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Planting, cutting & harvesting thyme: how it works

16.06.2021  /  Reading time: 10 minutes

Like some other Mediterranean herbs, thyme belongs to the Lamiaceae family. The semi-shrub is a popular spice for Provençal dishes and is also known as a medicinal herb. Of course, it tastes particularly good fresh from your own garden. You can find out how to plant, cut and harvest thyme and tips on propagating and overwintering it here.

This article contains:

  1. The thyme plant: an overview
  2. The right location
  3. Planting thyme: garden, balcony or raised bed
  4. Mixed cultivation: thyme as ground cover or shrub
  5. Thyme: good neighbors, bad neighbors
  6. Planting plan for your herb bed with mediterranean herbs
  7. Thyme care tips: pruning, fertilizing & watering
  8. Cutting thyme: how to do it
  9. Overwintering thyme: is thyme hardy?
  10. Harvesting & drying thyme
  11. Propagating thyme by cuttings
  12. Frequently asked questions about planting thyme

Quick Overview

Planting and sowing thyme: location, timing & spacing

  • Location: As a weak grower, thyme grows in light, lean and well-aerated soil. It likes sunny, warm spots.
  • Sowing: from March on the windowsill
  • Sowing depth: As a light germinator, only cover lightly with soil
  • Planting: after the last frosts in May
  • Planting distance: 20 x 20 cm/ 7,9 x 7,9 in (varies depending on variety)
  • Varieties for pots: true thyme, lemon thyme
  • Varieties that can be planted as ground cover: Sand thyme, Early flowering thyme

Thyme: Good neighbors

  • You can plant thyme in the herb bed. Savory, lemon balm, tarragon, lavender, rosemary and sage are good neighbors.
  • Thyme is also a good neighbor in the vegetable patch and goes well next to cabbage, carrots, horseradish, peppers and chili. However, make sure that thyme does not like to stand with wet feet. Additional drainage can help here.

Cutting & overwintering thyme

  • Prune in spring before budding and after harvesting/flowering. Cut off a maximum of one third of the shoots.
  • Not all thyme varieties are hardy and some need to be overwintered indoors. However, varieties such as true thyme and broad-leaved thyme are frost-resistant and can overwinter outdoors.

The thyme plant: an overview

Thyme(Thymus vulgaris) is part of the labiate family(Lamiaceae). The genus Thymus includes numerous thyme species and varieties, many of which are used in cooking and traditional medicine. You can find an overview of exciting thyme varieties in this article.

As a Mediterranean herb, thyme is a weak grower and thrives well in poor and light soils. Soil that is too rich in nutrients or too much fertilizer makes the thyme plant susceptible to disease and can change the taste of its leaves. In addition, thyme prefers it a little too dry rather than standing there with wet feet. As a medium-rooted plant, it forms shallow taproots with which it can store a lot of water close to the soil surface. On the other hand, it can fetch water from deep down in dry conditions. The semi-shrub grows perennially and is hardy, depending on the variety.

What does thyme look like?

Thyme has a semi-shrubby, bushy growth habit and reaches heights of between 15 and 40 cm/5,9 and 15,7 in. The small, elongated, oval leaves are quite small and delicate, just like the thyme flowers. Thyme flowers from June to September, but this varies depending on the variety, growing region, location and weather conditions. During flowering, thyme attracts numerous pollinators such as bees and bumblebees. As an evergreen shrub, thyme also retains its leaves in winter.

flowering thyme with pink-purple flowers
Thyme produces small lipped flowers that are pinkish-purple or white, depending on the variety. Picture by Hans on Pixabay.

The right location

Thyme originates mainly from the Mediterranean region. Here it can be found in dry grasslands, on rocks and on walls. The soil should therefore be nutrient-poor, dry and well-drained. The semi-shrub also likes to grow in the sun. So look for a bright, sheltered and warm spot for it.

Planting thyme: garden, balcony or raised bed

Whether in the garden or in a pot on the balcony, as long as the location is right, thyme will grow anywhere. You can buy young plants in spring and plant them after the last frost from mid-May to June. Keep a planting distance of 20 x 20 cm/ 7,9 x 7,9 in or larger, depending on how big you want your bush to be. If your soil is too heavy, make sure you mix in some sand beforehand.

You can also sow the light germinator yourself. To sow the seeds, mix potting compost with sand and moisten it well with a spray bottle. Then add a few seeds to the soil and press them down gently. Keep the substrate evenly moist, but be careful not to wash the seeds away when watering. They are very small and light. Germination can take up to three weeks. Pre-grow the seedlings on the windowsill in March so that they are big enough to plant out in May.

Can I grow thyme in a pot?

Thyme is very suitable for growing in pots or containers. However, pay attention to the variety, as different types of thyme differ in their growth habit. A good variety for growing in pots, for example, would be true thyme, as it grows quite compactly.

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In our library you will find information on the individual varieties with cultivation periods, tips on planting and harvesting. You will also find good and bad neighbours to help you plan a mixed crop.

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Mixed cultivation: thyme as ground cover or shrub

Sand thyme as ground cover
The sand thyme grows as a ground cover and thus protects the soil from drying out. Image by Wälz on Pixabay.

Thyme contains highly fragrant essential oils that keep pests away, making it ideal for mixed cultivation. Its flowers also attract beneficial insects. There are either varieties that grow bushy or varieties that act as ground cover to protect the soil and prevent water evaporation.

  • Bushy growing varieties: true thyme, broad-leaved thyme, lemon thyme
  • Ground-covering varieties: Early-flowering thyme, Sand thyme

Thyme: good neighbors, bad neighbors

Thyme is usually better suited to a herb bed in mid-latitudes as, unlike most vegetable plants, it prefers dry and nutrient-poor soil. You can combine many different herbs in a herb spiral, as you can create different conditions. In a Mediterranean vegetable patch with vegetables with moderate water requirements, thyme can be planted as a companion plant.

Good neighbors Bad neighbors
Blackberry Lemon balm Basil
Broccoli Marigold Dill
Cabbage Paprika Lovage
Carrots Raspberry Marjoram
Chilli Rosemary Mint
Chives Sage Topinambur
Horseradish Savory
Lavender Tarragon

Note: Thyme is said to keep the cabbage white butterfly away from cabbage plants by preventing it from laying eggs. For this reason, thyme goes well next to cabbage. However, you should bear in mind that cabbage is a heavy feeder that likes to grow in nutrient-rich soil and requires more moisture. These are not good conditions for thyme plants.

Planting plan for your herb bed with mediterranean herbs

You can find ideas for planting and designing your herb bed with thyme here in the planting plans:

Thyme care tips: pruning, fertilizing & watering

The semi-shrub is very easy to care for, it doesn't need much water or fertilizer. Only thyme growing in a pot needs a small dose in May or June. Otherwise, you should cut your thyme back regularly and, depending on the variety, possibly put it inside or cover it for the winter.

Cutting thyme: how to do it

Annual pruning is important to promote compact growth and plant health while preventing the plant from becoming woody or bald. In spring, roughly between March and April, the evergreen branches should be cut back by around a third so that the plant can sprout vigorously again and prevent senescence. After flowering, cut off the tips of the shoots. Always cut above a leaf node so that it can sprout again more easily. You can then use the cut shoots fresh in the kitchen for cooking, or dry them.

Overwintering thyme: is thyme hardy?

True thyme and broad-leaved thyme, for example, are hardy and need little protection; pine branches are sufficient here. However, not all types of thyme are frost-hardy. Therefore, cover the semi-shrub with fleece or better still overwinter it indoors in a cool, bright place. You can find more tips on how to overwinter thyme properly in this article.

Harvesting & drying thyme

If you need fresh thyme, you can harvest the young shoots as they grow. For dried thyme, cut off shoots about 10 cm/ 3,9 in long before they flower. After flowering, the leaves lose their aroma and are less tasty. The stems are then tied together and hung upside down to dry.

freshly harvested thyme for drying
You can harvest the tasty thyme leaves throughout the summer until they flower. After that, they lose their aroma. Image by Iren on Pixabay.

Propagating thyme by cuttings

If you want to propagate your thyme, cut off a few longer shoots and place them in water or directly in sandy herb soil. Change the water regularly until roots have formed and then carefully plant the shoots. This type of propagation is called vegetative propagation, which produces genetically identical seedlings to the mother plant. You can find out how to take cuttings below:

  • Cut off cuttings: Cut a fresh, non-woody shoot from a healthy thyme bush. This should be 5 to 10 cm/ 2 to 3,9 in long.
  • Prepare the cuttings: Now remove the lower leaves, leaving leaves only at the tip so that you can plant the cutting or place it in water. These leaves would otherwise only rot and reduce the success of your own cuttings.
  • Allow the cuttings to root: Now place the cutting either in water or in sandy herb soil so that it can take root. If it is in soil, it must be kept evenly moist. Now place the plant in a bright spot.
  • Plant the cutting: The seedling should be firmly rooted or have developed roots after 6 weeks at the latest. You can now plant it in a bed or pot. If the plant was growing roots indoors, you should first acclimatize it to direct sunlight and temperature fluctuations and harden it off.

Have fun growing your own thyme!

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Marie studied agricultural science at the University of Hohenheim. Her main focus is on ecological agriculture and permaculture. She writes articles for Fryd to educate people about ecological interrelationships and alternatives to current land use. Our current economic systems, especially in agriculture, have numerous negative effects on nature and destabilize our ecosystems. We need a great diversity in our gardens and beds again to counteract the extinction of species. Every gardener can contribute to creating and maintaining habitats and food for a wide variety of creatures. With her articles, she would like to pass on her experience in dealing with natural systems and give people the opportunity to contribute to a stable ecosystem and thus also to securing our livelihood.

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Thyme is a herbaceous perennial that grows in one location.

Not every thyme variety is hardy. Frost-resistant varieties include true thyme and broad-leaved thyme. However, most varieties are still partially hardy, but should be protected with fleece or brushwood in extreme temperatures.

The heat-loving shrub should only be planted outdoors for the first time after the last frosts in May. This will allow it to root well and grow until the fall.

Prune your thyme plant before budding in spring and after flowering in late summer to promote compact growth. Shorten the individual shoots by a maximum of a third.

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