Rebecca Stoner Kirts, Basilbecky, is a master gardener, whose interests include garden photography, traveling, and sharing these experiences through writing and speaking. Check out her blogs at and Becky is always happy to answer questions; she can be reached at

This article applies to:



Come on Life ... Give Me Lemons
by Rebecca Stoner Kirts    

‘French Drop’ lemon marigolds (Tagetes patula ‘French Drop’) show what a pop yellow flowers can add to the lemon herb garden.

Oh ... the clean, fresh smell of lemons, who can resist a tall glass of lemonade? It seems I always have a few lemons on the counter, but inevitably I don’t use them quickly enough and they become shriveled and tasteless. So my alternative to getting that fresh lemon taste is to run out to the herb garden and choose from one of my many lemon herbs.

I have had a long fascination with herbs that carry the scent of lemons. They are so easy to grow – anyone who has grown lemon balm will not refute that fact. Most have beautiful blooms and interesting foliage and their uses are numerous and varied, ranging from culinary to crafting to medicinal.

While my children were in grade school, I would often take baskets of herbs to share with their classmates. The kids loved to crush the leaves and were fascinated by all the aromas. Asking the kids to identify the scents always proved to be interesting. By far, my favorite response was from one particular little boy who was smelling the different lemon herbs. His face lit up and he started jumping up and down proclaiming he knew the answer. He proudly shouted that these herbs smelled like Pledge!

Of all the lemon herbs, the easiest, and probably too easy to grow, is lemon balm. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, USDA Zones 3-7) seems to be one of the first herbs in many gardens – probably because many gardeners are eager to pass it along due its rambunctious nature. I keep mine quite happy and under control on the side of an outbuilding. It is protected from the hot summer sun and yet seems content to stay within bounds. I trim it back midsummer only to have another flush of growth before winter. It is a very hardy perennial that will without fail die back in the winter and return in the spring.

This herb originated in the Near East and was brought to America by the colonists. Thomas Jefferson grew it in his gardens at Monticello. Its genus name, Melissa, means honeybees, and I can tell you from personal experience that bees love my lemon balm. There is an old wives tale that says, “A grove of lemon balm will hold a beehive together.” My bees have been so strong next to the lemon balm that I believe this is true.

Lemon balm makes a very soothing tea, adds a nice addition to fruit or lettuce salads, and is great on fish, chicken, and vegetable dishes. Be sure to always add the leaves at the very last minute with hot dishes to obtain the most intense flavor. What other herb in the garden tastes so good and helps keep fleas away when stuffed under cushions?

Even though lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora, USDA Zones 8-10) is not hardy in my area, no lemon garden should ever be without it. I usually plant it in a pot and bring it in to a protected area during the winter. It usually drops its leaves but rebounds with vigor in the spring. Please check if you are farther south, as it may be hardy in your area. The plant itself tends to be a rather sprawling, whimsical plant. But please don’t judge this plant on its appearance alone; its real beauty is in the heavenly scented leaves. I love it chopped over vegetables or in salads. It can also be used as a replacement for lemon zest in most recipes.

Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus, USDA Zones 5-8) is a very beautiful perennial in the garden, plus its intense lemon flavor is a great accent on grilled fish or chicken. It forms a beautiful mound in the garden. ‘Archers Gold’ is one variety I have had great luck growing.  

Of course no herb garden of mind would be without lemon basil (Ocimum citriodorum, USDA Zones 2-11). I grow both the smaller leafed lemon basil as well as the larger leaf ‘Mrs. Burns’. This herb grows so easily from seed, but do keep the blossoms cut down until the end of the season to ensure the most intense lemon flavor.

I am particularly fond of the lemon-scented geraniums (Pelargonium crispum, USDA Zones 10-11). They are widely known for their insect repellent qualities, but offer so much more. The cultivar ‘Prince Rupert’, sometimes sold as ‘Variegated Prince Rupert’, has beautiful variegation and a stiff upright nature and is a fun addition to lemon drinks. These are not winter-hardy in most areas, but can easily be bought in to overwinter. I often take cuttings and keep them for spring planting. I never discard the fragrant leaves, instead I stuff them in panty hose and hang in closets to repeal moths and mosquitoes or incorporate them into my lemon potpourri.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus, Zones USDA 10-11) is the new kid on the lemon block. Don’t be fooled by the small plants available in the nursery in the spring, a 4-inch pot will be a large, attractive grass by fall. The leaves are great dried and may be used in potpourri, teas, and cooking. The white fleshy part of the stem is used extensively in Asian cuisine.

Lemon bergamot, also known as lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora, USDA Zones 3-10) is another worthy addition to any lemon garden. Its fragrant purple to pink blooms attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

So if life gives you lemons, no worry just pitch them aside and head straight for the garden and use the lemon herbs.


Lemon balm has one of the highest concentrations of lemon oil.

“Thyme” to sit and think how to use all the lemon thyme!

The varying hues of different varieties of lemon thyme provide wonderful contrasts.

‘Archers Gold’ thyme forms greenish gold mounds of goodness.


A version of this article originally appeared in a State-by-State Gardening February 2016 print edition. Photos courtesy of Rebecca Stoner Kirts.


Posted: 01/19/16   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading