd your thyme bushes, either by planting them too close to each other or to other plants. Give them good air circulation and trim back nearby plants if they threaten to shade your thyme.
How to Propagate Thyme
Most people purchase their thyme plants from nurseries, but it is possible to grow some types from seed, including creeping thyme and English thyme. I have never tried to save my own seed from my thyme plants because the flowers are so tiny, and the hybrid varieties don’t produce seeds.
How to Use Thyme
Oh my gosh, let me count the ways! Thyme has a real affinity for meat – lamb, beef, pork and poultry. It is a common addition to dry rubs for those proteins, and often added to soups and stews. It is always found in those powdered poultry seasoning blends you buy in the supermarket (anyone got an old can of it in the very back of your spice cupboard?).
It is also a must in Herbes de Provence, an all-purpose herb blend that originated in the south of France. Thyme is included along with rosemary, oregano, savory and sometimes lavender. Find out how to make your own Herbes de Provence and how to use it. (If you don’t have all the herbs called for, don’t worry.)
One of my favourite uses of thyme is in the Middle Eastern herb blend called za’atar, which I first discovered decades ago when my sister brought me a package of it from her home in Israel. It contains thyme (which is a substitute for the hard-to-find herb Thymbra), oregano, toasted sesame seeds and lemony ground sumac, which you can find in Mediterranean markets. You can also make your own za’atar blend. This seasoning is delicious on meats to be grilled, like pork, beef or chicken. I also like to brush pita bread with olive oil and dust them with za’atar before lightly grilling them and enjoying with hummous.
Varieties of Thyme You’ll Want in Your Garden
There are hundreds of varieties of thyme, some for culinary use and some purely decorative. Here are a few of my favourites.
Common or English Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
This shrubby thyme will grow up to 12” tall (although it never has for me). This is the main one you want to save and dry for your own use – simple shear the bush back and place the cuttings in a jar with no lid for a week or two. Cap the jar when the leaves are totally dry. To use, pull out a branch and rub off the leaves.
Creeping Thyme (T. serpyllum or T. praecox)
One of my very favourite plants of all time! Creeping thyme forms very low mats of mildly scented leaves (with no real culinary use) showing clusters of tiny flowers in late spring.
Plant creeping thyme at garden edges, in rock gardens, and anywhere you have a wall it can tumble over. T. pseudolanuginosus, or Wooly thyme, is the strongest grower and is a good choice to start a thyme lawn, which is a perfect grass substitute in hot dry areas like mine. Another great choice is creeping T. x citriodorus ‘Doone Valley’ with its lemon-scented, yellow-edged dark green leaves. ‘Coccineus’ has magenta flowers, ‘Alba’ has white flowers, ‘Pink Chintz’ has pale pink flowers, and ‘Elfin’ or ‘Minus’ has the smallest leaves and slowest growth of any creeping thyme. Another favourite of mine is ‘Orange Spice’ thyme, which forms a fast-growing low mat and really does smell like citrus!
Lemon Thyme (T. citriodorus)
This shrubby thyme smells just like its name, of fresh lemons rather than the usual thyme scent. The leaves are great used in the final minutes of cooking chicken or fish. This cultivar comes in either a dark green leaved variety or ‘Golden Lemon Thyme’, a variegated type with yellow-edged green leaves that is very pretty. Watch for variegated thyme to throw off dark green branches without the yellow edges – you’ll want to cut those out at the base to keep the plant’s pretty colouring.