Growing lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is a lemon scented mint that has gained popularity as people search for a more natural lifestyle. With ample benefits this mint has an appealing zingy, citrusy flavor.
If you’re not quite sure how to grow, use, harvest, and enjoy this hardy and prolific herb, don’t worry. With a little time, sunshine, and patience, this powerhouse of herbal goodness can be available to you in abundance.
A citrusy member of the mint family, lemon balm originated in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East. Now naturalized around the globe, lemon balm is widely accepted in modern culture as an herb with a variety of uses and benefits.
Growing lemon balm is not difficult for even the novice gardener. Take a few moments today to learn about growing, harvesting, and using lemon balm in your daily life. Chances are you’ll be growing lemon balm for a long time to come.
Lemon Balm Benefits
- Cognitive function
- Cold sores
- Digestive relief
- Menstrual pain
- Mild nausea
- Sleep aid
- Stress relief
Lemon balm’s sunny disposition is not its only attribute. People have been growing lemon balm for centuries to take advantage of the many uses of this herbal favorite.
It is known to relieve stress, anxiety, and the headache that can occur with these conditions. It helps the mind to quiet and become refocused, while relaxing tight muscles, which leads to diminished feelings of stress.
After a long day, a nighttime ritual of lemon balm tea will promote healthy, restful sleep with a refreshed feeling of well-being upon awakening. Those suffering from insomnia would benefit from lemon balms’s ability to bring about restful slumber.
Lemon balm has gastrointestinal benefits as well. When taken, it relieves cramps from gas, indigestion, upset stomach, and nausea. Women can find relief for menstrual cramps, as well as the mental aspects of PMS.
This herb has also been shown to increase mental clarity if taken regularly, giving a sense of energized well being. Lemon balm is known to perk you up and chill you out simultaneously. In the practice of aromatherapy, lemon balm essential oils are used to energize and relax the mind and body.
Lemon Balm Uses
- Herbal tea – usually dried
- Added to beverages – usually fresh leaves
- Blended in smoothies – fresh leaves
- Chewed for breath freshener and nutrients – fresh
- Tinctures – fresh
- Oils – fresh or dried
- Creams – tinctures or oils
- Capsules – dried and powdered
Lemon balm can be used dried or fresh for a number of foods as well as teas and medicinal concoctions and cosmetics. We tend to prefer fresh lemon balm for some things and dried lemon balm leaves for other, however, you can use it both ways for most things.
Lemon balm is often made into a herbal tea as well as a tincture, cream, and capsules.
Lemon balm can also be eaten fresh and is great added to foods like smoothies, salads and salad dressings, cooked with fish, chicken, stir fry, and roasted vegetables. It imparts a bright, citrus flavor to lighter meats like chicken or seafood.
How to Harvest Lemon Balm
Harvest lemon balm as if you’re pruning the plant. That means even trimming of the fullest, largest leafed stems about halfway to 3/4 down. We like to also clip and include the flowering stems as well, especially if you’re not interested in it self-seeding and spreading.
Our lemon balm grows year round in zone 7a, but we do trim it back more before the first freeze if we need more herbs to dry for storage.
We just these hand colander baskets for garden harvests.
Harvesting Lemon Balm for Drying
For dried herbs, you’ll need lots more clippings than you might imagine because they dehydrate down so much. Armfuls of fresh lemon balm can dehydrate down to just a few gallon pitchers worth of herbal tea, or just one spice jar of powder.
Harvesting Lemon Balm for Fresh Herbs
Harvest when ready to use fresh herb for teas, water and food. You can keep it fresh in a container in the fridge for a few days as you would other greens, but otherwise, ideally, just trim it as you need it in the amount you need for that day.
Washing is Optional
We don’t worry about washing our lemon balm before drying for several reasons. We’re growing it organically in pots, so it’s not inclined to get dirt splashed up on it, however, even if it did, we wouldn’t worry because a few specks of dirt just helps to build a stronger immune system.
The other reason we don’t worry about washing before drying or using lemon balm is that it’s a natural insect repellent, so we hardly ever see bugs on it. And lastly, because growing and then drying it in the sun has a sanitizing effect.
We get our supplements from the garden:
Every trip to the garden we break off sprigs of fresh herbs to chew on. Lemon balm and other mints, oregano, thyme, parsley, rosemary and more. Nature’s vitamins are the best.
Lemon Balm Teas and Beverages
Making a cup of lemon balm tea is as easy.
Lemon Balm Tea Recipe
- Pour boiling water over dried leaves at a ratio of about 1 Tablespoon of dried herbs per cup of water (more of less to tasted and depending on if you prefer a stronger or milder brew).
- Let steep for ~10 minutes (more for stronger tea, less for milder).
- Strain into cup and enjoy hot, or add sweetened if desired and ice to enjoy cold.
- Dried leaves should be strained.
- Fresh leaves can be left in the cup or teapot, if desired.
- For a sweeter beverage, we like maple syrup, honey, stevia or a splash of 100% juice.
- Lemon balm pairs well with most herbal flavors, making the flavor possibilities endless.
We like to make herbal iced tea with lemon balm and maple syrup or stevia for those who like it a little sweet. There are any number of delightful combinations such as adding lemon balm to cucumber water or homemade ginger ale. Add lemon balm to anything that is enhanced by a zesty minty lemon flavor.
For maximum flavor release we like to gently crush or roll the fresh leaves between fingers just before adding to a beverage. If serving it to company, it may look better to keep the leave the leaves unrumpled.
Lemon Balm Beverages
- Cucumber water with fresh crushed lemon balm
- Homemade ginger ale with fresh crushed lemon balm
- Watermelon smoothie – using seeds and lemon zest makes this an even healthier blended, you won’t notice the seeds but they’ll add lots of nutrients along with the lemon balm.
- Lemon balm water – enjoy throughout the day
- Herbal iced tea – steep lemon balm by itself or with other herbs and dried fruits; add maple syrup or stevia to taste for mildly sweet tea
You can have fun experimenting with all kinds of other herbs, fruits and spices you may have on hand for an herbal blend, such as:
- Bee balm
- Blueberry leaves (blueberry and blackberry leaves make great tea)
- Dried fruits pieces, including dried lemon and other citrus
- Spices such as cinnamon sticks and cloves
Growing Lemon Balm
In the mint family, lemon balm plants are readily available at your local garden center during the spring and early summer months. You will find them alongside the herb and vegetable plants. Two to three starter plants are usually plenty for the average backyard garden.
Lemon balm is a perennial herb in zones 4-9.
Mint plants are known for their prolific growth, and our friend, lemon balm, is no exception. Take into consideration the size of the mature plant when deciding on a location in your space. Plants will reach two feet in height at maturity, with a spreading nature that can be controlled with proper care.
We’ve chosen to grow our lemon balm in pots to minimize spread.
Ample space between your plants will promote adequate air circulation, protecting the lemon balm from problems associated with too much moisture such as fungus or disease. Buttery, white flowers will appear late in the growing season, attracting beneficial pollinators to the garden.
Select a spot in your garden that receives at least six hours of full sun per day. Lemon balm thrives in cooler climates, but can be successfully grown in warmer areas. The key is to provide a few hours of shade in the hot afternoons, giving your lemon balm respite from soaring late afternoon temperatures.
Planting Lemon Balm
Lemon balm grows best in well drained soil. A mixture of equal parts sand, compost, and topsoil is ideal. Any well drained garden soil will do as long as it’s not too heavy or holds too much moisture.
Dig a hole twice as big in diameter as your lemon balm starter pot. Place your lemon balm in the hole and gently fill the hole with soil, making sure the plant is level with the soil.
Water well after transplanting. Transplanting is recommended during cool evening hours to give the lemon balm plant time to recover before higher temperatures return.
Watering Lemon Balm
The watering requirements for lemon balm are a very important component in your success. They need just enough water, but not too much. Herbs do not like to sit in damp soil, so moderation is key.
Start with an even watering twice a week, unless soil seems overly dry or wet. Adjust your watering accordingly, checking the soil for moisture each time. Soil should feel dry before watering.
Your lemon balm plant will become stronger and bigger over time, and once established, only water sparingly, not letting more than two weeks pass between waterings.
All herbs do best when watered in the morning hours, thus giving the plants the moisture they need during daylight hours. Allowing leaves or roots to remain wet overnight will invite problems, so it is best to avoid evening watering.
All herbs do best when watered in the morning hours to avoid wet roots overnight. Let them drink by day and breath by night.
Fertilizer for Lemon Balm
Lemon balm loves to be surrounded by compost a few times each growing season. No commercial fertilizer will be needed as long as good quality compost is used to supplement your soil from time to time.
You should fertilize lemon balm with compost at least once a month. Gently lift the lemon balm leaves from the ground and apply the compost, being careful not to crush the leaves. The compost will feed your lemon balm plants while improving your garden soil overall.
Following these steps, your lemon balm should keep growing well into late summer and early fall.
Overwintering Lemon Balm
When the growing season ends, simply cut back your lemon balm stems to two to three inches, then cover with compost or mulch. In the springtime, simply uncover your plants to start new growth each spring.
Harvesting Lemon Balm
Your lemon balm will grow quickly allowing you to harvest and use it in very little time. Make certain your plant has at least thirty leaves before you begin to harvest it for use. You can pick individual leaves or cut stalks with scissors or garden shears.
Fresh mint leaves can be used immediately or stored as you would other fresh herbs. The lemon balm leaves release a wonderful, uplifting lemon scent when crushed between the fingers. A stalk or two is plenty to make a cup of hot tea.
How to Dry Lemon Balm
To harvest larger amounts of lemon balm, drying is required. Cut back your plant as far as you feel comfortable. Take care to leave enough vigorous, healthy growth for your plant to regrow. Give the stems a gentle rinse with cool water, taking special care not to damage the leaves.
Air Drying Lemon Balm – 1-3 weeks
Air drying is not recommended for humid climates as your herbs are apt to get moldy before they get completely dried. For storing herb and making lemon balm salves and creams, oils and tinctures, you’ll either use dried lemon balm that’s crunchy and crumbles easily, or very fresh, just harvested lemon balm that you add to your medium of oil or alcohol.
Lay the leaves to dry on paper towels and gently pat dry to avoid mold. Bunch your stems together loosely in groups of six to ten, depending on size, and tie with twine or yarn. Hang your bunches upside down in a cool dark place, such as a closet, until fully dry.
Leaves will crumble when touched once they are sufficiently dried. Humidity levels in your area will determine the speed of drying.
It should take from one to three weeks for your lemon balm to be free of moisture. Store the leaves in an airtight container for future use.
Your lemon balm should last through the winter months and well into spring. After a year, replace with your newest harvest.
Faster Ways to Dry Lemon Balm
Living in North Carolina, our herbs can get moldy before drying if using the hanging air-dry method. So we sun dry or dehydrate our herbs.
Sun Dried Lemon Balm – 4-8 hours in full sun
We prefer to dry them on a low-access roof top on sunny days. Sundried lemon balm is ready within one day or less in the sun. Sun drying allows us to dry much larger quantities in a shorter period of time.
To dry the same amount in most home dehydrators takes more time to lay out and load the trays. You then need to run the machine continuously day and night until all of the herbs have been dried. So for efficiency, plus the additional energy we imagine coming from the sun into the drying process, we prefer sundried.
CAUTION: If sun drying herbs uncovered, as in our photo below, there are some issues to be aware of.
Problems in Sun Drying Herbs
- The wind can blow your herbs away
- Wind can also blow away the cloth you lay your herbs on, so place rocks or something on each corner to anchor it
- Ants or insects can get to them, especially sweet foods like fruits
- If you forget to bring them in when it rains, you’ll probably lose the entire batch (yep… speaking from experience!)
A simple option for sun drying herbs and foods outside in a full sun area is to use window screens.
Screens for Sundried Herbs and Foods
- Select an area with a sunny surface, such as a lower roof top, car hood, sidewalk or driveway
- Place one window screen on surface
- Add 4 bricks, blocks or wood blocks under each of the 4 corners of the screen
- Layer your herbs or foods
- Add another screen on top – for most foods you’re drying, the window frames will provide approximately 1/2″ of space between the screens for food to lay.
If you have good access to a reasonably level and protected surface in the sun go for it! Sun drying is free, and some believe that it imbues more of the sun’s energy and prana (life force) into the foods.
Dehydrator Dried Lemon Balm – ~3 hours average time
When you can’t sun dry, then Dehydrators and freeze dryers work well. Dehydrators are an efficient, effective and relatively inexpensive way to dry fresh herbs. the dehydrator is our default, and we’re grateful for it.
For more on dehydrating foods, we’ve written an article on the best food dehydrators, which includes hanging air drying option dehydrator racks as well as oven dehydration.
Freeze Drying Lemon Balm
Freeze dryers are expensive, but great for doing larger volumes. One member of the Planting for Retirement Facebook group prefers her freeze dryer for drying herbs and her dehydrators for veggies.
Lemon Balm – Worth Growing
An interest in growing your own lemon balm is one step towards becoming a healthier, more energized person. Gardening provides us respite from a stressful outside world – a place to call our own and grow whatever pleases our bodies and souls.
People can easily grow their own lemon balm, indoors and out, making it more accessible to all. Lemon balm is easy to grow, harvest, and use. Lemon balm is a helpful herb that deserves a place in our hearts and gardens. The work you do this growing season will give you years of healthy, happy rewards!
Lemon Balm in Ginger Ale
You can make a delicious and ginger ale with lemon balm for a refreshingly healthy summer beverage. Find a simple homemade ginger ale recipe here, then just add springs of crushed lemon balm.
Herbs Aren’t Always Harmless
It’s important to remember that herbs can be powerful and potent medicine, and they can have unexpected side effects that differ per person, in much the way pharmaceuticals can. And of course, pharmaceuticals have their roots in herbal medicine.
Just as prescription medicines can interact negatively with certain conditions or combinations of meds, so too with herbal remedies.
Article written by Contributing Writer, Janine Roberts and GardensAll.com.
Comments from the Community
Contribution by Jane Seeley, retired, gardener, photographer, food artist
Also, a little known fact about Lemon Balm. In Rosemary Gladstar’s book, she says:
“Lemon balm is considered a thyroid inhibitor; those suffering from hypothyroidism or low thyroid activity should use it only under the guidance of a health-care practitioner.”
Research indicates that those with hyperthyroidism should seek a health practitioner’s advice before using lemon balm, and especially if on any medication.
How did this lemon balm information become so important to me? Well, I developed a goiter and discovered it shortly after harvesting, masticating and making lemon balm tincture. Since my thyroid levels were “normal” there is little cause and effect in my case but it did give me pause to explore how powerful herbs can be and the need to thoroughly research them before using, especially in larger quantities.
The good news is I have a benign cyst on my thyroid, and am taking iodine in the form of kelp tablets and am keeping an eye on it as my antibody levels were a bit elevated meaning there’s something going on & hopefully it will normalize soon as the goiter has already shrunk quite a bit. I’m pretty sure lots of people have thyroid issues so you may want to make a note in your article.
~Jane Seeley, retired, gardener, photographer, food artist
Garden Food Art by Jane Seeley
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