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by Susan
(New Jersey, USA)


Thyme with brown area


Hi Jacki,
What a great site on drought tolerant plants. It seems anything and everything you would want to know is here!

I am hoping you can help me out. I have quite a few Thyme plants. I planted them last year on a slope since I know they are drought tolerant and slopes do well with these types of plants due to water runoff. Also, my slope is hot and sunny.

They did great last year. Some of them started filling in the slope which is just what I wanted…less weeds!

I left them alone in the fall and did not cut them back. Typically I cut my perennials back in either the fall or spring, so I just left them alone. But to my surprise, they stayed semi evergreen during the winter. I am in U.S. Zone 6A.

So when spring came, I was even more perplexed as to what to do. They were already semi green. I didn’t know whether to give them a hair cut or leave them alone. So I took the middle of the road and cut them back somewhat. I left most (not all) of the green foliage and trimmed out much of the dead areas.

They don’t seem to be doing anything. Of course the weather has been crazy…very warm days followed by pretty cold days. Maybe they are confused! I know I am!

So my question to you is what should I do with these tricky little things? Should I cut them back more or leave them alone. And most important, do you think they will turn into the very pretty plants they were last year?

By the way, I am not sure what varieties of Thyme they are. I think the very flat one might be Creeping Thyme. There is one with a gold cast and I am thinking perhaps this is lemon Thyme. I included a photo of one nearby that looks pretty good for this time (no pun intended) of year.

Thanks so much!

Drought Smart Plants reply: Thyme is a tricky thing – even when you plant it in what you think will be the ideal conditions, and I think you have, sometimes they will struggle.

My theory is that they’re one of those plants that spend quite a bit of time wondering if they should just kick the bucket now, or wait a while.

Sometimes, cursing at them helps, at others, simply ignoring them and giving them the cold shoulder is the best course of action.

If they’re just getting established, which yours may be, they could rebound quickly with some judicious irrigation. It’s best not to get them too dependent on watering, as then the tendency is to just make shallow roots. The goal is to get the roots to seek out moisture down in the lower layers of soil.

Keep in mind that thyme typically will take two to three seasons to get really established, so it’s early days yet, if you only planted them last year. Sometimes they seem to stall, but what you can’t see takes place under the ground as the roots spread wide to anchor the plant – you wouldn’t believe how far the roots go, for even a small thyme plant.

That brings me to another question: what sort of container were these in when you planted them?

If they are really root bound when you take the pot off, it’s best to cut a whole lot of the root ball off, to make sure the roots can escape the confines of the shape of the pot. If the roots are strangling each other, then no amount of water will help.

Unfortunately, if this is the case, then digging them up to try and rectify the issue of strangling roots will most likely be the death knell.

I recommend leaving well enough alone, or, if you’re really sure that this has been the issue, take a big knife or machete, or sharp spade, and slice down into the center of the clump, once. This will encourage new roots to break out of the middle.

You can also topdress with some type of sandy soil, to start the top part of the plant putting out more roots from the stems where they’ll be in contact with the soil. In another season, they should be showing signs of growing out of the stress they’re under.

Hope these suggestions get your Thyme under control and back on track!