People love lemons so much they use them in everything from soft drinks to pies to floor wax. Mother Nature must love lemons, too, because she puts the citrusy flavor and scent into so many things besides the fruit we squeeze into ice tea. There is a smorgasbord of lemony herbs, many of which have the added benefit of attracting bees to pollinate the rest of your garden.
Although you can tuck them into any pot or sunny corner, you can also devote a space entirely to citrus plants. One simple yet elegant lemon garden takes its cue from monastery herb gardens, which blend classical symmetry with barely managed chaos. To make one, mark off a 4-by-4-foot square. Use string as a guide to subdivide the plot into four equal squares. Put a birdbath, feeder or sun dial in the center as a focal point. Then plant the squares with lemon-scented herbs, using the short ones for the border and the taller ones toward the middle.
The lemon herbs
* Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus): Perennial. Low-growing, shrubby lemon thyme enhances salads, herb spreads, soups, breads and cakes. Two cookbooks, "Recipes From a Kitchen Garden" and "More Recipes From a Kitchen Garden," by Renee Shepherd and Fran Raboff ($11.95 each), contain great herb recipes for things like Fresh Apple Cake With Lemon Thyme, and Lemon Thyme or Basil-Stuffed Chicken Breasts (among others). Like most herbs, lemon thyme is easy to grow. It prefers full sun and well-drained soil but will tolerate partial shade and poor soil conditions. A little winter protection helps keep it lush. In summer, lemon thyme, which comes in a beautiful variety of colors - rich gold, variegated yellow and green, silver or dusty forest-green - produces a delicate-leafed carpet that grows thicker with cutting.
* Lemon basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum): Annual. Compact (12-18 inches) and bushy, bright-green lemon basil adds zest to salads, piquancy to tomato juice or sandwiches of roasted Italian veggies, is wonderful sprinkled on sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and makes a great marinade for fish. Start seeds indoors in a seed starter, or sprinkle them on warm garden soil and water well. Easy to maintain, lemon basil needs only full sun and regular watering to thrive. It grows bushier with each pruning, and its flowers attract bees and butterflies.
* Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), aka bee balm: Hardy perennial. The Greeks grew it as a bee plant ("melissa" is the Greek word for honeybee). This lemony herb makes a soothing tea said to increase longevity, and is delicious in fruit cups and vinegars. Two feet tall, it thrives anywhere. It also spreads like mad. To contain it, blockade it in its bed with garden dividers, or pot it, then sink the pot in the ground. It makes a lovely, aromatic bouquet when the tiny yellow flowers bloom.
* Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus): Tender perennial. The blue-green leaves of lemongrass add color and texture as well as fragrance to the lemon garden. A rich source of vitamin A, the leaves flavor candy, soups and fish. Lemongrass, which can reach 3 to 5 feet in height, grows like a clump of lilies, and can be divided with a sharp knife. In mild winters, it can survive protected by a thick layer of mulch, or you can bring it inside and plant it out again the following year.
* Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla): Tender perennial. A native of South America, lemon verbena was brought to Europe in the 17th century and used for perfume oil. Its blade-shaped leaves beautifully flavor drinks, fruit puddings, apple jelly and homemade ice cream or sorbet. Unfortunately, sun-loving lemon verbena is a bit finicky. It hates cold, though it may survive in a protected southern exposure when heavily mulched. Inside, it will drop its leaves and go into dormancy all winter. Give it until August the following summer to leaf out before throwing in the towel.
* Other lemon herbs include: lemon catnip (Nepeta cataria citriodora); lemon-scented southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum limoneum), which is a good insect repellent; lemon mint (Monarda citriodora); and lemon geranium (Pelargonium citronella), which discourages mosquitoes.
* "Recipes From a Kitchen Garden"
* "More Recipes From a Kitchen Garden"
* Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 860-482-3638, or e-mail: gardehepherdseeds.com
* The Herb Society of America's "Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses," by Deni Bown (Dorling Kindersley, 1995, $39.95)
Pub Date: 6/28/98