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Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, common thyme) is a hardy perennial herb with a strong, pleasant aroma. The stems are usually woody at the base and there are many small leaves. It is a sub-shrub that grows to a low level, approximately 20cm or 8 inches in height (its spread is similar). The leaf colour varies, from green to grey-green, yellow and variegated.
Romans and Greeks used thyme as a culinary herb, prized for its aroma and flavour.
- Choose seed or cuttings. Whether your not you choose seed or cuttings depends on the thyme variety, as some do better one way over the other. Cuttings tend to grow faster than seedlings. It is best to take cuttings when the plant is not flowering. To take a cutting:
- Take the cuttings during summer, when it is warm; if it's cold, the cuttings are liable to rot.
- Choose the cuttings from an area of old wood (test for "snap", this is the area that you will use), that is closer to the soil. Try to get a piece with a heel (a part of the main stem).
- Plant the cuttings into moist soil. Grow in semi-shade (the cuttings will die if placed in full sun until they've formed roots). Allow to establish for at least half a year before considering transplanting to their final growing place.
- Plant the six-month old cutting or seedling. Choose a spot with gravelly, stony soil. Thyme prefers poor soil that drains well. Soil that is slightly limy is preferred but will grow in slightly acidic soil too. Thyme will grow poorly in wet soil. Thyme likes full sunshine but will tolerate a slightly shady spot provided it gets some sunshine during the day.
- If preferred, grow in a container indoors or on the porch.
- Space more than one thyme plant approximately 30cm/12 inches apart.
- Grow in full sun. Some thyme will manage in semi-shade but do not grow thyme in shade or it will fail to thrive.
- Let thyme grow itself. Do not feed it. If you do, it will produce many leaves of reduced flavour and aroma, and the plant becomes more susceptible to disease.
Thyme needs to be kept warm through winter months and needs protection in harsh winter environments. It will survive light frosts but heavy frosts will harm the plant.
It's advisable to take cuttings from your thyme plants every three to four years. Use those cuttings to grow new thyme plants, ensuring that you have continuously thriving thyme plants in the garden.
It is possible to divide thyme. To do this, cut a little piece from the root along with the stalk. Fill a container with the same soil that the plant was removed from. Add the divided piece to the soil. Water in well to start but then keep it reasonably dry (as for its established parent plant). In time it should take root and be ready for planting out in the garden.
- For cooking straight away: Cut thyme at the tips in the mornings and use immediately for best flavour.
- For drying: Cut the whole plant down to around 5cm/2 inches to the ground. Cut before it blooms.
Collecting thyme seed is not for the fainthearted. It's very small and you will need to use something to catch the seeds with. The easiest way is to place the tip of a nylon stocking over the flowers. Wait a few days, then remove the stocking and, with luck, you'll collect some seeds. Use seedling trays to grow the seeds, sowing shallowly. The seed raising mix should be moist, not wet. Keep in a warm place and expect to see the seeds germinate in three to four weeks. The sprouted seedlings need watering regularly without water-logging them and should be kept out of direct sunlight as they're still forming. When they have grown to about 5cm, they're ready for planting out in the garden.
Most growing problems associated with thyme involve: too much watering, feeding it too much fertiliser, growing it in too cold or wet a position or growing it in the shade.
If thyme is not fragrant enough, it may be growing in soil that is too rich, it may have been over watered or it may have been grown in too cool a climate. To increase the level of fragrance in thyme, grow in poor soil that does not contain too much nitrogen, do not water too much, do not feed the plant and keep it in the full sun. Thyme tends to be fragrant when it is flowering (mid to late summer), so leaving the harvest until then makes good sense.
Take care if growing several varieties of thyme in close proximity; they may cross-pollinate. This may, or may not, be an advantage!
If trying to get roots from thyme cuttings in water, do not be surprised if all the plant does is remain fresh but fails to produce roots. Use the soil method outlined above or use the thyme in your cooking.
Thyme can be dried and kept for many months for use in cooking. Hang in bunches with a paper bag tied around it (to catch the leaves) or lay on trays/baking sheets. Leave to air dry.
If you use a microwave, thyme can be dried in the microwave as well.
If you want to freeze thyme, this can be done. Cut into small sprigs and freeze in bags.
Using thyme as a culinary herb
Thyme can be used either fresh or dried. There are numerous ways to use thyme in cooking, such as:
- Add to stuffing mixes.
- Use as part of bouquet garni.
- Add to soups, casseroles and meat dishes.
- Steep in vinegar and oils for thyme infused flavouring.
- Add to roasted vegetables.
Thyme has a strong flavour, so use sparingly.
Medicinal use of thyme
Thyme has various medicinal uses. It is used for such things as:
- An antiseptic, antibiotic and antifungal.
- A deodorant.
- Anti-dandruff and conditioner for hair.
- Acne control.
- Coughs and colds (internal). It makes a good gargle for tonsillitis oral thrush.
- Mucous clearing.
- A salve for cuts and bruises.
Thyme should not be taken medicinally during pregnancy.
Other uses of thyme
Some other uses of thyme include:
- Bees love thyme; use it to attract them to the garden.
- Use between pavers to release a lovely aroma when trodden on.
- Thyme can be grown as a "lawn" provided it isn't in competition with actual lawn grass (which will crowd it out). This lawn doesn't require mowing.