Thyme is an easy herb to grow, but knowing how to harvest thyme can keep the plants productive and healthy for years to come. A hardy, drought-tolerant perennial herb, thyme is a great choice for growing in garden beds or in pots. In this article, you’ll learn how to harvest thyme for immediate culinary use or for drying.
It’s about thyme
Culinary thyme (known botanically as Thymus vulgaris) flavors dishes such as soups, stews, and sauces. Like basil and parsley, it is among the most popular herbs for home gardeners. A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), thyme is native to the Mediterranean region where it has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for many generations.
If you want to have a good harvest of thyme, you’ll need to ensure the plants are growing in ideal conditions. Thyme plants prefer hot and sunny locations with well-drained soil. Full sun is best. If you have heavy-clay soil, plant thyme at the top of a retaining wall or in another site with good drainage. Perpetually “wet feet” spell death for the plant, particularly in the winter.
Thyme plants are hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9, which means they’ll survive down to -20° F (-29° C). In direct sunlight, their pink to purple blooms appear from spring through early summer, and their fragrant, evergreen foliage is not only tasty, it’s also very attractive in the garden. In shadier conditions, blooming will be reduced, and the stems will be more slender and lanky.
Let’s talk next about the best time to harvest thyme. The timing and techniques are the same regardless of whether you’re growing thyme in a garden bed or in a container.
When to harvest thyme
For the best thyme harvest, proper timing is essential. Since thyme is in a group of plants known as “woody perennials”, it generates woody stem growth (unlike oregano and tarragon, for example, which are “herbaceous perennials” that produce stems that are always green and pliable).
With woody perennial herbs like thyme, properly timing the harvest is important for plant health and longevity. Believe it or not, consistently cutting the plants back (aka harvesting) reduces the formation of woody growth and keeps the plant more productive. That means, of course, that the more you harvest, the more shoots the plants produce! Overgrown thyme plants that become very woody need to be replaced every few years.
With regular harvests throughout the summer, thyme plants stay bushier, more compact, and more productive. I harvest thyme from my plants for drying two times each growing season. Once in mid spring and once in summer (just before they bloom). Occasionally, I will harvest a third time in late August (several weeks after they’ve finished blooming). I don’t harvest more than a few sprigs after August because I want the plant to have time to generate new growth that can harden off before the arrival of fall’s first frost.
It’s important to understand how to harvest a thyme plant because if you remove too much growth at any one time, it will be difficult for the plant to recover, but if you don’t harvest enough, then the plant becomes woody. It’s an important balance.
There are slight differences in how to harvest thyme if you plant to use it fresh versus if you plan to dry it for later use. Let’s talk next about how to harvest thyme for immediate use.
How to harvest thyme if you are using it fresh
If you run to the garden for a few sprigs of thyme to use fresh in a recipe, harvesting is super simple. Just cut off a stem – or a group of stems, depending on how much the recipe calls for.
If your plant’s stems are pliable and green, it doesn’t really matter how far back you cut. You can even go all the way down to the base of the plant and the plant will generate new growth quickly. But if your plant’s growth is woody, cut the stem off just above one of the nodes (the place where a leaf meets the stem). On woody stems, this better encourages the node to regrow.
How to keep the sprigs fresh after harvest is another factor to consider. This isn’t a concern if you use it immediately, but if you want to keep your harvested thyme for a few days before use, here’s what to do. Put your fresh thyme in a closed paper bag, where the humidity is higher, and stick it in the fridge. It will stay fresh for up to two weeks. You can also put the base of the cut stems into a cup of water on the counter. Another option is to wrap the stems in a damp paper towel and put it in a plastic bag in the fridge.
When you’re ready to use the thyme, rinse off the stems and leaves and pat them dry with a paper towel. Strip the leaves from the stems and use them in your recipe. Toss the stems in the compost pile.
How to harvest thyme for drying
If you’re going to dry thyme for later use, knowing how to harvest thyme is much more important. As mentioned earlier, if you harvest too much at any one time, the plants could suffer.
First, choose a dry day for the harvest. This ensures the essential oils in your thyme are at their peak and the foliage is dry and won’t develop mold. Next, decide how you are going to dry your thyme harvest. Are you going to hang to dry or are you going to dry the thyme in the oven or a dehydrator?
- If you are going to hang them dry, here’s what to do:
Use a pair of garden shears or an herb scissors to remove small bunches of thyme stems. I bundle mine immediately, using rubber bands I keep around my wrist as I harvest (watch the video below to see how I do it). Each bundle contains about 15-25 shoots of thyme.
- If you are going to dry your thyme in an oven or dehydrator, here’s what to do:
Snip off the stems and drop them loosely into a basket. There’s no need to bundle them or keep them organized.
How much thyme can you harvest at once?
When you harvest large amounts of thyme for drying, never harvest more than one-half of the plant’s total height. Always leave some green shoots and foliage on the plant to keep the plant photosynthesizing and generating new growth. In other words, never cut stems all the way down to bare wood (the same can be said for other woody herbs like rosemary).
The best way to dry thyme
There are three main ways to dry thyme leaves.
- Food dehydrator. Lay unwashed sprigs out in a single layer on a dehydrator tray. Follow manufacturers guidelines for drying times. Once dry, strip the leaves from the stems. (Here’s my favorite dehydrator for drying herbs)
- Oven drying. Strip the leaves from the stems using an herb stripper. Place the leaves in a single layer on a baking tray. Turn the oven on to 200°F and put the tray onto a middle shelf. Shuffle the leaves around every 15-20 minutes to gauge how dry they are. When they’re crispy and they break into pieces when rubbed between your thumb and forefinger, they’re fully dry. In my oven, this takes about 30-45 minutes. You can oven-dry thyme while the leaves are still on the stems, too, though be aware this will require more drying time.
- Hang drying. Hang your small thyme bundles on a drying rack or something similar (I use a curtain rod). Be sure the bundles don’t touch and keep them out of direct sunlight. Depending on the humidity of the room, the thyme will be dry in 3 to 4 weeks. Strip the leaves from the stems using your hands or an herb stripper and store for later use. Toss the stems in the compost pile.
One other way to preserve thyme for later use is by freezing it. It’s a great form of long-term storage that does not affect the flavor of thyme. It does, however, make the leaves darker than drying which some cooks don’t like. Place the freshly harvested sprigs in a plastic bag or a zipper-top freezer bag. Remove all the air and store in the freezer.
Watch me make my thyme harvest in this video:
Is harvesting thyme the same as pruning thyme?
Harvesting thyme is indeed a form of plant pruning. However, if you don’t make regular harvests, you will have to otherwise prune your thyme plants to keep them from getting too woody.
In mid-summer, just after the plants flower, prune off one-third to one-half of the total plant growth, shearing each stem back to a leaf node. This generates a new flush of growth and maintains a denser growth habit.
Time to plant more thyme
There are so many different varieties of thyme to grow. Lemon thyme is a favorite for kitchen use, but there are also ornamental varieties, like woolly thyme, that are grown primarily for their good looks. When purchasing a thyme plant for kitchen use, be sure the variety you select is noted as having good flavor.
Thyme is a great companion plant for tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, and eggplants, where it can grow around the base of these taller plants and act as a living mulch to help control weeds. An added bonus: thyme has been shown to help deter the egg-laying behaviors of the yellow-striped armyworms that enjoy feeding on tomatoes.
Now that you know how to harvest thyme and when to tackle the task, I hope you’ll enjoy experimenting with other delicious herbs. See more of our herb-growing guides here:
- Harvesting chives
- Success with sage
- How to grow rosemary
- Dill-growing tips
- How to harvest and dry oregano
- Planting cilantro
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