By Peggy Riccio, member, Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America
Lemon grass is probably one of the easiest, cheapest herbs you can grow. You can purchase short, unrooted culms (stalks) at the local Asian grocery stores and simply stick them in the soil in large containers or in the ground.
This year I bought three culms for less than a dollar in July. They were a foot tall with little to no roots. I planted the three in one large plastic container. I left them in full sun, on the deck, and ignored them. Here in Virginia we had an unusually wet summer, so they were watered. By September, the three plants had grown to 4 feet tall and the container was heavy.
I was growing mine for culinary purposes but lemongrass can be used as an ornamental for the summer garden. Its graceful slender foliage is a great thriller plant for large container plantings and its height can serve as a screen for the back of a perennial border or even as a summer hedge. Plant them about two feet apart to give them plenty of space to let the foliage arch gracefully downward. Grow lemongrass in full sun and rich soil with plenty of water at first to have the roots become established.
Lemongrass is versatile in the home. The fragrant leaves can be used for floral arrangements, even dried floral arrangements, and potpourri. In the kitchen the leaves are best used fresh or dried in a liquid where you can remove before eating or drinking, much like bay leaves. I infuse the leaves in my black tea for a lemon flavor and I use them in coconut curry soup and egg drop soup. When cooking dishes like stir-fry, fish, seafood, chicken, rice, and even baked goods, cut a culm that is at least a foot tall with a half-inch swollen base. Cut below the swollen end, which is what you will use in the dish, and remove the outer, fibrous layers (the remaining culm in the container will re-sprout). Cut to the inner, white heart, which should be soft enough to eat in dishes. If you have too much, store in plastic bags in the freezer.
Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus, is native to India and Sri Lanka and hardy to Zone 9. I have to treat lemongrass as a tropical plant in my Zone 7 Virginia garden. As frost approaches in October, I have several options for my plants. Option one: I could drag this heavy container to my office where I have good light to overwinter until next May. Option two: I could cut the culms into small sections and dry or freeze them. Option three: I can dig the plants up, cut down to a few inches, re-plant in small pots, and place indoors at a south facing window. By keeping the soil barely moist, the roots remain alive through the winter so the pots can go back outside next year. Option four: Since the three culms cost less than a dollar, I can do nothing and simply start all over again next year.
This year, I elect option two so I can continue to have hot, lemon-flavored tea during the cold winter months. Next year, I will pay another visit to the Asian market and for less than a dollar, plant lemongrass again for flavor as well as beauty.
Author Peggy Riccio gardens in a typical suburban Northern Virginia home. She graduated from Virginia Tech with a horticulture degree and has been involved in horticultural communications for more than 20 years. Currently, she is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America. Riccio produces pegplant.com, a local gardening website for the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC metro area. Pegplant offers local gardening news, resources, and information about gardening, gardens, and plants.