If you were given twenty seconds to list 5 herbs it’s guaranteed that thyme would make the draft. Quite possibly, it would even head the list. Yet it seems to be one herb that many gardeners don’t bother with.
We’re all replacing our common flavourings with coriander, gingers, Vietnamese mint and Kaffir Lime trees. The eternal herbs that our mums may have dabbled in – marjoram, thyme, parsley and perhaps oregano – have all had to take a back step. Asian is the new gardening and cooking ‘black’.
But few herbs have the versatility that thyme enjoys. Asian herbs, while presently the flavour of the month, are somewhat limited – they don’t work in Italian dishes and seem rudely out of place in your favourite Moussaka. But time-honoured thyme could lethargically handle itself in any dish.
And, amazingly, the kitchen is not the only place that thyme presents well.
I’m constantly intrigued by gardeners who don’t have at least one variety of thyme growing in their gardens. For me, it’s a no-brainer. This plant MUST be in my garden. In fact, I could almost build my entire garden around it and still feel like I haven’t paid it enough homage.
How can an herb this good, be so versatile?
I guess the biggest let-down for thyme is its phlegmatic subtlety. If it were more vivacious like coriander or basil then gardeners would be falling over themselves to get some in the ground. Yet, its weakness actually proves to be its strength.
During my cooking days, our kitchens would always be filled with pots of thyme or bags of it would line the coolrooms. It would make its way into stocks, soups, marinades, pasta dishes, casseroles, and even desserts. There didn’t seem to be a dish where thyme wasn’t required and it made salt and pepper appear as distant orphans.
Common (or French) thyme, Thymus vulgaris, was the dominate flavour but lemon thyme, Thymus x citriodorus came a close second. Then, if we felt adventurous we would play with caraway thyme or any of the other oddly flavoured thymes that would enter and exit the fastidiously, trendy industry that cooking was, and still is.
And then there were the thymes that had no culinary benefit and were purely for the garden. Creeping thyme, the prostrate ground cover that works great in pathways or along the edge of perennial borders, or woolly thyme, another groundcover barely growing more than 1cm high.
Most thymes are prostrate but even those that do form shrub status fail to get higher than 40cm.
How to grow and care for Thyme
Thyme by name and time by nature. They’re not blindingly fast-growers but given the right conditions they can be matured within two or three seasons. Thyme is a perennial plant and like most herbs prefers a well-draining soil with at least 4-6 hours of sun per day. However, due to their prostrate growing habit they can mix it with the best of them in part-shade conditions and have even been known to survive completely dappled shade environments.
Fertilise thyme at the start of spring and again at the end of summer. They aren’t completely dependent on much water but they aren’t classified as drought-tolerant plants either.
If they’re culinary varieties and you use them often in the kitchen, then pruning shouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, trim any dead stems and reduce any excessive foliage. They don’t require much pruning and it’s more about shape than plant management.
The main method of cultivating new plants is via division. Creeping thymes will often set down their own roots as they spread so these can easily be cut to form new plants. For those wanting a little more of a challenge, then softwood cuttings taken at the end of spring or hardwood cuttings in late autumn are another option.