If you are looking for a colorful, aromatic, low maintenance ground cover plant, Red Creeping Thyme (Thymus Serpyllum) is a must. Native to Mediterranean climates, these full sun loving perennial plants are pleasingly versatile and easy to grow.
Suitable for a range of locations, soil types and styles of garden, if you want to learn more about Red Creeping Thyme, including how to add it to your garden, our complete guide has all the information that you need.
Thymus Serpyllum is an attractive, low growing floral herb.
What is Red Creeping Thyme?
Part of the Thyme plant family, Red Creeping Thyme is also known as Breckland Thyme, Elfin Thyme or Breckland Wild Thyme. Native to Southern Europe, this is a full sun loving herbaceous perennial. Evergreen in warmer climates, in cooler gardens Thymus Serpyllum can also be cultivated as an annual plant.
A popular floral ground cover choice, Red Creeping Thyme likes to grow close to the ground. The plants rarely exceed 3 to 5 inches in height.
Despite their diminutive stature, mature plants can achieve a spread of 12 to 18 inches. This makes it a popular choice for filling awkward spots in the garden.
Once established these are easy to grow plants. During the summer months pink, red or purple flowers emerge from amongst the lush green foliage. These attractive little blooms typically last for 3 weeks. Some newer varieties such as Pink Lemonade can last for longer.
Thriving in soil that is considered poor or lacking in nutrients, Red Creeping Thyme is increasingly popular for its versatility and easy going nature. It is also a reliable mosquito repellent, making it a good choice for including in pots or planters around patios and outside areas. .
Further adding to the attraction, Thymus Serpyllum is considered safe to use around animals.
Not only is Red Creeping Thyme not considered poisonous it is also resilient enough to withstand some trampling. However, some sensitive dogs may experience a reaction or allergy when exposed to the Thymus Serpyllum plant.
If you have a pet that is prone to allergies, you may want to position your Red Creeping Thyme in a pot or raised bed where the dog can’t easily access it.
Where Can I Use Red Creeping Thyme?
Thymus Serpyllum plants are an ideal way to cover bare spots in the garden or lawn. This is because the stems of the plant, which emerge from a central root system, grow horizontally not vertically. The plants can also be used to create a colorful informal walkway or border.
Red Creeping Thyme can be used to mark out and edge areas and paths, providing soft structure to informal gardens. These small sweet plants provide masses of color and aromatic ground cover, drawing pollinators to the garden. Honey bees in particular adore Red Creeping Thyme, the pink flowers help to flavor honey.
Red Creeping Thyme helps the soil to retain moisture while also adding both color and interest to borders. Established plants also suppress weed growth.
You can also use the plants, around stepping stones, paths or fences. A resilient plant, you can plant Red Creeping Thyme around pavers or use it to create a natural path. Not only does this add color to a walkway, as the plants are brushed or trodden on they emit a pleasing fragrance, filling the air and adding further interest to the garden.
As well as benefiting surrounding plants, the pleasant mint-like aroma makes Red Creeping Thyme a fragrant addition to the vegetable or herb garden. Thymus Serpyllum is also a useful companion plant and grows well alongside other taller Mediterranean herbs that share similar growing requirements. These include:
Red Creeping Thyme can be planted alongside other herbs or used as a deterrent. When planted in the vegetable garden the plants deter pests such as cabbage worms from attacking your growing crops.
The plants can also be used to protect strawberries from fruit devouring pests. Planting Thymus Serpyllum close to fruiting plants such as tomatoes or cucumbers also helps to increase pollination levels and yield.
Versatile and easy to care for, Red Creeping Thyme is a valuable addition to the garden.
These floral herbs can be used in a range of different ways.
Where to Grow
Red Creeping Thyme is considered hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 10.
A full sun loving plant, in hotter climates the plants are best positioned in partial shade to avoid leaf burn. Scorched foliage loses some of its flavor.
Be careful not to plant Thymus Serpyllum in too dark a position. Too little light slows the growth rate of the plant and also reduces flowering. Ideally Red Creeping Thyme plants should receive at least 6 hours of light every day.
The soil should be well draining. Red Creeping Thyme plants happily grow in rocky or difficult soils where other plants may struggle.
Before planting use a soil test kit to assess the condition of your soil. While Red Creeping Thyme tolerates a range of pH levels, the plants are best in a neutral to slightly alkaline soil. A measurement of 7.5 to 8 is ideal. If your soil is overly acidic, lime the soil before planting to raise alkaline levels.
The plants grow in a range of conditions.
How to Plant Red Creeping Thyme
Before planting take the time to prepare the soil working in any necessary amendments. After amending the soil, allow it to settle for a few weeks before planting.
When the soil is ready, use a shovel to dig a hole that is large enough to comfortably hold the root ball. The easiest way to work out if your hole is big enough is to place the pot currently holding the Red Creeping Thyme plant in it. The lip of the pot should sit in line with the soil level.
Once established young plants quickly fill out and start to spread.
Remove the plant from the pot and place in the center of the hole. If the plant is difficult to remove, run a blunt knife around the edge of the pot to loosen the soil. You can also use scissors to carefully cut away plastic pots from around the plant.
Backfill the hole, ensure that the root system is covered. Tamp down the soil to remove any air pockets and water well.
How to Pot or Repot
A popular ground cover option, you can also grow Red Creeping Thyme in pots or containers.
Your chosen container should be large enough for the root system to spread out. Clay or terracotta pots are preferable. More porous than plastic pots, these materials promote drainage helping to prevent issues such as root rot.
Terracotta pots are well draining and ideal for herbs.
Plant as you would in the ground, filling the pot with well draining potting soil.
Potting and repotting plants is best done on a potting bench, to keep mess to a minimum. If you do not have a potting bench, lay some sheets of newspaper on a table.
How to Propagate
Like many other plants in this family, Red Creeping Thyme is easily propagated. There are a number of propagation methods that can be successfully applied to the plants.
Growing from Seed
Red Creeping Thyme seeds are easily propagated. Seeds typically germinate in 3 weeks, and flowers emerge within 3 seasons.
Sow viable seeds in Grow-Green Seed Starter Trays filled with a good quality seed starting soil mix undercover. This should be done just before your last predicted winter frost date.
There is no need to sow the seeds too deeply, simply scatter them across the soil surface and cover with a light layer of soil.
After sowing, place the trays in a propagator, in a warm bright spot. Regularly moisten the soil with a plant mister spray bottle. Allowing the soil to dry out may cause the seedlings to fail.
The temperature around the seeds should average 65 to 75 ℉. A VIVOSUN Waterproof Seedling Heat Mat is a good investment if you want to ensure that your seedlings are constantly kept at the optimum temperature for germination.
In ideal conditions, seeds quickly germinate.
Seeds typically germinate in 14 to 21 days. Thin the seedlings out once they reach 1 inch in height. After germination, continue to grow the seedlings on undercover.
Once roots are established and the seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall they can be transplanted to their final growing position. Harden the seedlings off, slowly allowing them to get used to the temperature and light level in their new position, before transplanting.
In warmer areas you can also sow the seeds directly into the ground once the last frost date has passed. Scatter the seeds as evenly as possible or use a Seed Dispenser Drill to sow one seed per 12 inches in neat rows.
Moistening the soil before sowing the seeds helps them to stick in place. There is no need to cover the seeds, just firmly press them into the moist soil.
As you wait for the seeds to germinate, gently water the soil, preventing it from drying out.
Dividing Mature Plants
Mature specimens can also be divided. This is a great way of thinning out large clumps of Red Creeping Thyme plants, rejuvenating growth as you create new plants. Divisions are best made in early spring, just as the growing season starts.
Remove the plant from its current growing position. As you dig the plant up, be careful not to damage the root system. Soaking the soil with a garden hose the day before you lift the plant makes the process easier.
Once lifted from the soil, gently brush away any remaining soil from the root system.
Use a sharp knife to cut the plant into even sections. Each section should have a decent amount of root system and foliage.
Once divided the newly created sections can be replanted.
Taking and Rooting Stem Cuttings
Less messy than making divisions, propagation by stem cuttings is one of the easiest ways to create new plants.
Cut a healthy stem, 4 to 6 inches long, from the plant. It is always a good idea to take a few cuttings as an insurance in case one fails. Should they all succeed, you can give the excess specimens to plant living friends and family.
Prepare the cut stems by removing all the leaves from the bottom 2 inches of the stem.
Dip the cut end of the stem in Garden Safe TakeRoot Rooting Hormone. This promotes root development.
Plant the cutting in a small pot filled with fresh potting soil and place in a sheltered, sunny spot. Regularly water the soil. Aim to keep it consistently moist or damp to the touch.
Continue to water and protect the cutting until new growth becomes visible. New leaves emerging on the stem means that a root system has developed in the soil. At this stage you can transplant the cutting into the garden or a lager pot.
Remember to harden off the young plants before transplanting into the garden.
How to Care for Red Creeping Thyme
Once planted and established these are pleasingly resilient, low maintenance plants. While the dense may of leaves are one of the main attractions of the plant, a regular light pruning to thin out the mass of foliage helps to make ongoing care a lot easier. It also helps to keep the plant healthy.
When to Water
Water your Thymus Serpyllum plant regularly after planting. This helps the root system to establish itself in the soil. When new growth starts to emerge, how often you water the plants can be gradually reduced.
Once established, water the plants only when the soil is dry to the touch. Aim to keep the soil evenly moist. Try not to overwater the soil, turning it soggy. This can lead to the plant developing issues such as root rot.
The dense mat of flowers and foliage that Red Creeping Thyme produces means that excess water can become trapped, causing fungus growth, molds or mildew to develop.
Watering early in the day gives the leaves plenty of time to dry out. Keeping the plants neat and tidy also helps to prevent issues such as powdery mildew.
Water the soil regularly, keeping the foliage as dry as possible.
Do I Need to Fertilize?
Red Creeping Thyme growing in well prepared soil does not require any additional fertilizer.
Instead, once a year, sift compost through the foliage so that it rests on the soil. You can also add a layer of well-rotted manure to the soil around the plant. This provides a boost of nutrients that is far better for the plants than a regular dose of fertilizer.
Be careful not to over fertilize the plants. Too much fertilizer can harm Thymus Serpyllum plants causing the foliage to lose its flavor and aroma.
If you do need to fertilize your Red Creeping Thyme avoid applying fertilizers that are rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen is represented by the letter N on the NPK rating of the fertilizer packet.
Too much nitrogen encourages leaf production often at the expense of flowering. If your soil is otherwise fertile enough even a balanced fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10 fertilizer, may contain too much nitrogen.
When to Prune
The most important aspect of Red Creeping Thyme care is regularly pruning the plants. This not only helps to prevent mold or fungal issues, it also rejuvenates Thymus Serpyllum plants, encouraging lots of new growth to emerge.
Unruly plants, regularly pruning helps to keep your Red Creeping Thyme looking neat and tidy. Additionally, if the leaves aren’t regularly thinned out the plants can become too dense.
A mass of dense foliage prevents air from circulating freely around the plant. It also stops light from reaching the foliage and moisture from reaching the soil.
For the first few years there is no need to prune your Thymus Serpyllum plants. Instead allow them to grow and develop.
Start pruning Red Creeping Thyme when the plants are 3 to 4 years old. The only exception to this is Thymus Serpyllum plants growing in a xeriscape garden. In these landscapes the plants may need to be pruned sooner.
Spent flowers and woody stems should be regularly pruned back to rejuvenate the plant. The stems can be cut back in early spring to help prepare the plant for the new growing season.
You can prune again in the fall, once the flowers have died away for the year. After the first frost of the year prune away any leggy or woody stems, cutting them in half. This rejuvenates the plant, encouraging young, vigorous growth to emerge the following spring.
How to Overwinter
How you overwinter Red Creeping Thyme depends on your growing conditions.
In warmer USDA Zones the plants may remain evergreen throughout the winter months.
In cooler climates Thymus Serpyllum plants die back during the colder, winter period. In the coldest zones the plants shed their leaves and become completely dormant.
If you are growing Red Creeping Thyme in a colder USDA zone you must protect the root area particularly during the winter months. This can easily be done by covering the plants with an organic mulch such as leaf litter, gravel or sand.
Remember to remove the mulch the following spring, once the last frost date has passed. This helps new growth to emerge.
How to Harvest Thymus Serpyllum
This fragrant herb is one of the easiest to harvest.
As we have already noted, the foliage of Red Creeping Thyme has a myriad of uses. If you wish to harvest the leaves, this is best done early in the morning, once the dew has dried.
Use garden scissors to trim away as many leaves or flowers as you need. Fresh leaves can be used to add flavor to soups, salads and a range of cooked dishes. You can also extract essential oils from the foliage.
Cut stems as and when you need them.
While the foliage is best used fresh, you can also dry freshly harvested, undamaged leaves. This helps to prolong their lifespan. The process of drying the leaves still on their stems is similar to drying other herbs such as lavender. Simply tie the stems into small bunches and hang upside down in a dark, dry place until fully dry.
Once dry, the leaves can be used in a range of culinary dishes.
To collect the seeds, allow the flowers to fade and go to seed on the plant. Once the seeds start to turn brown and ripen, cut the flowers and a little bit of stem from the plant.
Place the cut stems in a paper bag. Hold the bank tightly and gently shake. This causes the seeds to fall from the flowers.
Separate the seeds from the chaff and store them in an airtight Kilner Jar until you are ready to use. Remember to label your jars or envelopes with the name of the plant and date. Seeds lose their viability the older they get.
Common Pests and Disease
In a favorable position, Red Creeping Thyme is largely problem free. A deer resistant plant, Red Creeping Thyme is a good alternative to grass if deer constantly damage your lawn. Able to bounce back quickly after even a fairly severe trampling, this is a surprisingly hardy little plant.
Slugs and snails can be more of an issue than larger creatures. While chemical slug repellents can be used, as our How to Get Rid of Slugs in Your Garden guide shows, organic solutions such as beer traps or spreading diatomaceous earth around the plants provide just as effective methods of control. If you decide to use diatomaceous earth make sure the product is a food grade, organic type.
In some cases root rot or fungal issues can develop. While a dense mat of leaves can provide lots of visual interest, it can do more harm than good.
Thinning out the foliage enables air to freely circulate around and through the plant. It also helps to prevent any excess moisture from getting trapped in the leaves. This, in turn, helps to prevent most fungal issues and keeps your plants looking green and healthy. Aim to keep the foliage dry and light.
Yellowing or browning leaves are a sign that the plant is too humid or too wet. If caught early enough these issues can be easily amended.
When watering, try to water only the soil, keeping the foliage as dry as possible. However this can be difficult when watering dense, low growing plants. Another option is to regularly thin out the foliage. This helps to lower humidity levels around the plant.
With the right care, these hardy little plants thrive.
It can be difficult to know when to water low growing, spreading plants such as Red Creeping Thyme. Their natural spread covers the soil, making it difficult to work out how wet or dry it is. A soil moisture sensor is a useful investment, enabling you to easily measure the moisture content of the soil.
Attractive and easy to care for, Red Creeping Thyme is a good choice whether you are an experienced plant person or are just starting out and looking for some colorful plants to fill an awkward space.
Versatile enough to sit in a range of areas and planting schemes, Red Creeping Thyme is a reliable way to add color and interest to those difficult spots in the garden.
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.