Today I harvested some of the lemon balm growing in our garden. We have two patches of lemon balm that started from a tiny, half-dead seedling I started last summer and nursed all through winter. It was getting way too big for it’s tiny pot when I put it in the ground this spring. Honestly, I thought it would just wither away and die. But true to it’s mint heritage, you just can’t kill lemon balm.
It’s a little late for harvesting and I should have done it before the plant began to flower, but here we are. At least I found the time to take a cutting of it.
How to harvest lemon balm:
Lemon balm is pretty easy to harvest. Like I said, the best time to harvest is right before it flowers because this is when the plant has the highest oil content. The oil is what gives you that delicious lemon scent and flavor. Once you see signs of flowering, grab the scissors. A good pair of strong kitchen scissors or some pruning shears will work well. Lemon balm is in the mint family and you’ll notice it has a tough square-shaped stem. The plant itself with be about 18” or so tall. You can cut all the way down to the ground because it will grow back from the roots.
Once you have your harvested lemon balm inside, lay it out on a towel or sheet to dry overnight. Now, if your intention is to use this for dinner, a quick rinse will be all the prep you need. If you plan on using it as fresh for something like an oil, this is all the drying that will be necessary, but it IS necessary for preparing an oil. Don’t skip the overnight drying when making an infused oil! By drying out some of the water content, you are greatly lessening your chances of ending up with a rancid oil. Lemon balm has a high moisture content so the less water, the better and the less time until dry, the better.
How to dry lemon balm:
With a dehydrator
For long term storage, continue on with the drying process by one of three methods. If you have a dehydrator, move your plant material to screens and place them in the dehydrator. That initial overnight drying will give you a little more room on your screens.
In the oven
You can also use your oven for drying your herbs. Turn the oven on warm and let it sit for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, spread the herbs out on a baking sheet in a single layer. After the 20 minutes of warming, turn the oven off and place the cookie sheet in the oven. Let them sit all day and night. In the morning, if the herbs are not dry, turn the oven back on for the 20 minute warm-up and stick the herb back in the oven for the day. After this, your herbs should be pretty dry.
Air drying herbs
Gather the herb into small bunches evening up the stems. Remove any leaves on the first couple inches of the stems to give you plenty of room for tying. Tie the stems together using some twine or whatever you have handy. Don’t knot the string because you’ll want to tighten it later. Rubber bands make excellent ties for drying herbs because they will automatically tighten as the plant material dries out and shrinks. After you have your bundles all tied up and ready for hanging, choose an airy, dry spot that’s not in the sun. If you’re hanging them on a covered porch or anywhere else outside, check the forecast for the next few days. Make sure you’re in for warm, dry weather. Moisture in the air will only prolong the drying and leave more time for mold to grow.
You can pin the bunches to a line with clothes pins, tie the bundles to the string or use a paper clip to clip them onto the line. If you use metal paper clips, keep the metal from touching the plant as much as possible. If you’ve tied them like bows, you can hang them from the loops with the paper clips.
*note on drying herbs – check your herbs for mold while they’re drying. If you see any sing of mold throw the bunch out. You do NOT want to use moldy herbs!
Once you have your herbs all dried, remove the plant material from the stems and store them in an airtight container. This can be as simple as a paper bag, taped up very tightly to keep the critters out or you can use glass jars or metal tins etc. Just make sure it’s an airtight container and not in the direct sunlight.
Now that you’ve harvested your lemon balm, you can use it to make dinner, tea, popsicles, an infused oil, honey and many other things. Your infused oil can then be used for things like lip balm or salve.
I’ll be making an oil with this batch as well as some lemon balm honey which I’ll share in another post.