Graceful, lovely Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) makes a delicious addition to tea, soups, and stir-fries. Further, this botanical wonder is also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, can be used as a natural decorative screen, as a mosquito repellant, and produces a refreshing, calming, citrusy fragrance.
Although it may not always be available in your local supermarket, Lemongrass can be successfully grown and harvested in your own home garden, indoors or out.
As a tropical perennial, Lemongrass will return its benefits, year after year. If you live in a very warm climate (Zones 10-12,) in which the temperature never drops below 40 degrees F, your Lemongrass can remain happily outdoors, year-round.
For the rest of us, Lemongrass replanted each spring from seeds, cuttings, and starter plants, or grown in large, portable pots that can be moved inside when the temperature drops. If properly treated, it can live indoors, throughout the year, but will more successfully thrive if allowed to breathe fresh, outside air when warm enough.
First, you need some baby plants. You can either propagate them from seeds or cuttings, or adopt some healthy Lemongrass Starter Plants – ready for nestling into your soil and looking for a good home.
If planting seeds, sow them about ¼ inch deep and 1 inch apart in your soil, kept warm, and evenly moist, but not heavily wet. Taking about one to two weeks to germinate, it’s recommended you begin them indoors and transplant into their permanent home once they’ve reached about 6 inches tall and, if destined for outdoor living, when the outside temperature stays above 40 degrees F.
If you want to try your hand at growing them from cuttings, place Lemongrass stalks, bulb end down, into about 2 inches of water and watch for roots to grow. Be sure to change the water every couple days to prevent stagnation and possible rot. Once the roots have grown about one to two inches (about two to three weeks,) the plant is ready to transfer to your warm garden or large pot. Keep in mind, the cell structure of water roots is different from that of soil roots, so it’s imperative to keep the soil generously moist in the early days of transplanting. You can even cover the plant with a plastic bag to seal in the humidity. Another method, is to daily add soil to the water to allow the roots to transition in cell structure.
Whether growing from seeds or cuttings, hold off on adding fertilizer until the plants are actively growing in their permanent home.
For the Outdoorsy Types:
Once you’ve propagated or purchased your starter plants, transplant them to a sunny section of your garden, setting them about 24 inches apart into fertile, well-drained soil, or singly into prepared 5-gallon pots. If planted in a desert environment, however, some filtered afternoon shade is beneficial. Lemongrass does not tolerate heavy, wet soil, but must stay evenly moist, never allowing the soil to completely dry out and, for you desert-dwellers, appreciating a heavy misting in the mornings.
Your Lemongrass will benefit if regularly fed a nitrogen-based fertilizer. Alternatively, plants can be grown in beds of composted soil into which you routinely add organic material. As always, mulching will retard weed growth while maintaining moisture. Keep in mind, however, potted plants will always need supplemental feeding.
In ideal conditions, Lemongrass will reach 3 to 6-feet tall (in the shorter range for potted plants) and serve double-duty as a decorative ornamental grass. Plants form a rhizome, or bulb, but do not aggressively spread, so normal harvesting and occasional cutting back of the longest top growth will satisfy the more formal gardener.
For Indoor Enthusiasts:
The success of growing Lemongrass indoors, depends upon replicating healthy outdoor conditions as much as possible. Among other things, that means planting them in fertile, well-drained potting soil in which you regularly feed them with a Nitrogen-Rich Fertilizer or the addition of Earthworm Castings. This is especially important since potted plants quickly deplete their nutrients and depend upon the gardener for continued sustenance.
Size matters, so to help your Lemongrass plants reach their greatest indoor growth potential, plant them in 5-gallon pots, approximately 12 inches in diameter. You can, however, grow more petite plants by placing them in smaller pots and harvesting more often by carefully removing the stalks, bulb and all, along the outside of the plant.
Ensure your potted plants bask in the sun as much as possible by placing them in unobstructed sunlight, preferably near a south/south-western facing window. And, just like their outdoor cousins, your indoor Lemongrass plants must have soil kept diligently moist. The smaller the pot, the quicker they can dry out. If you have to be away for awhile and don’t have a plant-sitter, a product with water saving crystals can help maintain moisture longer.
Once your plants are about a foot tall, you can begin to reap the culinary benefits of their lovely foliage. Just snip with sharp scissors or garden shears (ahhh, inhale that lemony fragrance!) and use the leaves for flavoring teas and soups. If you cut more than you currently need, dry the extra leaves and store for later use. (Check the Internet for various drying methods.) The outer leaves are sometimes tough, but even those can be used by bruising them, adding them to your recipe for flavor, then scooping them out before serving, much like you would bay leaves.
When harvesting the stalk for recipes, use a sharp blade and cut as close to the soil as possible. It’s the soft, inner part of the stalk closest to the base that is most often utilized. Stalks can be kept in the fridge for several days by keeping them in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel. You can also chop pieces of the stalks and freeze them for later use.
The Internet is a great source of recipes for all parts of this aromatic, edible plant. Lemongrass is often used in Asian dishes, but also in other delightfully surprising ones such as ice cream and smoothies.
Oh, and one more thing:
Cats LOVE nibbling on Lemongrass and enjoy its catnip-like qualities. This is fine for the cat, in moderation, but not so much for the plant.
If your plants share their home with feline company, consider reserving a plant just for them and keeping the others out of harm’s way. (Um, good luck with that! LOL. Although we have heard that spraying the plants with diluted lemon juice sometimes works as do some commercially prepared pet repellent products.)
If you have further questions about growing Lemongrass, or any other gardening questions, you are welcome to ask our online Master Gardener, a service that is completely free and always helpful.