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A Step-by-Step Guide: How to Grow and Use Lemongrass

  • Bob Styer
  • Herbs
Lemongrass In A Basket

Lemongrass is another great-tasting perennial herb that’s a welcome addition to teas, soups, salads, curries, and meats.  Learning how to grow and use lemongrass will give your food and drinks a lemon-ginger flavor with some floral hints.  Whether you’re growing lemongrass from seeds or root division, you’ll have satisfying results. This tropical plant also does well as an aromatic ornamental grass.

This southeast Asian plant is native to India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  It grows in bushy clumps with pale green woody stems and is a staple of Asian cooking.

The base of each stem is a bulb that looks like a green onion.  Unlike a green onion, though, these bulbs are tough. Cooks often chop them or pound them into a paste before use. You can usually find fresh lemongrass in larger grocery stores.

Would you like to learn about other herbs? Check out our post “The Complete Guides to Growing Culinary Herbs” for links to those articles.

The Growing Conditions for Lemongrass

Caring for lemongrass plants is easy. It comes back year after year in areas with mild winters.  Areas with frost and cold winters have to grow it as an annual.

To work around this problem, grow it in pots brought inside during the winter.  When allowed to grow, it will reach 3 – 5 feet tall.

This herb will grow in average, well-draining soil with a pH of 5.0 – 8.4.  Heavy clay soil will kill lemongrass.  The plants prefer full sun but will tolerate partial shade.

Mix the soil with 2 – 4 inches of well-aged compost before planting.  Lemongrass will survive winter outside in Zone 8 or higher.  In lower zones, it must grow in the garden as an annual. It could also grow in containers that will go inside during the winter.

How to Grow Lemongrass from Seed

Lemongrass is easy to grow if you keep it out of cold temperatures.

  • Start planting lemongrass seeds after the last spring frost.
  • Spread the seeds evenly and try to get them 12 – 24 inches apart.
  • Cover them with a thin layer of soil and keep the soil moist. The soil covering should be 1/3 inch deep or less.
  • The seeds will germinate in 2 – 3 weeks.  Since it’s a hot weather plant, put it in a sunny spot.
  • Once the sprouts are 1 – 2 inches tall thin them so they’re 12 – 24 inches apart.
  • Keep the soil moist.
  • Lemongrass needs a lot of nitrogen during the growing season.  Feed it once a month with a balanced fertilizer.
  • If you’re growing lemongrass as a perennial, reduce watering in the winter but still keep the soil moist.
  • Keep lemongrass protected from frost.
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Propagating Lemongrass by Root Division

Divide the rhizomes in the spring if you live in an area with mild winters.  Save some bulbous shoot bases after harvest in areas with colder winters.  Make sure they each have their own rootstock.  Store them until next spring and replant them after the last spring frost.

If you have lemongrass in the ground, you could also overwinter it in containers.

  • Trim the stalks so they’re a few inches long, and plant the root base in a small pot.
  • Put the pots in a south-facing window and keep the soil barely moist
  • Place the plants 12 – 24 inches apart when transplanting and keep them well-watered.
  • If you buy stalks of lemongrass from a grocery store, root them in a glass with a couple of inches of water.  Make sure you change the water when it gets cloudy.
  • When the roots are about 2 inches long and new leaves start growing, the lemongrass is ready to plant.

Pots for Growing Lemongrass

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How to Grow Lemongrass in Containers

Any containers should be at least 12 inches in diameter since lemongrass roots will soon fill up any pot.  When that happens, first cut out the extra roots. Then break the clump into smaller pieces for transplanting.

Fill the container with potting mix or potting soil mixed with 1/3 well-aged compost.  During brisk winds, the plants could get large enough to tip over the container.

Lemongrass in containers needs feeding and watering more than lemongrass in the garden. Try feeding about every three weeks.  Soil should always stay moist since container plants dry out much faster than plants in a garden.

If you have cold winters, move your containers inside at the end of the season.  Cut down the stalks so they’re a few inches high.  Put the containers in a cool dark place and water them a few times during the winter to keep the roots alive.

In early spring, move the containers to a south-facing window and water them as usual.  Move them back outside after the last spring frost.

More information about caring for potted plants is in our article “Growing Vegetables in Containers.”

Harvesting Lemongrass

Harvest plants when the leafy tops are 12 inches long and ½ inch wide at the base.  Cut the stalks at ground level or pull them by hand at the base.  Ensure you get the entire base, which looks like a green onion.  Pulling up a few roots won’t harm the plant.

Be careful when cutting off the grassy top part because the edge of the leaf is sharp enough to cause a cut.  Bundle the leaves and add them to tea or stock to get that good lemon flavor.  Peel the bulbous base to expose the edible white inner part.  All other parts of the stalk are too tough to eat, so they’re useful for flavoring.

Storing Fresh Lemongrass

For storage, wrap fresh lemongrass stalks in moist paper towels.  Next, put them in bags and send them to the refrigerator.  They will keep well there for a few weeks.  To freeze, trim the green tops off the stalks and place the lower stalks on a cookie sheet.

Ensure the stalks aren’t touching each other, and set the cookie sheet in the freezer.  After freezing the stalks, put them in freezer bags or containers and return them to the freezer.  Freeze the peeled bulbs, either whole or chopped.  Frozen lemongrass will keep for about six months.

Another way to freeze lemongrass is to slice the lower stalks thinly.  Pulse the slices with a food processor or grind them with a mortar and pestle until they become a paste.  Freeze the paste in ice cube trays and then transfer the cubes to zip-top bags before returning them to the freezer.

Drying Lemongrass

Dried lemongrass isn’t as flavorful as fresh.  After drying lemongrass, you can store it whole or powder it with a spice grinder.  Dried lemongrass is a favorite additive to herbal teas and will keep in jars for up to 1 year.  Store all dried herbs in air-tight containers in a cool dark place.

Air Drying Lemongrass

Separate the leaves from the stalks and cut them into pieces.  Next, put the pieces on paper towels or a screen.  Finally, put them in a dry, warm, well-ventilated area without direct sunlight.

You could also tie 5  or 6 stalks together and hang them upside-down.  Cover them with a paper bag with some air holes poked in it.

Air drying will take 1 – 2 weeks.

Drying Lemongrass in the Oven

Set the oven at its lowest temperature (200 degrees F or lower).  Arrange the stalks in a single layer on a baking tray covered with parchment paper.

Drying should take 2 – 3 hours, so check the stalks during that time to ensure they don’t burn.  It helps to keep the oven door cracked open.  High temperatures can cause more flavor loss.

Drying Lemongrass in the Microwave

Cut the leaves and stalks into pieces 1 to 1.5 inches long.  Place the pieces in a single layer on paper towels in the microwave.  Microwave for 1 minute and more 10-second increments until the pieces are dry.

Drying Lemongrass in a Dehydrator

Leaves and stalks can go to the dehydrator by cutting them into pieces 1 to 1.5 inches long.  Put the details on the dehydrator racks, and set up your dehydrator based on the instructions.  The pieces should be dry in 2 – 4 hrs.  It may take longer, depending on your dehydrator.

Accessories for Drying Lemongrass

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Putting Lemongrass to Use

You can use the stalks whole but you’ll have to smash them to release the fragrant oils.  Another way is to bend the stalks back and forth in a few places.

Add the stalks to dishes that cook longer, like soups or roasting meats.  Remove the stalks when done because they’ll still be too tough to eat. Salads, soups, and curries all benefit from adding lemongrass.

The bruised stalks can also infuse drinks with their refreshing flavor.  They make a great cocktail stirrer and can do wonders for a bottle of vodka.  Throw a few stalks in the bottle for a week or two and let them do their magic.

When making lemongrass tea, you can use only lemongrass or blend it with other ingredients.  The dried and powdered outer leaves have the best results for this.

Preparing Lemongrass for Cooking

To cook with lemongrass, mince or grind it first.  Here are the steps to do that:

  • Strip off the outer layers of leaves to expose the fleshy stalk.  Discard the lemongrass leaves.
  • Cut off the bulb, then cut off a piece of the stalk about 2 inches long.
  • Cut thin slices from the lower end of the stalk. Keep going until you’re about 1/3 up the stalk, where it becomes green.  The upper stalk is the part that’s good to add to curries and soups.
  • Grind the thin slices into a paste with a mortar and pestle or automate it by pulsing with a food processor.
  • Now that you have the lemongrass tenderized, you can use it immediately (stir fries anyone?). To store it, put it in an airtight container and send it to the freezer or refrigerator.

Here’s the link that will lead you to some amazing lemongrass recipes. And how about some recipes with coconut milk?

If you’re out of fresh lemongrass, here are some acceptable substitutes:

  • Lemon verbena.
  • Lemon balm (not lemon bee balm, that’s a different plant).
  • Mix ginger and cilantro.
  • Makrut lime leaves.

Use one teaspoon of dried lemongrass powder for every stalk needed in the recipe.

Lemongrass Companion Plants

  • If you have a problem with mosquitoes or house flies, lemongrass will repel them.
  • Rodents and cockroaches don’t like the smell of lemongrass.  The oils in lemongrass contain linalool, geraniol, and citral.  These substances give lemongrass a high repellency level.  See this report on Scialert.
  • Herbs that have similar growing conditions can be next to lemongrass.  These include mints, cilantro, basil, ginger, and turmeric.
  • Since lemongrass has different growing conditions, it  isn’t compatible with thyme, rosemary, or sage.
  • Lemongrass doesn’t get much harm or advantage from other plants.  It does its job by being an excellent pest repellent to protect other plants.
  • Lemongrass and marigolds make a powerful pair for repelling garden pests.

Pests and Diseases of Lemongrass

Most of the pests and diseases for lemongrass are in southern Asia.  In the US there are occasional problems with aphids or spider mites.  Remove these with a blast of water or kill them by spraying them with neem oil or organic insecticidal soap.

Please see our article “Top 5 Natural Pest Control Methods You Can Use Now” for more information.

Rust can afflict lemongrass.  Prune out any diseased plants and destroy them.  As much as possible, avoid overhead watering.  Keep water sprays aimed at the base of the plants.

Final Thoughts

Fresh lemongrass is the best way to use it when you’re cooking.  Dried lemongrass is a far-away second choice but it will get you out of trouble if you don’t have fresh.  Lemongrass is a pleasant herb that protects your garden from pests and provides excellent flavors for your food and drinks.

Last update on 2024-07-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Bob Styer

As a child, I hated gardening. That was mainly because Dad expected us to work in the garden every so often even though we thought play was more important. Over the years, though, I've developed a real appreciation for growing things. Whether you're growing plants for food or to enjoy their beauty, gardening can make your life better. Seize the moment!

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