Lemon balm is a member of the mint family, with a vibrant lemony-mint scent. It can grow like a weed, so it must be monitored to keep it from taking over a garden. However, that rapid growth means there will be plenty of leaves for their myriad uses. Lemon balm can be used fresh and dried in food, steeped to make tea, or made into essential oils that repel insects and are good for your skin. This flexible herb is a useful addition to any garden. Follow these steps to harvest and store your home grown lemon balm.
Step 1 – When and How to Harvest
Lemon balm can be harvested any time after the plant has developed a good number of leaves. A few leaves can be harvested any time for fresh use or a full harvest can be done once the plants are big enough. Harvesting just before the plant flowers is said to give the best flavor and scent.
Harvest a few leaves by pinching off a small piece of stem or by just pinching off a few leaves. If this is done early in the season, it can cause the plant to become more bushy, giving you more leaves to harvest later on.
A full harvest means cutting the stems two inches above the soil, above the first set of leaves. The plant will grow back fast enough that in most regions, two such harvests are possible a year. The stems can then be collected for use fresh, or dried for storage.
Be careful when harvesting not to bruise the leaves. Bruised leaves will lose fragrance and dry poorly.
Harvest when the weather is dry to limit the possibility of mold while drying. Harvest after the dew has dried, in the late morning or early afternoon.
Step 2 - How to Dry
Bunches of stems can be hung upside down in a cool, dry place until dried. Lemon balm can also be spread over drying racks. Be sure to turn the stems from time to time and keep the racks out of the sun. Too much sun will blacken the leaves. With lemon balm, racks are often recommended as the better method for drying.
Step 3 - How to Store Fresh Lemon Balm
Fresh lemon balm is best used fresh picked. However, it is possible to store leaves for a few days in the refrigerator.
Some recommend freezing over drying as a way to maintain the flavor of herbs. Consider chopping the leaves and combining them with fresh water in an ice cube tray. Store in the freezer and use by dropping a cube in your cooking or tea.
Step 4 - How to Store Dry Lemon Balm
Once dry, the first thing to do is separate the leaves from the stems. Dispose of the stems. Crumble the leaves between your fingers or through a screen. Place the pieces in a resealable plastic bag. Store the bag in a cool, dry place to ensure the contents remain potent.