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The Complete Guide to Grow and Harvest Lemon Balm

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Lemon balm, scientifically known as Melissa officinalis, is a perennial herb from the mint family and is cherished for its lemon-scented leaves.

Widely recognized for its therapeutic properties, lemon balm serves various purposes in kitchens and medicine cabinets alike.

Its leaves, either fresh or dried, can enhance flavor in dishes and make calming teas that aid in reducing stress and improving sleep.

This guide provides detailed insights into cultivating and harvesting lemon balm, ensuring that even beginners can enjoy the full benefits of this versatile plant.

Basics of Lemon Balm


Lemon balm thrives in temperate climates and is hardy in USDA zones 3 through 7. It features small, heart-shaped leaves and during late spring to mid-summer, it bears tiny, white flowers that are full of nectar, attracting bees and butterflies to the garden.

This plant can grow up to two feet high and spreads horizontally across the ground, making it an excellent ground cover option, albeit sometimes a vigorous one.

Uses and Benefits

The benefits of lemon balm extend far beyond its aromatic presence in gardens. Medically, it is acclaimed for its ability to ease symptoms of stress, anxiety, and insomnia, thanks to its mild sedative properties.

Lemon balm’s antiviral properties make it effective in topical applications for cold sores. In culinary practices, it transforms into a delightful addition to salads, soups, and teas, offering a mild lemon flavor that is both refreshing and soothing.

Garden Preparation for Lemon Balm

Site Selection

Choosing the right location is crucial for growing healthy lemon balm. This herb prefers partial shade but can tolerate full sun in cooler climates, as long as it receives protection from harsh afternoon rays.

Lemon balm flourishes in well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Ensuring proper drainage is key to prevent root rot, which this plant is prone to in overly wet conditions.

Companion Planting

Lemon balm is a friendly neighbor to many garden plants. Planting it near tomatoes or fruit trees can enhance their growth and flavor.

Moreover, its strong scent repels many pests, protecting surrounding plants. However, gardeners should avoid planting lemon balm near rue and basil as they can inhibit each other’s growth.

Plant Setup

Seed Planting

Planting lemon balm by seeds can begin either indoors or directly in the garden. To start indoors, sow seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost.

Use shallow trays filled with potting mix, placing seeds on the surface, as they need light to germinate.

Keep the soil moist but not soggy, and place the tray in a warm, bright spot. Seedlings usually appear within two weeks.

For direct sowing, wait until after the last frost and scatter the seeds over prepared soil. Thin the seedlings to prevent overcrowding as they grow.


For gardeners preferring a head start, purchasing starter plants is a viable option. Choose robust, green plants and transplant them to the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Space the plants 20 to 24 inches apart to give them room to spread.

When planting, set the lemon balm at the same depth it was growing in its pot to encourage a smooth transition to its new environment.

Lemon Balm Care

Water and Nutrition

Lemon balm requires regular watering, especially during dry spells, to keep the soil consistently moist.

However, it is crucial to avoid overwatering, as the plant does not tolerate standing water. A good rule of thumb is to water when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch.

Regarding nutrition, lemon balm is not a heavy feeder, but it benefits from occasional fertilization. Apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in the early spring and perhaps again in mid-summer to support vigorous growth.

Pruning and Control

Pruning is essential not only to maintain the shape and health of the lemon balm but also to prevent it from taking over your garden, as it can become invasive.

Regularly trimming the plant will encourage bushier growth and prevent it from flowering, as flowering can reduce leaf production. Remove any dry or yellowing leaves to keep the plant healthy and attractive.

Dealing with Pests and Diseases

Pest Control

While generally robust, lemon balm can attract certain pests such as aphids and spider mites. These pests can be managed by spraying the plants with a strong water jet to dislodge the pests or by using insecticidal soap.

Natural predators like ladybugs can also be introduced into the garden as a biological control method.

Disease Management

Lemon balm is susceptible to fungal diseases, particularly in humid climates. Good air circulation is key to preventing these issues. Space the plants adequately and prune regularly to ensure air can freely circulate around them.

If signs of fungal infection appear, such as powdery mildew or leaf spot, treat the plants with an appropriate fungicide, preferably organic, to minimize impact on beneficial insects and the surrounding environment.

Harvesting and Preservation of Lemon Balm

Harvest Techniques

The best time to harvest lemon balm leaves is in the morning after the dew has dried but before the sun becomes too hot, as this is when the essential oils are most concentrated.

Use scissors to snip off the stems just above a leaf node, encouraging the plant to branch out and produce more leaves. Regular harvesting helps to keep the plant vigorous and healthy.

Storage Solutions

To preserve the flavor and medicinal properties of lemon balm, drying is the most effective method. Tie cut stems in small bunches and hang them upside down in a dry, airy space away from direct sunlight.

Once the leaves are completely dry, strip them from the stems and store them in an airtight container. For immediate use, lemon balm leaves can be frozen in ice cube trays with water or chopped and mixed with olive oil, which can then be frozen for later culinary use.

Growing and harvesting lemon balm can be a rewarding endeavor, yielding a crop that enhances both your garden and your health.

By following these guidelines, you can enjoy the lush growth of lemon balm and benefit from its culinary and medicinal properties throughout the year.

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