Monday, April 17, 2006

4/17/06 Garden Journal: Lemon Balm: Growing It, Drying It, Using It

Growing perennial medicinal herbs: Lovely lemon balm in the homemade greenhouse

Realization Of The Day:
This is the best looking lemon balm I've ever grown.

For the most part, my herbs never do nearly as well in pots as they do in the ground, which is where I've been planting (and replanting) my lemon balm for years. It often disappears over the winter.

Since lemon balm is easily started from seed, this was not such a big deal. But now that I've finally figured out the secrets (grow it in pots that are overwintered in the greenhouse and fertilize with plenty of sheep manure tea) I see a bit of extra time on my hands—and some newly available space in the garden.

I did spot one fairly good looking specimen coming to life in what I am now referring to as the echinacea bed today, so perhaps I'm wrong, and this is just a good year for lemon balm. No matter what, the stuff in the pot looks fantastic.

A little bit about lemon balm:
According to the wonderful book Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 Teas, Tonics, Oils, Salves, Tinctures, and Other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family (400 pages; paperback; just $11.53 at, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a beautiful and fragrant member of the mint family and one of nature's best nervine herbs. Lemon balm's leaves and flowers contain volatile oils, tannins, and bitters that have a definite relaxing, antispasmodic effoct on the stomach and nervous system. It is excellent for stomach distress and general exhaustion and can be used as a mild sedative and for insomnia.

Applied topically, lemon balm has been found to be helpful for herpes. It is often made into a cream for this purpose, though I find that the tincture works as well, and the essential oil is the treatment of choice in European countries.

Fresh lemon balm is most effective for medicinal preparations. It makes a delicious tea and can be served with lemon and honey throughout the day to alleviate stress and anxiety. For a delicious nervine tonic, blend equal amounts of lemon balm, oats, and chamomile.

Making a pot of lemon balm tea requires nothing more than picking a handful of fresh leaves and pouring boiling water over them; steep in a teapot or covered cup so the beneficial elements do not escape with the steam. I also like to toss a few leaves in with other types of tea, like the Celestial Seasoning's Tension Tamer I've been drinking for 25 years.

It's also easy to dry your own lemon balm. Since our high humidity most of the year often inhibits successfully drying herbs, I usually wait until the colder months to preserve my harvest. I simply put the lemon balm in a brown paper bag, seal it with a clothespin, and place it on a high shelf near the woodstove in the living room.

The best time to harvest most herbs, including lemon balm, is early in the morning when the oil levels in the leaves are highest.

You can even add lemon balm to baked goods, though I have yet to try this. My favorite thing to do with it? Pinch off a few leaves, rub them between my fingers, and inhale deeply. So lemony, so calming, so lovely.

Miscellaneous Goings On In The Garden:
--Potatoes survived that last frost and are re-sprouting through the thick layer of sheep manure/shredded hay mulch I gave them.

--No sign of mache seeds sprouting in raised bed with kohlrabi. Need to clear out healthy weed crop and replant something else there.

--No sign either of Lutz Winter Keeper beets and Amish Deer Tongue lettuce companion planted in the onion plot. (Not surprising about the lettuce, as I recently realized these were the same 2004 seeds that didn't come up when I started them indoors. Despite what many authorities say, I find that lettuce seeds rarely last more than one year.) Weeds are coming up well instead. Need to decide if I want to sow other seeds or just mulch between the onion rows with grass clippings like I usually do.

--Raspberries canes are leafing out nicely. Seem to get greener by the hour.

--Did a brief dig into the thick grassy weeds looking for boysenberry life. Didn't find any yet. Think raspberries are my best bet for berries here. Well, them and. . .
--Strawberry blossoms popping up all over!

--10 San Marzano tomato plants seem happy in their new bed (that 11th one is definitely dead).

--Big pot of sage in greenhouse is about to flower (know I should pinch off blooms, but they're so pretty, and I hardly use sage anyway)

--Chive blossoms are already poking out.

Need To (A partial, ongoing, never ever going to be completed list):
—Start some basil seeds! (click here for all my basil growing posts, and click here for my Homemade Italian Sausage Recipe with fresh basil, oregano, garlic, and fennel seeds, plus links to all of my basil growing posts at the bottom of the page)
—Get to that neglected asparagus bed—and fast.

Coming Up: These new posts are now up!
Lettuce and Arugula in the Garden: Salads For Those Who Are Short on Time, Space, & Sunshine
Spring Green Garlic: Growing It, Cooking with It, Loving It, plus a Recipe for Easy Green Garlic Fettuccine
Growing Dragon Langerie (Dragon Tongue) Bush Beans: of my favorite heirloom bush beans. I'll be planting my first crop of beans on the fertile days in the next first quarter (April 28th, 29th, May 2nd, 3rd, & 4th). Will you?



  1. I think that you might be right about the old lettuce seeds. That's been one of my realizations this year.

  2. Susan, we are in the process of digging up a small portion of your backyard. We like the theory of Gardening by the Yard so we will have a small garden. If I start basil from seeds, do I need to do that indoors and then transplant them. I have always bought the "ready-made" ones from the nursery but I thought since I never seem to have enough Basil, I might try some on my own. Does it do well transplanted into a garden?

  3. I was just admiring and smelling my lemon balm this morning ! I love when the dogs roll in it and then they smell like lemons.

  4. Ah, so that's it. I had a healthy batch of lemon balm that disappeared. I realize now that it DID grow well for a few years. I'm in the Bay Area, California, much more temperate climate - I think.
    My lemon verbena is still going strong but I was just pondering adding lemon balm back to the herb selection.
    Just started visiting your blog and I really enjoy it. Helps me enjoy all the work I need to do in my garden

  5. Must be the lemon balm year as I've never seen mine more happy. I think it is because it has had a year in a sunny location, vs the shade it received at our former home. I love chives and here they are almost ready to open too. My herb bed really filled out in a year. I want to expand it and give them all more room to grow. Enjoyed the lamb photos too.

  6. I like a little lemon balm minced into a white wine vinaigrette. We have a giant shrub of it because it never quite fully dies back here in the winter. :-)

    vlb5757 - I always direct-seed basil once the soil gets warm, because it germinates pretty quickly and then gets off to a running start. I have never tried transplanting it.

  7. Hi Laurie,
    Yep, I've read in seed catalogs that lettuce seeds will last three years (or even longer), and year after year I just don't find that to be the case. I'm finally getting to the point where I either overseed just to use them up, or actually (gasp) toss out old seeds. There's really no point in losing an entire crop when you can buy another packet of fresh seeds for a dollar or two.

    Hi Vickie,
    LOL, did you really mean to say that you're "digging up a small portion of your backyard"--meaning mine? I've had various pests and predators try to take over the garden, but never actually take it.

    Re starting basil seeds (and thanks to Jamie for her input on this): I've always started my basil seeds indoors in little containers for two reasons:

    1) Usually when I start them, it's much too cold outside still for them to germinate in the ground. And if they do sprout and start to grow, there's a good chance they'll get killed by cool weather--I've had basil plants turn black at temps well above 40F. They just don't like the cold.

    2) I don't grow a big patch of basil. Instead, I interplant/companion plant it with things like peppers and tomatoes. Companion planting makes everybody happier, plus it keeps the pollinators from staying in just one spot while confusing hungry pests. This is the problem huge commercial growers face (and why they resort to so many toxic pesticides): if you have acres and acres of corn and nothing else, once some corn borers (or other pest) finds your plot, there's no reason for them to leave until they've decimated the entire thing.

    If you mix and match your plantings, though (which isn't hard to do at all in a backyard garden), insects get confused as they must navigate through plants they don't care for in search of their next meal.

    So anyway, I always spread my basil plants out, so it's nice to have them in individual plugs ready to place them in the garden wherever I want. Basil does just fine when it is transplanted (as you know from buying plants in previous years.)

    If you'd like a nice little patch of just basil, though (hopefully surrounded by other herbs or veggies), you can certainly direct seed like Jamie does--as long as the weather and soil have warmed up enough.

    Hope that helps!

    Hi Leigh,
    Now if I could only get my dogs to roll around in lemon balm instead of, um, other stuff. Actually, no, nix that. It might be the reason the lemon balm keeps disappearing, LOL!

    Hi Amybee,
    Welcome to my garden! Glad you're enjoying your visits here. Oh yes, you're living in my old stomping grounds which is much more temperate (we actually have four seasons in Missouri).

    Lemon verbena--that's something I always read about and never remeber to grow. Must add that to my Want To Plant List. Thanks for the reminder.

    Yes, I definitely think you should put lemon balm back into the herb selection, especially as Petunia's Gardener and I have declared this the Year Of The Lemon Balm. Maybe try growing it in a pot this time?

    Hi P's Gardener,
    It's amazing how fast happy herbs can spread. I long to have one of my raised beds (which I still refer to as "the herb bed" even though the only herb in it is the chives, LOL) spilling over with herbs. But I'm always afraid to actually plant them in the ground. I need to get over that and just take whatever losses that come, because I'm sure I'll have some great gains as well. : )

    Hi Jamie,
    Oh a giant lemon balm shrub sounds divine. And I'll have to try that vinaigrette tip--interesting.

    Hi Amy,
    Yes, send me a photo of your beans. Wow, sounds like your garden is really coming along already. So exciting. : )


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