Drought-Tolerant And Easy To Grow:
Growing Thyme Makes Sense
For The Dry-Climate Garden

When you talk about growing thyme, most people think of Thymus vulgaris, or the common thyme. This is the culinary thyme you find in your spice rack and bottled at the grocery store.

But there are about 350 species of Thymus, and many of them are both pretty and useful in cooking.

Plus, you can't find an easier plant to grow, if you have the right climate.

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All about thyme

  • Plant type: Woody evergreen perennial herb
  • Plant size: 2-18 inches tall, depending on variety. There are species with spreading and upright growing habits.
  • Edible parts: leaves, flowers
  • Fruit color: n/a
  • Flower color(s): pink, white, or lavender, depending on species and variety.
  • Flower type: tiny, growing in clumps
  • Blooms: late spring to early summer
  • Leaf color(s): range from bright green to yellow-green to silvery gray, depending on variety.
  • Leaf type: less than 1/2 inch in any direction, tend to be long and oval-shaped, but there is a wide variation in shape among species
  • Stem color: red or gray-brown
  • USDA zones: does best in zones 4-11+ (some species are more hardy than others) -- you will need frost protection below zone 4 and thyme will only do well in dry areas. No wetlands!
  • Likes: poor soil, dry soil, full sun
  • Dislikes: overly rich soil, wetlands, high humidity. Will die in boggy soil.
  • Uses for thyme: drought-tolerant gardens, flowering border plant, low informal dividers, herb gardens, kitchen gardens, butterfly garden, attracts beneficial insects, container gardens, fragrant addition to edible bouquets. Spreading/creeping varieties are good for growing between paver stones in walkways, ground cover, and as an edible lawn alternative.

More about growing thyme

You can either sow thyme seeds, buy a thyme plant, or (if you have a friend with a thyme plant you really like) divide an established plant.

I prefer to buy thymes because thyme seeds are tiny and it's easier to place the plants where you want them that way, and there's a chance of an odd growth pattern if you don't divide a thyme plant right.

If you're planting a thyme lawn or using creeping thyme between paver stones, buying thyme seed is the most economical way to go.

As with any new planting, keep the ground slightly moist until your seedling or growing thyme plant is established, then water once a week or so as needed. Do not water if it has rained recently.

In hotter areas, it's best to prune your thyme plants in the spring, especially if the plant is getting leggy. This pruning encourages a compact, bushy growing habit.

My online friend Jacki has a good resource (and a different take on) growing thyme over at her website Drought Smart Plants. (link will open a new window so you can take a look)

I especially recommend her website to Canadians, as she has a good selection of thyme plants that she can ship to those of you who live there.

Problems when growing thyme

Do not over-water -- this leads to mildew and root rot. Once your growing thyme is established, it doesn't need fertilizing, watering more than once a week or so (unless your area is in an extreme drought -- thyme leaves will turn brownish when it is too dry) or anything else. Leave it alone!

Ants seem to like thymes, and will place their nests underneath their roots, but this doesn't seem to harm the plant. Just wear gloves when harvesting if you're allergic to ants.

Bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects also like thymes, and growing one nearby can help when you're having a problem with pests or poor pollination in other plants.

Growing thyme: Notable varieties of thyme

Many types of thyme are hard to tell apart, but there are some culinary thymes that are distinctive and worth growing:

Caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona)

A creeping thyme used a lot as a ground cover, this plant smells like caraway seed and has pink flowers that bloom in early spring.

It only gets about 4 inches tall but it spreads out very fast, and is good to plant on slopes or other large areas that you need filled in quickly.

It can be used as a substitute for caraway and is good cooked with beef or in herb breads.

English thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

This has a dozen different names, including Garden thyme, common thyme, German thyme, and so on. There are many cultivars and varieties of English thyme with variations in color (such as Silver "Argentus" thyme) and flavor (Italian oregano thyme). But these all pretty much grow the same way, and can be substituted for common thyme in any recipe.

English thymes bloom in mid-spring and have pink flowers. These varieties are upright and grow to about a foot tall. They have a round growth pattern and are nice growing in borders, low dividers, and in edging.

Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus)

While this grows and looks much like English thyme, lemon thyme has a distinct lemon smell and flavor, and the leaves are often lighter green and wider than English thyme.

Lemon thyme is great in fish and chicken dishes, and can be used to substitute for lemon juice or lemon zest in recipes. Although it only grows to about a foot tall, this can be sheared into formal shapes and used in small hedges or knot gardens.

Thymus serpyllum

Growing to less than an inch tall with a spreading aspect, this has a strong herbal or lemony fragrance and either pink, white, lavender or magenta flowers, depending on variety. It's wonderful for putting between pavers, around rocks, or to replace lawns in dry areas.

It's good in stew, salads, and vegetable dishes, especially with zucchini and eggplant. It can also be used as an herbal tea.

I've found this (often wrongly) listed as elfin thyme, mother-of-thyme, wild thyme, and Breckland thyme ... so make sure you have the right scientific name (Thymus serpyllum) if this is the plant you want to try growing.

None of the thymes are poisonous, but woolly thyme has a odd texture, and many of the more ornamental thymes don't have much flavor, so taste a leaf before buying to make sure it's what you want.

Harvesting thyme

To harvest your growing thyme, just cut off the amount you want. If you want to dry thyme for use later, the best time to cut it for drying is before it flowers, in the early spring.

Drying thyme is as simple as cutting a few small holes in the sides of a paper bag, then putting your fresh thyme sprigs in the bag. If you close the bag and leave it in a dry, dark place such as a pantry or cupboard, the leaves will dry in a few weeks. Strip the leaves off the stems and store them in a sealed container in a dark place for best flavor.

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