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We have some thyme in our perennial bed and after seeing that it is quite frost hardy I'm realizing I don't know much about this plant. Specifically, I'm interested in how best to keep harvesting occasional leaves for cooking.

Initially I assumed it was an annual plant, but that appears to be wrong. I had been considering digging some up and seeing if it survived inside for the winter (it would be nice to have available), but I'm not sure if that would work.

A little googling also seems to indicate that it becomes woody after a few years. Will it continue to produce the leaves I need for cooking? Or should I just replace it with a new plant every year or two?

Sorry for the sprawling question. The connecting thread is how can I keep this plant in it's most productive form for as much of the year(s) as possible.

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    Now, here's the 64 dollar question - which variety of Thyme? photo would be good if you don't know. Would also be useful to know if you have wet, cold winters and whether your soil is light and sandy or heavy and sticky.... – Bamboo Nov 22 '15 at 16:04
  • Drainage (already mentioned in Eric's answer) is the big one, IME. If in doubt, mix in a large about of sand/sandy soil for the part of the bed where the thyme is, or build it a small sandy hill above the rest of the bed. – Ecnerwal Nov 23 '15 at 0:19
  • Where do you live? Here I keep mine outside all year round, and so far it didn't mind being covered in snow and survived two winters (hopefully some more to go...). – anderas Nov 23 '15 at 10:54
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First, there are lots of 'Thymes'. But the most common culinary thyme is Thymus vulgaris. It's a small perennial woody shrub or subshrub (having only some woody stems, near the base), native to the Mediterranean region. Most cultivars are quite hardy and easy to grow. They prefer dry conditions, but will tolerate areas with a bit more moisture if given good drainage. Even though perennial, it is not often long-lived in garden situations, but it is very easy to propagate. Layering, or simply burying the branches, and allowing them to root, works very well and you can keep thyme going like this for a very long time (no pun intended). You can also revitalize a bed, by removing, dividing, and replanting it. Thyme requires very little fertilizer and is not that picky about soils, though it does prefer looser well-drained areas. It's not particularly adaptable to indoor conditions as it grows best in high-light cool areas in the winter (imagine the Mediterranean in the winter). But you can put in inside if you like. Don't over-water, and keep it in the brightest area you can find - and if you can keep it cool, perhaps in an unheated room with south or west-facing windows, you will be most successful. However dried thyme is actually just as good as fresh, contrary to what some dilettante foodies would have you believe. Even fresh thyme is rather dry, and leaving it dry before using it actually activates some processes that enhance the flavor (even more true of some types of oregano, but also true for rosemary, and savory). I think some people hear how fresh herbs have much more flavor and adapt this to every species. It's so true with basil, cilantro, parsley, etc. that I don't often even bother with dried (though dried basil does have it's own flavor...). Now, I do use fresh thyme, for it's greener, sort of hay-like aroma, which dried lacks. Though the 'green' thyme is less intense and complex than fresh-dried thyme. You can't keep thyme forever once dried, however, and putting it in a well sealed container out of the light will help it stay flavorful. Don't grind it either, until use, as this will also hasten it's demise.

Oh, and you can harvest thyme, even in the winter, if you can reach it through the snow (you could put a cover over it...). It will come back vigorously if you don't pull up the roots.

  • It may be true that letting the hardy herbs dry a touch can bring out more flavor complexes, but sometimes what you want it the fresh flavor which can only be achieved with fresh, and sometimes this can also only be achieved by dropping the whole sprig into what you are cooking rather than breaking it up into pieces. This is because some of the fresher notes are the oils and esters on the surface of the leaves and can't be had if you break or grind up. Otherwise however this is a most excellent and complete answer. :-) – Escoce Nov 22 '15 at 20:05
  • I didn't mean to imply you should grind them. I rarely grind them and do exactly what you said, use them dried and/or fresh and whole, stalk and all. And I like both dried and fresh (with some exceptions). Greek oregano is a great example - dry some from the garden, then compare to the fresh. My Sicilian oregano is not so dramatically different, and I will stuff it fresh from the plant with garlic cloves into slits in lamb and pork roasts. Yum! – Eric Deloak Nov 22 '15 at 20:33
  • yeah I didn't mean to sound like you said something you didn't. I was just being long winded in my opinion that sometimes fresh fresh has the desired results. – Escoce Nov 22 '15 at 20:34
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I had Lemon Thyme, as usual, and, this year for the first time, Pizza Thyme. I planted it throughout all the beds mostly as a companion plant. I gave some away too. It is very hardy, will over winter, and come back next year. We don't use much of it for cooking, except in some chicken dishes, so i will go back to the one Lemon Thyme plant next year. You can keep cutting it, and it will keep growing, or don;t cut it and it will stop growing a some point. It is very low maintenance.

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