Learn How to Grow, Harvest, and Use Lemongrass
Anyone else like to plant fragrant things in the garden? Arguably, it’s even better when those things are also edible, but in reality I just like to walk around the garden and smell good things. The garden should be a full sensory experience. There are a few garden plants and herbs that smell like bright, fresh lemons—-lemon verbena, lemon balm, and lemongrass—and there’s nothing quite like the mental jolt I feel after smelling them!
Today I’m not only sharing how to grow lemongrass but also how to make sure they are juicy stalks! Admittedly, I can’t smell lemongrass as I’m walking by the plant, but there’s really no substitute for lemongrass when cooking! Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is fairly easy to grow, but there are some things you can do to grow the best lemongrass that’s not fibrous, thin, or dry.
How to get started growing lemongrass
Lemongrass is a perennial that grows in an expanding clump. All I can remember about the origins of my lemongrass is that I got a few small bottom sections from someone at a local garden meetup several years ago. Amazingly, those small pieces have been enough to provide for all our lemongrass needs thereafter, and continuously fill this rather large pot year after year. While I don’t use a ton of lemongrass, I do love growing lemongrass because it looks pretty in the garden and it keeps so well in a container. When a recipe calls for lemongrass, I don’t need to run to the store for only one or two stalks.
If you want to get started growing lemongrass, you can always buy a pot of lemongrass from a nursery. Once you buy it once, you won’t need to buy it again! On the other hand, lemongrass is easy to propagate from a friend’s garden or from storebought lemongrass. At the grocery store, look for a piece that might have a root-able end. Is “root-able” a word? It really should be, as I am always on the lookout for anything that could be root-able at the store.
How to Root & Grow Lemongrass
If you aren’t buying a pot of lemongrass from a nursery, you will want to root an existing stalk. It’s pretty simple to take the bottom, woody end of a lemongrass stalk and get it to grow roots! Lemongrass will root in soil or in water. I tend to root things in soil because that’s always had a higher success rate for me, but I’ve seen lemongrass most often propagated in water when purchased from the grocery store. Essentially, you can find pieces at the grocery store that still have a woody end, place the stalks in water, and wait for roots to form! Make sure you put the jar/glass in a bright area of your home. Personally, I feel like if you’ve had experience growing green onions from grocery store scraps, you’ll find lemongrass to be extremely similar. Or, have you tried re-growing a celery bottom like I did HERE? The concept is very similar.
If you choose to root in soil, you can simply re-plant the bottom pieces of your lemongrass after harvesting. If you watch our YouTube video, you’ll see how easy it is to snap off the end (with some roots still intact) and grow a brand new lemongrass plant from that piece.
Cultivating Lemongrass in the Garden
Lemongrass is a tropical plant that loves moist soil and warm temperatures! Therefore, it stays pretty dormant for me in Winter, and does not like freezing temperatures. Mine has never been killed by frost, but I do keep it in a warmer area of my yard that doesn’t traditionally get colder than 32 degrees. Lemongrass is used as a culinary herb/flavor in many dishes like Thai curry paste and Vietnamese meat marinades. Lemongrass tea is also very popular.
Since lemongrass grows and spreads like bunching grass, it’s much easier to control when grown in a container. I’ve had this one bunch in this container for about two years and I just harvest what I need and try to keep it from overcrowding. Besides some winter maintenance, that’s all I do!
Protect yourself from the sharp blades of lemongrass! I wish someone had told me this when I first learned how to grow lemongrass—-the leaves can give you papercuts (kinda). Maybe it’s just me, but the leaves of lemongrass kind of grip my skin and leave what feels like a papercut. Therefore, I always wear gloves when working with my lemongrass.
Lemongrass Soil & Water Requirements for Growing
In my experience, lemongrass grows in a variety of soils but prefers rich, loamy soil. My mom has hers growing in the ground in more clay-heavy soil, whereas I have mine growing in potting mix and compost. We both amend our soil with compost, as I think lemongrass really likes that organic matter. While I think lemongrass tolerates a vast majority of soils, the quality of your lemongrass will suffer in poor soils.
Additionally, I think drainage is important. If you’re growing lemongrass in a pot, definitely use a lighter mix. Alternatively, if you’re growing in-ground, fill the planting hole with water and see how long the water sits. You want the soil to stay moist, but we don’t want a sitting water/rot situation.
Sun exposure for Lemongrass
As many of you know, I’m an inland Orange County gardener. Therefore, we have larger temperatures swings and super hot summers in the triple-digits! Honestly, one benefit of growing lemongrass in a container would be that you could move your lemongrass around if you haven’t figured out it’s ideal sun exposure yet, but I grow my lemongrass in partial sun. Personally, I haven’t tested it in full sun because it grows great as is and containers tend to dry out so fast in my climate—I can’t keep up watering them! By growing my lemongrass in partial shade, it dries out less quickly and still grows thick stalks.
The key to juicy lemongrass stalks
Honestly, lemongrass will tolerate some pretty terrible garden conditions, but ideally we want to learn how to grow lemongrass that will actually taste good in the kitchen, right? Therefore, I’m going to tell you to focus on achieving balance between soil, sun, and water by observing your lemongrass. If your stalks are looking skinny and not plumping up, something is off! If the foliage is not looking lush and green in Summer, something is off! For example, if your moisture level is looking good but the leaves aren’t green and lush, try adding some compost or a light fertilizer to the soil. The good news is, lemongrass is hard to kill, so you can make adjustments and work towards growing your best lemongrass ever!
How to Harvest Lemongrass
For me, this is a harvest-as-you-go crop throughout the year. Basically, I will harvest a lemongrass stalk as I need it by pulling down and twisting a stalk away from the main clump. Remember, wear gloves when dealing with lemongrass! The stalk will typically come out, roots and all. Afterwards, I’ll snap off the bottom and place it back in the soil. If this doesn’t really makes sense, definitely watch my lemongrass video over on YouTube.
How to care for lemongrass in winter
Here in Southern California it does get down to 30 degrees, which is very cold for lemongrass. My lemongrass survives, but that’s because I let it get a little unruly and leave it alone during Winter. Aside from keeping my lemongrass in a more sheltered area of my yard (snuggled next to my dragonfruit and near an arbor) letting your lemongrass stay dormant and keep its leaves in Winter will allow it to insulate itself slightly. As you can see from the photo above, that is my lemongrass now in March/April. Since the weather is warming up, it’s now time to trim and prep the lemongrass for a strong growing season. Ideally, the best time to prune lemongrass is when the plant is still dormant but there’s no more chance of frost.
As soon as it warms up, you want to give your lemongrass a trim and get rid of old stalks, brown leaves, etc. You can see from the photo below how I like to trim my lemongrass almost down to the stalk, but with an inch or two of leaves left.
For lemongrass growing in containers, you need to remove enough stalks so that there is room for your lemongrass to grow and expand this season. If your pot is on the smaller side, you might want to move it to a larger pot or divide your exisiting clump into smaller ones and plant multiple pots.
Finally, I like to top off my container with some additional compost and potting mix. Essentially, give your lemongrass a new dose of organic matter!
Like most other perennials, lemongrass should be divided occasionally to keep it fresh and give it room to grow. If your lemongrass is looking especially crowded, simply dig up the entire clump and separate it into smaller clumps to space out and plant. Alternatively, you can use a sharp shovel and hack off smaller clumps from a main chunk and replant those elsewhere (as opposed to digging up an entire plant). You’ll find that lemongrass recovers and roots readily.
How to prepare lemongrass stalks
Now that you know how to grow lemongrass, let’s talk about preparing the stalks for use in the kitchen. Personally, most of my experience is using the thick base of the lemongrass stalk. I know some gardeners use the leaves, but I won’t be sharing anything about that today because I’m not familiar with it. In fact, I mainly chop the grassy leaves off and put them in compost. Afterwards, I’m left with the main stalk of the lemongrass.
Next, I peel away the layers of the stalk until it gets to the point where the stalk is extremely tight and the rough/more mature outer leaves are gone—exposing more tender young leaves. Obviously, knowing when to stop peeling back the layers kind of comes with experience. Anyway, at this point the lemongrass stalk is ready to use however the recipe intends!
How to Use Lemongrass (Recipes)
One way to use lemongrass is to make thai curry paste. There are MANY types of curries out there, but Nagi from RecipeTinEats has both a green and a red curry paste recipe on her blog that are delicious!
Secondly, lemongrass makes a great marinade for grilled pork, chicken, and so much more! If you search “lemongrass” on the Hungry Huy website, you’ll come across some really delicious options to choose from.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning how to grow lemongrass and give it some care. Even if you don’t use lemongrass that often, it’s such a beautiful perennial herb to have in your garden if you’re growing in a warmer region. I’ve heard it can be grown in cold climates if it’s in a pot and brought indoors for Winter. If you’re doing that, let me know! Until next time friends!