If you are reading this, then you probably already know about the myriad uses for lemongrass, both in your own kitchen and in the kitchens of the best chefs. You also no doubt know that the lemon-grass herb plant is used widely in the perfume industry, but also as a natural mosquito repellent and as a calming, medicinal herb. It can, of course, be used dried or powdered, but it is when lemongrass is fresh that that lemony essence is most pronounced.
But…finding it in your local grocery store can be a challenge, if not an impossible feat, not to mention the expense and the waste from having to purchase so much at one time when only a small amount is necessary.
The solution? Grow it yourself!
Lemon Grass is actually really easy to grow! First of all, it is a perennial, which means that it will come back year after year in many climates, growing all year long in the warmest ones. It also lends itself well to both growing outside and inside, so where it is the coldest or when you want to have fresh lemongrass year round, you can move it indoors or outside as needed.
Growing Lemongrass Outside
Lemongrass is actually a tropical plant, so those of you who have warm weather year round can easily grow lemon-grass plants as part of your landscape. In ideal conditions lemon grass will reach 3 to 6-foot high and do double-duty as a decorative ornamental grass. Lemon grass forms a rhizome, or bulb, but does not aggressively spread, so normal harvesting and occasionally cutting back of the longest top growth will satisfy the more formal gardener, though most people will just let it grow au’naturalle to wave in the breezes.
Lemongrass prefers sandy, well-drained and fertile soil, though it will grow well in all but the heaviest or constantly wet soils. Sun, on the other hand, is a must. Plant it in the sunniest location, unless you live in the desert, where lemongrass will prefer partially shaded afternoons. Most herbs (lemongrass is no exception) prefer to have constant moisture, so don’t allow it to dry out completely between waterings. In the desert, your lemongrass plants will benefit from heavy misting in the morning.
Your lemon grass plant will also thrive beautifully with regular feeding, once monthly or so, of a nitrogen-based fertilizer, such as High-Yield Garden Fertilizer 8-10-8, though this may not be necessary if you plant your lemongrass in beds that you compost or add organic materials to regularly. If however, you grow your lemongrass in a pot, fertilizing will be needed. As always, mulching will retard weed growth while maintaining moisture around your lemon grass plants.
Growing Lemongrass Indoors
Lemongrass is very adaptable to growing indoors, though it will do its best when allowed to “breathe” outside during the warm seasons. Due to its potential size, you should plant it in a pot equal to or close to five gallons and in the sunniest location possible, preferably in a south or southwest facing unobstructed window. Lemon grass plants can be kept under control and grown in a smaller pot by harvesting more often, which means removing the stalks, bulb and all, along the outside of the plant. You can always pass these along to friends or even take them to your local farmer’s market if you have an abundance. Lemongrass plants that are kept exclusively indoors have been known to adapt their size to smaller pots, though the harvest potential, of course, won’t be as large. You should also regularly feed your indoor plants, being even more diligent when they are in smaller pots. The potted lemongrass plants will quickly deplete nutrients, as do any potted plants, and rely upon you for their sustenance. Soil condition also deteriorates over time, so amending your potted plants’ soil with Earthworm Castings on a regular basis will prevent you from having to re-pot again and again. And watering will usually be more frequent. Depending upon the size of the pot and the size of the plant, you may have to water 2 to 3 times a week to maintain a good moisture level for healthy growth. If this sounds like too much work or you are contemplating a vacation, then work Terra Sorb into your soil, following the directions at the top of this page.
And Finally You Harvest!
First, be aware that most insects will turn their nose up at this pleasant lemony scent, but that cats seem to find it most attractive. Lemongrass plants are naturally pest resistant, but other methods may need to be utilized to fend off the neighborhood feline prowlers.
Now, you can start trimming leaves (for tea and soups) once the plant is at least one foot tall; if you like a “clipped and uniform” appearance, you can keep the top cut and dry what you don’t use right away. The snipping also releases more of the lemony essence, so cutting before a get together can be beneficial. You can start harvesting the stalks when they are at least 1/2-inch in diameter. You should always use a sharp knife to cut them off at the level of the soil, rather than trying to break them off or pulling them up, as you can inadvertently damage the rest of the plant.
The outside leaves are usually tough and may have to be removed before use, though bruising them and adding them to recipes, and then removing them before serving, is common practice. The lemony essence is quite strong, so start with very small amounts before adding more. Entire stalks can be kept in the fridge for several days by keeping them in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel. Some people also chop pieces of the stalks and freeze it for later use. The leaves preserve best when dried.
If you have further questions about growing lemongrass or any other gardening questions, you are welcome to Ask Our Master Gardener, a service that is completely free and always helpful.