Thyme in your herb garden adds a subtle seasoning in your kitchen

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

To add unique flavor -- that subtle extra touch of seasoning -- to a variety of dishes, remember to cultivate pungent-tasting thyme in your herb garden.

This shrublike perennial, one of the four most popular herbs for the home garden, can be grown outdoors in the summer or on a sunny kitchen windowsill during cold months. Thyme thrives in hot sunshine in rather gravelly soil and seems to benefit from the warmth and improved drainage provided by the rocks in rock gardens, stone pathways, and stone walls.

Thyme can be propagated easily from seed and by cuttings and division.

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A member of the mint family, garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) -- also called English thyme, kitchen thyme, common thyme, or French thyme -- is low-growing and reaches a height of less than 12 inches. Its stems are wiry, and its small, oval leaves are gray-green in color and very aromatic.

The clusters of lilac-colored flowers are most attractive to bees. In fact, throughout history, from ancient Greece to colonial and present-day America, thyme has been prized as a source of honey.

There are more than 50 varieties of thyme lending themselves to intriguing possibilities in landscape design in rock gardens, thyme paths, and even thyme lawns. These include especially the prostrate varieties of creeping thyme or mother-of-thyme (T. serpyllum).

Among them the collector has a fascinating array of leaf colors, scents, and growing habits to choose from: Gold- and silver-leaved thymes; citrusy lemon thyme; fragrant nutmeg thyme, and dainty herbabarona or caraway thyme; woolly thyme; and white-flowering and rose-flowering thyme, to name only a few of the favorites.

Garden or English thyme (T. vulgaris) is the beginner's best bet, however, according to commercial herb grower Sal Gilbertie.

Started from seed sown indoors in very early spring, it can be set out up to a month before your last frost date. Mr. Gilbertie recommends cluster sowing, then setting plants out together in a clump to produce a stronger stand of the herb and quicker harvest of the tiny fragrant leaves than individual plants could produce.

To accomplish this, sow about 20 seeds in a 4-inch clay pot filled with a mixture of loam, sand, peat moss, and perlite, and sift on fine sand to cover.

Mist daily until the seed germinates, which should take less than a week. Then water carefully at the base of the plants when the soil is dry to the touch.

Mr. Gilbertie feeds these slow-growing plants two weeks after germination with fish emulsion or skimmed milk. When the plants are about 4 inches high, they can be sheltered in a sunny outdoor spot several hours daily, then set out in the garden after a week.

Protect the young plants from frost with plastic containers.

Spring is also the best season for dividing established plants and taking stem cuttings. To obtain cuttings, use a clean, sharp knife to slip one- to three-inch pieces from stems having new green -- not old woody -- growth. Insert cuttings in wet sand and keep moist. Roots should form in about two weeks and cuttings will resist gentle tugging at that time.

When new top growth also appears, transplant to small individual pots or into the garden.

Remembering its Mediterranean origins will help you meet the cultural requirements of this deliciously different culinary herb. All thymes thrive in plenty of sunshine; only lemon thyme tolerates partial shade.

A well-drained spot is most important. Avoid a soggy situation for thyme plants where rainwater doesn't run off quickly. Also to be avoided is wetting thyme leaves when watering.A little lime or wood ash is welcome, and common thyme can be side-dressed with bone meal during the growing season.

In the North plants must be mulched with a covering of compost to protect them from deep frost.

Unless you're a beekeeper, you will want to harvest the tiny fragrant leaves before the buds open and bees take over. You can cut back thyme twice during the growing season and dry in a warm, airy place, such as an attic, with the stems tied in bunches.

Or, having so little moisture content, thyme can be dried quickly on trays or screens.

If you want to wash this low-growing plant before drying, be sure to use cool water as warm water draws out the flavorful oils which you're trying to capture.

When the leaves are crisply dry, strip them from the stems and store in clean glass jars, tightly covered, and stored away from strong sunlight. For the freshest flavor in the kitchen, renew thyme supplies each year.

Garden thyme makes an attractive houseplant perched on a warm, sunny kitchen window sill with a southern exposure.

You can bring in a shapely young plant from the garden or start fresh thyme plants for the indoor herb garden from seed. Use cluster sowing in pots buried in the garden six to eight weeks before the first frost, suggests Mr. Gilbertie.

Experts grow this sprawling plant in wide shallow pots indoors, include plenty of lime chips, and keep them trimmed by pinching off the leafy tips regularly.

Experiment with the warm spicy flavor and aroma of thyme in chowders, soups, salads, meat and fish dishes, vegetable and egg dishes, and salads. Remember to add this strong herb with a light touch.

To powder your dried thyme harvest, use a mortar and pestle or blender. Season foods with one-quarter teaspoon of either powdered or dried thyme wherever one teaspoon of fresh herb is called for.

For a gourmet touch, be sure to try the traditional French bouquet garni, or herb bouquet, which adds flavor during cooking and is removed before serving. Tie together three or more sprigs of fresh or dried sweet bay, parsley, thyme, basil, savory, marjoran, lovage, chive, sage, and/or chervil. Or combine powdered herbs in a cheesecloth bag.

So try a pinch of thyme; it's a gourmet's delight.

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