Thyme for an Herb Garden

by Andrea Laine, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

culinary herbs
Culinary herbs, left to right: Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary

Last year at about this time (early May) I bought two very small herb transplants on a whim. I’ve been gardening for decades (mostly in the Northeast U.S.) but rarely ventured into edibles. The closest I’ve come to practicing edible gardening was with basil, an annual, in a container. Two years ago that effort was thwarted thanks to downy mildew. So for me, this whim was a big deal and led to a few pleasant surprises.

The two herbal plants I purchased were Thyme, described as ‘English compact’ and Origanum heracleoticum ‘Greek’, an heirloom oregano. I often cook with dried versions of both. Each needed full sun so I placed them on the southwest side of my house in a roomy landscape bed that lies between the house foundation and the walkway to the front door. Several mature and sculpted azaleas, a Camellia japonica and a young Gardenia ‘crown jewel’ also live in this bed. Herbs seemed a little out of place here in a somewhat formal landscape design, but thanks to an ice storm that remodeled my yard in 2013, this is the sunniest spot on my wooded property. If I were to follow the “right plant, right place” mantra of master gardening, this was the best spot for these herbs. This bed also received a two-inch layer of compost in March 2016.


The plants did really well; more than tripling in width over the hot summer months.  Their growth showed no indication of slowing down and that’s when I learned that these herbs were perennials and winter hardy in Durham. Inspired by their success as well as the enormous rosemary plants I have spotted in many Durham landscapes, I added Rosemary ‘Tuscan blue’ to the bed in fall 2016.  It, too, is growing well, and at the time of this writing is a 12 inch square clump. Knowing that this one can reach upwards of five or six feet tall and wide, I may relocate it. However, it can also be severely pruned.

demoGarden rosemary
A mature rosemary plant at the entrance to Durham County Cooperative Extension office at 721 Foster Street, Durham, NC.

The Oregano has sprawled to 48 inches square and is more than a foot high. The Thyme  is 12 inches high at the center and has made a tidy clump 28” square. In early spring, the thyme was covered with tiny purple flowers. I trimmed these off to reduce flowering and enable the plant to put more energy into root and leaf production.

So, what were the pleasant surprises of my whim-ful foray into herbal gardening?

  • Many herbs are perennial, evergreen and deer-resistant.
  • Tuscan blue Rosemary, English Thyme and Greek Oregano are among the most popular herbs grown for culinary purposes.*
  • Successfully growing herbs was no more difficult than growing ornamental annuals and perennials. Site the plant correctly, pay attention to soil requirements,  and make sure it receives an inch of water weekly.
  • Herbs can make great groundcovers – attractive and competitive, yet far more useful and less menacing than the vinca minor I have growing nearby.

I sense my growing interest in growing edibles!


*Here are links to two easy recipes that feature fresh Thyme and Rosemary and which my family has enjoyed.

Herb-roasted lamb chops:

Pork chops in mushroom cream sauce – low carb:


weedwhacked thyme.JPGNot even an accidental run-in with a weed-whacker has dampened the enthusiasm of this Greek Oregano plant.


Resources and more information

Growing herbs in the south:

Perennial herbs can fill a garden with great scents and taste for years to come. Note these recommendations are for a Midwest climate:

How to help herbs survive a NC winter:

Downy mildew in basil seems here to stay:

The highlights of each herb mentioned in this article: