If you want to know how to grow lemon balm, there are three main things to keep in mind: It spreads like nobody’s business, it prefers shade and cooler soil … and it smells amazing!
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family, which includes many container garden staples like basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, catnip and mint itself.
The lemon balm plant closely resembles its cousin mint, spreading just as fast but with slightly larger leaves and a lemony aroma, mixed with a minty scent and flavor. It’s very easy to grow and can withstand less-than-ideal conditions including drought and under-fertilized soil.
I unintentionally grew lemon balm at a previous house, where the former owners had let theirs run wild. I loved walking by and picking a leaf or two, just for the scent. And it really did grow and spread fast in imperfect conditions. I barely touched it and it thrived year after year!
Lemon balm (botanical name Melissa officinalis) also known as sweet balm, is often mistaken for bee balm. That’s partly because Melissa is the Greek word for “honey bee,” because lemon balm is well-known for attracting bees. Officinalis means “of the shop” in Greek, referring to the popular use of lemon balm in herbal medicine and apothecaries more than 2000 years ago.
So if you’re trying to attract honey bees and other pollinators to your container garden, plant some lemon balm and let it flower!
Lemon balm leaves are great for making tea or adding a little citrus tang to dishes like pesto or salads. Thanks to its amazing scent, it’s also popular in aromatherapy and essential oils. Check out a list of recipes and other uses at the bottom of this post!
Read on for all the details about how to grow lemon balm in containers, including everything from sowing seeds to harvest and beyond.
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How to grow lemon balm in pots
Lemon balm grows well in areas with cool climates and prefers partial shade. It’s easy to grow from seed and in general isn’t fussy about conditions.
Originally found in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, and now naturalized almost everywhere, the lemon balm plant is an herbaceous perennial that grows about 24-36 inches tall.
When it goes to flower, you’ll see tiny blooms that are usually white or pink in color. If you let it flower and then go to seed, it will easily self-sow and spread vigorously.
That’s one big reason why growing lemon balm in pots is so appealing! It literally contains it so it can’t get out of control.
Growing lemon balm from seed or seedlings
Lemon balm seeds are teeny tiny, which makes them really easy to plant. Start indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last frost.
To sow seeds, you can use a soilless seed starting medium like coconut coir or Miracle-Gro seed-starting mix in a seed-starting tray. Those are the ones I use and highly recommend. You can also sow directly in the container you’re using for the season, if it’s warm enough (consistently above 50 degrees for daytime temps).
Gently press into the mix or soil. Lemon balm seeds need sunlight to germinate, so don’t bury them, and make sure they’re in a sunny window or under a grow light.
After sowing the seeds, I use a spray bottle on the mist or spray setting to keep them watered but not waterlogged during germination. You want to keep the medium moist enough not to dry out but not wet, to prevent fungus that loves to prey on seedlings.
Germination takes 10-14 days.
Once the seedlings have emerged, water them with room temperature water every day or two until they’re ready to be transferred into your potting mix or the container you plan to use for the season, if the outdoor temps are warm enough at that point.
Transplant outdoors once daytime temperatures are consistently 50 degrees or higher and all danger of frost has passed. That’s often about 1-2 weeks after the last expected frost.
This would also be the time to direct sow in your outdoor containers.
I highly recommend Botanical Interests for seeds. They have consistently high-quality seeds and the most amazing seed packets, like little works of art with helpful instructions.
If you’d rather start from seedlings, you can usually find some starter plants at your local garden center. Lemon balm is an herb garden favorite, like other members of the mint family, so it’s usually available in spring along with other popular herbs.
How to grow lemon balm from cuttings
Lemon balm propagates very easily from cuttings, which means you can take a cutting from another plant and root it in soil to grow a new one.
To take a cutting, cut a 4-6 inch long stem, then strip the lower leaves off the bottom two inches.
Fill a pot with moist, soilless potting mix, then bury the stems in the soil with just the leaves showing above the surface.
Water around the cutting, but don’t water directly on top of it yet, because you might dislodge it from the soil. Keep your plant in a warm spot with plenty of sun until new roots begin to grow, which should take about two weeks.
Once you have new roots, if it’s in a small container it’s time to transplant your lemon balm into a larger pot.
Growing lemon balm in pots
Choose a partially shady spot or at least somewhere the lemon balm can be protected from midday sun throughout the growing season. Lemon balm does best with fertile soil and consistent moisture.
Always use high quality potting mix, to be sure you’re using a fertile medium with good moisture control and the right balance of organic matter. My favorites are Miracle-Gro Potting Mix and Fox Farm Ocean Forest Potting Soil Mix.
When you plant the seeds, seedlings or cuttings in the potting soil, include a scoop of aged compost and/or some slow-release fertilizer pellets. Most commercial potting soil has a decent baseline amount of nutrients, but an additional long-term boost is still a good idea.
Keep reading for more details about container selection and how to water and fertilize your lemon balm.
Choose a container
Pots for lemon balm should be 8-10 inches or more in diameter and 12 inches deep to accommodate the plant’s strong and fast-spreading root system.
Like its cousin mint, lemon balm grows bushy and tall (up to 18 inches) and spreads fast. So while small pots can work for this hardy herb, if you have larger containers or a big 10-gallon grow bag, use that instead!
Since lemon balm prefers shade and cooler soil, I would avoid dark plastic or glazed containers, which absorb and hold in heat. But lemon balm is sturdy and can grow just about anywhere, so if that’s all you have, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
Lemon balm containers should always have drainage holes to prevent soggy soil and root fungus. (This is true of any container garden plant.)
How to care for lemon balm
Lemon balm thrives in cool, moist soil but is also drought-resistant.
Although lemon balm is not susceptible to many pests, it can sometimes be attacked by aphids or spider mites. These insects are usually brought in from other plants nearby, so the best way to repel them is by keeping your lemon balm healthy and well-watered.
Lemon balm does not require much water during the summer months, but it should have a steady supply.
Be sure to check the soil before watering your plant, and water when the top inch or two of potting soil is dry.
Because lemon balm is a nitrogen-loving plant, it helps to fertilize regularly throughout the year.
Adding time-release fertilizer pellets in the potting soil when you plant your lemon balm helps maintain a steady level of nutrients.
I use and highly recommend Jobe’s Organic Slow-Release Fertilizer. It’s a great option because it’s easy to use and provides additional nutrients for those first few months.
While it isn’t absolutely necessary, it’s also a good idea to use a water soluble fertilizer every 2-3 weeks. You’ll get even more lush, bright green growth.
A balanced fertilizer or something heavier in nitrogen will work well for lemon balm, because nitrogen encourages foliage growth. I recommend and use fish emulsion and organic bone meal. Be sure to dilute per package instructions.
(Want to learn more about fertilizer? Check out my Fertilizer 101 post!)
How to harvest lemon balm
Lemon balm is so easy to harvest: Just pick a few leaves (or a handful) when you need it!
Be sure to pick leaves throughout the summer for fresh use and to encourage growth. It can also be dried like other herbs, but the scent and flavor fade quite a bit.
If you need a lot, or want to dry or preserve some, you can cut it back by ⅓ or even more. Some gardeners cut lemon balm and other herbs back to just a few inches above the base once or twice each season, to reinvigorate growth.
When trimming back larger amounts, use garden shears to avoid damaging the stems. This will help it continue to grow back healthy and productive.
Thanks to its vigorous nature, you can cut lemon balm way back (like ⅓ of its size) and it will come back quickly with new growth.
If you go this route, I would only attempt on mature plants and give it plenty of time in between harvests to bounce back to its full, bushy self.
This is a good thing to try if your plant gets stressed from lack of water, pests or other issues. If you notice any signs of mold or mildew on your lemon balm, you can snip off the affected leaves and branches to keep the rest of the plant healthy.
If you’re using the leaves for cooking, it’s best to harvest before flowering occurs. When a plant flowers, it sends more energy to the flower and less to the foliage, so you lose some potency and the leaves turn bitter.
Growing lemon balm indoors
Lemon balm can be grown indoors year round, as long as it’s given enough sunlight and water. Keep your plants outside during the warm summer months, then bring them inside before temperatures drop below 40-50 degrees.
When growing inside, lemon balm needs more sun because it’s indirect light. So keep it in a sunny window as much as possible.
If your window is very sunny with more than 5-6 hours of sun per day, you might need to rotate your container so all sides get some sunlight love and don’t burn.
Also be sure not to overwater indoors, as it can be more susceptible to fungal diseases, powdery mildew and root rot when it isn’t getting as much direct sunlight.
Bee balm vs lemon balm
While often mistaken for each other, bee balm (Monarda didyma) and lemon balm are not the same thing.
Bee balm has the same medicinal properties as lemon balm, but it’s generally more bitter.
If you’re looking for a lemony taste in your tea or recipes, try using lemon balm instead.
Lemon balm companion plants
Lemon balm is known for repelling mosquitoes, so it can be helpful to plant your lemon balm near areas where mosquito activity occurs.
When grown close together, lemon balm and sage plants create a natural mosquito repellent that can help you enjoy the outdoors without getting bitten by bugs all day long.
Other types of plants that lemon balm partner well with include other members of the mint family, beans, carrots, celery and strawberries.
Uses and recipes for fresh lemon balm
Lemon balm is often used in cooking to enhance the flavor of fish, veggies, desserts, beverages, herbal teas and appetizers.
It pairs well with many different foods because its strong citrus scent complements almost anything! You can use fresh leaves or dried, although fresh will have a stronger flavor.
Some examples of recipes that use fresh lemon balm:
- Steam a pan of white fish with lemon zest, chopped garlic, pepper and a few sprigs of lemon balm
- Use as a citrusy alternative to parsley
- Chop and add to salads and lemon balm vinaigrette
- Make some refreshing lemon balm strawberry iced tea
- Steam artichokes with lemon juice, olive oil and lemon balm
- Brew a pot of lemon balm tea with fresh lemon balm and mint leaves; add a touch of honey for sweetness
- Make herbed butter for fish or meat
- Blend with garlic, pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil to make lemon balm pesto
- Mix with lemons and sugar to make lemon balm lemonade
- Make a lemon balm tincture to help soothe digestive issues, calm the nerves, and promote restful sleep
Lemon balm is easy to grow in containers, and it’s perfect because containers curb invasive growth. Now that you know how to grow lemon balm, how to plant from seed, sun requirements and all the other growing instructions, you’re good to go! Just find a shady spot and some potting soil, and get your own plants growing in no time. Let us know how it goes in the comments!
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