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

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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.

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.

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