• Awful Puns and an Essential Herb: Growing Thyme From Seed

July 05, 2018

Everyone knows someone who can't pass up an opportunity for wordplay. Sometimes, though, when faced with such low-hanging fruit as common garden thyme, even the most stoic and cynical have to surrender and roll with it. Like...us.

Having said that, we apologize in advance if things get a little cheesy...and we'd like to remind you that things could be much, much worse. Imagine if we were working with these lovelies:

  • Stiffcock (Diospyros crassenevis)
  • Shagbark tree (Cary ovata)
  • Cockhold herb (Bidens connata)...um...Drop it, Joe.
  • Sausage tree (Kigelia africana)
  • Family Jewels milkweed (Asclepias hysocarpus)
  • Sticky Willy (Galium aparine)

Without further ado, it's thyme to get on with it and learn about growing Thymus vulgaris, one of the best-loved culinary herbs and garden accent plants!

Geographic and Cultural Origins

Common thyme is native to southern Europe, the Mediterranean, and western Asia. It wasn't used by early cultures as a culinary herb other than to flavor cheeses and wine. Ancient Greeks touted its smoke's cleansing properties and its ability to fend off venomous beasts. Thyme smoke is still used today to repel mosquitos.

"It was an emblem of activity, bravery, and energy, and in the days of chivalry, it was the custom for ladies to embroider a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme on the scarves they presented to their knights."

— M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal

Thyme is an ingredient for fragrances, and it has a role in traditional and ancient embalming methods. It's no surprise, then, that sprigs of time, when stashed in cupboards and drawers, repelled nasty insects and left linens with a pleasing odor.

Thyme for Your Medicine

Herbalists use Thymus vulgaris much the same as they do other woody perennials in the Lamiaceae family. Its active chemicals are camphene and alpha-pinene, known for their anti-oxidizing, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. Thyme is also known for the following:

  • Reduces redness in scars
  • Improves respiratory function
  • Protects mucous membranes
  • Minimizes or prevents acne
  • Eases intestinal bloating
  • Antispasmodic
  • Antirheumatic
  • Diuretic
  • Eases symptoms of menstrual problems
  • Delays onset of menopause
  • Stimulates progesterone production

Thyme and honey bees go hand in hand; honey made from thyme nectar is considered among the most divine, and thymol (natural thyme oil) is regularly used by beekeepers as a natural weapon against both tracheal and varroa mites.

No matter how you use thyme concentrates, you'll want to check with your doctor (or master apiculturist) before you do.

Quality Thyme in Your Garden

Common, culinary thyme, as well as its creeping varieties, make fantastic rock garden plants. They do best in areas away from continuous irrigation, and all do well as container plants.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, thyme is considered an air pollution filtering plant, but it only thrives indoors if it's placed in a very sunny, warm window. If you're a good citizen you'll plant enough thyme to cover every inch of your available outdoor space. Then, you can don a ninja gardening suit, join the Guerrilla Gardening movement and seed-bomb vacant lots and other neglected areas in your city, thus saving the planet and entitling you to some serious smugness.

If you live in an area where your water bills are high, or where irrigation restrictions make neighbors shame one another for growing more tender, moisture-loving plants, thyme makes a good xeriscaping plant. Whether or not you choose to share the bounty of your herbal harvest with holier-than-thou HOA members is up to you, but sometimes, the best revenge involves being maddeningly generous.

Growing Zones: Thymus vulgaris is an evergreen herbaceous perennial in USDA hardiness zones 5-9.

Soil Requirements: Common thyme is no princess, and thrives in most any well-drained soil. It grows best in neutral to alkaline soils, and 6.5 to 7 is the sweet spot.

Sunlight Requirements: Thyme prefers full sun, but will tolerate late afternoon shade.

Moisture Requirements: Thyme is drought-resistant, and does best in dry to medium soil. Wet soils invite root rot.

Growth Habits: Common thyme is a compact, shrubby, upright grower, reaching as high and wide as 12 inches each dimension.

Flowers: White, pink, or light purple blooms begin in May and continue through late July, attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects. The tiny blossoms encircle the top third or quarter of the plant's longest stems, interspersed with the tiny leaves for a dense, colorful display.

Foliage: Medium to dark green oval leaves, about 1/4" to 1/2" long, grow directly from woody stems in an alternating pattern.

Aroma: Fresh or dried thyme has a smoky, minty fragrance.

Thyme Management: Thyme isn't the kind of plant that needs you to feed it grapes and fan it with ostrich feathers. It's hardy, easy to grow, and only needs a little attention to retain a tidier looking plant. Cutting it back in early spring or late fall will encourage new growth, and reduce the plant's "woodiness." Too much fertilization can make it look leggy, so don't overindulge this herb.

Thyme benefits from a layer of mulch (steer clear of the base of the plant) to protect its roots from hard winter freezes.

Pests and Diseases: Thyme is deer and rabbit resistant, and it isn't prone to pests or diseases other than root rot associated with overwatering. Spittlebugs might visit once in a while; hosing off the foamy goo early in the morning will get rid of it.

Harvesting Thyme: Pick sprigs or whole stems of thyme throughout the summer, or pinch young leaves from the tops. While most herbs taste best before flowering time, thyme's flavor isn't significantly affected during its bloom period.

Dry entire sprigs or stems upside-down in a warm, dry, ventilated spot and strip the leaves to store whole in an airtight container. Don't crush or powder thyme leaves until you're ready to use them. Thyme sprigs, when set in a jar with a little water, will hold out for up to ten days, and stripped fresh leaves can be frozen in a sealed plastic baggie.

Thyme for Love: Thyme is a great companion plant. It repels many garden pests, including flea beetles, cabbage worms, and hornworms, and doesn't have any known enemies. It's said to benefit strawberries, cabbage potatoes, and fruits in the nightshade family (eggplant and tomatoes.) Keep in mind that thyme doesn't like to be overwatered, and plant it near veggies or other herbs with similar preferences.

Growing Thyme from Seed

With a tiny bit of coddling, Thymus vulgaris is easy to start from seed, and young thyme plants make great gifts. (It's okay to gift a living thing to someone if the giftees don't have to up-end their lives to care for it. Also, don't gift art. Art's subjective; thyme plants aren't.)

Seed Preparation: Thyme seeds do best with a little cold stratification or an overnight soak. For tips, visit our post, "The Dirt on Successful Seed Germination" and be sure to use fresh thyme seeds.

When Is It Thyme to Plant? Thyme is best started indoors in peat pots 6 to 10 weeks prior to your last spring frost.

Planting Depth: Press thyme seeds onto the soil surface to allow it the sunlight it needs to germinate.

Space Thyme Continuum: (OK, we were reaching there.) Allow 8" to 10" between plants. Give your plants room for sunlight absorption and airflow to reduce the risk of legginess and root rot.

Germination: Be patient! Thyme can take anywhere from 10 to 21 days to germinate, even at its ideal temperature of 70°F. Be sure to keep the soil surface moist until the seedlings produce healthy roots.

Transplanting: Thyme shouldn't be kicked out of the crib too early. Seedlings are slow to grow at first, so let them get a little momentum before hardening them off for a week or two and then planting them in the ground around midsummer.

Chow Thyme

Common thyme is culinary gold. Every chef's garden should have a patch, and no spice cabinet is worth the wood it's built from without a good supply. Thyme complements almost every type of protein, especially pork and chicken, and it's often added to baked and stew-dropped biscuits for down-home comfort food.

Heat some crushed thyme leaves in olive oil or butter, along with some fresh garlic and a dash of pepper, and baste your roasted chicken. Freshly-crushed thyme gives asparagus a smoky, "roasty" flavor if the weather's not right for grilling. We can go on and on with suggestions for using a pinch of thyme here and there to dress up your favorite dishes, but instead, we'll leave you with some creative, off-the-beaten-garden-path recipes.

If these recipes don't amaze your friends, or at least leave them totally gobsmacked, then nothing will. One thing's for certain, though, fresh thyme is hands-down the best to use, followed by home-dried thyme grown within the past year. So check your herb jars. Is your thyme running out? Yeah? Well, you'd best start growing a new supply!

It's Thyme for Gardening Success

Thyme seeds rapidly lose their viability after three years. Do you know how old those seeds are that you've got stashed in that junk drawer? There might be a "planting date" on the package, but if that brand doesn't get its own supply from fresh stock, you might be in for a disappointing season.

That's why we're committed to selling seeds we know are fresh, viable, and healthy, so you don't spend your gardening time chucking empty peat pots at your garden fence while screaming uncouth epithets. It's one thing to be passionate about gardening; it's entirely another to go off the rails.

Don't be "that neighbor." Do contact us at Seed Needs.


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