It’s About Thyme: Different Varieties for Different Uses

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


clipping fresh culinary thyme with Fiskars Multi-snip Pruner

I’m hard pressed to think of a garden I have designed that did not have any Thyme.

It’s such a great plant, with many forms to provide an array of purposes. Among other things, this sturdy herb can edge a bed, trail from a container, season our foods, feed pollinators, and provide year-round interest in the garden bed.

Thyme requires very little in return for all it offers. It prefers lots of sunlight and well-drained soil. But, it can survive fairly well in some seasonally moist clay soils and dappled sunlight. In the deepest shade and boggiest spots, it becomes leggy and defoliated. If you can avoid that, there’s probably more than one variety for your garden.


Blooming Mother of Thyme edges a rock garden


Ground Hugger; Foot Lover:

Several forms of Thyme, such as purple-flowered ‘Elfin’ and red-flowered Thymus ‘Coccineus’, are fantastic for foot traffic areas. They make a lovely groundcover on their own or beautifully weave their way among pavers in a patio; just take care that their roots don’t heave the steppers over time.

These varieties are ideal for holding minor sloping spots where mounded planting beds adjoin pathways, but don’t try to use them for major erosion control. Choices like Wooly Thyme make for a perfect napping spot for your well-behaved outdoor pup in summer.

These varieties, while edible, are not your best culinary choice – unless you enjoy the grit that comes with a ground-hugger. And remember they do bloom in summer, feeding bees, so take care going barefoot through the flowers.

Maintenance for these varieties is minimal. If they become leggy or an empty spot develops where Fido naps, cut back the scraggly bits in early spring. Odds are, seeds from the prior year will sow and form new plants to fill in any gaps.


Blooming Lime Thyme feeds Honeybee in Summer


Evergreen Shrubs:

By happy accident, I put a small Lime Thyme into my garden years ago. Within a couple of years it had matured into a three foot wide by 18” tall shrub with lovely gray, evergreen foliage and a pale, pink mid-spring flower. This variety makes for a wonderful front of border shrub that not only lends bones to the garden in winter but also offers up tasty sprigs with a piney-thyme flavor for meals throughout the year. This shrub form requires just a bit of pruning to take out dead branching in spring, and it may self-seed, so be on the lookout for new shrubs to transplant into other sunny beds.


For The Chef:

If your goal is an ideal culinary Thyme, go for the traditional, glossy-leaved Mother-of-Thyme, which grows into a fluffy bundle about 18” tall and wide or try a similarly sized Lemon Thyme for a bit more citrus flavor in your foods. Crush a generous tablespoon of these fresh leaves (not stems) to whip into a vinaigrette any time of year!


Pretty Pots:

For pots in the garden rather than the stovetop, two varieties come to mind. ‘Foxley’ is a fantastic variegated form with loads of burgundy, pink, white and green in the mix. If you need a bit of yellow to punch things up, try ‘Doone Valley’ for colors ranging from golden to green. Plus, it emits a heavenly lemon aroma (that doesn’t hold up in cooking, unfortunately). For perennial pots, trim any scraggly or dead twigs in spring and watch your Thyme bounce back to life. If your planter is overrun with Thyme, lift it out and transplant it into the garden where it will thrive for years to come.