Photo: Oxmoor House
SEASON: Spring through fall
CHOOSING: Sold in little bundles of stems with the small leaves attached, thyme should appear fresh, not wilted. It is normal for some types to be gray, but yellowed or shedding leaves indicate the bunch is past its prime.
STORING: Place freshly cut thyme in a plastic produce bag in the refrigerator, preferably not in the vegetable bin.
GROWING: Remarkably easy to grow and versatile in the garden, thyme can be tucked into corners, planted between stones, or set on the front edge of a flower or vegetable bed.
Dozens of varieties are available, but those interested in the best culinary thymes have only a handful of choices. Those best for flavor, as well as ease of use, are the low-growing, shrubby ones known as English, French, lemon, or winter thyme. The sturdier stems and small, flavorful leaves make it easy to strip the leaves from the cut stems by holding the tip of the stem between the thumb and forefinger of one hand, and then sliding the thumb and forefinger of the other hand down the stem, raking off the leaves.
The creeping thyme varieties are remarkable as landscape plants, as well as container plants. However, they are not as easy to harvest because the tender stem tends to break as the leaves are stripped. With a little patience, both cook and gardener will be pleased with these mat-forming perennials.
Give thyme full sun, or even partial shade in hot climates. It enjoys moist, rich soil, and is remarkably drought-tolerant once established. Well-drained soil is a must; the roots will rot in soggy ground. After severe winters, a little pruning is needed to remove dead stems and encourage new growth. As with most herbs, regular snipping during the growing season improves the plant.