How to Grow and Care for Creeping Thyme
David Beaulieu is a landscaping expert and plant photographer, with 20 years of experience.
Updated on 05/19/22
Barbara Gillette is a master gardener, herbalist, beekeeper, and journalist. She has 30 years of experience propagating and growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals.
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The common name "creeping thyme" can refer to one of several woody-stemmed perennial species of the Thymus genus that are good groundcovers for sunny areas. While not all types are grown as herbs, they are in the mint family and have a pleasant scent; most can be used for cooking. It is closely related to the well-known edible herb. Most thyme plants are perennial in moderate climates. While some thyme species are upright and shrub-like, creeping types are low-growing with a vine-like habit. They are principally grown for the fine texture of their pointed blue-green leaves as they spread out to softly blanket the ground, but they also produce flowers of various colors, depending on the type. On mature plants, flowers usually appear in late spring and early summer.
Plant creeping thyme from seeds or potted nursery starts in the spring. In its first year, it’s a slow-to-moderate grower, but once it’s established, it will spread quicker in subsequent years.
Creeping thyme is native to the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe, and is therefore a sun-loving plant that needs full sun (at least six hours daily) to thrive.
An essential element to soil success with thyme is drainage. It doesn’t like wet feet, so make sure the soil drains well. It loves loose, sandy, rocky soil, and even loam if it drains well. It does not do well in wet clay.
One issue with using fast-draining soils is that it is easy for the plant to dry out if you’re not paying attention. Do not let creeping thyme get parched, especially when it’s a young plant. For the most part, thyme planted in the ground or maintained at a steady, non-sweltering temperature should only need watering every 10 days; however, potted thyme outdoors in blazing hot temperatures will need watering once daily. You want the roots to be moist, but they should not be sitting in standing water.
Temperature and Humidity
There are creeping thyme species appropriate for zones 2 to 9, though each species has its own recommended hardiness range. As a general rule, thyme plants don’t like humidity. If you live in a humid area and your plant is losing leaves, or if the foliage is looking rough, trim off the affected stems and improve air circulation. Also, add sand or gravel around the plant’s base to prevent contact with moist soil. Affected plants should revive when the weather turns cooler and drier.
Creeping thyme growing in well-prepared soil shouldn’t need to be fed. If the soil is poor, you can compensate by providing a delayed-release fertilizer once at the beginning of each growing season. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions.
Types of Creeping Thyme
English thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the best-known thyme variety—it’s also called common thyme or garden thyme, and is typically grown as a culinary herb. However, several types of creeping thyme are low to the ground and spread efficiently.
- Spicy orange creeping thyme (Thymus ‘Spicy Orange’) has pink flowers and grows 2 to 4 inches tall; it is hardy in zones 5 to 9.
- White creeping thyme (Thymus paocos ‘Albiflorus’) has white flowers and grows 1 to 2 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide. It is hardy in zones 2 to 9.
- Red creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Coccineus’) has pink flowers. It grows 3 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide and is hardy in zones 4 to 9.
- Wooly (or woolly) thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) has pale pink flowers. It grows 3 inches tall and 3 to 12 inches wide, and is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
Repeated pruning is the most burdensome garden task if you want to grow creeping thyme successfully.
Prune back creeping thyme stems in the early spring to prepare the plant for the growing season ahead. Prune again after the flowers die back, usually by the end of summer. In late fall, after the first frost, prune the leggiest, woodiest stems by half. This pruning encourages vigorous, young growth in the spring.
Propagating Creeping Thyme
Thyme is a prolific grower; it self-seeds and likes to spread. Dividing thyme and taking stem cuttings gives your older plant a new lease on life, encouraging new growth. You can propagate creeping thyme via three methods: division, stem cuttings, and seeds. The best time to divide or take cuttings is in the late spring or early summer.
To propagate via division, you will need a sterilized sharp knife or spade. If you are planting into a new container, make sure the pot is clean and has well-draining soil. Use a pot with at least 3 inches of growing room on all sides and below the plant. Water the plant well before you divide it.
- Remove the root ball from the container, or if you are removing the plant from the ground, dig around the plant in a circle, about 3 to 4 inches from the center of the plant.
- To divide, cut through the middle of the plant, keeping the roots intact as much as possible. You can make multiple cuts as long as your plant has healthy roots. If you have old soil around your plant’s roots, you can tap or shake it off.
- Put soil at the bottom of the pot and center the plant in the middle. The plant should have the same soil line as before. Add soil around all sides of the root ball. The packed soil should keep the plant upright. Add water until you see water run out the bottom. The soil should not appear soggy. Place it in a sunny location.
By Stem Cuttings
To propagate via stem cutting, you will need a healthy, non-flowering stem with new leaf growth on it, sterilized scissors or pruners, rooting hormone, fresh well-draining potting mix, and a clean pot.
- Cut the stem anywhere, giving you a piece that is 4 to 6 inches long. Remove the bottom 2 inches of leaves.
- Apply rooting hormone to the cut end of the stem, then plant the stem cutting in the center of a small container filled with fresh potting mix. Place the plant in a sunny spot. Water it and keep the soil consistently moist but not soggy.
- When new growth is apparent, the plant can be transplanted into the garden, if you wish.
How to Grow Creeping Thyme From Seed
You can start thyme from seed indoors in a small growing tray before the final frost, using a quality seed starting mix. Plant seeds on the surface of the mix with a bare covering of additional mix. (These seeds need light to germinate.) Keep the water evenly moist in a warm, bright spot about 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. To moisten the top of the soil, use a spray bottle. The seeds should germinate within 14 to 21 days. Once the seedlings have 3 to 4 inches of growth, you can transplant them into a new container or plant them in the ground once the threat of frost has passed.
Potting and Repotting Creeping Thyme
If you are transplanting thyme, give them room to spread by planting just one specimen per pot. If you have containers that are several feet long (such as window boxes), you can plant them about 1 foot apart. The best containers are porous—such as clay or terracotta—but any container will do as long as it has ample drainage holes.
Once the plant grows too big for the container, remove the root ball and divide it. You can replant the smaller division back into the container it was in, giving it fresh potting mix. The remaining division can go into a similar container with fresh potting mix or into the garden, making way for fresh growth.
In zones where winters are cold, thyme is semi-evergreen, which means it will remain mostly green and keep its leaves, but may die back some and some branches may die. The best way to protect plants in colder USDA zones is by giving them a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch after the cold weather has set in. Apply it on a day that has hit a freezing temperature. It will keep the soil at a consistent temperature and give the plant a better chance of surviving a rollercoaster of warming and cooling temperatures that can harm a plant.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
In hot, dry summer conditions, spider mites can be a problem with creeping thyme plants. Insecitidal soap is an effective treatment for these pests. On indoor plants, both spider mites and aphids are possible, again treatable with insecticidal soap.
Creeping thyme is susceptible to root rot in wet, dense soils. Affected plants will need to be removed.
How to Get Creeping Thyme to Bloom
Flowering creeping thyme is very attractive to bees, and pollen from blooming thyme often flavors the resulting honey. The tiny leaves are aromatic, as are the flowers, which have a balsamic or citrus scent similar to the leaves. Depending on the variety, flowers can be white, pink, or purple.
You do not have to deadhead thyme flowers. And, unlike other flowering herbs, if this plant develops flowers, its leaves will not lose their flavor. The flowers are edible too.
It blooms in spring or summer for about three to four weeks. Most thyme plants do not flower in their first growing season. If your plant is established and not flowering, you can try a diluted, half-strength liquid fertilizer. Thyme doesn’t usually need enriched soil, but it may be the boost the plant needs to encourage flower production.
To keep your thyme blooming year after year, pruning your oldest, woodiest stems at the end of the growing season will encourage new growth and flowers in the spring.
Common Problems With Creeping Thyme
Creeping thyme has relatively few care needs. It’s resilient against diseases and pests and is only susceptible to a few issues.
As thyme ages and grows late in the season, it may start to get spindly and leggy. Pruning woody herbs at the end of the season is the best way to encourage new growth in the coming season. It simply requires some attention at the end of the fall season after the first frost or in early spring. Wait to prune after the plant’s first growing season. Cutting is better than pulling out dead, woody stems since you run the risk of pulling out healthy new growth.
Drooping Stems With Yellowing, Browning Leaves
A thyme plant that gets too much water has poorly draining soil, not enough drainage holes, or is exposed to too much humidity can get yellowing or browning leaves. Decrease your watering schedule and check to see that your soil is fast-draining and there are ample holes for the water drain. Fix these parameters, and your plant may rebound if caught before the plant develops full-blown root rot, a common disease when the soil is too soggy for the roots.
If you pull your plant out of the pot and notice black, rotting roots, use sterilized scissors or pruners to snip away the dead roots. Replant the healthy roots in a clean pot with fresh, well-draining soil. Also, excess nitrogen in the soil can cause a thyme plant to grow leggy, wilt, or get yellowing leaves. Steer clear of fertilizers that have a high nitrogen content.
Plant Dries Out
Thyme lives about four or five years at most, so if your plant starts to turn brown and looks like it’s drying out and dying, it may be reaching the end of its life. Other causes can be severe frost, a lack of sun, or a fungal disease like root rot. If a harsh winter left stems looking dead, cut them back in the early spring, and the plant may rebound on its own. This sun-loving plant needs at least 6 hours of direct sun to be happy; make sure it’s situated appropriately.
How is this plant used in the landscape?
Creeping thyme is best used as a groundcover for small areas or to fill in spaces between stepping stones in sunny areas. It can be used to fill in crevices in retaining walls, and can also be grown in containers.
How long can creeping thyme live?
If you’re growing creeping thyme in a pot, the original plant usually has a life span of about three to five years. However, it’s a prolific plant and self-seeder. After a few years, it may look woody and spindly, so you could decide to cut back its woody stems. Commonly, you’ll find baby sprouts underneath.
Can creeping thyme grow indoors?
Creeping thyme can grow indoors as long as you have a very bright window that gets at least six hours of direct sun streaming in; either that or a grow light should do.
What plants are similar to creeping thyme?
Sedum requieni, also known as miniature stonecrop, is a small-leaved, low-growing filler or groundcover that often gets confused for thyme. You can immediately tell the difference between the two by breaking off a piece and smelling the leaves; stonecrop is not fragrant.
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- Thymus serpyllum. Missouri Botanical Garden.