Thyme for all Seasons
by SCMG Stephanie Wrightson
As long as thyme is planted in a well-draining kitchen garden or pot, this plant thrives and stays green in all seasons. While thyme is best cultivated in a hot,
sunny location and tolerates drought well, the plant also can survive a deep freeze. This means that Sonoma County residents can have a flavorful seasoning for meats, stews, soups, sauces and vegetables at their fingertips year-round. As a shrubby perennial, thyme’s masses of small flowers and scented leaves make a nice addition to an ornamental garden. Thyme also is attractive to bees and is deer-resistant.
While herbs can be propagated by seed, a 4-inch potted thyme plant can be procured easily and inexpensively from your local nursery (propagate future plants from cuttings from your mature thyme in early summer). Many culinary thyme varieties are sold as plants and seeds through seed catalogs. Give your thyme a great start by planting it in the spring in light, well-drained soil in a sunny location. Most varieties grow quickly and require, at least, one-foot spacing (two feet for large varieties). Mature plants tolerate shearing if you want to keep them compact. As with any new plant, water moderately. But, once established, thyme requires little water. Over-watering is one of the few things that will harm the plant. No fertilizing is required. After a few years, small older patches may die back, requiring replanting.
As you can see, thyme has few requirements to thrive. The most difficult decision is what variety to plant. The most prevalent species in the kitchen garden is common thyme (T. vulgaris), AKA garden thyme or English thyme, which has a robust flavor. For cooking, I favor a smaller (12-inch) T. vulgaris called French thyme, AKA summer thyme, which I believe has a slightly sweeter, milder taste. Within T. vulgaris are many varieties. If the thyme is serving multiple uses – culinary and ornamental – consider the foliage color/variegation and flower color of the variety. There are varieties with different scented or flavored leaves (e.g., ‘Italian Oregano Thyme’ and ‘Orange Balsam’). Also popular with cooks is Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus). Its lemony fragrance particularly suits fish. Golden lemon thyme (T. citriodorus ‘Aureus’) has bright green and yellow foliage and retains its citrusy flavor even when baked. Characteristics of additional varieties can be found at your local nursery or in seed catalogs.
Culinary thyme can be used fresh and is one of the herbs that better retains its flavor when dried (refer to our guide for drying your own herbs). For best taste, most herb leaves should be harvested before flowering, but, in my opinion, there is not an appreciable difference with thyme.
Because thyme is slow to release its flavor, it is usually added earlier in the cooking process for heavier dishes such as stews. It is delicious in an omelet, or freshly chopped in combination with other herbs and added to delicate greens with a light dressing. Thyme blends well with other savory herbs such as French tarragon and winter savory. It is one of three traditional herbs (thyme, bay and parsley) used in fine herbs, with this bundle of herbs added at the end of the cooking process in French dishes.