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How to Grow Lemon Balm

How to Grow Lemon Balm: Seeds can be slow to germinate. Also sow seed in late summer. Root divisions can be planted at any time during the growing season but will become established quicker in cool weather.

You can learn how to grow lemon balm in a few minutes. Lemon balm is a perennial herb that grows best in cool weather. It has lemon-scented, mint-like leaves that are often used to make refreshing, lemony hot and cold drinks. The leaves also add a tart lemony flavor to green and fruit salads as well as meats and poultry.

How to grow lemon balm: growing lemon balmGet to Know Lemon Balm

  • Botanical name and family: Melissa officinalis (Lamiaceae—mint family)
  • Europe and Asia
  • Type of plant: Lemon balm is a herbaceous upright perennial.
  • Growing season: Lemon balm grows best in cool weather. In freezing temperatures, it will die back to the ground then regrow from the roots in spring.
  • Growing zones: Zones 4 to 9; lemon balm does not like hot, humid climates.
  • Hardiness: Lemon balm is cold hardy to -20°F; it only moderately tolerates heat.
  • Plant form and size: Lemon balm grows to 12 to 24 inches tall and wide; it grows in clumps of branched stems with loose terminal clusters of small white to creamy yellow flowers at the top. Lemon balm may be mistaken for mint at first glance.
  • Flowers: Small white flowers are borne in tight clusters at the axles along the length of the stems.
  • Bloom time: Lemon balm blooms throughout the summer and into fall.
  • Leaves: Lemon balm has lemon-scented, oval, toothed leaves that are heavily veined or quilted from 2 to 3 inches long arranged opposite one another on four-sided stems. Leave are coarsely toothed with a bristly surface.

How to grow lemon balm: lemon balm in gardenHow to Plant Lemon Balm

  • Best location: Plant lemon balm in full sun; it will tolerate shade.
  • Soil preparation: Grow lemon balm in well-drained, sandy loam. However, lemon balm will grow in almost any soil but not very wet soil. It prefers a soil pH of 6.7 to 7.3.
  • Seed starting indoors: Sow seeds indoors about 2 months before transplanting lemon balm into the garden after the last spring frost. Seeds require light to germinate so do not cover them or cover them only lightly with fine soil. Germination will come in about 14 days.
  • Transplanting to the garden: Set transplants in the garden after the last spring frost.
  • Outdoor planting time: Sow lemon balm in spring about the average date of the last frost. Seeds can be slow to germinate. Also, sow seed in late summer or fall. Root divisions can be planted at any time during the growing season but will become established quicker in cool weather. Cuttings from new growth can be started in moist sand.
  • Planting depth: Sow lemon balm seed ¼ inch deep; very light cover is all lemon balm needs for germination. Keep the seedbed moist until seed germinates.
  • Spacing: Thin successful seedlings to 8 inches apart and later thin plants to 18 inches apart. Space rows 18 to 24 inches apart.
  • How much to plant: Grow 4 lemon balm plants for cooking; grow 6 to 12 plants for tea and preserving.
  • Companion planting: Grow lemon balm with broccoli, cauliflower, and other cabbage family plants. The fragrance of lemon balm helps deter insects that attack cabbage family crops and also masks the smell of cabbage. Plant lemon balm with hollyhocks, angelica, and nasturtiums. Lemon balm attracts honeybees; plant it near fruit trees to aid pollination.

How to grow lemon balm in potHow to Grow Lemon Balm

  • Watering: Lemon balm requires regular, even watering. It grows best in slightly moist soil. Once established lemon balm tolerates drought.
  • Feeding: Lemon balm does not require extra feeding; side-dress plants with aged compost during the growing season.
  • Care: Lemon balm spreads by underground roots. To keep lemon balm from becoming invasive, set it in the garden in a bottomless container that will keep the roots in place. Remove unwanted plants before they become established. Cut plants back by half after flowering to encourage a second crop of leaves and a compact form. Deadhead plants to prevent self-sowing.
  • Container growing: Lemon balm can be container grown as an annual. Choose a container 6 to 8 inches deep and wide. Over-winter lemon balm in a protected area such as an unheated garage or patio.
  • Winter growing: Cut back lemon balm in fall leaving just 2 inches of stem. The plant may freeze back to the ground in winter but will re-grow from underground roots and renew itself in spring.

 Troubleshooting Lemon Balm

  • Pests: Lemon balm has no serious pest problems.
  • Diseases: Lemon balm is susceptible to verticillium wilt, mint rust, and powdery mildew. To prevent these fungal diseases, keep plants sufficiently spaced to allow for good air circulation. Spray plants with compost tea during the season; compost tea is a natural fungicide.

 How to Harvest Lemon Balm

  • When to harvest: Pinch off and use leaves and sprigs as needed during the growing season. Older, lower leaves have the strongest aroma. Leaves for drying are best harvested before the plant flowers in summer, usually about the time lower leaves begin to yellow. At midseason or in autumn, cut back the plant back by half; it will regrow new leaves in 4 weeks or so.
  • How to harvest: Snip leaves and sprigs with a garden pruner. The leaves bruise easily so handle them with care.

Lemon balm in kitchenLemon Balm in the Kitchen

  • Flavor and aroma: Lemon balm has a strong scent of lemon with a touch of mint.
  • Leaves: Use freshly chopped leaves sprinkled lightly on cooked vegetables, green salads, chicken salads, fruit salads for a lemony flavor. Serve with corn, broccoli, asparagus, lamb, shellfish, olives, and beans. Add chopped leaves to salad dressing, dips, and soft cheeses for spreads. Sprinkle chopped leaves over vanilla ice cream.
  • Cooking: Use lemon balm leaves fresh in cooking. Add lemon balm at the end of cooking to impart the best flavor.
  • Teas: Fresh or dry leaves make a refreshing, mildly lemony tea. Also, add leaves to lemonade. Infusion from fresh or dried leaves has a cool, citrus taste that calms upset stomachs.
  • Culinary complements: Combine lemon balm with dill, parsley, or lovage to add a subtle citrus flavor to sauces

 Preserving and Storing Lemon Balm

  • Drying: Leaves can be stripped from stems and dried on trays in a warm shady place. Harvest nearly mature leaves for drying. Leaves must be dried quickly within two days of harvest or they will turn black. Leaves must be dried at 90°F to retain their green color. Dried leaves will not be as flavorful as fresh leaves.
  • Freezing: Fresh leaves can be frozen.
  • Storing: Dried leaves can be stored in an airtight container for about 6 months.

 Propagating Lemon Balm

  • Seed: Lemon balm can be grown from seed that has been stratified (chilled or frozen) for at least 7 days; once stratified germination will happen in about 14 days. Lemon balm will self-sow in place. You can also sow seeds in place in fall for spring plants.
  • Cuttings: Root lemon balm cuttings in late spring or early summer; dip cut ends in a rooting hormone and plant stems in organic potting soil.
  • Division: Root divisions can be planted at any time during the growing season.
  • Layering: Lemon balm will root at nodes along stems when covered with soil; layer plants in spring or fall.

 Lemon Balm Varieties to Grow

  • ‘Aurea’ is a variegated variety.
  • ‘All Gold’ has completely golden foliage with pale lavender flowers.

Also of interest:

How to Start a Herb Garden

Growing Herbs for Cooking

How to Grow Mint

How to Grow Thyme

How to Grow Oregano

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28 Comments

  1. Are the flowers of Lemon Balm safe to eat? I have been so busy that I haven’t gotten to cut the plant down. Now there are lots of flowers . I know the leaves are however there are way too many flowers to take off by hand and I have a pretty good crop of lemon balm. Need som advise soon. I’m in the northern part of Illinois. Thank you

  2. I took a small lemon balm plant that was growing in the cobblestones of the yard indoors and potted it in late October. It was growing well in the kitchen window with new leaves appearing. It’s about 4 inches high. In the last couple of weeks it’s bottom leaves have gone black, the top ones still look healthy but they have lost their smell. When I took it indoors it had a very strong lemon sent and now the leaves have no sent at all. What can I do to fix it?

    • The black leaves may indicate that the soil is too moist or that a bacterial disease is starting. Let’s assume the soil is too moist; do not overwater; water from the bottom–put water in a saucer and let the soil soak up water; do this every 10 days or so so as to ensure the soil is not staying too wet. Place the plant under grow lights or in a window where it can get 8 hours of bright light each day; however, keep it back from a cold windowpane.

  3. It is good to add that the tea is very beneficial in calming the nerves. It makes a great bedtime tea. Thanks for the great growing guide!

    • Lemon balm has a long bloom period from early summer to early autumn. It can be propagated by division and stem cutting. Give the plant a high phosphorus fertilizer to activate blooming. It could be that your plant is getting more nitrogen than other nutrients. Set the plant in full sun.

  4. When I bought my property about 15 years ago, there was a mint plant that had large red flowers. I was told it was lemon mint or lemon balm. After the first year the red flowers have never returned. This year I have a Huge circle of lemon balm for the first time but no red flowers. I’m thinking I should thin this great circle of lemon balm clumps which I never knew I had before.

    • Here is a link to an article from the Herb Society of America that can be downloaded online.
      See the end of this article for answers to your question.

      Lemon Balm – Herb Society of Americawww.herbsociety.org › file_download
      PDF

    • Hello, wondering if there are any tips re. making topical Oil? Due to a fairly rare Autoimmune Syndrome I have Sticky Blood, causing clotting, dry skin, infection in my legs. Would like to make a natural healthy skin moisturizer that doesn’t have “scents/purfumes” or find a maker of such that I can afford (most recent one I purchased was organic (what? am not sure) kind of a petroleum jelly, but $18. for a tiny jar (& I need to use daily, under Compression Stockings).

      Any ideas/suggestions much appreciated & thanks. Ed

      • There’s so many recipes you can make. I make one with beeswax, coconut oil infused with several herbs and essential oils. Hope you managed to find one to help you out.

      • I assume a lot of people are reading this column due to the healong properties of Lemon Balm. Lemon Balm and Nettle Leaf tea and products can greatly help almost any ideopathic or ‘autoimmune theory’ disease, since they are finding most (95%) are from new unrecognized mutations of common HHV-family viruses that everyone carries at least one strain of (out of dozens), mixed with chemical toxins (incl. Rx & OTC drugs) that the virus absorbs, and/or a deficiency in certain trace electrolytes. Interesting thing is that no two people have the exact same symptoms, even twins, since diet and toxin exposure differ.
        Currently, there are no blood tests for the newer HHV and EBV mutations, although they may say “you once had Mono”, even if you didn’t, or find some ‘mystery’ anti-bodies. There are commercial tests are under development at Stanford, but it may be years until they are in common use. Cure is the same, no matter what the strain(s) of HHV viruses, which is good news.
        Herbal Teas and (fresh) Lemon Water every couple hours all day every day will help, as will an anti-inflammatory/ anti-mucus diet.
        Google ‘Cincinnati Hospital EBV’ study to read about HHV-4 alone, and read the book ‘Life Changing Foods” (and the two before it to understand the whole picture) by NY Times Best-Selling author and health guru Anthony William to learn more.
        Per AW, Lemon Balm is one of the top anti-viral herbs. It, and cutting out gluten, soy, GMOs, eggs, pork, and dairy has helped my EBV(HHV-4) -based ME/CFS, FM, PEM, brain fog, and Lupus, and given me my life back.
        FWIW: The above inflammatory’ foods are high in hormones and mucus. They help perpetuate the bad viruses that cause the fatigue and difficulty exercising or loosing weight when one gets older and has several semi-dormant strains lurking in them.

  5. The lemon balm plant (Melissa officinalis) is actually a member of the mint family and is a perennial herb. It grows as a bushy, leafy herb with a pleasant lemon smell and small white flowers. If not carefully controlled, lemon balm can quickly become invasive in the garden.

    • Lemon balm should easily grow in Hawaii; it will grow where ever mint will grow. Check at a nearby garden center to see what varieties are available in your area.

    • Lemon balm is a perennial in regions where the ground does not freeze in winter. If you cut it back and is not killed by a winter freeze then it will regrow in spring.

  6. How long do Lemon Balm seeds last? If you buy for one year, are they good the next year. Seeds were kept in the package in a darkened room in the house.

  7. My lemon balm seedings are about 6 weeks old. They haven’t grown much and the leaves are bright pink for the most part. Two have turned purple and then died. Others have brown speckles on their leaves and slowly taking over the entire leaf. Only a few don’t have brown on them but are mostly pink with just a little of green. Do you know what’s wrong with them? I water from below and wait until soil is mostly dry before watering but they are in very small peat pots so perhaps they dry out too much and then soak up too much water when they are watered? I moved them further from my grow light incase they were getting sun scorched but they are doing no better.

    • What you describe may be a fungal or bacterial disease hitting the plant. Replace the soil with a sterile commercial mix. You may also want to try larger 4-inch (10cm) pots to ensure there is enough soil to soak up water from the bottom and stay moist for a day or two. Don’t let the pots linger in bottom water too long.

  8. Should I cut my Lemon Balm plants back for winter? This last winter and summer were especially hard on my plants. They are not growing very well now, they did flower this summer.

    • Lemon balm is a long-lived perennial; it is much like mint with congested and sometimes creeping roots. We cut lemon balm back each early winter. You can also cut it back in spring; this might be the best strategy if you live in a cold winter region. We cut our plants back to about 2 inches above the soil. The plants renew themselves each year.

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