Ask the Master Gardener: There are many ways to add lemon flavor to your cooking

Answer: Lemon trees may not grow in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add lemon zest to your cooking! Planting lemony-scented herbs in your garden or patio/deck containers can give you a lemon flavor that adds a citrusy touch to tea, salads, pasta, cookies, cake, vinegar, oils, and pickles.

Lemongrass is easy to grow in containers or in the garden. The lemongrass used in cooking is the West Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and is used in Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisines. The leaves have a lemon flavor and are used for tea and the lower part of the stem is used for cooking. If you will be starting lemongrass from seed, sow the seeds about two months before you plant them outdoors. Another option is to buy a bunch of fresh lemon stems from an Asian food market and root some in a glass of water. When the roots are a few inches long, pin them down or plant them directly in your herb garden.

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The glossy spear-shaped leaves of lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) have a strong lemon scent, which is preserved even when dried. Just a leaf or two is enough to add flavor to most dishes. Some lemon flavor is lost in cooking, but it can be used in almost any dish where you need a dash of lemon. The flavor is best when harvested just before it blooms. Lemon verbena is difficult to grow from seed, so you may want to purchase the plant from a nursery.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is in the mint family and you know what that means! It is an aggressive plant! Growing it in a container will keep it under control. Zone 4 is hard to get to, so you might go back year after year in the Brainerd area. The leaves (fresh or dried) have an intense lemon scent and sweet flavor that are often used to flavor tea and other summer drinks, smoothies, salads, or to decorate desserts. The delicate leaves are tastier and better for use in cooking. Older leaves can taste a little soapy.

Lemon mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata “Lemon”) also has aromatic foliage with a lemony scent. Like lemon balm and all types of mint, it spreads vigorously, so a container may be the best place to grow it to keep it under control. Trim the leaves as you need until the plants flower, then cut them back and use regrowth. Lemon and mint taste best when fresh. It is used in smoothies, salads, and sauces to complement fish dishes. It also makes a refreshing lemon and mint tea.

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Lemon basil is a blend known for its distinct lemony scent. Pinch and harvest the plants regularly to encourage more growth. Use the edible white leaves or flowers just like regular sweet basil. The leaves retain their flavor in cooking and are great for flavoring grilled fish or shrimp. Finely chop it and add it to pasta and vegetables, or add it to summer drinks, vinaigrette or olive oil.

Lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) combines the flavor of thyme with a hint of lemon and can be used in almost any recipe that calls for regular thyme. The leaves can also be used to make a tea to help soothe a sore throat.

All of these herbs grow best in full sun and well-drained soil.

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Dear Mr. Bustani: I moved a ficus tree to a brighter area of ​​my house and the leaves are falling. What is the cause of falling leaves and what do I do?

AnswerSome of the most beautiful and durable houseplants belong to the genus Ficus. You are more likely to have a rubber tree or a buckeye fig, as they are two common types of ficus. These plants are notorious for dropping leaves when they are moved from one place to another. Additionally, they tend to drop leaves in the fall as the days get shorter. Don’t worry – they are able to develop a lot of new foliage very quickly, as long as they get enough light. Ficus plants grow well in full sunlight or medium, bright light. Older rubber trees can grow well in a north facing window that does not receive any direct sunlight. One thing to keep in mind is that Ficus is very sensitive to cold temperatures and should not be placed near a windy entrance or a cold window in winter. Another reason for losing leaves with a ficus plant is to keep the soil too moist or allow it to get too dry. Although leaf loss can be a major nuisance to weeping figs, it can be very disfiguring in large-leaved plants such as fig-leaf or rubber trees.

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Dear Mr. Bustani: I bought a bag of potatoes and when I got home I noticed that some of them were starting to turn green. Are green vegetables safe to eat?

Answer: If potatoes are exposed to light, it will cause the potatoes to produce chlorophyll and solanine and turn green. Solanine has a bitter taste and is irritating to the digestive system. According to the Penn State Extension, small green spots and shoots or eyes should be trimmed, however, if they are more than just small spots, the potatoes should be discarded. Do not use any green potatoes, trimmed or not, if you are serving children as they have less body mass and will be more susceptible to the solanine microbe. If the potatoes have a bitter taste, do not eat them. Store potatoes in a cool, dark place with good air circulation to prevent them from turning green.

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You can get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Helpline at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A skilled gardener will answer your call. Or, email me at and I will answer you in the column if space permits.
Master of Gardeners at the University of Minnesota Extension are trained and certified volunteers at the University of Minnesota Extension. The information in this column is based on university research.

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