Four Factors for Growing Great Lemon Balm

Growing lemon balm or Melissa officinalis means growing a hardy herb garden perennial that has a nasty habit of spreading a little bit too much if you are not vigilant.

Sowing Lemon Balm

I would sow seeds indoors in early March to have small transplants for June. Sow several seeds per small pot and barely cover the seed. Keep the soil temperature at 70F and in 3 weeks, you'll have small seedlings. Once they are germinated, grow them at 60F in a cool, sunny windowsill to stop them from stretching.

lemon balm

Lemon balm leaves


Transplant outdoors after all danger of frost. Once they are established they are perfectly hardy into USDA zone 4.

Outdoors, this plant will grow 24" tall with deep green, heart-shaped leaves with the square stems common to other members of the mint family. The small white flowers will attract bees and other pollinators. This is a good thing if you're trying to grow squash and other vegetables that require pollinators to increase your crop yields.

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Harvest the leaves just before the flowers start to form and you'll find the lemon fragrance to be quite strong. You can use them just about anywhere you want a lemon taste. Personally, I don't use it in drinks as I find there's a bit of a menthol taste but in cooking, they're fine. I do know quite a few folks who do use this herb in their drinks, so perhaps it is only my taste buds that are wonky.

Right after the flowers form, you'll find the plant will start to look really ugly, stretched out and the leaves will begin to look ratty. Shear the plant back by half (cut a 24" plant back to 12") and it will produce fresh, new leaves for harvest.

lemon balm

Lemon balm illustration showing parts of plant


You can obtain more lemon balm by dividing the plants in spring or fall, taking tender tip cuttings and rooting them or by allowing the plant to self-sow (you have to let the flowers mature and set seed to do this).

If you have an exposed garden, one that gets quite cold, you might want to consider cutting back the plant after hard frosts and mulching it. Remove the mulch first thing in the spring or the mice will enjoy the tender new shoots and your efforts at growing lemon balm will be appreciated by them – not you.

Using Lemon Balm

It is a substitute for lemon flavoring. It has a subtle off-flavor when used as a main flavour some folks (including myself) don't particularly like but if you're using it as a secondary flavor, it's fine.

Traditional Uses Include

  • digestive problems: including bloating, gas (flatulence), vomiting, and colic.

  • pain: including menstrual cramps, headache and toothache

  • mental disorders: including hysteria and melancholia

  • calming effects" sleep problems, and restlessness

  • improving memory: aromatherapy for Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • anxiety: swollen airways, rapid heartbeat due to nervousness, high blood pressure

  • physical uses: sores, tumors, and insect bites

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