How to Plant, Grow and Care For Thyme
Thinking about growing thyme in your garden this season? Thyme is a wonderful herb that has many different uses. In this article, gardening expert and former organic farmer Logan Hailey takes you through everything you need to know about growing thyme in your herb garden, including maintenance and care.
Thyme is one of the most popular herbs grown by home gardeners. It is drought-tolerant, cold hardy, and oh-so fragrant. As a Mediterranean native, it thrives in poor soils and hardly requires any maintenance! It’s also quite easy to grow indoors.
Thyme also acts as a pest repellant, pollinator habitat, groundcover, and companion plant for many of your vegetables when grown in your garden.
So, if you’ve decided to add thyme to your garden this season, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dig into everything you need to know about growing thyme, including some tips for both maintenance and care.
Plant Type Herbaceous Perennial
Plant Family Lamiaceae (Mint Family)
Plant Genus Thymus
Plant Species vulgaris
Hardiness Zone Evergreen 5-11, perennial zones 3-5
Planting Season spring
Plant Maintenance Low
Plant Height 6-12”
Fertility Needs Low
Temperature 65-86°F, tolerates to -20°F
Companion Plants Lavender, rosemary, oregano
Soil Type Well-drained, sandy
Plant Spacing 12-24”
Watering Needs Low
Sun Exposure Full sun
Pests Occasional spider mites or aphids
Diseases Botrytis and root rot
Thyme is a culinary herb and aromatic garden plant native to the Mediterranean. Known for its earthy, evergreen, and often citrusy flavor, thyme is used in a range of cuisines from Italian to Middle Eastern to Mediterranean.
Thyme is a semi-woody, herbaceous perennial plant with small fragrant leaves that grow in clusters on thin stems. Semi-woody means that the plant isn’t quite a tree or shrub, but it still develops some twigs and a woody crown.
Thyme’s herbaceous, perennial nature means the above-ground parts can go dormant and regenerate the following spring. In zones 5 through 9, the plant is usually evergreen. In colder zones 3 through 5, it will die back in the winter.
As a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, thyme is closely related to oregano, rosemary, and lavender. It shares many of the same growing conditions as these herbs.
Thymus vulgaris and its wild relative Thymus pulegioides are native to Southern Europe’s Mediterranean Basin, Northern Africa, and some parts of Asia.
It is one of the most ancient herbs in cultivation today. The Thymus genus now includes over 400 subspecies and varieties that can be adapted to almost any garden in the world.
Loyal to its Mediterranean roots, this plant thrives in full sunshine, warmth, and well-drained sandy soils. Thyme performs especially well alongside other Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, lavender, marjoram, and oregano. However, it is notably more cold-hardy than these mint-family relatives.
Thyme is one of the easiest herbs to propagate because it replicates itself almost effortlessly. It can be grown from seed, divisions, or cuttings. All three of these methods are most effective during the spring, but you can also divide them in the autumn.
Propagation Via Seed
Like many perennials, thyme grows extremely slow from seed. While seed propagation is relatively simple, it requires a lot of patience. Growing from seed can give you more genetic diversity and fun experimentation, but it is usually not recommended for beginners because it has a lower success rate than divisions and cuttings.
Thyme seeds take up to 28 days to germinate. They are extremely tiny (170,000 seeds in an ounce!) and difficult to singulate. However, this is by far the cheapest way to start a big, lush planting of thyme.
Steps To Propagate From Seed
- Choose to plant in pots or outdoors.
- Start seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before the last frost.
- In early spring, you can sow thyme seeds outside.
- You can also start them indoors and transplant later.
- Begin with a very well-drained sandy soil.
- A 3” pot or open container works better than cell trays.
- Sparsely scatter the seeds over the soil surface.
- Press seeds into the soil and sprinkle a fine layer of soil overtop.
- Seeds need light at the soil surface to germinate.
- If you bury them too deep, they will not come up.
- Gently water the seeds until the soil is moist.
- Optionally, use row cover or a low plastic dome over the seeds.
- Keep seeds in a warm location with full sunshine.
- Wait 1 to 12 weeks. Reduce watering after germination.
- When seedlings reach 3-4” high, they are ready to transplant.
Propagation Via Division
If you or a friend already has a mature plant, division is the easiest means of multiplying the herb. Root division is exactly what it sounds like: You dig up a big, thriving thyme plant and break it into sections by hand or with garden tools.
Larger sections tend to have greater survivability than small divisions. Each of these root balls can then be planted in a new area to grow into their own shrubs.
Root divisions are most successful in the spring and summer when the plant is actively growing. The new plants have long days and warm weather to help them root in their new home. In mild climates, you can divide in the fall as long as it has time to establish before any frigid weather.
This is also a great option for thyme that is overgrowing its container. If possible, divide on a day when the soil is moderately moist. If it is too saturated, it will be difficult to separate the roots. However, if it’s too dry, the plant roots won’t hold together and may be more stressed by the division process.
Propagation Steps via Division
- Start with a healthy, mature plant that is at least 12” by 12” in size.
- Gently dig up the whole plant.
- Stick your shovel in the soil in a circular shape about 6” from the plant’s center.
- Lift the plant and determine how many divisions you can make.
- Each section needs to have several strong stems and plenty of roots.
- As a general rule of thumb, each clump should be at least 3-4” across.
- Use your hands or garden forks to begin pulling the roots apart into smaller clumps.
- Score the root zone with a little jab of the shovel to get the division started.
- Avoid chopping the plant, as this can damage the smaller root hairs.
- Treat the divisions as regular thyme seedlings.
- Transplant them into a well-drained soil following the directions below.
- Optionally, plant the original “mother plant” back in the same location.
Propagation Via Cuttings
Thyme eagerly replicates itself from cuttings, which are snippets of the plant’s stems that develop new roots and grow into plants of their own. In late spring, you can take cuttings before flowering begins. Just be sure that your thyme plant has enough stems to support robust growth throughout the rest of the season.
Steps For Propagation Via Cuttings
- First, find a strong stem with plenty of leaves that is at least 4” tall.
- Check that the stem is still green and pliable.
- If it is extra hard or twiggy near the base, it won’t root as easily.
- Find stems that are slightly woody and mature yet still supple and bendy.
- Locate a lower node. This is a point where the leaves attach to the stem.
- Use a sharp sanitized knife or shears to cut the stem just below a node.
- Your cuttings only need to be 3” minimum length, but longer is always better.
- Strip the lower two-thirds of leaves and side branches from each cutting.
- Next, choose a method for rooting your cuttings.
- Both require ample sunlight and warmth, like a south-facing window or greenhouse.
- Wait 1 to 3 weeks for roots to start forming.
- Next, plant the cuttings in a cell tray or 3” pot with well-drained potting mix.
- Let them grow for another 1-3 weeks before transplanting.
The easiest way to grow thyme is with an established container plant from a local nursery or garden store. These fragrant shrubs are robust and ready to join your herb garden without any preparation needed. Smaller seedlings tend to be more affordable and can grow relatively quickly if they have strong roots.
Transplanting is the quickest way to establish thyme in your garden. Whether you start your own plants indoors or purchase from a reputable source, remember to plant in the spring when the soil temperature has reached 70°F.
Thyme can rapidly establish in new ground with well-drained soil, plenty of sunlight, and moderate moisture. To get your transplants off to a healthy start:
- Begin with a vibrant, growing thyme seedling at least 4” tall.
- Check that there are plenty of leaves and a strong root ball.
- There should be no signs of rotting, smelling, or fungal disease.
- Find a location in full sunlight and amend the soil using our soil guidance below.
- Alternatively, fill a medium to large terra cotta pot with sandy or gravelly soil blend.
- Make a hole that is twice as wide and deep as the seedling root ball.
- Gently remove the seedling from its container and place in the soil.
- Backfill around the roots.
- Ensure the base of the plant remains above the soil level.
- Don’t compact or press down on the soil.
- Thoroughly water in the plant.
- Optionally, use a diluted kelp solution to help alleviate transplant shock.
Most varieties need about 6-8” of space between plants and 12-18” of space between rows. However, this is highly variable depending on the variety.
Creeping thyme will naturally form continuous clumps of ground cover so that the spacing between plants is indecipherable.
On the other hand, taller varieties like Common Thyme or Italian Oregano Thyme can be pruned to grow as individual mini-shrubs. Lemon Thyme and Juniper Thyme may merge together into beautiful low-growing mounds.
Thyme can also grow in containers as small as 6” in diameter in a windowsill. Just be sure to harvest, prune, and divide the plant regularly so it doesn’t become rootbound.
Thyme is an easygoing Mediterranean herb that doesn’t need much maintenance once it’s established. As long as the thyme gets plenty of sunshine and drainage, you can rely on its aromatic leaves and purple flowers to return every year.
Thyme thrives at its best in full sunshine. It needs a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight per day, but will soak up as much as you allow it. Creeping thyme varieties don’t mind partial shade as they ramble beneath other perennial plants. Potted plants should be placed by the sunniest south-facing window in your home.
When it doesn’t get enough light, it can become pale, stunted, and “leggy” as it reaches toward the sun. Like many herbs, it can also lose some of its delicious spice and aroma when it doesn’t have enough sunlight.
This is because the plant can’t produce enough essential oils when it’s growing in shaded areas. Partial shade is only recommended when growing in very hot southern climates.
Thyme is very drought tolerant and can survive long periods without irrigation. Most gardeners don’t need to install any irrigation in their thyme beds. In a container, thyme typically needs water once every 10 to 14 days. Whether outdoors or in, the watering frequency ultimately depends on the soil, temperature, and season.
The #1 key to watering thyme is to let the soil dry out between waterings. Stick your finger 4-6” in the soil to check the moisture level. If your skin comes out clean, it’s time to give the plant a nice drench. If there is still moisture in the soil, wait for a few days before giving it another drink.
Pro Tip: Create a drought-tolerant Mediterranean herb garden by planting thyme alongside lavender, rosemary, sage, oregano, and tarragon. All of these plants have similar water and soil preferences. This guide covers 45 Drought Tolerant Plants for Dry Climates.
Thyme loves well-drained, alkaline, and low-nutrient soils. In spite of its tender little leaves and fragrant smell, thyme actually prefers poor soils with rocks and gravel to funnel water through.
Like most Mediterranean plants, thyme hates “wet feet.” Heavy, clay soil is a nightmare because drainage takes so long.
The roots should never be wallowing in soggy soil or pooled-up water. Break up any soil compaction with a broadfork before planting and generously amend the surrounding area with:
- Pea gravel
- Horticultural sand or grit
- Low-nutrient compost (no manure)
You can grow most thyme varieties as perennials in zones 3 through 11. It naturally prefers mild winters and dry, sunny summers, but plant breeding has made the plant more adaptable to most climates in the U.S.
Thyme plants grow best during the summer months when temperatures are between 65° and 85°F. During its dormant stage (after all its foliage dies back in the fall), it can survive frigid temperatures down to -30°F.
However, protection with deep straw mulch is recommended. Fall pruning encourages the herb to channel its energy into the roots to help survive the winter.
When it comes to winterizing thyme, soil drainage is key. Surprisingly, the biggest threat to thyme’s overwintering is not temperature but moisture. The plant is more likely to die from dampness and root rot than from freezing temperatures.
Contrary to many online sources, professional farmers don’t recommend fertilizing. Thyme is naturally hardy and enjoys poor soils. Its native Mediterranean environment has dry, rocky soils with very little organic matter.
If you want to supplement anything for thyme, it should be minerals like limestone. Thyme likes a more alkaline pH, so you may want to add wood ash or oyster shell to acidic soils.
If you do choose to fertilize, avoid too much nitrogen. Excess nitrates cause the plant to be leggy, droopy, or grow excessive pale foliage. It also dims down the aroma and flavor that most of us desire.
Thyme is one of the most low-maintenance landscape herbs that you can grow. Once you have established the plant, it really only needs your attention once or twice a year. Spring and fall pruning are recommended for two different reasons:
After thyme finishes flowering, spring pruning encourages a flush of new growth and prevents the plant from becoming woody. Cut back the stems by up to one-half to prolong your harvest throughout the summer and fall.
Autumn pruning (after the first frost) helps to shape the plant and prepare it for resilience through winter dormancy. You can trim back the oldest, woodiest stems by half their length. Some gardeners even cut back the foliage all the way to just a few inches above the ground. This encourages your thyme to funnel its energy into the root zone.
Always use sharp, sanitized shears or pruners to cut thyme plants. Avoid yanking, stripping, or pulling at the stems.
There are more thyme varieties than you can possibly imagine and they each have unique flavors in the kitchen and growth habits in the garden. Some of our favorites include:
|Lemon Thyme||This highly popular lemony-scented thyme looks similar to English thyme and tastes divine in teas, seafood marinades, and spice blends. It grows about 4-6” tall and spreads roughly 24” wide. You can grow lemon thyme in masses or as dense, low-growing bedding plants.|
|Common Thyme||This dwarf evergreen thyme is also called English thyme or garden thyme. It averages 6-12” tall and is widely adapted to zones 3 through 9.|
|Creeping Thyme||Sometimes called “Mother-of-Thyme”, this vining ground cover forms mats of low-growing stems about 2-3” tall. There are several subvarieties with white, red, or purple flowers.|
|Elfin Thyme||This highly fragrant creeping thyme has tiny 1-2” leaves and little purple flowers. It looks adorable in rock gardens or between pavers. Once established, you can walk on it.|
|Wooly Thyme||This low-growing thyme has hairy or “wooly” stems that make the leaves appear silvery-gray. It is mostly ornamental.|
Thanks to its strong smell and resilient attitude, thyme rarely succumbs to pests or diseases. If the plant does become weakened, it is fairly simple to combat these issues without any chemicals.
Spider Mites and Aphids
While it is rare, spider mites and aphids can still occasionally attack thyme. You may notice them on the undersides of leaves. Both insects leave behind a sugary sap as they feed on the plant’s leaf juices. Only in large numbers can they really cause a problem.
Treatment is quick and easy: Blast your thyme plant with a heavy rush of hose water to knock off the bugs. Do this in the morning so the plant has time to dry out in the sun during the day. Optionally, spray a diluted neem solution on the leaves to get rid of any stragglers and prevent re-infestation.
The best form of prevention is a healthy population of predatory insects. You can plant thyme alongside carrot-family beneficials like Queen Anne’s Lace, parsley, and flowering dill to attract natural predators.
Also known as gray mold, botrytis is a fungal disease that attacks thyme and other herbs during high humidity seasons. It may look like a fuzzy gray cloud of mold growing on the leaves.
The best means of prevention is proper spacing and airflow between plants. Pruning helps keep plants aerated from the inside of the shrub. Avoid overwatering or overhead irrigating thyme
If you notice your thyme is yellowing, drooping (in spite of water), or dying, it is probably due to root rot. Just like its Mediterranean cousins rosemary and lavender, thyme is highly susceptible to fungal pathogens in soggy soil. This is why proper drainage is so important for this plant.
Root rot most commonly happens in the winter months or during times of excess rainfall. It can also take hold of container plants that are being overwatered. The plant may start turning yellow and then brown as its mushy, rotten roots become incapable of sucking up water.
If the plant isn’t too far gone, you can try digging it up, pruning away the rotten pieces (with sanitary shears), then replanting in a blend of sand, gravel, and vermiculite. Let the thyme thoroughly dry out and recover before watering again.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does thyme come back every year?
You don’t need to replant thyme every year. Thyme is a perennial in zones 3 through 11, but it only remains evergreen in zones 5 and warmer. The plant may die back to the soil during extreme frosts, but it will regrow in the spring as long as the root zone is strong.
Where does thyme grow best?
Thyme thrives best in areas with warm summers and mild winters. It prefers hot sunshine and resents humid, overly wet weather.
How do you winterize thyme?
Prepare thyme for winter by pruning the plants back nearly to the ground after the first fall frost. Leave an inch or so of woody growth at the base. This will encourage the plant to move into dormancy. Then, mulch with a dense layer of evergreen boughs or straw. With these preparations, many varieties can survive a freezing -30°F.
Thyme is a joy to have in any garden. Whether you want a low-growing walkable groundcover or a delicious rush of fragrant leaves when you enter your garden, thyme is one of the most easy-going herbs you can grow. As long as it gets full sunlight and very well-drained soil, thyme will keep growing back for years to come.