Thyme is a very fragrant herb used in many different cuisines to flavor dishes. It works especially well in recipes with lemon and garlic as well as with other herbs like rosemary and basil.
Thyme can also make a lovely ornamental plant and ground cover. Different varieties have different colored leaves, and the tiny white, purple, or pink flowers are very attractive.
This herb can be the perfect addition to your garden and provide you with tons of flavor. Here’s what you need to know about growing thyme and how to harvest thyme for cooking and storing.
All About Thyme
Thyme is a Mediterranean herb that is drought-tolerant and pollinator-friendly. It forms a low-growing and evergreen plant with tiny, very fragrant leaves.
Because it originated in the Mediterranean, thyme likes well-drained soils and lots of sunshine. Plants can adapt to a wide range of growing conditions but will likely struggle in extremely damp or humid climates.
Most varieties of thyme are perennials in USDA hardiness zones 5-9. If you live in a colder region (zone 4 or below), you can cover or bring plants inside during the winter to keep them alive.
Thyme is a staple culinary herb but can also be grown as an ornamental plant. Its small flowers put on a show and attract pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Thyme is a member of the mint family and will spread easily when it’s happy with the growing conditions. Many gardeners enjoy growing it as a ground cover for this reason and because it will thrive in drier soils that other plants won’t.
Varieties of Thyme
When it comes to growing thyme, you have quite a few choices.
There are both culinary and ornamental varieties of thyme. The ornamental varieties are still edible, but they won’t have as strong a flavor because they have been cultivated for their appearance.
There’s over 300 different varieties, but here are a few of the most popular ones:
- Common or garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris)- This is the most familiar variety used for cooking and will have the classic, recognizable flavor.
- Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus)- This is another variety highly valued by chefs because of its lemony flavor and scent. Lemon thyme can also be highly ornamental with golden or variegated leaves.
- Wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)- This is an ornamental variety that grows fascinating fuzzy, grey-silver leaves. Good for growing in rock gardens and window boxes.
There are hundreds of varieties of thyme. Some have a citrusy fragrance, some have golden leaves, and others (like this one) are variegated.
- Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’)- This is a cultivar of what’s known as wild thyme and grows only 1-2” inches high. It has fragrant leaves and tiny pink or purple flowers. Great for growing in between rocks, bricks, or pavers as part of a pathway.
Tips for Growing Thyme
Thyme is an easy to grow herb that doesn’t require much attention once it’s established.
However, here are some tips for getting your plants started the right way and caring for them so that you can get a good harvest later:
Start from Cuttings or Transplants
Thyme is a difficult herb to start from seed because it can be tough to get a good germination rate. It’s best to buy small plants from your local nursery or start from cuttings.
To start from cuttings, you’ll need an established thyme plant of the variety you want to grow. Use some garden clippers to cut off at least a 3” piece from the tip of a stem.
Prepare some small pots with a moistened growing medium. Dip the cut side of each stem into some powdered rooting hormone, then stick that same end into the soil of one of your pots.
Once you’ve done this with all the cuttings, put them somewhere warm and protected. Keep an eye on your cuttings for the next few weeks and make sure the soil doesn’t dry out.
While many herbs can be grown from seed, thyme is more difficult. Your best options are to buy small plants from your local garden center or propagate your own plants by cuttings.
Your cuttings should start to root within 6 weeks. Once they’ve rooted, allow them to grow in and fill the pots before you transplant them outside.
Wait to plant your thyme until after the last frost when the soil has warmed up. Plant in a sunny spot with well-drained soil out in your garden or in containers.
Depending on the variety, plants should be spaced 12-24” apart. Water in your transplants and continue to water as needed until they get established. Just remember that thyme doesn’t like overly wet soil.
Thyme also makes an excellent companion plant. It can be grown with other herbs like rosemary and oregano or planted among vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and broccoli.
Caring for Thyme
Once your transplants get established, they won’t need much attention from you.
You will need to water plants in long dry spells, especially if you’re growing them in containers, but only water when the soil is almost completely dry. Regularly harvest from your plants to keep them from getting scraggly.
Every three or four years, you’ll need to either divide or replace your thyme, especially if you’re growing it for culinary use. The plants will start to get woody as they get older and will have less flavorful leaves.
Once established, your plants will be pretty much care-free, but you do need to give them some extra attention as seedlings. Water in dry spells and harvest often to keep them in a good shape.
To keep your plants going, all you need to do is take cuttings every year or two so that you always have new plants growing. You can compost old plants or let them keep growing and flowering for the benefit of pollinators.
When to Harvest Thyme
You can harvest thyme at any point during the growing season once your plants are large enough. In fact, trimming your plants often encourages new and bushier growth.
Feel free to go out and snip off small pieces of stem whenever you need some leaves for a recipe. You can also go and pull off individual leaves if you need just a few.
If you want to harvest a large amount of thyme to dry and store, the flavor will be best right before the plant flowers. Harvest in the morning, right after the dew dries, for the highest concentration of essential oils and most potent flavor.
How to Harvest Thyme
When you’re ready to harvest your thyme, all you need is a pair of garden clippers and a basket or container.
Any time you harvest, always leave at least 5” of growth on the plant so that it can recover. Other than that, you can gather as much or as little as you want depending on what you’re going to use it for.
If you want to dry thyme and store it for later, harvest stems that are 5-6” long. Just take your clippers and cut off the top part of as many stems as you want. Avoid cutting off woody sections since they will be tougher and have less flavorful leaves.
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Usually when harvesting herbs you want to cut right above a growth node to encourage the plant to branch out at this point. Try to do this as you harvest thyme, but don’t worry too much if you can’t find the growth nodes. The leaves are small and close together, so it isn’t as critical.
After harvesting, you can use an herb prepper to quickly strip the leaves off the stems and add them to your recipes. If you aren’t ready to use the thyme right away, it can also be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
You can do this by wrapping the stems in a lightly dampened paper towel and tucking them in a plastic bag before placing in your refrigerator. For longer storage, you’ll need to dry your thyme.
To store thyme long term, it needs to be dried and placed in air-tight containers. Here’s how to do it.
Prep Your Herbs
After harvesting, rinse off the thyme stems in cool running water or swish them in a filled sink or bowl. Get as much dirt and other debris off as possible, but be gentle since the leaves will bruise easily.
Next, lay them out in a single layer on a couple of kitchen towels. Pat them dry and leave to air dry until all the moisture has evaporated from the leaves.
For long-term storage, harvest longer stems of thyme so that you can hang them to dry. Gently wash them off first to get rid of dirt before tying them up in bunches.
This step ensures that the leaves won’t start to develop mold later on. You can also sort through your herbs at this point and discard any that are discolored or damaged.
After you’ve let the herbs dry for an hour or two on the towel, start gathering the stems into bunches. Do about 6-8 stems per bunch and make sure all the cut ends are together.
Using kitchen string or garden twine, tie each bundle together at the bottom. If you have paper bags, cut air slits in them and place each bunch of thyme into its own bag. This protects your herbs as they dry and catches any leaves that fall off.
Next, tie up your bundles somewhere that’s warm and dry but out of direct sunlight. Good air flow will help the herbs dry more quickly, so place them in a well-ventilated location.
Thyme will take about 2-3 weeks to dry fully, but the exact time frame will depend on the conditions and humidity level. You’ll know the herbs are done when they are crispy and crumbly to the touch.
Using a Food Dehydrator
You can also use a food dehydrator to dry your thyme more quickly. Go through the same prepping process as you would for air drying.
Then, lay out the thyme stems in a single layer on the dehydrator trays. Look at the instructions that came with your food dehydrator to find what temperature you need to dry them at. Usually, this will be one of the lowest settings.
You’ll know your herbs are properly dried when the leaves are crispy and crumbly. If they haven’t reached this stage yet, let them continue to dry out.
Using a food dehydrator is mainly a hands-off process, but you’ll still want to check the herbs a few times to make sure none of them are getting burnt.
Once the thyme is dry and crumbly, leave it on the sheets to cool for an hour before storing.
Storing Dried Thyme
After you’ve dried your thyme, storing it in the right containers will help it to keep its freshness and last for a long time.
Choose glass containers with tight fitting lids. For daily use, you can use a small herb container to hold thyme for cooking. The rest you can store in a larger glass container or jar. Make sure your containers of choice are clean and thoroughly dry.
At this point, you can either store the whole stems of thyme or strip the leaves off for quicker use later. Either way, take care not to crush the leaves. Leaving them whole helps to retain the maximum amount of flavor for the longest time.
After you’ve put the herbs in containers, store them somewhere dark and dry that’s away from high heat.
Your dried thyme will last for months, and you’ll be able to use it in favorite cooking and baking recipes or to make infused oils.
Check your containers a few times during the first couple weeks of storage to make sure there isn’t any condensation.
You can now enjoy your dried thyme in the coming months until you harvest a new batch! Crush leaves right before adding them to recipes and enjoy the pungent, herbaceous flavor.