Backyard Garden: Growing Thyme

Thyme isn't just a fragrant herb - it is a versatile plant that adds beauty in many areas of the backyard garden.

(Thymus praecox 'Doretta Klaber)
(Thymus praecox ‘Doretta Klaber)

If you look in the pantry of any kitchen, you will probably find a container filled with this aromatic herb.  Thyme is a popular herb that is often used for soups, gravy, meat and vegetable dishes.  I like to use it make herb butter.  It also tastes great with fish and in lemon-flavored foods such as flavored ice tea or even cookies.

While thyme has many used in the kitchen, did you know that thyme is also highly prized as an ornamental herb in the garden?

Thymus pulegioides 'Kermesinus'
Thymus pulegioides ‘Kermesinus’

Thyme is a fragrant, low-growing ground cover that produces tiny pink, purple or white flowers, depending on the variety.  In warmer climates, it can be grown as a perennial and harvested throughout the entire year.  For gardeners in cooler climates, thyme can be grown as an annual.  Its flowers add beauty to the garden in spring and summer as well as serving as a pollinator plant for bees.

Easy to grow, thyme does have a few important requirements  – it must have full sun and well-drained soil.  Unlike some herbs that grow easily from seed, thyme does best when planted from transplants in spring once the danger of frost has passed.  Regular pruning of thyme is important or it can become woody, producing few leaves and becoming unattractive.  Pruning can begin in spring and repeated in summer as needed.  A good guideline is to remove 1/3 or less each time.  Finish pruning at least a month before the first frost or new growth can become severely damaged when cold temperatures hit.

Lime Thyme
Lime Thyme

Thyme is quite a versatile plant in the garden.  It is often seen growing in rock gardens or along a stone or brick border where its fragrant foliage can drape down.

Different varieties of thyme planted as a ground cover.
Different varieties of thyme planted as a ground cover.

When planted along a walkway, thyme releases its aromatic fragrance when walked upon.  However, thyme will not survive in areas with high foot traffic, so its best used in an area such as a side yard that doesn’t get too much use.  This is a great way to plant many different varieties of thyme in one area.

Thyme and parsley grown indoors.
Thyme and parsley grown indoors.

If your garden is too cold for thyme to survive in winter, then plant it indoors.  Thyme is one of many herbs that does very well when grown in front of a sunny, south-facing window all winter long.  Use a planting mix and add a slow-release fertilizer every 3 months for best results.  I planted the thyme plant (above) in September and it lasted throughout the winter and spring growing on my kitchen windowsill. 

White Flowered Creeping Thyme

Thyme can be harvested throughout the year in mild climates and in spring and summer in cooler zones.  Like most herbs, the flavor is most intense just before flowering, although they will still taste delicious even if harvested when flowering.

The leaves should be stripped from the stems and added to your favorite dish.  Thyme can also be easily preserved by drying or freezing into ice cubes.

When deciding what to plant in your garden, how about adding a plant that can add beauty to your backyard garden AND delicious flavor in your kitchen!

Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her growing fruits and vegetables, and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.