It loves poor soils, is drought tolerant, a spreading groundcover, a bee magnet – and delicious! You can grow thyme (Thymus vulgaris) in your Southwest garden or in a container. Just be sure to grow it where you can reach in to harvest some stalks or simply rub your fingers on the foliage to enjoy the scent.
How to Grow Thyme
This delicious herb comes from the Mediterranean, so it is well adapted to Southwest growing. It prefers a spot in full sun, but might need afternoon shade in hotter zones of the Southwest. Some varieties (such as German or lemon thyme), are perennial up to zone 9. Most varieties are hardy down to zone 5 cold. In hotter or colder zones, grow thyme in a container and move it inside during winter (or peak summer if above zone 9), placing it near a sunny window.
Plant the herb before summer heat kicks in and water weekly for the first summer and when temperatures reach the 90s unless you get monsoon rain. Once established, thyme needs little to no irrigation. The plants reach 6 to 12 inches in height and grow low like a ground cover. Eventually, it will spread and you can control its growth – and rejuvenate the plant – by trimming it back in spring. Harvesting also helps keep the plant thriving. If your thyme starts to look leggy, with sparse leaf growth or growth only along the top of stems, trim it closer to the ground the following spring.
Thyme produces delicate, pinkish-purple flowers in summer that bees love. Culinary thyme is a great spreading plant and can fill a container or herb bed nicely. We get volunteers popping up near established plants, and often transplant them to other spots (be sure to water them often after moving).
Harvesting and Cooking with Thyme
For the best flavor, harvest thyme stems just before the plants’ tiny pink flowers open up. I have enough thyme spread around my garden to harvest from a few and let the others go to flower for bees and color. I cut stems sometimes in winter for cooking and it does not damage the plant.
Once you cut stems, bundle them and hang them in a warm and dark, well-ventilated space to dry. When dry, run your fingers down the stem to strip the leaves and store in an airtight container. Of course, you also can use the stems fresh; these have a softer texture. Thyme is one of the plants included in “herbes de Provence” blends. The herb can flavor soups, butters, vinegars and casseroles. I love it in homemade chicken pot pie and sweet potato chili. There also are lemony and orange scented varieties in addition to the fragrant and delicious French and English varieties.
There are other varieties of thyme that aren’t grown as an edible herb, but make excellent ground covers and pollinator plants. Still others are gorgeous tucked between rocks or flagstones and can tolerate some foot traffic (elfin and wooly thyme, for example).
No matter whether you grow thyme as an herb or just for its value as a garden plant, this low-water herb is easy to grow!
Teresa Odle is the author of a blog on low-water gardening in the Southwest. Teresa trained as a Master Gardener in Albuquerque, N.M. She grew up in the Phoenix area, and has lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Teresa and her husband now attempt to manage four acres of land in zone 6B of southeastern New Mexico. The land includes a large xeric garden, herbs and vegetables, and a small orchard that borders the Rio Ruidoso in Lincoln County.
Teresa’s blog, Gardening in a Drought, won a 2016 national award for best writing in digital media from the Association for Garden Communicators. When she’s not outside, Teresa works as editor of African Violet Magazine and as a freelance editor and writer.