Not every gardener can grow a lemon tree, but everyone can have a lemon scent and flavor in their garden by planting some lemon-scented herbs. It’s amazing how much these plants mimic the essence of lemons. They are all relatively easy-to-grow and care for and the leaves, the most flavorful part of these plants, can be harvested and used in just about any culinary dish you prepare in your kitchen: teas, seafood, pesto, dessert, etc. Even if you don’t think you’ll be cooking with these lemon-scented herbs, it’s wonderful just to have the fresh scent of lemon when you are working in the herb garden.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm has an intense lemony scent, but the flavor is surprising sweeter than the scent leads you to expect. It is easily adaptable and can quickly become a nuisance in the garden, spreading underground by rhizomes. Frequent thinning is required to keep it in check. Otherwise grow lemon balm in a container. Well draining soil and plenty of sunshine should keep your plants growing well. Pests tend to leave the plant alone. Frequent harvesting will result in bushier plants. The panicles of white flowers are especially popular with bees.
Lemon balm leaves are often used to flavor and decorate sorbets. They are also a nice accent with fruits and vegetable dishes. There is also a lime-flavored cousin with variegated leaves.
There is a variegated form and a lime-flavored variety. It's found in USDA Zones 4–9 and reaches 18 inches in height and 15 inches in width.
Lemon Basil (Ocimum xcitriodorum)
An easy way to add lemon scent to your herb garden is to grow lemon basil. Lemon basil will do well where ever regular basil grows. You can even start it from seed. The leaves tend to be small and profuse, so it’s easiest to simply chop some of the tender stems along with the leaves.
Basils like full sun and regular watering. They don’t like to be left dry, especially while establishing. The more you pinch and harvest your basil, the more you will have. If the plant should get ahead of you and set flowers, don’t worry. Even basil flowers are flavorful and edible.
Lemon basil retains its flavor well in cooking and works great in pesto and other garlic/olive oil dishes. The annual plant and reaches 18–20 inches in height and 9–12 inches in width.
Lemon Catmint (Nepeta cataria 'Citriodora')
Most herb gardeners don't grow catmints for their culinary purposes. If you have cats, you’ll be happy to know that they aren’t usually fond of the lemon-scented catmint. Catmint can be a messy, sprawling, floppy plant, so don’t be hesitant to harvest and cut it back hard. Lemon catmint is better behaved than the common ornamental catmints. This lemon-scented herb grows to about 3-feet tall and has winter flowers in mid-summer.
Lemon catmint is best used as a tea. It's found in USDA Zones 3–9 and reaches 3–4 feet in height and 12–18 inches in width.
Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora, Aloysia triphylla)
Of all the lemon-scented herbs, lemon verbena has one of the truest lemon scents. It is a tender perennial. In a tropical climate, lemon verbena can easily reach 20 feet or higher. Those in USDA Zone 8 can expect a small shrubby plant, and if you garden where it freezes in the winter, you can grow lemon verbena as an annual.
Lemon verbena prefers full sun and well-draining soil, but it can use some afternoon protection in the warmer climates. If left to bake in intense sun and heat, the leaves will blanch and lose some flavor. Lemon verbena can be one of the last plants to resume growing in the spring, so be patient. It has a somewhat messy growth habit, but frequent harvesting will keep the plant in shape.
The leaves of lemon verbena are used for teas and to season poultry, seafood, vegetable dishes, and even dessert. It's found in USDA Zones 8–10 and reaches 4–6 feet in height and 6 feet width.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
Lemongrass is a lemon-scented herb that gives so many Thai dishes their distinct flavor. Lemongrass is a tender perennial with bulbous stems and lemon-scented leaves.
Lemongrass is very drought resistant, once established, and thrives in full sun. It looks like a weedy grass, growing about 3 feet in height. It can be grown in containers but does much better when direct plants.
There is an annual sometimes sold as lemongrass, but it has nowhere near the scent and flavor of Cymbopogon citratus. It's found in USDA Zones 9–11 and reaches 4–6 feet in height and 2–3 feet in width.
Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus)
Lemon thyme is as easy growing as you’d expect from thyme. The issue with growing many types of scented thyme is that they all start to resemble one another in both scent and appearance. Consider the variegated leaf lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus 'Variegata'). It has more substantial leaves with gold and green variegation, which make it a nice ornamental, too.
Thyme is another Mediterranean herb that asks only for sunshine and well-draining soil. Thyme will grow over and through stone and is still able to find all the water it needs. It does tend to die out in the center, after a few years, so it’s helpful to either add new seedlings regularly or to try rooting some sprigs.
Lemon thyme is popular for teas, but you can use it when cooking vegetables and fish. It's found in USDA Zones 5–9 and reaches 6 inches in height and 12 inches in width.