Lemongrass is one of my favourite herbs. The fresh citrus tang it provides can be a subtle finishing touch to a spicy dish, or the refreshing main flavour to something a little more delicate.
Used widely in Asia, Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a delight to have in the kitchen and there is no reason why you can’t have your own stock to pick from.
Growing Lemongrass from Seed
Lemongrass can be grown from seed, although some people prefer to separate established plants or potting up a pack of supermarket lemongrass. These are viable methods, but are not as much fun as growing your own from seed. Lemongrass seeds are typical grass seeds, being fine, very light, and with germination rates being quite poor. Lemongrass seeds aren’t expensive though, so this isn’t a big problem.
Prepare Your Pot
To sow lemongrass, use a good seed quality compost mixed with 20-30% sharp sand to provide the excellent drainage the seeds need to flourish. Fill up several 9-15cm pots, leaving at least a quarter of an inch from the top of the soil to the top of the pot. Water the pots and leave to drain.
Sowing Lemongrass Seed
Don’t sow lemongrass seeds on a windy day! As I wrote earlier, lemongrass seeds are very light and designed to be taken on the wind. Trying to sow them on a windy day is a sure fire way to lose a load of seeds.
Sprinkle about 10-15 seeds on the surface of each pot – you should hopefully notice that the moist compost surface helps to secure the seeds. When you have sprinkled your seeds, cover them with a very fine layer of sandy soil. Covering the seeds helps ensure they are in contact with the moist soil, triggering germination. Keep them in a warm place, like a greenhouse and don’t let the compost dry out.
Germination takes anywhere for a couple of weeks to a couple of months. This is the bit that always tests me – you have to be patient! Do not be surprised if you only get one or two seedlings from each pot of seeds. Lemongrass has a very poor germination rate, so just be happy with the select few plants that have decided to grow.
Unless you have been very lucky, you will be left with just a few young lemongrass plants in each of your pots. If you only have one or two in each pot, there is little need to re-pot your lemongrass at this point.
If your germination rates have been significantly better than mine usually are, you may need to re-pot your baby lemongrass plants earlier. I always grow my lemongrass in a greenhouse to make sure it doesn’t get cold and wet in the extremes of the UK seasons. It can be grown outside but it is not fully hardy, so you may encounter problems.
To re-pot your lemongrass plants, gently tease them out of the soil, taking care to damage the roots as little as possible. Use a pencil or similar to help you take the plant out of its current home.
Fill the new pot with a similar potting mix to the one it is currently in. Half fill the pot with the sandy mix, then introduce your lemongrass seedling into it, back-filling the pot so that the roots are covered and the new plant is securely anchored in the new pot. Plant the seedling at the same depth it was at in the previous pot to avoid rotting of the stems.
Water Your Lemongrass
Whilst lemongrass does not have a heavy need for water, it is always a good idea to water a newly potted plant in. By watering the newly planted lemongrass with a fine hose you will ensure that the soil settles around the roots and air spaces within the soil are kept to a minimum. This gives your lemongrass plant an even substrate to work with and hopefully ensures good, uniform growth.
Lemongrass is not fast to get growing, but once it has taken hold it will grow very strongly. The spindly little grass shoot you currently own will fill out at the base and you will notice the distinctive stalks begin to fatten up. Lemongrass can grow into a large clump given good growing conditions. It can reach p to 2 metres wide and 2 metres tall, so really can be a substantial plant.
Look for older stalks that are about a quarter to a half an inch thick. You can cut the stalks out, but I prefer to pull them as this helps leave less damage behind, which can lead to your plant becoming diseased. Don’t worry if you pull out some of the roots or bulbs with your stalk – as long as your plant is big enough, this won’t cause any problems.
Remove the foliage, which you can dry to make a refreshing tes. Also remove the woodier layers on the bottom of the stalk. You now have a lovely lemongrass stalk to crush and stir your dishes with, or you can freeze it for around 6 months if you don’t want to use it straight away. I find fresh herbs are always the best, so recommend you pick it when you need it. If you are growing outside, you may need to harvest your lemongrass at the end of the season, making freezing a necessity to prolong the shelf life of your lemongrass.
Lemongrass has many culinary uses, as well as the oil of the plant being an effective pesticide and a preservative. You are probably familiar with Citronella candles, whose oils derive from lemongrass and can help deter biting insects on sunny evenings outside.
Cooking with Lemongrass
In the kitchen, lemongrass comes into its own. Whether you are making a soup, curry or even a dessert, lemongrass can brighten up just about anything. I find that the easiest way to use lemongrass is to bash the stems (to help release the aromatic oils) then use the bruised stalk as a stirrer. This is not only an effective way of infusing your dish with lemongrass, but is also quite good fun, and will provoke comment at dinner parties.
You can also cut lemongrass into fine strips to infuse and adorn your meal, although it can be quite tough and you don’t want your guests chewing on it all night. I think lemongrass is best removed from the dish before serving.