Mother Earth Living

Garden Design: How to Create a Lemon Garden

By Geraldine Adamich Laufer
June/July 1996
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• Sidebar: Geri's Lemon Balm Wine Cooler 

A few years ago, I decided to plant a perennial garden that played with the warm side of the color wheel—golds, yellows, chartreuses. Flowers with warm, brilliant ­colors are compelling and invite the ­visitor closer, and yellow makes a ­particularly bold show. I collected a number of bulbs and yellow-flowered perennials for color interest, dividing and transplanting them from elsewhere in the yard or collecting them from friends. I planted them in a pleasing border arrangement according to color, texture, and form. To ensure a long show, I included plants that bloomed in each of the seasons. One of the most important considerations in the design of this garden, and the one that soon took precedence over all the others, was fragrance. Lemon-scented plants seemed a logical extension of the idea that I’d started with.

It’s unthinkable for me not to include herbs in any garden: a flower garden without herbs is like a kiss without a mustache. The desire to combine lemon scents with lemon colors is what sent me looking for herbs to add to the ornamentals in this bright border. I started with lemon balm and lemon thyme, and then I began to explore the other possibilities. Before I knew it, I had assembled more than twenty-five different lemon-scented herbs and novelty plants. The quest for lemon fragrances had become the overriding obsession, and the bed became my lemon garden.

Join me for a trip through the seasons in my lemon garden.

Lemon Gardens: Winter

In my temperate Atlanta climate, winter is a part of the gardening year. Yellow pansies and vivid orange and yellow wallflowers continue to bloom from fall plantings. By January, Rijnveld’s Early Sensation daffodil adds golden rays of color, and February Gold follows soon after. Blond Cream Beauty and vivid yellow Goldilocks crocuses poke up in late January, while yellow dwarf snapdragons overwinter and bloom as the days get warmer, forming mats each a foot in diameter. As for shrubs, the honey-scented, cheery yellow flower clusters of Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) contribute one of the strongest fragrances in the late-winter garden, and the ribbonlike, sulfur yellow petals of the witch hazels Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’ and H. ¥ intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ offer contrasting texture. Those of H. m. ‘Pallida’ are ­sweetly fragrant.

Against these many yellow hues, tangerine southernwood, a cultivar of Artemisia abrotanum, is a statuesque evergreen herb growing to 4 feet tall. When stroked, the ferny foliage yields a strong, aromatic scent with citrus or lemon overtones. Its semiwoody branches are one of the darkest greens in the garden and are useful any time of the year for flower arrangements. Sprigs of any of the southernwoods can be dried and laid among linens to discourage moths with their camphorous aromas.

Also hardy and evergreen here are several forms of the sprightly lemon thyme. Thymes are easy to grow and an essential part of my scented garden. I find that they last longer if I allow them to roam at will. Some creeping forms that I planted in raised beds have clambered out and taken up residence in the gravel path, forming roots where their sprawling stems contacted the soil. Periodic renewal may be necessary, but propagation is easy from either cuttings or division. Lemon thyme (Thymus ¥ citriodorus) is 10 inches high with glossy, dark green leaves. Both decorative and edible, the leaves have a crisp, sharp lemon scent. An endearing upright golden lemon thyme (T. ¥ c. ‘Aureus’) has a shrubby habit, a lemon scent, pale lilac flowers, and yellow variegated leaves that provide excellent color contrast in the garden.

I also have some lemon thymes that are especially low-growing. A creeping golden lemon thyme (a selection of T. ¥ citriodorus) grows 4 inches high with dark green shiny leaves variegated with gold, a fresh lemon scent, and lovely lavender flower spikes. Another especially appealing, very lemony thyme (it was sold to me as T. praecox, but the correct name is elusive because of the tangle of Thymus nomenclature) grows only 2 inches high. I plant it between stones in a pathway, and slight crushing releases the scent. Its flowers are delicate pink, and it is evergreen in mild climates. Lemon caraway thyme (T. herba-barona ‘Lemon’) is a creeper like its sister, caraway thyme, but its scent is pure lemon. T. vulgaris ‘Orange Balsam’ is a pretty border plant that grows 6 inches high with orange-tinged stems and exquisite, pale pink flowers in the spring. Its citrus thyme flavor is delightful in fruit salads. All the thymes require well-drained sites in full sun with winter protection in the coldest climates. A summer shearing rejuvenates their vigor in the South.

Lemon Gardens: Spring

As spring ushers out winter, yellow lily-flowered tulips, double yellow buttercups (Ranunculus acris ‘Flore Pleno’), and Gold Bold yellow bearded irises turn the lemon garden into a blaze of color. The Siberian iris Butter and Sugar and pale yellow perennial foxgloves (Digitalis grandiflora) add softer shades, and lemon herbs enhance the visual display with their tangy scents.

Wild lemon, more widely known as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), has an obvious claim in the lemon garden. Young plants have a single lobed, round leaf attached to the stem in the center like an umbrella; flowering plants have two. In late March, sheltered under the boughs of the Oregon grape, dozens of these tender green umbrellas open in unison. Soon, a single white flower nods beneath the foliage in the fork between the two leaves, followed a month later by the lemonlike fruit. My patch of wild lemon has spread to cover about a square yard, and I’m hoping that it will blanket the ground still further. Because wild lemon goes dormant by early summer, it can be overplanted with summer annuals.

No lemon-scented plant is easier to grow than lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). This hardy herbaceous perennial goes dormant during the winter but sprouts up again every March, reaching maximum growth by the time that the other spring flowers are golden in the sunlight. In full sun or part shade, lemon balm grows into a globe 2 to 3 feet in diameter. The crinkled leaves are dark yellow-green, heart-shaped with toothed edges, and covered with stiff hairs; the leaves release an exhilarating lemon scent whenever they’re brushed. Melissa means “bee” in Latin, and indeed, honeybees love the many tiny white flowers that bloom from May to October. The flowers are replaced by dark brown oval seeds, which spread lemon balm through my garden and ensure a supply of seedlings to share with a friend. I use the foliage in salads, minced over fruits, with fish and chicken, steeped as tea, and in my refreshing Lemon Balm Wine Cooler.

Lemon catnip (Nepeta cataria ‘Citriodora’), like many other nepetas, is very attractive to cats. When I planted several small plants in the lemon garden, I placed wire hoops over them to keep the cats from rolling over them until their roots became well established. Another hardy herbaceous perennial that grows in full sun to part shade, lemon catnip has lavender flowers in spring. The easiest way to propagate it is by dividing a clump into several pieces, but it also comes easily from seed or cuttings. It makes a fragrant tea and is used in sleep pillows and cat toys.

Lemon Gardens: Summer

The lemon garden in summer is a brilliant, eye-catching spot in the landscape, drawing attention with flamboyant blooms. Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’, yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata), three or four evening primrose (Oenothera spp.), lemon lily (Lilium parryi), and lemon daylily (Hemerocallis lilio-asphodelus) provide both the color and scent of lemons. The annual Lemon Gem marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia ‘Lemon Gem’) supplies low spots of color in full sun. I use the small, single flowers in bouquets, sprinkle the rays in salads, and float them in summer drinks. Later, black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia sp.) join smaller varieties of annual sunflowers to give the garden a sunny look.

Lemon basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Citriodorum’) is the only basil that reseeds from year to year in my garden. This tender annual, a narrow plant that grows about 18 inches tall, has rather small, sparse, spade-shaped yellow-green leaves. Like any other annual, lemon basil’s goal in life is to flower, set seed, and die. To circumvent this cycle and to prolong the harvest of the fragrant leaves, I keep the small white terminal flower spikes well pinched. I grow lemon basil in full sun and propagate it from seeds or cuttings, which root readily. The leaves are scrumptious in cookies, pesto, and salads.

Lemon mint (Monarda citriodora) is actually an annual bergamot; it smells of lemon with a hint of mint. The flower heads are disks of showy mauve plumes subtly shaded in green and pink, and the calyxes that remain after the petals fall are striking in dried arrangements or scattered in ­potpourri. Lemon mint prefers sun, where it is most vigorous, to part shade. It, too, self-seeds.

A tender perennial that is most often grown as an annual is silvery lemon everlasting (Helichrysum foetidum). Its scent is like curry, and its tight, bright flowers are lemon yellow.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is the herb that Scarlett O’Hara’s ­mother tucked into her pockets for its lingering fragrance. A plant of this species has survived three mild winters in my garden. Because it tends to be leggy, I grow it in full sun, continually pinching the tips to promote branching. (Unpinched, the plant would eventually bear loose clusters of tiny white or pale lavender flowers at the stem tips or in the leaf axils.) Lemon verbena may be grown as a tidy standard on a single trunk, but because frost tends to knock the plant to the ground, I encourage multiple trunks so that one stem may live when another succumbs. The standards are excellent grown in ­containers for accent, however, if you don’t mind having to move them to a protected spot when severe weather threatens. To safeguard against the loss of lemon verbena in winter, cuttings may be taken in late summer, using a rooting hormone and a moisture-retentive rooting medium. The rooted cuttings should overwinter indoors or in a heated cold frame. The narrow, pointed leaves dry exceptionally well and retain a strong scent and good green color. They are as useful in potpourri as roses and lavender and are also excellent brewed as tea or used to flavor other drinks as well as jams and jellies. I add minced lemon verbena leaves to cookies and cakes, including a terrific lemon pound cake.

Whether grown in the garden or in containers, scented pelargoniums, also known as scented geraniums, are some of my favorite sources of lemon fragrance in the summer garden. These tender perennials from South Africa grow best in full sun and must have good air circulation and fairly dry soil for good growth. Pelargonium crispum is an upright plant reaching 2 1/2 feet whose small, bright green, intensely lemon-scented crinkled leaves are the kind traditionally placed in finger bowls. The hybrid ‘Lady Mary’ also carries a strong scent of lemon on its coarse, five-lobed leaves. ‘Prince ­Rupert’, which has a very good lemon scent, is a lovely rambling bush with an upright habit and is the best scented pelargonium for standards. Its ruffled leaves are larger­ than those of P. crispum, about 1 inch across. The cut and recut dark green leaves of P. citronellum yield a strong citronella scent. The species grows vigorously and ­pro­duces small bright pink flowers in profusion. A scented pelargonium that I first met as ‘Mabel Grey’ (now considered to be P. citronellum) has an intense lemon fragrance, rough, ridged leaves like opened fans, and pale purple flowers. The hybrid ‘Frens­ham’ likewise has a very strong lemon scent and is a sturdy grower with outstanding clusters of pink­ish and mauve flowers. Lemon balm–scented geranium (P. mellissinum), a cross between P. crispum and P. ­ ­grave­olens (rose geranium), smells remarkably like lemon balm. The above-mentioned pelargoniums can be ­propagated by cuttings with varying amounts of ease. The leaves are useful in cookies, pound cakes, teas, jellies and jams, and also in potpourri and finger bowls.

As a novelty, I grow the lemon cucumber, or garden lemon (Cucumis melo, Chito Group). The fruit is the size, shape, and color (when mature) of a lemon; the flesh is white and firm, though not fragrant. I sometimes preserve or pickle the fruits, but I grow this annual plant mainly as a curiosity.

Lemon Gardens: Fall

Toward the end of the gardening year, yellow cushion chrysanthemums, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), yellow daisies, and golden hurricane lilies (Lycoris aurea), which Southerners call naked ladies, fill out the garden’s color scheme.

Autumn also has its own lemon fragrances. An amazingly intense and harsh aroma reminiscent of lemon dishwasher detergent emanates from the leaves of lemon-scented gum (Eucalyptus citriodora). The long, shield-shaped leaves with 3- to 4-inch-long spear points are covered with pores. They are leathery and tough and dry as easily as those of lemon verbena. A tree with colorful exfoliating bark that may reach 100 feet tall in its native Australia, lemon-scented gum is tender here and must be grown in a large pot, brought inside during frost, and kept ruthlessly trimmed and clipped. Even then, it eventually grows too lanky for the house: I donated my last one to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Lemon-scented gum may be started from seed, and although the seedlings are delicate at first, they soon become wiry. Give this plant full sun in well-drained soil in the ground or in a large tub filled with coarse potting mix.

The grassy, spiky texture of lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) provides quite a contrast to the politely ­rounded mounds of most herbs. All parts smell strongly of lemon. Blue-green during the summer, the 1/2-inch-wide, 36-inch-long leaves change to rusty red in fall. Tightly wired bundles of lemongrass add a vertical element to dried arrangements. Lemongrass grows! A single small division that I planted in April ­increased to a clump 21/2 feet in diameter by September. I divided it into thirty one-gallon containers for overwintering indoors, a gracious plenty to share with friends. The tender bases of lemongrass leaves are used in South ­Indian, Sri Lankan, and Southeast Asian cuisines. What’s left may be chopped in half-inch squares and dried to use in tea and potpourri.

Last but not least in my lemon garden is a lemon tree. My tub-grown giant lemon (Citrus limon ‘Ponderosa’), once a bare-root stick that I obtained by mail order, now has leathery, dark green leaves and bears lemons the size of grapefruits. Just one lemon yields enough juice for three pies. The blooms, which are most abundant in spring and fall, smell as sweet as orange blossoms, and the fruits decorate the plant for many weeks. Most lemon trees started from cuttings start to flower their first year and may be kept at a height of 4 feet indefinitely by pinching off the stem tips. I inspect mine vigilantly for scale insects.

The lemon garden is always a fragrant magnet for both insects and people. Hot sunshine causes the oils of some plants to volatilize and perfume the air around the bed, but the scents of other plants seem most pronounced after a rain. When conditions are both warm and moist, my lemon garden is at its peak of fragrance.

Sources

These mail-order companies offer a variety of lemon-scented and golden-colored plants and seeds.
• Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $3.
• The Flowery Branch Seed Company, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $3.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1.
• The Herbfarm, 32804 Issaquah-Fall City Rd., Fall City, WA 98024. Master plant list $3.50.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910. Catalog free.
• Logee’s Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. Catalog $3 (refundable).
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321. Catalog free.
• Rasland Farm, Rt. 1, Box 65C, Godwin, NC 28344-9712. Catalog $3.
• Redwood City Seed Co., PO Box 361, Redwood City, CA 94064. Catalog $1.
• The Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, 316 Surrett Cove Rd., Leicester, NC 28748. Catalog $4 (refundable).
• Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790. Catalog free.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2.


The lemon garden on which this article is based is only a small part of the extraordinary garden that author Geri Laufer tends in Atlanta, Georgia.


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