Growing Healing Herbs for the Home Garden

Growing Healing Herbs for the Home Garden


*A note here on depression: Therapies to treat mental illness are highly individualized; each person and situation is unique. People typically need therapeutic treatment beyond herbalism: this might include acupuncture, talk therapy, nutrition, supplements, or pharmaceuticals. Please do not judge yourself or anyone else for needing and seeking help, natural or otherwise!

If you’re in a dark place or considering hurting yourself, please reach out right now—there are folks who want to talk to you. And we’re in this together. You are not alone! This helpline is one option: (1-800-273-TALK).

Lemon balm is delicious in herbal iced tea blends

Edibility

Lemon balm is one of my favorite nutritive kitchen herbs; its fresh and tender shoots can be added to salsas, jams, liquors, ice cream, sorbet, smoothies, pestos, finishing salts, and infused vinegars. I often chop up a handful and combine it with mint (Mentha spp.) and flower petals as a topping for tacos. Likewise, the fresh leaves can be minced and tossed into fruit salads, tabouleh, and leafy green salads. Lemon balm leaves stirred into lentils or bean dishes add a nice flavor and improve their digestibility.

The simplest way to prepare lemon balm, however, is as a summertime iced tea. It is delicious on its own or combined with herbs like calendula (Calendula officinalis), hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), and mint. I also love Dina Falconi’s recipe for Everything Lemony Lime, which blends lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon verbena, lime zest, lime juice, sea salt, and raw honey. I make this at the height of summer when all the herbs can be gathered fresh from the garden. You can find the recipe in Dina’s exquisite book, Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook.

Dew-laden sparkling lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

How to Grow + Gather Lemon Balm

Lemon balm has been cultivated in medicinal gardens for over 2,000 years. Native to the Mediterranean regions of south-central Europe and the Middle East, it is a sun-loving botanical that can thrive in USDA zones 3–10.

Among the easiest culinary and medicinal herbs to grow, lemon balm is most easily propagated by root division. If you know someone who already has a patch in their garden, you might promise to bring them a plate of lemon balm shortbread cookies in exchange for a division or two. For best success, see our guide to herbal root division here.

Lemon balm is also easily started from seed. Because this plant is a light-dependent germinator (LDG), the seeds should be planted right on the surface of the soil or just barely covered. Watering will gently press them into full contact with the soil. Expect germination after 7 to 14 days.

Lemon balm prefers rich soil with a bit of moisture but will also do well in dry or sandy soils. It is a bushing herbaceous perennial and can become extravagantly lush as summer unfolds. Space plants 1–2 feet (0.3–0.6 m) apart.

If you’ve heard rumors that lemon balm wantonly sows its seeds, I have to tell you the reputation is well-deserved. Many gardeners complain about its proclivity to produce offspring that will inhabit the near and far corners of your garden (though I don’t mind this myself). If you wish to thwart lemon balm’s advance, be sure to harvest the flowering tops before they set seed (but after the bees have had an opportunity to sip their nectar!).

I like to harvest lemon balm several times throughout the growing season. You can simply cut back all of the aboveground growth when the plant is looking at its verdant peak, usually right before it flowers. The leaves and stems can be dried, but I prefer to use lemon balm fresh as its aromatic oils quickly disperse. For fresh preparation suggestions, see the Edibility section above.

Rose (Rosa spp.)

Rose
(Rosa spp., Rosaceae)

As an herbalist, it took me a while to come around to rose. Growing up, my only context for its blooms were the florist-perfect, sanguine-red bouquets that emanated a cloying scent on Valentine’s Day. I had never seen an heirloom rose in the garden or buried my nose in the petals of a wild bramble. So, I held little favor for this luxuriant medicine. Years later, as a budding gardener and herbal student, I discovered—with surprise and wonder—that I love rose with all my heart.





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