As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons – make lemonade. But did you know with a lemon garden, you can make refreshing, lemony drinks even if you don’t live in California or Florida? With these lemon-flavored plants, you can have a ‘lemonade garden’ in any state and grow lemonade ingredients from coast to coast! From lemon-flavored iced herbal tea to fresh and tasty ‘lemonade’, these plants will provide a near endless supply of healthy delicious garden drinks.
Dwarf Lemon Tree (Citrus limon)
You don’t need to live in a ‘sunshine state’ to grow your own lemon tree. Most dwarf citrus trees are perfectly content to spend their lives in a large container. Move them outdoors to a sheltered position in the summer and bring them back inside for the winter. They are very susceptible to scale insects so treat your citrus plant before bringing it back inside. This is especially important if you have other plants in your home.
Two popular varieties for container growing are the Meyer lemon and the variegated pink lemon and a perfect way to get your lemon garden started.
Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. citriodorum)
Basil seeds require warm soil and air to sprout so start them inside 4 – 6 weeks before planting them outside at the same time you plant tomatoes. If you’re adding them to your indoor herb garden, you can start seeds anytime. They like full sun, monthly fertilization, and well-drained soil. You should pinch the stems back frequently to encourage new, bushy growth and prevent flowering.
According to food writer, herbalist, and basil lover Susan Belsinger:
“… it evokes warm sunny days, luscious fragrances, and mouthwatering food combinations. The lemon basils have a predominant flavor characteristic of citrus, like the flower essence of lemon or orange blossoms, the aroma or taste of the juice from the fruit, or the heavy citrus oil and zest. The lemonlike aroma and taste in these basils is due to a high content of citral and the flowery fragrance of linalool. The bright, fresh, lemony sweet scent and taste make them a perfect match for seasonal fruits and garden produce.”
‘Mrs. Burns’ and ‘Sweet Dani’ are widely recognized as the two best lemon basils for their large leaves, intoxicating fragrance, and superior flavor. ‘Mrs. Burns’ is an heirloom variety and the largest of the lemon basils. It may also have the richest, most powerful lemon aroma and flavor. In 1998, ‘Sweet Dani’ was chosen as an All-America Selections winner for its ‘superior performance’ in gardens across the country.
If you like lemon basil, you’ll probably like its ‘Lime’ basil counterpart, too. They go together like, well, lemon & lime! Make a delicious herbal sun tea by placing a large handful of bruised leaves in a covered jar of cold water and letting it sit in the sun for several hours. Strain over ice and enjoy! Both are also delicious with fish or in sorbets, fruit salads, cookies, or scones.
Lemon-Scented Geranium (Pelargonium crispum)
Tall and spiky with small crinkly leaves, this particular scented geranium variety is especially suited to container growing. It needs full sun or bright light and protection from freezing temperatures. Too much water or fertilizer will give you larger leaves with less flavor, so grow it ‘lean’ and don’t water until the soil is dry an inch down. ‘Prince Rupert’ (Pelargonium crispum variegata) has the same lemon aroma and flavor with pretty, variegated leaves.
Scent the sugar used for your lemonade to add an extra layer of sweet lemony goodness to your lemon garden creation. Just bruise and tear a handful of leaves and bury them in a sealed jar of powdered sugar overnight (at a minimum). You can also layer granulated sugar and the bruised leaves but this option takes longer. A couple of weeks on a sunny windowsill will allow the coarser sugar to absorb the fragrant essential oils. Sift the sugar to remove the leaves before adding it to your lemonade or herbal tea.
Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla)
Lemon verbena could be called the queen of all the lemon-scented herbs. It’s sweet, sharp aroma is redolent of a lemon orchard in the summer sun. Tidy and well-behaved in an indoor container garden, lemon verbena will grow into a luxurious shrub in zones 9-10. It’s a heavy feeder and requires a rich, well-drained soil that lets the roots dry out between thorough waterings.
It’s very attractive to spider mites and whiteflies so be diligent in watching for these pests. A soap spray is a safe and effective way to get rid of them. For stubborn infestations, add 2 Tbsp. of (70%) rubbing alcohol to the mixture. Tilt the plant over the sink as you spray so the mixture doesn’t build up in the soil. Make sure you wet the entire plant and repeat at least weekly.
Measure the sugar for your next white cake or batch of sugar cookies and mix with bruised leaves. By the next day, the sugar will be infused with delicious lemon flavor that will transform your baked treats. Or try making Lemon Verbena Tea Bread. It features lemon verbena in both the sweet bread and the glaze.
To best preserve lemon verbena’s remarkable aroma and flavor, pulse 2 cups of leaves with a scant cup of sugar until it forms a paste. Spread thin layers of the paste in freezer bags, seal tightly, and freeze. Break off chunks whenever you’re craving a fresh burst of lemon verbena flavor.
Note: Lemon verbena and regular garden varieties of verbena are not the same! Rub a leaf and smell it to make sure you’re getting the true lemon verbena.
Of course, this list is only a sampling of the lemony plants available for your lemon garden. The Australian lemon myrtle tree (Backhousia citriodora), lemon balm (Melisa officianalis), lemon catmint (Nepeta cataria ‘Citriodora’), lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), lemon mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata ‘Lemon’), lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus), and sorrel (Rumex acetosa) are some other lemon-flavored plants with culinary uses. Why not try them all for a lemon garden that smells as good as it looks – and tastes!