Lemon balm: cultivation, care & propagation


I study landscape ecology and through my studies have discovered a love for plants. Plants are not only beautiful, but also have countless fascinating survival strategies. To bring a bit of nature into my home as well, I nurture my houseplants and herbs on every possible windowsill.

Favourite fruit: rhubarb and all kinds of berries
Favourite vegetables: onions and garlic

The perennial lemon balm is easy to propagate and grow yourself, both in the garden and on the balcony. If you follow these growing and care tips, you are almost guaranteed an abundant harvest.

Oval-shaped lemon balm leaves with toothed edges
There’s more to lemon balm than its signature scent and taste [Photo: COULANGES/ Shutterstock.com]

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a Mediterranean herb with an incredibly long lifespan of around twenty to thirty years. Thanks to its rapid growth habit, lemon balm spreads quickly and must be kept in check to stop it taking over your entire garden!

Lemon balm: history and characteristics

Like sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) belongs to the Lamiaceae plant family. Although lemon balm originates from the mountainous regions of southern Europe and northern Africa, but nowadays, it can be found in temperate areas throughout the world. The perennial shrub grows upright and can reach a height of 120 cm. Its leaves look similar to those of nettles (Urtica dioica). From June, the white or whitish-pink lemon balm flowers appear, which are a real magnet for beneficial insects. As well as in garden beds, lemon balm is great for growing in pots. If you rub the lemon balm leaves between your fingers, you will smell a delicate lemon aroma. This aroma is what makes it such a popular culinary herb. Lemon balm also contains substances which have been proven to ease feelings of stress and anxiety as well as stomach and intestinal complaints. So it is definitely worthwhile growing the fragrant herb in your own garden! Lemon balm is also known as sweet balm, bee balm or balm mint.

Small white lemon balm blossoms
Lemon balm flowers are white and have the typical ‘labiate’ shape [Photo: Varts/ Shutterstock.com]

The most beautiful lemon balm varieties

Lemon balm is divided into two subspecies: the common lemon balm (Melisssa officinalis) and the common cultivated lemon balm (M. officinalis ssp. altissima). Within these two lemon balm species, there are quite a few varieties that differ mainly in their leaf colour.

  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis ssp. officinalis): One of the most well-known lemon balm varieties which remains rather small at about 60 cm and has a strong lemon aroma.
Lemon balm plant
Lemon balm with classic green leaves [Photo: Julitt/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Lemon balm ‘All Gold’ (Melissa officinalis ‘All Gold’): Besides its lemony fragrance, this variety has enchanting golden yellow leaves.
Yellow lemon balm leaves
‘All gold’ lemon balm has a stunning golden colour [Photo: Skyprayer2005/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Dwarf lemon balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Compacta’): At about 40 cm, this variety remains much smaller.
  • Yellow variegated lemon balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Variegata’): The yellow-green patterned leaves make this variety a real eye-catcher.
  • Binsuga lemon balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Binsuga’): The high content of essential oils makes this variety extra aromatic. It is also very vigorous and is great for making tea.
yellow and green patterned lemon balm leaves
Some lemon balm varieties have beautiful variegated leaves [Photo: Anna Gratys/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: Lemon catmint (Nepeta cataria ssp. citriodora) is a subspecies of catmint and is not a species of lemon balm, although its leaves also taste of lemon.

Planting lemon balm: location, sowing and more

If lemon balm is in a suitable location, it will thrive and spread almost instantly.

The right location for lemon balm

True to its Mediterranean origins, lemon balm does not mind a sunny location even in the height of summer. Partial shade also does not reduce the vigor of this perennial herb. It likes a fresh, loose, humus-rich soil and has moderate nutrient requirements. You can sow lemon balm directly into the garden, or keep it as a potted plant on your balcony or terrace. Since it grows very wide and bushy, it should be given a space to itself.

Potted lemon balm: When growing lemon balm in a pot, choose a permeable soil with plenty of nutrients like our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost. To avoid waterlogging, make sure to add a drainage layer of clay shards to the bottom of the pot. 

Lemon balm thriving in sunny location
A sunny location is good for lemon balm [Photo: Kennerth Kullman/ Shutterstock.com]

Sowing and planting lemon balm

From as early as February onwards, you can start your lemon balm seeds indoors or in a greenhouse and prepare young lemon balm plants for transplanting. As with most Mediterranean herbs, seeds can be sown directly outdoors after the danger of frost is past, usually around mid-May. Keep a plant spacing of about 20 cm between lemon balm plants and make sure to loosen the soil well before planting. If the soil is very sandy or waterlogged, amend it with compost. 

Note: Lemon balm is a light germinator, so do not cover the seeds with soil. For germination to occur, the temperature should be about 20°C. Moisten the soil only slightly, it should not be dripping wet. If you have bought a potted plant, be sure to repot it in fresh, high-quality soil or transplant it into a suitable location from May onwards.

Tip: If you have a herb spiral, your lemon balm will fit in well there too. It prefers to grow in the middle height of the spiral.

Good companion plants and what not to plant next to lemon balm

Lemon balm is compatible with almost all perennial herbs, such as thyme and mint. Good companion plants should have the same site requirements. It is not recommended to grow alongside wormwood and annual herbs, especially basil.

Stone spiral structure filled with herbs
In a herb spiral, lemon balm feels at home alongside almost all herbs [Photo: terra incognita/ Shutterstock.com]

Lemon balm care

Lemon balm is both robust and easy to look after. Read below to find out exactly how to care for this perennial herb.

Watering an fertilising lemon balm

Lemon balm is able to survive a certain amount of drought, thanks to its Mediterranean origins. But lemon balm plants still prefer regular watering. For potted plants, you need to water more regularly, perhaps even daily, depending on the weather and the size of the planter. However, overwatering lemon balm will do more harm than good! In fact, prolonged wetness can quickly lead to a fungal root infection, which will completely kill the plant. So make sure that the lemon balm roots are never waterlogged.

When growing lemon balm in a garden bed, work a plant-based fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food or compost into the soil every few years. This will help promote the plant’s longevity. When growing lemon balm in pots, make sure that the plant has enough essential nutrients by repotting and changing the soil every year.

All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
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  • Perfect for a variety of plants in the garden & on the balcony
  • Promotes healthy plant growth & an active soil life
  • Long-lasting fertiliser that is free from animal products - child & pet friendly

Pruning lemon balm

Thanks to the plant’s vigorous growth, it is hard to go wrong when pruning lemon balm. Even if pruned several times a year, the herb will always bounce back, unharmed. However, we recommend refraining from a final heavy pruning just before winter. The plant needs its withered shoots to protect itself from frosty winter temperatures.

Common lemon balm pests and diseases

Generally, lemon balm is quite robust and not often affected by pests or diseases. However, if there are signs of infestation, it may be down to one of the following reasons.

Insect infested lemon balm stem
Sometimes lemon balm will experience infestations of pests [Photo: Aleksandr Rybalko/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Powdery mildew: If the leaves have a whitish coating, powdery mildew has probably struck.
  • Mint rust: If, on the other hand, you see brown-red spots on the lemon balm leaves, it is probably an infestation from a rust fungus.
  • Aphids: An infestation by aphids can be recognized directly by the small aphids themselves swarming on the plant.

In most cases, heavy pruning helps against these pests and diseases. They often occur due to excessively nutrient-rich soil, when too much nitrogen is available to the plant.

Propagating lemon balm

To propagate lemon balm, gardeners use three main methods.

Young lemon balm plant from cutting
You can propagate lemon balm, for example, from cuttings [Photo: Marina Demidiuk/ Shutterstock.com]

Sowing seeds: Lemon balm reproduces naturally by self-seeding. It is also possible to collect the seeds and sow them in the desired place. When the fruits have turned brown, they are ripe. At this point, remove the seeds, dry them and sow as usual in the spring.

Cuttings: From late spring to early summer, the temperature and light conditions are perfect for propagating lemon balm with cuttings. To do this, simply take the shoot tips of young, succulent shoots (5-10 cm long) that have not yet flowered at this early stage. Flowers or flower buds are undesirable on cuttings, as they reduce rooting success. Remove any leaves from the lower section and place in a suitable cutting soil. Our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost made from natural ingredients is ideal for this. Mix in some sand to further improve the conditions for the cuttings. An environment with high humidity, which you can easily create in a mini-greenhouse for the windowsill, for example, helps the cuttings to form new roots.

dividing lemon balm plant in pot
Dividing potted plants creates more room to grow in the container [Photo: DinaSova/ Shutterstock.com]

Dividing lemon balm: Lemon balm forms a large number of underground runners, or horizontal shoots. This makes it possible to propagate simply by division. Do this in the time just before the new shoots appear in spring or autumn. Dig up the main lemon balm plant, cut them with a spade and replant. After that, it is essential to water the divided plants well.

Is lemon balm winter-hardy? 

Lemon balm is hardy and can withstand temperatures as low as -30°C. As previously mentioned, when growing outdoors, the withered parts of the plant above the ground are great for protecting lemon balm from frost damage. Additionally, you can cover them with some leaves or twigs. For potted lemon balm, you can cover it with standard garden fleece or bring it indoors. There, however, conditions should be bright and around 5 to 10°C so that the lemon balm has a resting phase and saves energy for the new shoots in the spring.

Glass teapot of lemon balm tea
Lemon balm leaves are delicious when steeped into a tea [Photo: Viktory Panchenko/ Shutterstock.com]

Those who have managed to successfully grow and care for this versatile plant in their garden, will be rewarded with a rich harvest. Find out how to harvest, preserve and use lemon balm.

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