Creeping thyme is one of those ‘must have’ plants you see in glossy lifestyle magazines, with soft pink floral carpets cascading over cottage garden walls or sprawling across a gravel garden overlooking the ocean, creating an altogether dreamy and aspirational ambiance. Good news! It’s very easy to recreate this look at home. Read on to discover how to create your own little slice of flowering creeping thyme heaven that spreads quickly through your front yard.
This aromatic herb, although edible, is used mainly as a garden landscape tool or as a ground cover, filling gaps between stepping stones and crevices in dry-stone walls. It can even be used as an alternative to a grass lawn, growing only a few inches tall, able to withstand moderate foot traffic, and providing a spectacular vision of pink when in bloom.
There are many benefits to growing the green leaves and sometimes white flowers of creeping thyme in your garden. Low maintenance growing and including an excellent aromatic ground cover are some of the benefits. Both the flowers and leaves are edible, and unlike many other herbs, creeping thyme plants do not lose their flavor when in bloom and when the flowers die. Creeping thyme is also a magnet for pollinating insects, especially bees and butterflies, which adds delicious flavor to the resulting honey.
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Quick Care Guide
Creeping thyme can be a very effective groundcover option. Source: Rachel Ford James
|Common Name(s)||Creeping thyme, mother of thyme, wild thyme|
|Scientific Name||Thymus praecox, Thymus serpyllum|
|Days to Harvest||90-180 days|
|Water||Every 10-14 days. Drought tolerant|
|Fertilizer||Balanced liquid fertilizer|
|Pests||Aphids, spider mites|
|Diseases||Grey mold, root rot|
All About Creeping Thyme
When flowering, creeping thyme develops a pink to purple mat across its foliage. Source: pellaea
There are two key varieties of thyme with a low growing habit that gives rise to the common name ‘creeping thyme’: Thymus praecox, also known as the mother of thyme, and Thymus serpyllum, commonly referred to as wild thyme. There’s plenty of coverage no matter which thyme variety is chosen. The thymus genus is part of the mint family, Lamiaceae, and originates from southern Europe and Asia.
Creeping thyme is a short-lived woody perennial covered in foliage, lasting around 3 to 5 years before becoming unproductive and spindly. It has a sprawling growth habit growing to 3-4 inches tall above the ground (7-10 cm) and 6-18 inches (15-46 cm) spread. First-year growth is slow, but once established, blooming thyme will reach maximum spread in around 3 years.
The grey/green tiny oval-shaped leaves are slightly hairy and highly aromatic. Tender new stems have the best flavor and strongest aroma. Flowers that butterflies love appear as clusters of small red/purple, white flowers, and pink or pale pink flowers at the end of stems in late spring and mid-summer. The green leaves can be used to flavor cooked food such as soups, casseroles, and stews and the flowers can be added as a garnish to salads to add color and interest. Thymus praecox – or red creeping thyme – grows slightly taller (4 in) than Thymus serpyllum (2.5 in) and has deep, rich red/purple flowers. Most other thyme, including wild thyme, have white to bright pink flowers.
Creeping thyme smells wonderful and is a ground cover that spreads through rhizomes growing across the soil surface. This, together with its dense growing habit, out-competes and smother weeds making it a good alternative to a grass lawn, especially when you plant starts in staggered rows. It is also non-toxic, making it safe for the whole family, including pets.
Planting Creeping Thyme
Growing these thymes is easy. They can be started indoors by planting seeds and then transplanted outside in late spring or early summer. It can also be divided from a mature plant or grown using shop-bought garden-ready stock. If you want to create a creeping thyme lawn, then your best and most economical option is to plant seeds.
Start seeds indoors in early spring for planting out after all risk of frost has passed. Measure the growing space and calculate the number of creeping thyme plants you’ll need to cover this area based on the ultimate plant spread, which is 6 to 18 inches (15-46 cm) each way, depending on the variety. If you want to achieve full coverage sooner, then space plants more densely. It’s also a good idea to sow seeds for transplants each year to fill any gaps.
Large healthy plants can be divided in spring or fall and planted into new garden locations or shared with friends and neighbors. Plant creeping thyme in a warm, sheltered sunny spot with well-draining soil. If you’re growing in containers, add at least 30% horticultural grit or sand to the compost mix to help with drainage. Thyme does not like to have wet feet! If your soil is heavy, add in lots of organic matter to lighten the soil.
Many creeping thyme variants have a mounding growth habit. Source: YorkRegionGovt
Once established, creeping thyme is very low maintenance. Here are some tips on growing creeping thyme to keep yours looking good all year round.
Sun and Temperature
Creeping thyme likes to grow in full sun with a minimum of 6hrs direct sunlight per day. This excellent ground cover is hardy in USDA zones 4-9, although frost protection may be necessary for colder areas. This includes white creeping thyme too. A deep mulch of chipped bark around the base of the plant will protect the roots from freezing over winter.
Water and Humidity
A young plant should have a regular watering schedule in its first year to help roots establish. Established plantings should be watered once every 10-14 days to keep this drought-tolerant plant in tip-top condition. Don’t leave creeping thyme dehydrated for too long, as these dense mats may not recover if they dry out too much. Water deeply using a watering can or hose with water directed at the soil. Don’t over-water, especially in the cooler months, as wet roots can lead to rot and death of the plant. No watering is required over winter unless you’re living in very hot climates. Water container-grown creeping thyme when the pots are completely dry.
When you’re growing creeping thyme, the soil should be well-drained, light, not overly fertile, and preferably slightly alkaline. A rock garden or rocky soil is an excellent place for this plant. Adequate drainage is vital, especially when you’re growing in pots. Aim for a 30:70 mix of compost and drainage materials like grit or perlite to ensure water can drain away from roots quickly. Place bricks or pot feet under containers to help with drainage. Creeping thyme will grow happily in poor soil such as rock walls and rock gardens.
Typically, thyme does not require regular fertilizer. In fact, nitrogen-rich fertilizers will produce leggy weak plants. A fall or spring mulch should retain moisture and keep plants growing throughout the year, or use a balanced liquid or delayed-release fertilizer in spring to grow creeping thyme ground cover lawns. Fish fertilizer applied directly to the ground cover works well too.
Pruning is essential to growing creeping time. It stimulates new growth to maintain healthy plants, although try not to overly prune in the first year to allow time for plants to establish. In subsequent years prune in late fall or early spring to take out any weak, spindly growth. Prune again to remove spent flowers in mid to late summer. It’s best to use hand or electric shears to give a nice even finish to ground cover carpets of creeping thyme. For lawns, set the mower blades to a minimum height of 3 inches. Any lower and you risk cutting into the old wood that may not rejuvenate.
Thyme can be propagated from seed, stem cuttings dipped in rooting hormone, division, and layering, but due to the low growing habit of creeping thyme, the best propagation methods are from seed and division. Creeping thyme does not produce long enough stems to take successful cuttings without cutting into old wood, and creeping thymes will naturally layer without any assistance.
Begin growing creeping thyme seeds indoors in early spring for planting out after the last frost has passed. Sow a few seeds into small pots filled with general-purpose soil, cover lightly, water, and leave by a warm, bright window. Germination can take up to 28 days and is often inconsistent, so patience is required at this point. Thin emerging seedlings to the 2 or 3 strongest and grow on until they are ready to be planted out as ground cover.
To divide your creeping thyme, pick a nice, healthy plant with lots of stems growing from the base. A one- to two-year-old plant works best and will live longer than older specimens. Dig up the entire plant, being careful not to damage the root ball. Gently tear or cut the plant in as many pieces as you require making sure that each piece has adequate roots attached. Plant each new piece into its new growing position between stepping stones or as a ground cover, and water well.
A shot looking straight down into creeping thyme. Source: jeremylukehill
Harvesting and Storing
Although creeping thyme is used more for ornamental purposes, the leaves and flowers can be eaten, so it would be a shame to waste those prunings!
Creeping thyme can be harvested as and when needed throughout the growing season. Be careful not to over-exhaust the plant by cutting into the woody stems. Simply snip off the fresh growth with a pair of scissors. Wash the foliage gently with cold water to retain as much of the essential oils and flavor as possible.
Freshly picked thyme can be stored in the refrigerator wrapped in damp kitchen paper or in a zip lock bag for a week to 10 days. Sprigs of fresh thyme can be frozen individually on a tray, and once frozen put into a freezer bag and used to flavor soups and stews.
Stems can be laid flat on a mesh tray to dry in a dark, warm, well-ventilated room to dry. This can take a few weeks. Once they’re completely dried, crumble the herbs and store them in an airtight container for up to 18 months.
The creeping tendency of Thymus serpyllum can extend out onto concrete or pavers. Source: Krista76
Creeping thyme is relatively pest and disease-free, but like most plants, there are one or two things to look out for, which we have covered below.
Many people love creeping thyme because it smells wonderful, it has resistance to damage from foot traffic, and it has lovely early summer blooms. But one of the issues people have when growing creeping thyme is a lack of flowers. This can be attributed to timing, as the blooming season may not have arrived. It could also relate to the fact that almost every thyme variety (even common thyme) blooms take a couple of years to appear.
Aphids (Aphidoidea) attack the young new growth on creeping thyme resulting in distorted leaves and stems. They can be treated biologically through the release of beneficial insects that feed on them, such as ladybug larvae (cococinella septempunctata). Alternately, spray with a good organic insecticidal soap or neem oil. Squishing aphids with fingers or a quick blast of water can help reduce numbers.
Spider mites (Tetranychidae) are tiny reddish brown arachnids that live in large colonies on the underside of leaves. They thrive in hot, dry environments, similar to the preferred growing conditions of creeping thyme. Evidence on plants can be seen as a fine webbing between stems and a rapid decline in plant health. Avoid spraying with pesticides as these mites have built up a resistance to many products on the market. Chemicals can also kill natural predators such as lacewings and ladybugs. Remove and destroy the worst affected stems and entire plants if necessary to prevent further spread. Similar to aphids, a quick blast of water can help reduce numbers.
Grey mold, also known as Botrytis cinerea, is an airborne disease that can affect any part of the plant during mild, damp weather. Symptoms include wilting stems, brown leaves, and grey/brown fur on both stems and leaves. Remove and destroy affected plants to prevent further spread. Good plant husbandry can help in the prevention of botrytis, such as handling plants with care when harvesting, clearing away leaves or other decaying debris around plants, watering only when necessary, and providing adequate spacing to allow good air circulation.
Root rot, also known as Rhizoctonia, is a fungus caused by too much watering, poor drainage, and high humidity. It mainly affects plants in the cooler months of spring and winter when they may be sitting for long periods with waterlogged roots. A new plant is especially susceptible. The first signs of the disease are a lack of vigor, followed by wilting stems and yellowing leaves. With the first signs of root rot, stop watering and allow the soil to completely dry out, and remove any mulches that could prevent excess water from evaporating. Where a plant is badly affected, carefully dig it up and inspect the roots. Cut back any roots that appear mushy or brown to a healthy point. Replant it in a new position, with good drainage, or if grown in a pot, a new pot with new soil. If most of the roots are affected, it’s best to destroy the plant. Discard any infected soil from pots and treat affected areas with an organic copper-based fungicide. Disinfect all tools to avoid transmitting the disease elsewhere in the garden.
Frequently Asked Questions
Thymus serpyllum develops beautiful, but small flower heads. Source: conall
Q: How quickly does creeping thyme spread?
A: Plants are slow to grow in their first year but spread quickly once established, reaching a maximum spread of approximately 18 inches within 3 years.
Q: Does creeping thyme come back every year?
A: Creeping thyme is an evergreen, short-lived perennial lasting approximately 3 to 5 years when grown in suitable conditions.
Q: Is creeping thyme invasive?
A: Creeping thyme is not an invasive plant. Self-seeding varieties are easily managed, and mature plants only spread to around 18 inches across.
Q: Does creeping thyme like sun or shade?
A: As a plant of southern European/Mediterranean origin, all thyme plants prefer to grow in full sun but will tolerate partial shade.
Q: Is creeping thyme toxic to dogs?
A: Creeping thyme is perfectly safe for all pets.
Q: Will creeping thyme take over grass?
A: Although it’s a slow-growing plant, creeping thyme will out-compete other plants like grass and weeds.
Q: Does creeping thyme grow in the shade?
A: Plants require a minimum of 6hrs direct sunlight, so they will tolerate partial shade.
Q: Does creeping thyme repel mosquitos?
A: All thymes are believed to repel mosquitos, especially lemon-scented varieties.
Q: Is creeping thyme edible?
A: Both the leaves and flowers of creeping thyme are edible.
Q: Does creeping thyme need water?
A: All thyme plants are drought-tolerant, but don’t leave them dehydrated for too long as this can damage the health of the plant.
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