Thyme is a much-loved Mediterranean herb that flavors many recipes. Its tiny leaves are packed full of huge, pungent flavor, and the flowers are loved by pollinators.
Lemon thyme is a specific variety that has a beautiful, lemony fragrance. It works equally well in both sweet and savory dishes and is a favorite of many chefs and gardeners. All varieties of thyme are easy to grow, either out in your garden or in pots.
Here’s a complete guide on how to plant, grow, and harvest lemon thyme.
All About Thyme
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a perennial, woody herb that grows low to the ground in large patches. Plants are hardy in USDA zones 5-9 and can even survive winters in colder zones with some good winter protection.
The leaves of thyme are tiny and usually remain evergreen. They can be gray-green, yellow-green, variegated, and even fuzzy depending on the variety.
Thyme flowers are also small and bloom in shades of white, pink, and purple .Pollinators, especially bees, are drawn to the flowers when they open, and they are also edible.
Thyme is usually grown for its flavorful leaves, but the flowers can also be attractive and draw in beneficial pollinators.
Because thyme plants are native to the Mediterranean, they grow best in sunny and somewhat dry conditions. The plants typically form a carpet or ground cover that’s only a few inches high, although some varieties can get about a foot tall.
Drought-tolerant and low maintenance, thyme is very easy to take care of and even thrives on neglect.
What Is Lemon Thyme?
Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) is a specific species of thyme. Instead of having the normal savory flavor, it has a distinct citrusy fragrance and strong lemon flavor.
If you just looked at the plants, you probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish lemon thyme from common thyme because they look very similar. The only way to tell the difference is by crushing and smelling the leaves.
When it comes to growing lemon thyme, the biggest difference between it and common thyme is that it’s only a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 6-9.
You can still grow lemon thyme if you live in a colder region, but you’ll need to treat it like an annual or grow it in pots that you can bring inside during the winter. There is a possibility that providing heavy protection during the winter can make your plants hardy to zone 5.
There are a few different varieties of lemon thyme, including one that is variegated and one that has silver edges. The more ornamental cultivars often don’t have as strong a flavor as the original.
Cultivars of Lemon Thyme
For many years, lemon thyme was thought to be a cross between garden thyme and broadleaf thyme, making it a hybrid. However, modern DNA testing has shown that it isn’t a hybrid at all but a separate species with its own cultivars.
If you want to branch out beyond the standard lemon thyme, here are a few other varieties to try:
- ‘Archer’s Gold’– This variety has golden, variegated foliage and is very ornamental. Plants are hardy in zones 5-8. Citrusy fragrance but not as strong as the straight species.
- ‘Orange’- As the name suggests, this cultivar has a strong orange rather than lemon fragrance. Leaves are gray-green and plants grow only about 4 inches tall.
- ‘Lime’– This variety has a strong lime scent, although it doesn’t transfer over when cooked. Leaves are a bright, almost lime, green
- ‘Silver Queen’– This cultivar has dark green leaves that are edged with silver. Plants get about a foot tall and are hardy in zones 6-9. Leaves are edible and lemony, but this variety is often grown more for its ornamental appearance.
How to Grow Lemon Thyme
Lemon thyme is a popular herb, and you can likely find plants for sale at a local garden center during the spring. Some online companies will also ship plants to you if you can’t find it locally.
Lemon thyme is very easy to grow and can be started several different ways. If you’re a beginner gardener, it’s probably best to start with plants, since other methods can take more practice.
If you want to try growing it another way, lemon thyme can be propagated by seed, cuttings, and division. Here’s more about each method.
Growing from Seed
Thyme is a little bit tricky to grow from seed because it can take almost a month to germinate, and germination may be spotty. However, if you have a little experience with growing seeds, you can propagate thyme this way with just a little patience.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Lemon thyme seeds
- Seed starting plug trays or open flats
- Good quality soilless seed starting mix
- Grow lights (optional but preferred)
- Plastic domes (optional)
- Small fan (optional)
To get started, add water to your soilless mix until it’s damp and starts clumping together. Then, fill your trays with the damp mix and shake or drop them to get rid of any air pockets.
Thyme seeds are very tiny and should not be planted very deep at all. The best method is to simply scatter them on top of your growing medium and gently press them into the soil so that they don’t get washed away when you water.
After you’ve seeded your trays, water them well and cover them with the plastic domes if you have them. This helps the soil stay moist as the seeds germinate.
Place your trays somewhere warm (around 70°F). Water them as needed to keep the soil from drying out. Your seeds should start sprouting in 14-28 days. Once they sprout, take the domes off of the trays and place the trays under grow lights or by a very sunny window.
It’s not difficult to grow thyme from seed, but it does take patience because the seeds are slow to germinate. Start seeds about 8-10 weeks before you plan to transplant to your garden.
Let your seedlings grow until they have a few sets of leaves. Then, thin them out to one per cell or a spacing of a few inches between each one.
After another two weeks or so, you can transplant your seedlings from the trays to individual peat pots or plastic pots. Fill the pots with a quality potting soil before transplanting, and water your newly transplanted seedlings afterwards.
Let your lemon thyme grow in the pots until it’s time to plant them outside. Use a small fan everyday to help with good air circulation and water when the soil is almost dry.
Growing from Cuttings
If you know a neighbor with an established lemon thyme plant, you can easily take cuttings to grow your own plants.
To take cuttings, you’ll need a sharp pair of garden clippers (or scissors) that have been sanitized. Only clip cuttings from healthy looking stems and avoid cutting off any woody sections.
Take your cuttings by clipping off about 3-6 inch sections from the very tip of several stems. Remove the bottom few sets of leaves and bring your cuttings inside. Dip the cut ends in rooting hormone before sticking them cut-end down in a medium like sterile sand or vermiculite.
You can either fill small pots with sand or vermiculite and give each cutting its own pot or fill up an empty tray to put all your cuttings in.
Keep the growing medium moist while your cuttings root, but don’t let it get overly wet or they will start to rot. You can enclose your trays or pots in a plastic bag to help keep the humidity at a good level. Place the cuttings somewhere that gets indirect light.
Your cuttings should take about 6 weeks to root. If you have them in plastic bags, remove the bags regularly so they can get some good airflow.
Once your cuttings have sent down roots, transfer each one to its own individual pot with potting soil. Let them grow in these pots for 3-4 weeks before transplanting them into your garden.
Propagating by Division
Established thyme plants need to be divided every three to four years to keep them healthy and flavorful. If you know someone with a large lemon thyme patch that needs divided, this is a very simple way to instantly get plants for your own garden.
To divide thyme, all you’ll really need is a sharp garden shovel and permission to dig up someone else’s plant. Make sure you choose a healthy plant and divide in spring or fall.
Dig a circle around the thyme patch you want to divide. Then, dig your shovel under the plant until you’ve loosened all the roots. Lift up on the plant with your shovel and pull it out of the ground by grabbing it at the base.
If you know someone with a large lemon thyme plant, ask if they would be willing to share a small piece or two of it with you. Dividing established plants is a great way to get new plants for free.
You can now divide the larger plant into three or four smaller (and equal) sections. Simply pull it apart with your hands, or use a sharp hand tool if it’s being difficult.
Replant one section where the original used to be, and plant the others in your garden as soon as possible.
Planting Lemon Thyme
Like other varieties of thyme, lemon thyme needs a sunny spot to grow in. Plant it in full sun, although a few cultivars may tolerate partial shade.
The good news is that thyme will grow well in poor soil (it even grows better in low fertility than in high), but your soil must be well-drained. Many Mediterranean herbs, including lemon thyme, hate wet feet and standing water, so avoid planting it in a wet area.
This preference for dry soil makes thyme a great addition to a drought-tolerant garden, also known as a xeriscape. It will do better in sandy soils than in heavy clay.
Established thyme plants are perennials and frost-hardy, but new plants are best planted after all danger of frost has passed in the spring.
Most thyme varieties are very hardy, but it’s still best to wait until the danger of frost has passed to plant them outside. Put your herbs somewhere that gets a lot of sun and avoid poorly drained soil.
Space your plants about 12 inches apart, although exact spacing will depend on the variety you’re growing. If you want your lemon thyme to become a ground cover, space individual plants only 6 inches apart.
Once planted, thyme does best if it’s mostly left alone and not “fussed” over. Don’t transplant it multiple times or try to shape it very much early on.
Growing in Containers
Some varieties of lemon thyme are very ornamental as well as edible and look very nice in decorative pots. You can let them grow over the edges for dramatic effect or keep them trimmed back.
Make sure the containers you choose have drainage holes in the bottom, since thyme does not like wet soil. Use a good quality potting mix that will drain well to fill your pots with.
Keep in mind that herbs planted in containers will need watered more often because the soil can dry out quickly in hot weather. However, containers on a porch or near your kitchen are very convenient when it comes time to harvest.
Lemon Thyme Care
A very low maintenance plant, lemon thyme is easy to care for.
Plants in the ground will need watered as they get established but after that, you probably won’t need to water them again, except during a severe drought. Water herbs in containers when the soil has almost dried out completely.
As a general rule, lemon thyme is drought tolerant and won’t need watered. However, if you choose to grow in containers, you will need to water them any time the soil dries out to keep your plants alive.
You can trim and shape your plants in the spring and right after they flower. This isn’t necessary but can be done if you want them to stay compact.
In colder zones, it’s a good idea to put mulch around your plants in late fall to help them make it through the winter. You can also dig plants up and keep them in a sheltered spot or in your garage over the winter.
Plants that are in containers have less protection against cold weather. Take them inside during the winter or insulate them with leaves, dirt, or mulch.
To keep your plants vigorous and flavorful, divide your patches of thyme every three or four years.
Pests and Problems
Lemon thyme rarely has pest problems. It’s deer- and rabbit-resistant, and most insects are repelled by its strong fragrance.
In wet soil or extremely humid conditions, thyme can develop fungal diseases like root rot. Be sure to plant it somewhere that drains well to avoid this problem.
How to Harvest Thyme
You can start harvesting your thyme soon after it bushes out and has several stems. At first, only take about an inch off the top of your plants or pick a few individual leaves.
Harvesting thyme is very easy, and your plants will benefit from getting trimmed regularly. The biggest trick is to leave at least 5 inches of growth so that your plants won’t be harmed.
As your plants get bigger, you can clip whole stems off or take off the top few inches of growth. Lemon thyme will be most flavorful when harvested in the morning, right after the dew has evaporated.
For a large harvest, you can get the peak flavor right before plants flower. Once you see the buds about to open, harvest the top 5 or 6 inches of growth.
Anytime you harvest, make sure you leave at least 5 inches of growth on your plants so that they can recover and keep producing. Wait a week or two before harvesting from the same plant again if you’ve done a large harvest.
Regularly trimming your plants throughout the growing season actually encourages them to put out new growth, so don’t be afraid to give your herbs a good haircut!
Using and Storing Lemon Thyme
You can use lemon thyme in both sweet and savory recipes. It tastes best fresh, so try to harvest right before you’re ready to use it.
If the leaves are dirty, rinse off your thyme sprigs before using them. Otherwise, leave them unwashed to keep all the flavorful essential oils intact.
To preserve lemon thyme long term, drying is the best option, although the leaves will lose some of their flavor. Always store dried herbs away from moisture, heat, and light.
If you want to cook with lemon thyme, add it near the end of the cooking time to get the most intense flavor. You can either add individual leaves or put in a whole sprig (just make sure you remove the stem before serving).
For short term storage, you can wrap sprigs of lemon thyme in a damp paper towel and store them in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. They will last about 1-2 weeks this way.
For longer term storage, dry whole sprigs of thyme after harvesting by hanging them up in bundles or laying them flat on screens or wire racks. Once the leaves are dry and crispy, remove them from the stems.
Store dried thyme leaves whole in airtight plastic or glass containers. Only crush them right before using and keep the containers away from heat and light.
Lemon thyme can keep for about 2 years dried, although the flavor won’t be as potent as the fresh herb.
Adding Lemon Thyme to Your Garden
As you can see, lemon thyme makes a lovely addition to any herb garden or ornamental landscape. It has a beautiful fragrance and can be grown both for its appearance and taste.
Grow it on its own or mixed in with other Mediterranean herbs that complement one another for a complete set of herbs to cook with!
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.