Thymes for kitchen use, thymes for fragrance, thymes for beauty – the many varieties of thyme suit many needs in a home garden. Everyone knows thyme as a versatile culinary ingredient, but there are also thymes that are scented of orange, lemon, and lavender. Try using thyme as a ground cover, or as a border in the flower garden. With its ease of culture and the multitude of varieties to choose from, thyme can find a place in most gardens.
Most people start their thyme collection with cooking thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Not only one of the most useful kitchen herbs, the plant is also attractive with fine green foliage and tiny but abundant flowers. It may not be reliably winter hardy in the extremely colder winters, but replacement plants are easily started from seed about a month before the last frost date. Harvest the herb by cutting two to three inches off branch tips. Shear the plant back halfway when spring blooming starts, then fertilize and water well to encourage new growth. The leaves of cooking thyme hold their scent and flavor well when dried, so harvest extra for winter use. Cooking thyme can be propagated through spring division or by layering, as well as with seed.
Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) is available in varieties with green or variegated leaves, but the major appeal of this thyme is its delicate scent of lemon and spice which is best when enjoyed fresh. The fragrance disappears with any but the briefest cooking or when dried. Unlike cooking thyme, lemon thyme cannot be grown from seed. Select a plant with the desired scent from a friend or a nursery. Beware of plants labelled as lemon thyme which lack a citrus smell – let your nose be the judge of the best plant to purchase. Lemon thyme grows to about eight inches tall and has a creeping, but non-aggressive, habit. It is well suited to rock gardens or for use as an edging. Propagate it by cutting off rooted side shoots and transplanting them.
For a low growing thyme suitable for planting in the crevices between stepping stones and walkways, select from various cultivars of creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), also known as mother-of-thyme. Each plant will grow only about three inches high, but can spread into dense, evergreen mats of foliage 18 to 24 inches in diameter. They can be completely covered with flowers in late June. They will readily tolerate light traffic, but don’t plant them in a heavily used area, such as in front of the main door of the house, where constant walking will wear them down.
All of the thymes are easy to grow. Give them full sun and well drained, even dry, soil. Though they don’t require much room, they do not tolerate crowding by larger plants, so keep an eye on their neighbors and keep them in bounds. A light mulch of evergreen boughs will help them survive some fairly severe winters.