In faraway 1966, Simon and Garfunkel rendered “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” quite famous in their song “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” based on the old Scottish ballad ‘The Elfin Knight’ from 1670. Throughout the centuries, numerous theories have been attributed to the symbolism of herbs. For example, in medieval times thyme represented courage and knights often had a thyme design on their shields when entering battle. Now thyme is a culinary must for professional and amateur cooks alike.
Thyme or Thymus vulgaris can be found in classic Italian seasoning, in herbs de Provence and is also used by numerous Allstar chefs around the globe for soups, roasts, and stews. There are two basic categories for thyme: ornamental and culinary. Thyme is a low-growing perennial herb that doesn’t require special care for you to enjoy it for many years. It is a supporting herb, much like a supporting actor. Necessary, but perhaps not front and center. While most types of thymus will be ornamental, the three most common types used in the kitchen are French thyme, lemon thyme, and caraway thyme.
As we mentioned, thyme is a hardy perennial herb. It is drought tolerant if you are in a hot zone and it is pollinator-friendly. In warmer climates, thyme may well be harvested into December, although the highpoint will arrive during the summer months. It is no wonder that it is a favorite of the Mediterranean diet, often found with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes.
Historically it has been used for medicinal purposes and even to preserve meats. Its flowers, which can be lavender, pink or white are well-loved by bees.
How to Plant Thyme
This plant can practically be planted at any time during the year. Different varieties will have differing behaviors. Some will grow in a cascade, others will form a mat and still, others will grow flower stalks. It can be used as a ground cover and may often be found growing in the cracks of pavement stones. Thyme loves full direct sunlight and heat. It does not require constant watering or special care and it can be grown both in containers or pots or directly in your garden. However, thyme is similar to mint, in that it is often difficult to begin from seeds.
If you wish to try growing from seeds
- scatter the seeds over the soil in a container
- cover the seeds with a sprinkling of soil
- cover with plastic wrap
- now place your container in a warm location
The seed should germinate within twelve weeks. When the seedlings have reached about four inches in height, you can transplant them in your garden or into the permanent pot you wish to grow them in. In any case, seedlings should be transplanted into the ground only after the soil has reached roughly 70°F or two to three weeks before the last projected frost in your area.
You can propagate your plants using thyme cuttings by clipping a three-inch cutting from the tip of the stem. Apply some rooting hormone on the exposed end of the cutting and plant it in vermiculite or sterile sand. In about six weeks, new roots will emerge, and you can transfer your young plant to a pot to allow the roots to form. Then you transfer the new plant directly to a large permanent container or into your garden bed.
If you wish to develop your thyme through layering, just bend a long thyme stem and secure it to the soil making sure that it touches the soil. Roots should form in approximately a month along the stem. Now cut away the plant with new roots and transfer it to your garden bed or to a pot.
How to Grow Thyme
Thyme should be planted in soil that drains well and has a pH level somewhere between 6 and 8. Actually, the worse quality soil you have, the better. This herb prefers sandy soil as opposed to moist soil. At the beginning of spring, you should fertilize your thyme plant with organic matter. The plant craves sunlight. If you decide to grow thyme indoors, it should be in a sunny window while in the garden it should receive full direct sunlight. As thyme is drought resistant, it only needs good watering when the soil is dry. Once or twice a month should suffice. If you plan to grow more than one plant, thyme should be spaced twelve to twenty-four inches apart. Should you opt to plant it in a container, a clay pot is better than plastic as it will help keep moisture at bay.
If your area is subject to freezing, you should mulch the thyme plants and then remove the mulch in the spring.
Thyme enjoys company, so planting other drought-resistant herbs like rosemary is fine. It can also be planted alongside broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, eggplant, strawberries, or tomatoes.
How to Harvest Thyme
To obtain the very best of this herb, it should be harvested before it flowers at any time of year. The more you trim this herb, the more it will grow. When you harvest, leave approximately five inches of plant growth in the soil so it can continue to flourish. If you prune, you will stimulate growth and you can influence the growing shape of the plant. One wonderful thing about fresh-grown thyme is that it can be enjoyed both fresh and dried.
How to Cut Thyme
You can trim your thyme plant in order to harvest leaving about five inches of the plant in the soil. Pinch the tip of the stem with the leaves between your fingers and then pull the stem through. This should separate the leaves from the stem. You’ll end up with a naked stem in one hand and a pile of leaves in front of you. Should the stem snap, this means it is likely quite tender and can be used together with the leaves.
What Does Thyme Taste Like?
Good question! Some may describe it as a bit lemony, others may say it reminds them of pepper, while still others liken it to oregano. Fresh thyme will have a different taste than dried thyme and depending heavily on what dish it is prepared with the taste may result differently. The variety, the soil, and the climate will also influence how it tastes.
How to Chop Thyme
If you have a pile of time leaves and eventually pieces of tender stems on your cutting board, just block the tip of your knife or the nose of the blade to the board and rock your knife rapidly up and down the pile of thyme until it is chopped. Repeat until you are satisfied with the consistency of the chopped thyme. A “mezzaluna” knife can also be used.
How to Store Fresh Thyme
Thyme can be placed in a sealed container in the refrigerator and should last for several weeks. To have it last longer, place it in damp paper towels inside a Ziploc plastic bag. You can also place it in a vase or glass of water with about an inch of water and leave it in the refrigerator. Change the water often and it may last up to three months.
You can freeze thyme by placing the fresh sprigs in a freezer bag and then in the freezer. You can also use the ice cube procedure by placing the leaves in an ice cube tray with water and freezing. Once the thyme cubes are ready, place them in a resealable freezer bag and remove them as needed.
How to Dry Thyme
Thyme also retains its flavor in the dried version. If you don’t own a food dehydrator, you can air dry it by placing a paper bag with several holes punched in it over the thyme. Hang the bunch upside down in a dry location. The bag will catch the leaves as they dry and fall and will prevent your thyme from collecting dust. After about ten days, your thyme should be dry enough to be stored in a glass container.
It can be dried in a microwave by placing the sprigs laid in a single layer on dry paper toweling. Microwave for 30 seconds at a time until dry. Rearrange the sprigs between microwaving.
You can also dry thyme in the oven by placing it always in a single layer on a cookie or baking sheet in an oven at 180°F. With the door slightly ajar, leave the thyme inside for about two hours. After the first hour, check your drying thyme every half hour until it is dried thoroughly however without burning it.
Diseases and Pests
Hardy thyme has no particular problems. It can develop root rot if the soil is too moist.