Sunday, May 24, 2009

Time for thyme

One of the best things about gardening is learning new stuff, and over the last month or so I've learned a little bit more about growing my favourite herb, thyme, from cuttings.

Lovely things, thyme leaves. One of my favourite cooking herbs. Two friends have asked me for some thyme grown from my own healthy little bush, and so I thought I'd take that chance to experiment with different ways of growing it. The two options I guessed might work would be to either dig up a clump, with roots, and grow that on in a pot. The other would be to take numerous cuttings, and hope that enough of them would strike. Here's the results, today on May 24, after having taken the clumps and cuttings on March 28.

On the left, the little batch of cuttings, and on the right, the little clump. Both patients doing well.

To take the cuttings I chose older, harder, woody stems (ie, not the soft tips) and took heaps of them, poking them into light seed-raising mix (ie, sandy potting mix) to make a mini forest. Then I made a wire frame from a coathanger, gave everything a really good misting with a sprayer and popped a freezer bag over the top. As well as doing thyme I also took cuttings of rosemary (doing fine now) and sage (total dud).

After they spent about four weeks in a brightly lit but shaded spot under my covered pergola, I tugged on one or two thyme cuttings and discovered they had formed roots. So I removed the plastic tent and have let them grow on, progressively giving them a bit more sunshine each week by moving the pots into a better spot. They also received a light feed of seaweed solution to help them get growing. This little pot is doing really well now, and all it needs is a bow tied around it to make it a nice gift.

Back in late March this is the unimpressive appearance of the dug-up clump. All the action here is under the soil. There's quite a good batch of roots down there, but not that much action above-ground. This went straight out onto the path, across the way from the mother lode of thyme which has been thriving here for years. The little pot has been watered more often than I'd usually water thyme, and I've given it a few seaweed treatments, too.

While it's not quite as spectacular as the little forest of cuttings, it's just as healthy and happy, so it will settle in well to its new home, too. It'll need a new, bigger, wider pot very soon if it doesn't go in the ground.

Here's the 'Mother Lode' this morning, a wonderfully healthy, easy-care plant. About two-thirds of the plant is on the paving, the other third in the soil adjacent to the path. That seems to be the trick with thyme. Plant it next to paths or rocks and let it grow towards the sun, across the hot, dry paths/rocks. I hardly ever water it or feed it. But I do use it all the time in cooking, so that regular trimming helps to keep it dense. So, my tip, if you don't use thyme that often in cooking, but like the idea of growing some for occasional use, is to pretend that you really do use it all the time, and just gratuitously cut off a bit here and there every couple of days. Right now, the time isn't in flower, but it's nice when it does come into bloom, so I thought I'd finish off talking about thyme when it's at its prettiest.

Early summer is thyme flowering time. This was taken on December 12.

The flowers are pink, dainty and very tiny. They're lovely in that secret-world way of the many pretty, tiny things that a lot of people don't notice simply because they're small.

The appealing thing about growing stuff from cuttings, or by dividing clumps, is that you're making an exact copy of the parent plant – or, as the tabloid newspapers would call it if they ever found out about gardeners' amazing science secrets, a "clone". I've been lucky with my thyme, sage and rosemary plants in particular, as each seems to be a remarkably fragrant, healthy and vigorous thing. So I figure that Charles Darwin would approve of my desire to transplant those excellent genes into as many other gardens as possible, seeing the fittest herbs surviving and thriving.


Helen/patientgardener said...

I'm about to try growing Thyme from seed - thought it would be interesting to see how easy it is.
I found that Sage takes better as a cutting if you do it in spring rather than towards the end of summer

charlotte said...

I am soon to plant a whole new herb garden - love the tip about planting thyme close to the edge, which will also give me more room in the bed for other stuff. Patientgardener, can you report back soon about your thyme from seed? In about a month I shall be making a decision to go with seed vs cutting vs new bought plant ...

Priscilla George said...

Your thyme is a forest. I love thyme and it has to be my favorite herb to work with at work .When i propagate thyme is 3 cuttings per cell or a tray of 128. We don't take the woody cutting though just the green new growth but it has to be thick and not thin little pieces. Your method is unique but it worked great. Hope your friend has good luck with their thyme!

Jamie said...

Helen: good luck with the seeds. I'll drop by to your blog (as I routinely do anyway) and I look forward to seeing a little bit of thymely, seedy success in a month or two.

Charlotte: with the herb garden, get the soil ready over the next two or so months (ie, dig it over well and get rid of weeds, add some compost while you're at it), then plant it all out in late August. Seedlings are easy and fast. You'll only need one each of plants such as thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary. There are lots of thymes, but I reckon common thyme has the really versatile flavour. And don't buy basil now. It's a summer herb and it'll die off in winter. But coriander does well in winter, but it's hopeless in summer. Parsley is good now – and it's actually best to grow from seed, by the way.
If you want any Q&A tips while you're doing it, email me at

Vanillalotus: I think the reason it all worked well is the season. We usually have lovely warm autumns (ie, fall) here in Sydney (it's Sydney's nicest season, as far as I am concerned) and thyme, being a Mediterranean plant, tends not to grow much in summer – it just survives the heat. Then, when the temperatures drop it really gets on with growing again. So I think I picked the right time of year to do it.

Green thumb said...

I have been hooked to the western cookery shows - like 'Nigella feasts' - but the problem always has been the non availability of fresh herbs which are so generously used in the recipes. Here in India we have different varieties, similar to rosemary, thyme etc but slightly different in taste and flavor. After reading this post I feel motivated to try to grow them.

Jodie said...

Thanks for the great info on growing thyme from cuttings!!! I too have a mother plant that I've been thinking of propagating, your post has given the confidence to go ahead and give it a go...

Take Care
Jodie :)

sowing the seeds said...

That is one beautiful thyme plant you are growing :) I love it too and use it in many dishes. The fresh aroma is hard to beat.

Unknown said...

Love your blog

benjamin said...

oh no. i just planted a few cuttings today. just a little bit different from what you've said. instead of cutting that woody part, i cut the green part. thou its not the tip. i choose a place where the stem started turning brown. do you think it's going to pull through?
pls help.

Jamie said...

I'm not sure how that will go, you can only try. One trick with cuttings is to plant lots of them. All you need is one of them to strike and grow and with just one plant you'll have all the thyme you'll need in the kitchen.
If the soft-tip cuttings wilt quickly, which I suspect they might, go and take some more cuttings, but this time take older, woodier cuttings.
Hope this helps.