Graceful, lovely Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) makes a delicious addition to tea, soups, and stir-fries. This botanical wonder is also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. It can be used as a natural decorative screen, as a mosquito repellant, and produces a refreshing, calming, citrusy fragrance.
It may not always be available in your local supermarket, but you can grow and harvest Lemongrass 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, you can plant Lemongrass can each spring from seeds, cuttings, and starter plants. Or grow it in large, portable pots. These can be moved inside when the temperature drops. If you tend it properly, it can live indoors throughout the year, but it will 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 get your hands on some healthy Lemongrass Starter Plants.
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. Because they take 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. If they’re destined for outdoor living, move them out 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. Set them about 24 inches apart into fertile, well-drained soil, or singly into prepared 5-gallon pots. If planted in a desert environment, 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. For desert-dwellers, they appreciate 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 that 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). Which means they 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. They depend upon the gardener for continued sustenance.
Size matters. To help your Lemongrass plants reach their greatest indoor growth potential, plant them in 5-gallon pots, approximately 12 inches in diameter. You can 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 sunligh. 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. 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 there are other delightful, 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 for them to snack on. Keeping the others out of harm’s way. (Um, good luck with that! LOL. We have heard that spraying the plants with diluted lemon juice sometimes works. As do some commercially prepared pet repellent products.)
Questions about growing Lemongrass? Ask our online Master Gardener, a service that is completely free and always helpful.