Lemon balm is one of the tastiest, most abundant plants in my garden. I love it so much that I included it in my must-grow list and I thought I’d share a bit more about how to grow it today so that you can add it to your gardens too. Once you get it started, it will happily establish itself and continue to come back year after year for you.
Lemon balm is a mint family plant with the signature square stems and highly aromatic, opposite leaves that are common in the Lamiaceae family. The whole plant smells like lemon-scented furniture polish or freshly squeezed lemons and the aroma carries over in the taste. It’s so refreshing and uplifting! The plant is hardy to USDA zone 4 or 5 and will go dormant in the winter. If you live in a colder area, you may want to add a layer of mulch to your lemon balm beds to keep it cozy through the winter months.
In typical mint family fashion, lemon balm isn’t shy about spreading itself round the garden without inhibition. Unlike peppermint, it spreads by spreading seeds that are true to the parent plant rather than aggressive runners. This means we can grow it from seed or from rooted cuttings, both producing offspring true to the parent plant. Because it can spread, you’ll want to plant it in a part of the garden where it will have a bit of extra room to fill in.
The seeds can be a bit fussy to get started so I prefer to start it in the garden with rooted cuttings or plant starts. If you have some gardening friends or a local gardener’s club, you’ll probably be able to find someone to share some with you. Gardeners love sharing their plant divisions and we all need to thin out our patches every couple years. You can also find starts at Strictly Medicinal Seeds and Mountain Valley Growers in the US.
I’ve found that it seems to like full morning sun and partial shade in the heat of the day if you live in an area with hot summers. I’m in a zone 8b with summer temperatures in the 90s and 100s F and it definitely started to fade in the long, hot days of mid-summer when I had it planted in full sun.
It does especially well in amended, well draining soil, but can also be grown successfully in a large pot. I grow mine in raised beds and it thrives, but it also reseeds itself into the poor clay-rich soil in the yard and does well there too, though it doesn’t grow as tall or lush.
I like to feed mine periodically with a diluted liquid seaweed concentrate and to top-dress the beds with a fresh layer of compost in late fall when the plant enters its dormancy.
Like most other mint family plants, if you pinch back the center stems (use them in water, tea, cooking, or to dry for your apothecary), the remaining stems will branch out to produce full, bushy, vigorous plants. Do this continually throughout the season and the plant will continue to grow and produce more abundant harvests as the season progresses. You can also harvest by cutting back the top third of the plant every few weeks throughout the growing season.
Pinching and harvesting will keep the plant from producing flowers and setting seed. Once the flowers arrive, you’ll need to either leave them for the bees or cut the plants back halfway or so if you want to get another harvest out of the plant. It doesn’t focus on growing more foliage once it’s shifted to producing flowers. Continual harvests prolong the season by delaying flower set.
Once the plant enters dormancy in the fall, cut all stems back to the ground, add a layer of compost and/or mulch to your soil, then wait for new growth come spring. Ours has already sprung to life this year and I’ve begun harvesting a handful here and there for my water in the mornings. Happy gardening!