9 Tips for Growing Thyme in Pots or Containers
If you want an herb garden, don’t let limited space get in your way. Thyme is a beautiful and delicious perennial herb that grows great in pots or containers! In this article, gardening expert Danielle Sherwood tells you how to get a bounty of thyme, even in a patio pot.
I couldn’t live without thyme. Have you tried it with roasted carrots and honey? Unbelievably delicious.
Thyme is a Mediterranean herb that complements so many types of cuisine, but it’s also just plain pretty. If you want all of the benefits of this delicious herb but struggle with space or difficult soil, this article is for you.
Thyme doesn’t need much for upkeep, so it’s a great option for beginners. Bees also belove the blooms! Thankfully for those in small spaces, its shallow roots make it a great candidate for container growing. Need some tips on growing your own? Let’s get started!
First, Pick the Right Container
All types of thyme stay pretty compact, but they can spread a bit (definitely a good thing in this case). Depending on the variety, thyme will grow between 3-12 inches tall and 12-15 inches wide over time. Keep these considerations in mind when choosing a container:
Thyme is a slow grower with shallow roots. You only need a container 6 inches deep and 12 inches in diameter to grow one nice plant. If you’d like to grow multiple varieties, plant them in a wider pot or raised bed and space them 12 inches apart. They’ll slowly grow together for a lovely thyme smorgasbord.
Thyme naturally grows in gritty, rocky soils and needs good drainage. If your container doesn’t have drainage holes, you can drill them yourself. Terracotta pots are nice, letting roots breathe, but any container letting water flow through will work nicely. Thyme is also excellent in raised beds with oregano, rosemary, lavender, and sage. They all like the same free-draining conditions, so amend with horticultural sand or perlite if the raised bed is filled with heavy soil.
I’ve been growing my thyme in a raised bed for a few years. If you’re looking for a larger bed, check out Birdies Metal Raised Garden Beds. Unlike wood beds which can rot over time, these are made of long-lasting galvanized steel.
If you have a smaller space to work with, try this Round Short Metal Bed. It looks good, could fit several plants for a compact herb garden, and doesn’t need any special tools to put together.
Plant at the Right Time
You can plant thyme starts in your garden in early spring after the danger of frost has passed. It’s cold hardy down to zone 4 but it likes to get established in the garden before exposure to chilly temps.
You can plant all the way up to early fall, provided you give your thyme at least a month of warmth before a new frost hits. Its ideal temps range from 68-86℉. If you have an unexpected cold snap just after planting, cover it with frost cloth or mulch the top with leaves.
Thyme will stay evergreen in mild climates. It will go dormant in areas with cold winters and pop back up in spring. If you’d like to harvest it all year, keep it in a portable pot and bring it indoors near a sunny window.
Choose the Right Site
When planting anything, it’s wise to keep its native habitat in mind. Thyme originates in the Mediterranean, which has a hot and dry climate. Translating this to your garden means putting your thyme in full sun for at least 6-8 hours per day.
If you only have part shade, thyme will tolerate it but responds with slower growth. Go ahead and plant it anyway- you’ll likely still get plenty to harvest and enjoy.
Give it Good Soil
Thyme isn’t finicky about soil. In fact, many gardeners plant ornamental varieties in dry areas between rocks where it spreads beautifully.
Opt for sandy soil over heavy clay, as this aids in drainage. A good potting mix amended with a layer of compost and a bit of horticultural sand or gravel will do nicely.
Choose The Right Variety
One of the best parts about thyme is its various aromatic and flavor profiles. Some are earthy, others smell like citrus, and some are grown for their colorful flowers. It comes in two main types, ornamental and culinary, though all are edible.
Here are a few different varieties I recommend trying in your garden this season:
A yummy, earthy-tasting variety, also called Common Thyme. It gets about 12 inches tall and wide, with light pink to lavender flowers adored by pollinators. It has a robust flavor popular in cooked dishes, especially used with meats and roasted veggies.
This is the variety I use most in my garden. It’s slightly less potent than English thyme, making it more of a versatile background flavor than the star.
This variety is also very winter-hardy, withstanding temps down to -30℉. It has small pink flowers and is great as a garnish and in salads.
I could inhale this scent for hours! Lemon thyme has a refreshing citrusy mint flavor and a dreamy aroma when crushed. It has chartreuse foliage and pink flowers. While great for cooking and making tea, it’s also popular as an ornamental.
Creeping Thyme comprises several ornamental varieties (you can eat them too!) that look gorgeous flowing over the edges of pots. Check out Red Creeping Thyme for pretty dark pink flowers, Wooly Thyme for soft, gray-green leaves and pale rose blooms, or Elfin, with a nice mounding habit and light purple flowers.
Seed vs. Nursery-Grown Plants
Thyme can be grown from seed, but reaching maturity takes 6-12 months. If you do want to grow it from seed, start it indoors at least 8 weeks before your last frost.
Sprinkle seeds on the surface (aim for about 3 every 10 inches or so), and barely cover with soil. Seeds germinate in 12-15 days and can be thinned once they’re an inch tall.
Harden your seedlings off once the danger of frost has passed, then transplant them into the garden.
Most gardeners opt to purchase a nursery start, which can later be propagated via cuttings. This way, you can harvest it right away. Prepare the soil and plant your purchased thyme about 12 inches from other herbs so it has room to spread.
Water the Right Amount
Thyme is drought tolerant once established and a great choice for arid climates and water-wise gardens. Check small transplants often and water them whenever the soil is dry.
Mature plants like to dry out completely between waterings. When the weather is hot, you may need to water it once a week. In the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, it likely won’t need to be watered more than twice a month.
When you water, give it a thorough soak to reach the roots. Remember that small pots will dry out more quickly and must be checked more often as days get hotter.
Overwatering is more of a danger than underwatering. Soggy soil leads to rotted roots and brown leaves. Avoid this by doing a soil check. Stick your finger in knuckle-deep. If it’s dry at that depth, give it a drink! If you feel moisture, check again in a couple of days.
Fertilize (or Don’t)
Thyme is a rugged plant that doesn’t need fertilization (in fact, it prefers poor conditions over rich soil). A top dressing of compost in early spring will give it all the necessary nutrients.
If you’d like to pamper your thyme, you can give it a liquid seaweed feed once a month during the summer.
Patrol For Pests
Thyme is generally unbothered by pests when grown in the garden. They don’t like its minty odor. However, here are some critters you might encounter and what to do about them:
Aphids like to colonize tender new growth, sucking out sugary sap. This results in stunted growth and distorted leaves. You’ll usually see these small, soft-bodied insects in spring. They can range in color from green, gray, or pink.
I don’t like to use any sort of pesticides in my edible garden. I find that aphids can be defeated with a strong, direct spray from the hose.
You can also prevent pests via companion planting. Parasitic wasps, lacewings, birds, and ladybugs love to munch on aphids. Attract these beneficial predators by planting thyme near rosemary and umbel-flowered plants in the carrot family, like dill, fennel, and cilantro.
Spider mites are so tiny (less than 1 mm) that you’re unlikely to spot them. If you see curled or distorted leaves, check for fine white webbing- a key indicator that they’ve made a home on your thyme.
Treat spider mites the same as you would aphids, with a strong spray from the hose and a biodiverse garden that attracts their predators.
Remove badly affected parts of the plant. If this doesn’t work, you can treat your thyme with neem oil in the evening, but do so only after you’ve exhausted other efforts. Horticultural oils like neem impact bees and other pollinators.
If you harvest your thyme regularly, there’s no need for pruning to keep it in great shape! Just snip off a stem right above a leaf node, leaving at least 5 inches of growth behind (for shorter plants, take no more than a third of its height). Pick the most tender new growth and avoid any woody or thick stems.
If your thyme is a baby plant, harvest sparingly until the next season when it can rebound more easily.
The concentration of oil and flavor is strongest right before it flowers, but I find that thyme is tasty all season. After you’ve snipped your stems, try pulling them through the tines of a fork to separate the leaves for cooking. They also look pretty as-is to use as a garnish or in salads.
Keep cutting a few sprigs here and there, and your thyme will stay bushy and compact. Right before your last frost, feel free to cut the whole plant down by half for a big harvest that you can dry to use throughout winter.
Remember always to use clean, sharp shears and sanitize them between plants to prevent the spread of diseases.
Thyme is ideal for container growing. With shallow roots, cold-hardiness, and drought tolerance, it’s low maintenance and easy to keep happy in a small space.
Remember this plant’s preferred hot, sunny, and freely draining conditions for a successful harvest. Snip and enjoy often (or lean in for a little aromatherapy). You’ll soon look for new ways to incorporate this delicious herb into your repertoire!