Lemon balm is one of the most fragrant and delightful herbs you can grow. It has a wonderful lemony fragrance and taste that brightens up recipes and makes a delicious herbal tea.
It also happens to be one of the easiest herbs you can grow in your garden or in containers. Lemon balm is a great plant to share with children because they love its fuzzy leaves and getting scented fingers when they rub it.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to grow lemon balm plant, including how to harvest and use the leaves later.
All About Lemon Balm Plant
Lemon balm (Melissa officianalis) belongs to the mint family and has the typical vigorous growth associated with that group of plants. Its botanical name, Melissa, comes from the Greek word for “bee” because of how the herb attracts pollinators.
In USDA hardiness zones 4-9, lemon balm is an herbaceous perennial that dies back to the ground in winter and sprouts back up in spring.
The herb is originally native to southern Europe but has now made its way around the world and is grown in many areas. It has a history of use both as a medicinal and culinary herb, dating back to at least 300 BC.
You might mistake lemon balm for mint until you smell its lemony fragrance. It does belong to the mint family and has many similar growth habits.
Lemon balm leaves are ridged and oval- to heart-shaped. They tend to be green on top and whitish on the bottom and often have soft fuzz covering them. Plants bloom with very small spikes of white or pink flowers in the summer.
Benefits of Growing Lemon Balm
There are many benefits to growing lemon balm, besides the fact that it’s extremely easy to grow and smells lovely.
The lemon balm plant attracts honeybees and other pollinators to your garden. It also helps repel certain insects, making it a great companion plant.
Lemon balm is edible and can be used for its flavor and for its health benefits. In herbal medicine, it’s one of the best herbs for reducing stress and calming the nervous system. People have used it for centuries to sleep better, ease anxiety, and soothe upset digestion.
You can use the leaves to make teas, tinctures, infused oils, salves, and lotions. Or try adding it to cookies, jams, vinegars, fruit punch, salads, and other recipes.
Besides being easy to grow, lemon balm is edible and adds a wonderful flavor to drinks and food. You can use it medicinally or just enjoy its sweet and bright taste.
Varieties of Lemon Balm
The straight species, Melissa officinalis, remains the most popular lemon balm plant to grow and most often has the best flavor. However, there are a few other cultivars you can try:
- ‘Aurea’– This is a more compact and highly ornamental variety that has yellow and green variegated leaves. Leaves still have a strong lemony fragrance, and plants don’t self-seed as much as the straight species.
- ‘All Gold’– Golden lemon balm has bright leaves that develop a yellow to gold color. Take note that plants need full sun to have golden leaves. In shade, leaves are likely to remain green.
- ‘Compacta’– This is a dwarf cultivar that only reaches about 6 inches in height. Plants are sterile and will not produce seed, so they won’t spread in your garden. Leaves have moderate flavor.
How to Grow Lemon Balm Plant
It shouldn’t be hard to find lemon balm plants for sale at your local nursery, but you can also grow it from seed or propagate by cuttings.
Growing from Seed Outdoors
You have two choices for sowing seeds outdoors: after the threat of frost has passed in the spring or in late fall while the ground is still workable.
Either way, you’ll need to prepare a section of your garden for the seeds. You can do this by weeding, breaking up the soil a little bit, and raking it smooth on top. Lemon balm doesn’t need a lot of nutrients to grow, but you can amend your soil with compost if it’s really poor.
Lemon balm will grow even in poor soil, but adding compost in will give plants more nutrients and might make the leaves more flavorful as well.
Sow the seeds by simply scattering them on top of the soil. Press them into the ground or barely cover them with a layer of fine soil.
If you are sowing seeds in the springtime, make sure the soil stays consistently moist by watering your seeds as necessary. If you are sowing in the fall, just leave your seeds be and nature will take care of everything.
Once seedlings germinate in the spring and are a few inches tall, thin them so that there’s 12-18 inches between each plant.
Growing from Seed Indoors
Mix your seed starting soil with water until it’s damp but not soaking wet. Fill your flats or cell packs with the soil mix just to the top of the containers.
Sow your lemon balm seeds on top of the soil. Press them in gently with your fingers or barely cover them with a very fine layer of soil. Water the seeds in, and use plastic domes to keep moisture in if you have them.
If you covered your trays, you probably won’t need to water before the seeds germinate. If you didn’t, water as needed to keep the soil from drying out.
Starting lemon balm from seed indoors will give your plants a headstart in the spring. Be sure you acclimate plants to outdoor conditions before putting them in the ground.
Seeds should germinate in 7-14 days if indoor temperatures are around 70°F. Take the plastic domes off once seedlings sprout, and put the trays by a sunny window or under grow lights.
Keep watering as needed so that the soil doesn’t dry out.
Once seedlings are a few inches tall, thin them if needed so that there is one plant per cell. Harden your seedlings off outside about a week before you’re ready to plant them.
Propagating from Cuttings
Like other members of the mint family, lemon balm is very easy to propagate by taking stem cuttings from an established plant. You’ll get an exact copy of the “mother” plant, and it won’t cost you much beyond some pots and potting soil.
Cuttings are best taken in spring or fall. You should cut stems off of healthy plants that are not flowering. Just use a pair of scissors or garden clippers to cut off stem tips that are 3-6 inches long.
Remove the bottom ½-⅔ of leaves from each cutting. Stick the cut side of each stem into pots filled with a sterile soil mix or something like moist sand.
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You can dip the stems in rooting hormone before putting them in the pots to help your cuttings root, although lemon balm most likely will not be a challenge. You can also use potting soil to place your cuttings in, but there is a small chance of pathogens attacking your herbs since it won’t be sterile.
Keep the soil around your cuttings consistently moist but not soggy. Place them somewhere they can get indirect sunlight.
The cuttings should root in about 3-4 weeks. You’ll be able to tell this has happened because there will be resistance when you gently tug on them, and they will most likely start putting out new growth.
At this point, you can either plant your rooted cuttings outside, or pot them up in individual pots filled with potting soil so that they’ll have enough nutrients to continue to grow.
Planting Lemon Balm
Lemon balm will grow practically anywhere. In fact, there are a few tips to learn so that it doesn’t spread over your whole garden.
However, there are also a few planting tips that will help your plants be at their healthiest and most flavorful.
It’s very easy to plant and grow lemon balm, but keeping it contained is another story. Give it some natural barriers to stop its spread, and cut off flowers before they go to seed.
Lemon balm can grow in full sun or partial shade. It grows better in cooler weather, so plants appreciate having shade during the hottest part of the day.
Many gardeners find that lemon balm grown in a shadier spot has larger and more flavorful leaves. On the other hand, cultivars with golden leaves need more sun to keep their color. Much depends on your climate and the variety you’re growing.
Soil with poor drainage is about the only type lemon balm won’t do well in. You can amend with compost or sand to improve drainage. Lemon balm will likely grow more slowly in heavy clay soils, but you may find that this isn’t a bad thing.
Lemon balm spreads more by seed than by rhizome (unlike other mints), but you still may want to plant it where there are natural barriers to keep clumps from getting too large.
Plant your seedlings after all danger of frost has passed in the spring. Space them about 12-18 inches apart and keep them well watered for the first week or two.
Growing Lemon Balm in Containers
Like many other herbs, lemon balm plant grows extremely well in containers of all sizes. In fact, it’s easier to care for plants and keep them under control in pots.
Just like basil and many other herbs, lemon balm does extremely well in a pot. Containers help to keep plants under control and give you easy access for harvesting your herbs later.
Planting lemon balm as part of a container garden also gives you easier access to the herb when you’re ready to harvest. You can plant it on a porch close to your kitchen or even grow it on a sunny windowsill indoors.
Use any size container you want, but make sure it has drainage holes in the bottom. You can plant lemon balm by itself in a small pot or plant it with other herbs and/or flowers in a larger container.
Fill your chosen containers with a good quality potting mix and plant them after the danger of frost has passed. Water seedlings well after planting and as needed when the soil dries out.
Lemon Balm Plant Care
For the most part, lemon balm will grow quite happily without you, but there are a few things you can do to keep plants healthy and keep them from spreading too much.
Trimming your plants regularly is one of the best ways to keep them in check. This is basically the same thing as harvesting, and you can use your trimmings in the kitchen. You can also cut the whole plant back by half mid-season.
Once plants are established, they are drought tolerant, but make sure small plants have enough water to establish themselves.
Like other plants in the mint family, lemon balm will actually grow better if you trim it often. Use your trimmings to make tea or add them to whatever you’re cooking.
Fertilizing is rarely, if ever, necessary for lemon balm. You can apply a side dressing of compost to plants in the garden every spring or fall, but this is optional. Plants grown in pots for more than a year can be fertilized every so often with a liquid plant feed.
The biggest maintenance task for lemon balm is to keep it from spreading everywhere by seed. To do this, you can either cut the tops off plants before they flower or regularly deadhead plants once they do start flowering.
Patches of lemon balm in the garden can be divided every 3-5 years.
Pests and Problems
Lemon balm is rarely affected by pests or diseases. Even deer and rabbits tend to stay away.
In very humid conditions, plants may develop fungal diseases like powdery mildew or rust. Proper spacing to promote good airflow is the best way to prevent this.
Indoors, potted lemon balm can occasionally be attacked by aphids or spider mites. These can usually be controlled with organic methods like neem oil.
Lemon balm contains natural compounds like citronellal that repel insects and pests. This is why it makes a great companion plant, particularly for a fruit or vegetable garden.
Members of the cabbage family can especially benefit from the presence of lemon balm because it helps keep away specific insects that plague these vegetables. This includes cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
Lemon balm is especially beneficial when grown around cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc. It helps to repel pests that attack these crops.
You can also grow it around winter squash, summer squash, and melons. Plant with other good companion plants like nasturtiums and rosemary to increase its beneficial effects.
Alternatively, lemon balm can be planted around fruit trees to draw in honeybees that will pollinate the flowers.
How to Harvest Lemon Balm
Like other mints, it’s hard to go wrong when harvesting lemon balm. You can start snipping off small sections once plants start to bush out. This herb will only benefit from being “trimmed,” so don’t be afraid to go for it!
The best way to harvest lemon balm is to use scissors or clippers to snip off stems right above a growth node (where a pair of leaves comes out of the stem). This encourages plants to bush out right where you cut and produce new leaves.
For a large harvest, wait until plants have buds but haven’t flowered yet. Cut off as much as you want as long as you leave about ⅓ of the plant intact.
If you enjoy herbal tea, add some of the fresh leaves from your lemon balm harvest to hot water for a relaxing beverage. You can also dry the leaves to store them long-term.
Enjoying Your Lemon Balm
Lemon balm has many uses in the kitchen from making tea to cooked vegetable dishes to homemade ice cream.
The leaves have the best flavor when they are fresh, but can be dried if you want to store them for later. To do this, you can simply hang bunches of lemon balm or lay them flat on a tray to dry. This is best done somewhere warm and dark with good air circulation.
Once you discover the wonderful flavor of lemon balm, you’ll be happy to see it growing in your garden year after year!