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

Planting lemon-scented herbs in your garden or patio/deck containers can adds a citrusy touch to numerous foods and drinks.

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Lemon trees may not grow in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add lemon flavor to your cooking. Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service
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Dear Master Gardener: I would like to expand my herb garden next summer. Are there lemon-flavored herbs I can add?

Answer: Lemon trees may not grow in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add lemon flavor to your cooking! Planting lemon-scented herbs in your garden or patio/deck containers can give you that lemon flavor that adds a citrusy touch to teas, salads, pastas, cookies, cakes, vinegars, oils and marinades.

Lemongrass is easy to grow in either containers or the garden. The lemongrass that is used for culinary purposes is West Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and is used in Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine. The leaves have a lemony flavor and are used for tea and the lower portion of the stem is used for cooking. If you are going to start lemongrass from seed, sow the seed about two months before you will be planting it outdoors. Another option is to buy a bunch of fresh lemongrass stalks from an Asian food market and root some in a glass of water. When the roots are a few inches in length, pot them up or plant them directly in your herb garden.

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

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is in the mint family and you know what that means! It’s an aggressive plant! Growing it in a container will keep it in check. It is hardy to zone 4, so it may come back year after year in the Brainerd area. The foliage (fresh or dried) has an intense lemon scent and a sweet flavor that is often used to flavor tea and other summer drinks, sorbets, salads, or garnish on desserts. The young, tender leaves are tastier and better for culinary use. The older leaves can taste a little soapy.

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Lemon mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata 'Lemon') also has aromatic foliage with a lemon scent. Like lemon balm and all mints, it spreads vigorously, so a container may be the best place to grow it to keep it under control. Snip off the leaves as you need them until the plant flowers, then cut it back and use the regrowth. Lemon mint tastes best when it is fresh. It is used in cordials, salads, and sauces to compliment fish dishes. It also makes a refreshing lemony-mint tea.

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Lemon basil is a hybrid known for its distinct lemon aroma. Pinch and harvest the plants regularly to encourage more growth. Use the foliage or tiny white edible 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, vinaigrettes, or to flavor 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 tea to help soothe a sore throat.

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

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Brighten the dark of winter with these indoor plants

Dear Master Gardener: I moved my Ficus tree to a brighter area of my house and the leaves are dropping. What is causing the leaves to fall off and what should I do?

Answer: Some of the most durable, beautiful houseplants belong to the genus Ficus. You most likely have a rubber tree or weeping fig, as those are two commonly grown Ficus. These plants are notorious for dropping leaves when they are moved from one location to another. In addition, they have a tendency to drop leaves in autumn as the days grow shorter. Don’t worry — they are able to develop lots of new foliage fairly quickly, as long as they get adequate light. Ficus plants will grow well in full sunlight, or in bright, medium light. Old-fashioned rubber trees can even grow well in a north-facing window that never receives any direct sunlight. One thing to keep in mind is that Ficus are quite sensitive to cold temperatures and should not be placed near a drafty doorway or cold window in winter. Another cause of leaf loss with a Ficus plant is keeping the soil too wet or allowing it to get too dry. Although leaf loss can be quite a nuisance with a weeping fig, it can be quite disfiguring in large-leaved plants such as fiddle-leaf figs or rubber trees.

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Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Aloe plants offer benefits aside from their beauty

Dear Master Gardener: I bought a bag of potatoes and when I got home noticed some were starting to turn green. Are the green ones safe to eat?

Answer: If potatoes are exposed to light, it will cause the potato to produce chlorophyll and solanine and turn green. Solanine has a bitter taste and is an irritant to the digestive system. According to Penn State Extension, small green spots and sprouts or eyes should be trimmed off, however, if it’s more than small spots, the potato should be thrown out. Do not use any green potatoes, trimmed or not, if you are serving children because they have a lower body mass and will be more susceptible to the solanine. If 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 may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A master gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.
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