How to Grow Lemon Balm

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Discover the joy of growing lemon balm in your garden. Learn how to plant, care for, harvest, and preserve this versatile herb.

A lemon balm plant in a container.

Are you craving a garden herb that can bring a burst of zesty goodness to your culinary creations and provide a refreshing twist to your herbal teas? Look no further than lemon balm!

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take you through the process of growing lemon balm from seeds, transplants, or cuttings, and we’ll equip you with the knowledge to care for these vibrant plants and keep them thriving. We’ll also explore how to control its invasive tendencies, ensuring that lemon balm enhances your garden without overpowering it.

But that’s not all! We’ll delve into the art of harvesting, preserving, and ways to use lemon balm. Discover the best techniques to gather and store its leaves, allowing you to enjoy the flavors and aromas of this remarkable herb long after the growing season has passed. We’ll even share creative ways to incorporate lemon balm into your culinary recipes and as a soothing herbal tea.

Whether you envision a lemon balm oasis in your vegetable garden, herb garden, or containers, this guide has got you covered. Let’s dive in together and unlock the full potential of this vibrant herb.

About Lemon Balm

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a delightful perennial herb renowned for its refreshing fragrance, culinary versatility, and soothing properties. Lemon balm, which is part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), has some similarities to its fragrant relatives. With its vibrant lemony scent and attractive green leaves, lemon balm is popular among gardeners and herb enthusiasts.

Originating in the Mediterranean region, particularly in areas such as Greece and Italy, lemon balm has a rich history that spans centuries. The herb’s Latin name, Melissa officinalis, is derived from the Greek word “melissa,” which means “bee,” and officinalis, meaning “used in medicine.” This name perfectly encapsulates one of lemon balm’s unique qualities – its ability to attract and nourish pollinators, especially bees. In ancient cultures, lemon balm was often associated with bees and was planted near their hives.

Lemon balm has been treasured for its medicinal properties throughout history. It is widely used in traditional herbal remedies to alleviate various ailments, including digestive issues and headaches. The herb’s leaves are often steeped in hot water to create a calming herbal tea, offering relaxation and a sense of well-being. Some of the notable medicinal properties and benefits of lemon balm include:

  • Calming and Relaxation: Lemon balm has a soothing effect on the nervous system, helping to reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve sleep quality. It is often used to alleviate stress-related symptoms and support overall mental well-being.
  • Digestive Aid: Lemon balm has carminative properties that can help relieve digestive discomfort, including indigestion, bloating, and gas. It is also known to stimulate appetite and support healthy digestion.
  • Anti-inflammatory Effects: Lemon balm contains compounds with anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation and may be beneficial in conditions such as arthritis and other inflammatory disorders. It is often incorporated into lotions and salves and used to relieve symptoms.
  • Antioxidant Properties: Lemon balm is rich in antioxidants, which help protect the body against oxidative stress and damage caused by free radicals. This antioxidant activity contributes to overall health and may have anti-aging effects.

Today, lemon balm continues to enchant gardeners and herbal enthusiasts worldwide. From its culinary uses in salads, teas, and savory dishes to its applications in natural beauty and wellness products, lemon balm has secured its place as a versatile and cherished herb in contemporary times.

Lemon Balm Varieties to Consider Growing

You have a range of enticing varieties when it comes to growing lemon balm. While the growing conditions are the same, each type offers distinct characteristics, from the classic lemon fragrance to unique foliage colors. Here are some popular lemon balm varieties that you can easily grow:

  • Common Lemon Balm: This is the standard variety with bright green leaves and a strong lemon fragrance. It is widely grown for culinary and medicinal purposes. You can buy seeds here: Lemon Balm seeds.
  • Citronella Lemon Balm: This variety is known for its enhanced citrus scent, resembling citronella. It is often used in natural insect repellents and adds a refreshing twist to culinary creations.
  • Variegata Lemon Balm: This cultivar features variegated leaves with green and creamy white edges. It adds visual interest to the garden.
  • Aurea Lemon Balm: This variety has vibrant golden-yellow foliage, making it a striking addition to any garden. It retains the characteristic lemon scent and is suitable for culinary and ornamental purposes.
  • Lemon Frost Lemon Balm: This cultivar has chartreuse leaves with a lemon scent. It is a compact variety, making it suitable for container gardening or smaller garden spaces.
  • All Gold Lemon Balm: This captivating variety stands out with its striking golden foliage. Its leaves are a vibrant yellow color, creating a stunning visual contrast in the garden.

These are just a few examples of lemon balm varieties you can grow. Each type offers its own unique characteristics and can be used in various culinary and herbal applications.

Tips for Growing Lemon Balm

In this section, you will find all the necessary information to begin growing lemon balm. We will guide you through selecting the ideal garden location and choosing the most efficient propagation techniques. Rest assured that we have you covered.

When to Plant Lemon Balm

Plant lemon balm in the spring after all danger of frost has passed, either by transplanting seedlings or sowing seeds. This timing allows the plant to establish itself before the arrival of warmer months.

For an early start, you can begin by starting seeds indoors under lights approximately 6 to 8 weeks before your area’s average last frost date. After the last frost and once the soil has drained and warmed up, you can transplant the seedlings into the garden. This gives them the best chance to thrive and flourish throughout the growing season.

Best Garden Location for Lemon Balm

Lemon balm will grow in a wide variety of conditions but thrives in full sun to partial shade in well-draining soil that is fertile and rich in organic matter.

  • Soil: A loamy soil with a slightly acidic to neutral pH range of 6.0 to 7.5 is ideal. Good drainage is crucial to prevent waterlogging, which can lead to root rot. If your soil is heavy or compacted, you can improve its texture and drainage by incorporating organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure.
  • Sunlight: Lemon balm flourishes when it receives ample sunlight, ideally 6 to 8 hours of direct or filtered sunlight per day. However, it can also tolerate partial shade, especially in regions with intense heat. Providing some afternoon shade in areas with hot summers can help prevent the leaves from wilting or scorching. Finding a balance between sun and shade will promote healthy growth and ensure the plant’s overall well-being.

When selecting a location for your lemon balm, consider these factors to create an optimal environment for the herb to thrive. Providing well-draining soil and appropriate sunlight exposure will set the stage for vigorous growth and flourishing plants.

When choosing a spot in your garden for lemon balm, it’s important to think about its growth patterns. Some types can grow quite tall and spread quickly, which may overcrowd other plants. It’s best to pick a roomy location where lemon balm can expand without disturbing nearby plants.

Starting from Seed Indoors

To get a head start, you can start lemon balm seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before your last predicted frost date. Follow these steps to successfully start lemon balm seeds indoors under lights:

  1. Sow the Seeds: Fill a small container with moist seed starting mix. Then sow a pinch of seeds on the soil surface. Lemon balm seeds require light to germinate, so avoid covering them with soil. Instead, mist with water and gently press the seeds into the soil’s surface for good contact.
  2. Optimize the Environment: Lemon balm seeds need a combination of light, warmth, and moisture for germination. Cover the container with a humidity dome, and place it under grow lights in a warm area with a temperature of around 70 to 75°F (21 to 24°C). Consider using a seedling heat mat to maintain the ideal temperature. Ensure the soil remains evenly moist but not overly saturated by misting it with water as needed.
  3. Germination Period: Lemon balm seeds typically germinate within 10 to 14 days under favorable conditions. Remove the humidity dome once the seeds have sprouted for better air circulation around the seedlings.
  4. Provide Ample Light: Adjust the grow lights to be about 2 inches (5 cm) above the tops of the seedlings. This proximity to light will support healthy growth and prevent the seedlings from becoming leggy.
  5. Thin if Necessary: Once the seedlings develop a second set of leaves, thin them out to provide adequate space for growth. You can do this by carefully cutting the unwanted seedlings at the soil level, allowing the remaining ones to thrive.

Starting lemon balm seeds indoors allows for a head start in the growing process, ensuring strong and healthy plants. For more information on using grow lights and starting seeds indoors, check out the articles “Using Grow Lights for Starting Seeds” and “10 Steps to Start Seeds Indoors.”

Close up of a lemon balm seedlings.

Transplanting Lemon Balm Seedlings

Once the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has passed, your lemon balm seedlings are ready to be transplanted into their permanent garden location. Follow these steps:

  1. Harden Off the Seedlings: Start the hardening off process approximately 7 to 10 days before transplanting. Gradually expose the lemon balm seedlings to outdoor conditions by placing them in a sheltered spot for a few hours each day. Increase the time and exposure to direct sunlight gradually. This helps the seedlings adjust to the outdoor environment.
  2. Prepare the Planting Area: Before transplanting, clear the planting area of any weeds and incorporate 2 to 3 inches of well-rotted compost into the soil. If the soil is dry, water it thoroughly the day before transplanting to ensure adequate moisture for the seedlings.
  3. Choose the Right Time: Select a late afternoon or evening time for transplanting lemon balm seedlings. This allows the seedlings to adjust to their new surroundings without the added stress of direct sunlight. Transplanting during cooler hours also reduces water loss and promotes better establishment.
  4. Dig Planting Holes: Dig holes that are deep and wide enough to accommodate the root system of the seedlings. Space the holes according to the recommended spacing for the variety you are growing, typically around 12 to 18 inches apart.
  5. Transplant with Care: Carefully remove the lemon balm seedlings from their containers or seedling trays, ensuring minimal damage to the roots. Place each seedling into a planting hole, making sure the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Fill the hole with soil and gently firm it around the seedling.
  6. Water Thoroughly: After transplanting, water the seedlings thoroughly to settle the soil around the roots and provide adequate moisture for their initial growth. This helps minimize transplant shock and encourages healthy establishment.
  7. Consider Protection from Frost: Lemon balm seedlings that have been properly hardened off can tolerate light frosts. However, if heavy frost is expected, it may be beneficial to provide temporary protection. Cover the transplanted seedlings with row covers or lightweight fabric to shield them from potential damage.

By following these steps, you can ensure a successful transition for your lemon balm seedlings into the garden, setting them up for healthy growth and abundant harvest.

Direct Sowing Seeds

Alternatively, you can directly sow lemon balm seeds in the garden. Wait until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up. Lemon balm seeds germinate best when the soil temperature is around 70°F. Follow these steps to direct sow your seeds:

  • Prepare the Soil: Find a well-draining location in your garden that receives full sun or partial shade. Clear the area of any weeds or debris. Loosen the soil using a garden fork, creating a smooth surface for sowing the seeds.
  • Sow the Seeds: Sprinkle lemon balm seeds evenly over the prepared soil surface, sowing about one seed per inch. Since the seeds require light to germinate, do not cover them with soil. Instead, lightly press the seeds into the ground using your hand or the back of a rake, ensuring good seed-to-soil contact.
  • Water the Seeds: Gently water the area with a fine mist or a gentle sprinkle after sowing. This helps settle the seeds into the soil. Keep the soil consistently moist until germination occurs.
  • Thinning: Once the seedlings are about 5 inches tall, thin them so they are spaced about 12 to 18 inches apart. Use scissors to cut the unwanted seedlings at the soil level, taking care not to disturb the roots of the remaining seedlings.

Propagating Lemon Balm from Established Plants

Lemon balm is a hardy perennial herb that thrives in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 to 9. Once your plants have become well established, you can expand your garden by propagating this versatile herb. There are several effective methods for propagating lemon balm, allowing you to grow new plants and enjoy their aromatic qualities throughout your garden. Here are three techniques for propagating lemon balm: stem cuttings, layering, and plant divisions:

Propagating through Stem Cuttings:

  • Select a healthy, flexible stem from the parent lemon balm plant.
  • Using clean and sharp pruners, make a clean cut just below a leaf node on the stem.
  • Remove the lower leaves from the cutting, leaving a few pairs of leaves at the top.
  • Dip the cut end of the stem in a rooting hormone powder or gel to encourage root development.
  • Fill a small container with a well-draining potting mix.
  • Make a hole in the potting mix using a pencil or your finger.
  • Insert the cut end of the stem into the hole and gently press the soil around it.
  • Water the cutting thoroughly and place it in a warm location with bright, indirect light.
  • Mist the cutting regularly to maintain humidity.
  • After a few weeks, the cutting should develop roots. You can transplant it into a larger pot or directly into the garden.

Propagating through Layering:

  • Identify a healthy and flexible lower stem on the parent lemon balm plant.
  • Make a small incision on the underside of the stem, about 10 to 12 inches from the tip.
  • Bury the wounded portion of the stem about 3 inches deep in the soil, leaving the tip exposed.
  • Use a small stake or wire to secure the buried portion of the stem in place.
  • Keep the soil consistently moist around the buried stem.
  • After approximately a month, roots should develop from the buried stem.
  • Once the new roots are established, cut the layered stem free from the parent plant.
  • Transplant the new lemon balm plant to a desired location, ensuring it receives adequate sunlight and well-draining soil.

Propagating through Plant Divisions:

  • Carefully dig up an established lemon balm plant in late summer or early fall.
  • Gently shake off excess soil to expose the root system.
  • Use a clean, sharp garden knife or pruners to divide the root ball into sections.
  • Each division should have healthy roots and a portion of the plant’s crown.
  • Replant the divided sections in prepared garden beds or pots, and water thoroughly.
  • Apply a 2-inch layer of organic mulch around the new plants to protect them from frost.
  • Water the divisions regularly, keeping the soil evenly moist until the plants become established, and then reduce waterings.

By following these propagation methods, you can easily expand your lemon balm collection and enjoy the aromatic and culinary benefits of this delightful herb.

Young lemon balm plant transplanted to the garden.

Growing Lemon Balm in Containers

If you have limited space or prefer container gardening, growing lemon balm in pots is a great option. With proper care, lemon balm can thrive in containers both outside and indoors on a sunny windowsill, allowing you to enjoy its aromatic foliage and culinary benefits. If you want to learn more about growing crops in pots, we suggest you take a look at the following guides, “How to Grow Edibles in Containers” and “How to Grow Herbs Indoors.” Here are tips for cultivating lemon balm in containers:

  • Select a container that is at least 12 inches wide and equally deep. Ensure it has drainage holes at the bottom to prevent waterlogging.
  • Fill the container with dampened potting mix specifically formulated for container gardening. This soil provides good drainage and aeration for the roots.
  • Transplant seedlings or direct sow seeds in the container.
  • Place the container in a sunny location that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight daily.
  • Keep the soil consistently moist but not soggy. Check the moisture level regularly and water it whenever the top inch of the soil feels dry.
  • Once the seedlings reach 6 inches tall, thin them out to allow the two strongest seedlings to grow. Snip the unwanted seedlings at ground level to create space for the remaining plants.
  • In spring, apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer according to the package instructions. This will provide the necessary nutrients for healthy growth. Avoid over-fertilizing, as it can lead to excessive leaf growth with reduced flavor.
  • Regularly monitor the moisture level, ensuring the soil doesn’t dry out completely. Remove any weeds that may appear in the container. Prune the lemon balm periodically to maintain its shape and encourage bushier growth.

Lemon balm plant in a pot.

Caring for Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is a low-maintenance herb that thrives with minimal care once the plants are established. With a few simple practices, you can ensure the health and vitality of your lemon balm. These easy maintenance tasks will keep your lemon balm flourishing:

  • Watering: As a general rule, water lemon balm when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch. During hot and dry periods, you may need to water more frequently. Water deeply and evenly, allowing the soil to dry slightly between waterings. Aim to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged, as excessive moisture can lead to root rot.
  • Weeding: Keep the area around lemon balm plants weed-free to prevent competition for nutrients. Be careful not to disturb the shallow root system of the lemon balm while weeding.
  • Mulching: Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of the plants to help retain moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature. Maintain a mulch layer of about 2 inches, taking care not to pile it against the stems.
  • Fertilizing: Lemon balm generally doesn’t require heavy feeding. However, you can apply a balanced organic fertilizer once in the spring to boost the plants’ growth.
  • Pruning: Frequent pruning is beneficial for lemon balm. Trim the plant as needed for harvests and to maintain a bushy, compact shape. Regularly prune to remove any yellow or damaged stems. This helps keep the plant healthy and promotes new growth.
  • Pests and Diseases: Lemon balm is naturally resistant to many pests and diseases due to its high concentration of essential oils. However, aphids and spider mites can occasionally appear. If you notice an infestation, simply blast them off the plant with water. Over-watering can lead to powdery mildew and root rot, so ensure proper drainage and avoid excessive moisture. Prune regularly to provide good air circulation.

Managing Lemon Balm’s Spread and Growth

Like other members of the mint family, lemon balm is known to be an invasive herbaceous perennial plant. It has a tendency to spread vigorously in favorable growing conditions, particularly through its extensive root system and self-seeding.

Lemon balm can spread through underground rhizomes, which are horizontal underground stems that produce new shoots and roots. These rhizomes can grow and spread rapidly, allowing the plant to colonize new areas within a garden or landscape.

Additionally, lemon balm produces seeds that can be dispersed by wind or animals. These seeds can germinate and establish new plants, contributing to its spread.

Regularly monitor your garden for any signs of lemon balm spreading beyond its desired boundaries. If you notice the plants growing in unwanted areas, treat them as invasive weeds and dig them out.

How to Harvest Lemon Balm

Now that you’ve successfully grown and cared for your lemon balm plants, it’s time to harvest and enjoy the fruits of your labor. You can start harvesting your plants once they are established and have plenty of bushy growth. To harvest lemon balm, follow these steps:

  • Choose the Right Time: Harvest lemon balm in the morning after the dew has evaporated for the best flavor. If you are harvesting a large batch for preservation, the leaves contain the highest concentration of essential oils right before it blooms.
  • Select Healthy Foliage: Look for healthy, mature leaves. Avoid any yellowed, damaged, or diseased foliage. Instead, prune these off and discard them.
  • Harvest Leaves or Stems: Grab a pair of gardening shears or sharp scissors, and cut individual leaves or take whole stems, depending on your needs. If you just need a few leaves for a recipe, snip them off close to the stem. For whole stems, cut them just above a set of leaves or a leaf node leaving about 5 inches of the stems behind to continue branching off and growing for a continuous supply of fresh foliage throughout the season.
  • Harvesting Amount: As a general guideline, you can harvest up to one-third of the plant at a time. This allows the lemon balm to regenerate and continue thriving. Be sure to let some of the plants bloom, as the small white flowers will attract pollinators to your garden.

After harvesting, gently brush off any dirt or insects from the leaves. Rinse them under cool water and pat them dry with a clean towel. Use the freshly harvested lemon balm leaves immediately, or store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Ways to Use Fresh Lemon Balm

Once you’ve harvested your lemon balm, you’ll have a variety of options for incorporating this herb into your daily life. From culinary delights to soothing herbal tea, lemon balm offers a range of uses.

  • Salads and Dressings: Chop or tear fresh lemon balm leaves and add them to green salads or fruit salads for a citrusy and aromatic flavor. Lemon balm can also be blended into homemade salad dressings for a light lemon-herby flavor.
  • Lemon Balm Pesto: Lemon balm pesto offers a bright, citrusy twist to traditional pesto recipes and can be enjoyed in a variety of dishes. Try this Lemon Balm Pesto recipe. Feel free to customize the recipe by substituting regular garlic for the garlic scapes, adding basil or herbs, or different nuts for flavor and texture.
  • Herbal Butter: Blend finely chopped lemon balm leaves into softened butter for a delicious herb butter that can be spread on bread or used for cooking.
  • Soups and Sauces: If you’re looking to make your soups and sauces more flavorful, consider adding lemon balm. For example, it pairs well with Turkey Noodle Soup and Summer Tomato Sauce.
  • Roasted Vegetables: Toss vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, zucchini, or Brussels sprouts, with olive oil, salt, pepper, and chopped lemon balm leaves. Roast them in the oven until golden and tender. The lemon balm will lend a citrusy note and elevate the flavor of the roasted vegetables.
  • Garnish and Flavor Enhancer: Use whole lemon balm leaves as a decorative garnish for desserts, beverages, or savory dishes. Sprinkle chopped lemon balm leaves over dishes just before serving to add a burst of fresh citrus flavor.

Preserving Lemon Balm

The best way to preserve lemon balm is to dry it by air-drying or using a food dehydrator. To dry lemon balm, tie the stems into small bundles and hang them upside down indoors in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

Alternatively, you can use a food dehydrator to dry the leaves quickly. Lemon balm foliage dries much faster than other herbs, so be sure to check on it frequently.

Once the leaves are dehydrated, remove them from the stems and store them in an airtight container. To learn more about drying lemon balm, check out this helpful guide: How to Dry Herbs.

Ways to Use Dried Lemon Balm

Lemon balm offers various uses, from culinary creations to herbal infusions. Explore different ways to incorporate dried lemon balm into your daily life and experience its many benefits.

Culinary Uses:

Dried lemon balm can be used as a versatile flavoring in various culinary creations. Try these ideas:

  • Sprinkle dried lemon balm over roasted or grilled meats or fish to add a hint of citrusy flavor.
  • Incorporate dried lemon balm into homemade seasoning blends, marinades, or rubs for an aromatic twist.

Lemon Balm Tea:

One of the most popular ways to enjoy dried lemon balm is by making a soothing cup of tea. Follow these simple steps:

  • Boil water in a kettle.
  • Place 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried leaves in a tea infuser or teapot.
  • Pour the hot water over the leaves and let them steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Remove the infuser or strain the tea to remove the leaves.
  • Optionally, add honey or a slice of lemon for added flavor.
  • Sit back, relax, and enjoy the fragrant and refreshing lemon balm tea.

The flavor of dried lemon balm is more concentrated than fresh, so it’s best to use it sparingly and adjust according to your taste preferences.

Embrace the versatility of dried lemon balm in both culinary and herbal preparations, and discover the delightful flavors and benefits it brings to your creations.

With its delightful fragrance, culinary versatility, and medicinal properties, lemon balm is a valuable addition to any garden. I hope these tips encourage you to dedicate an area of your garden to growing lemon balm, and soon you’ll have a thriving lemon balm patch that will provide you with an abundance of fresh leaves for years to come.

Whether you incorporate it into your culinary creations, enjoy it in herbal teas, homemade bath and body products, or appreciate its attractive presence in your garden, lemon balm will surely bring joy and vibrancy to your garden.

Good planning is key to a successful vegetable garden

Whether you are new to growing your own food or have been growing a vegetable garden for years, you will benefit from some planning each year. You will find everything you need to organize and plan your vegetable garden in my PDF eBook, Grow a Good Life Guide to Planning Your Vegetable Garden.

Grow a Good Life Guide to Planning Your Vegetable Garden

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