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I grow lemongrass in containers every year. When I give my raised bed talks, I usually tell the audience that I like to plant lemongrass in place of a spike or dracaena, in my ornamental pots because it provides that lovely dramatic height. It’s a great double-duty plant because of its ornamental grass qualities—and it’s edible. I love drying lemongrass for herbal tea, and come fall, when I fire up the crockpot, I toss it into hearty curries. Until I started growing it myself, I didn’t really know how to harvest lemongrass. It’s not a particularly expensive herb to purchase, but there is something very satisfying about growing your own. And harvesting is super-easy!
There are over 55 types of lemongrass, but only the East Indian and West Indian varieties are used for tea and cooking. This incredibly fragrant culinary herb is used in Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and Malaysian cooking. There are health studies that show lemongrass can reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, and relieve anxiety, among other benefits. And if I ever come across a lemongrass lotion or soap, I grab one. I absolutely love the scent!
I have found it challenging to grow lemongrass from seed, so I usually purchase plants each year. Into my ornamental arrangements they go. However, once you have a plant, you can propagate lemongrass, so you have your own plants ready in the spring. The variety I grow, Cymbopogon Flexuosus, comes via a local grower, Freeman Herbs. It is an East Indian variety. I’ve also seen seeds for Cymbopogon citratus, which is a West Indian variety.
I use vegetable potting soil amended with a bit of compost for all of my ornamental containers that contain edibles. Lemongrass is a tropical plant, so it thrives in full sun. It doesn’t mind slightly moist soil, but you don’t want to overwater, which can cause the plant to rot. Make sure your container has good drainage! I’ve actually found lemongrass to be pretty drought tolerant compared to other herbs I grow. Stalks grow to be two to three feet—or more, depending on the location where it’s been planted.
Since I grow my lemongrass with ornamental plants, when I fertilize, I use an organic fertilizer formulated for veggie gardens (the most common one I use is hen manure, which is good because it’s high in nitrogen, which the plants like).
You could also plant lemongrass in the garden as an ornamental grass each year, if you don’t want to deal with the maintenance of a perennial ornamental grass.
How to harvest lemongrass
Wearing gardening gloves, I use my herb scissors to snip the leaves from the base of the outside of the clump to dry for tea. Do be careful as the leaves are sharp and can give unexpected papercuts! Pruners just kind of bend the leaves, rather than cut through them. I string lemongrass leaves up in a window with twine to dry for tea. They get a bit of morning sun, even though it’s recommended you hang them out of direct sunlight. That’s where I have the space to hang all my herbs. When the leaves have dried, I cut them into two- to three-inch pieces and store them in an airtight glass jar.
When used in cooking, you want the thicker bit—this is the part you purchase at the grocery store. Lemongrass stalks are called culms. For these thicker parts, you can use pruners to cut the culm as close to the base of the plant as possible. Wait until the plant is established before cutting. When first learning how to harvest lemongrass, it’s hard to know when it’s safe to start snipping. It’s generally recommended that stalks are at least a half inch thick before you snip, but my plants, though vigorous, don’t always produce stalks that thick.
Remove the outer leaves from the lemongrass stalk and cut it into pieces that are big enough to remove when the dish is ready, much as you would with a bay leaf
If you’re not saving the whole plant, you can pull it out of the pot in the fall, dust off all the soil, and separate each culm to store for the winter. Wrap them tightly in plastic to freeze, or put into freezer bags, and simply pull out a stalk for cooking as you need it.
Using lemongrass in the kitchen
I find lemongrass stalks to be quite woody and fibrous (I found this out the hard way after biting into a huge piece once in a bowl of coconut soup), so I don’t generally mince it in my dishes. But I love the flavour itself. I use pieces of the stalks in chicken curry and Thai coconut soup, but I’ll fish them out before serving.
If you freeze lemongrass, simply take out the amount you need and toss it in the pot (or crockpot). I’ll give the ends a snip at this point to release more of the flavour.
I put my dried lemongrass leaves in an unbleached tea bag to brew. This prevents me from pulling pieces out of my mouth as I sip. You can also brew fresh stalks in tea, just like you would with fresh ginger.
Once you learn how to harvest lemongrass, you’ll be able to pick it throughout the season. However, do make sure if you want to eventually save all of it (leaves and stalks) for freezing or drying, that you get to it before your region’s first hard frost. I keep an eye out for frost advisories. I’ll move my pots to the warmth of the garage for a night if I haven’t had a chance to save all the lemongrass beforehand.
If you want to bring your whole lemongrass plant indoors, transplant it to its own pot. Cut the leaves down, so they’re only a few inches high. Place your pot of lemongrass in a south-facing window. Keep the soil slightly moist throughout the winter, but be careful not to overwater.
I don’t bring my lemongrass plants indoors. They’re usually planted with other annuals that get tossed in the compost at the end of the season. But you can propagate a piece of your lemongrass to grow a plant for the following season. (This can also be done with a stalk that you purchase from the grocery store.)
Simply take a stalk, remove the outer leaves, and place the stalk in a small glass of water. Put your wee bit of lemongrass in a sunny window and change the water daily (or as often as possible). Check for roots in the first couple of weeks. Once you see decent root growth, transplant your piece to a pot filled with indoor potting soil for herbs.
Lemongrass is a tropical plant, so you’ll want to make sure you’re well past your region’s frost-free date before bringing it back outside in the spring. I would wait until you’re ready to put your ornamental pots together with the usual assortment of annuals.
What do you do with your lemongrass harvest?