Carol Michel is an award-winning freelance writer with a degree in horticulture from Purdue University. She is the author of Potted and Pruned: Living a Gardening.

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Lemony Herbs
by Carol Michel    

No lemons? No problem. If you want to enjoy a homegrown lemony taste, consider growing some lemony herbs in your garden. The five most common lemony herbs are lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodus), lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), lemon basil (Ocimum x citriodorum), and lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus).

What do all these herbs have in common? Other than lemon being part of their common name, they all contain some of the same chemical compounds that give lemons their familiar lemony taste.

How lemony these herbs taste depends on the amount of these chemicals they contain. According to Debra Knapke, honorary president of the Herb Society of America (2014 to 2016) and co-author of several books including Herb Gardening for the Midwest (Lone Pine, 2008), the amount of lemon taste in lemony herbs can vary based on the soil they are grown in, the amount of sunlight they get, and the weather.

“Individual plants’ chemistry can vary with culture, soil type, and weather. Rainy weather can actually ‘water down’ the flavor of herbs. Plants not in the proper light conditions can also produce less of the chemicals that give an herb its flavor. And the lack of soil fertility, or too rich a soil, can change the percentages of these chemicals. In other words, where and how an herb is grown can impact its flavor. Those who grow grapes for wine call this ‘terrior,’ and it also applies to growing herbs.”

Fortunately, in the summertime in the Midwest, we can grow lemony herbs in the ground or in containers with the same basic care we give most of our annual flowers.


Lemon Balm
Grow lemon balm as an annual plant. It will grow as tall and wide as 24 inches. Plant it after all danger of frost has passed in a location that is well-drained with good soil and a bit of shade during the day. It responds well to cutting back, so keep cutting and using fresh sprigs of lemon balm throughout the growing season because it loses much of its flavor when dried. You can purchase plants in the spring or grow them from seed. Lemon balm leaves are frequently used to make tea.

Lemon Thyme
Grow lemon thyme as an annual because it is not as hardy as English thyme. Like most thymes, good drainage is necessary, and they often do better in soils with sand or small gravel added to ensure they are never in standing water. Trim thyme frequently and use the trimmings to flavor fish and other cooked dishes.

Lemon Verbena
A tropical plant, lemon verbena should only be planted outdoors after all danger of frost has passed where it can be grown in a container or in the ground. In a tropical climate, it can grow to be a large shrub. In the Midwest, it makes a nice potted plant. It prefers full sun and fertile soil, and it should be fertilized regularly. Whole, dried leaves will retain a lemony scent, which is released by crumbling. If you choose to overwinter your lemon verbena plant indoors, don’t overwater it when it is in its dormant period. Overwatering is the most common reason lemon verbena plants don’t survive their dormant period indoors.

Lemon Basil
Grow lemon basil the same way you grow other basil plants. Start plants from seeds or buy plants to transplant in the garden or an outdoor container after all danger of frost has passed. Snip the leaves to use in a variety of dishes, including desserts. Because of the volatity of the oils that produce the flavor, lemon basil should be added right before serving in hot dishes.

A favorite in Asian dishes, lemongrass is also grown as an annual; it should be planted outside after the last frost in the spring. It prefers full sun and moist soil. Consider growing it in containers where you would plant a grass-type plant for its form. The bottom 5 or 6 inches of the stem is most commonly used in cooking.



This article appeared in a previous issue of a State-by-State Gardening publication.
Photos courtesy of Carol Michel.


Posted: 04/15/19   RSS | Print


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