Caring For Lemon Trees (5 Important Things To Know)


If you’re ready to step up your houseplant game and enjoy homegrown fruit, lemon trees are an excellent choice. 

Lemon trees are usually started via cuttings from a mature tree. To grow one, all you need is a container, well-draining soil, and a sunny south-facing window. 

Although lemons are one of the easier fruits to grow, there are specific care instructions you’ll need to follow for the best chance at success. This article will take you through the process of growing and caring for your lemon tree, including planting, pruning, and pollination. 

Caring For Lemon Trees 

Citrus plants originate from the tropics of southern Asia, the South Pacific, and Australia. They need a warm climate, well-draining soil, and plenty of sun to grow successfully. Once you have the basics down, lemon trees typically grow vigorously. 

lemon tree
Lemon trees need a warm climate, well-draining soil, and lots of sun.

Lemon trees are popular indoor plants due to their ability to thrive in containers and their preference for warm weather. Lemon trees are only perennial in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8-11.

If you live outside that range, you can grow your tree outside in the spring/summer and bring it inside for the winter if desired, or keep it indoors all year. 

Planting Lemon Trees 

Since many varieties of lemon trees exist, research the different types and consider what you want before shopping. You can also head straight to your local nursery, see what they have in stock, and ask if the staff can recommend a tree that will suit you and your growing conditions. 

Like most fruit trees, lemon trees are typically sold in grafted form. This means that the rootstock of one plant is fused to the trunk and branches of another. The cutting roots determine the tree’s size and growth rate, while the above section indicates the variety of fruit. 

lemon tree
Lemon trees are usually grafted, with a scion (top part) of one variety grafted onto a rootstock (bottom part) from a different variety.

Once you have your tree, here’s what you’ll need to plant it:

Soil

Lemon trees are prone to root rot and won’t tolerate sitting in waterlogged soil. If you’re growing your plant in a container, it’s a good idea to amend your potting mix with drainage material such as perlite or orchid bark. 

wheelbarrow with soil
Lemon trees need soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. The soil should drain well, so avoid areas where rain gathers and sits.

If you’re planting your lemon tree in the ground, you can try to plant it on a slight mound to promote draining. 

Since lemon trees prefer slightly acidic soil, you can either look for a potting mix that is formulated for citrus plants or satisfy this requirement with special fertilizer. The pH level should be about 5.5 to 6.5, which you can test with a kit from your local plant store. 

Location

Lemon trees will appreciate as much fun as you can give them. Plant them directly in the sun outside, or right in front of a south-facing window indoors.

daylight
Lemon trees need full sun, so avoid placing them in a spot where other trees will shade them.

If you don’t have an unobstructed sunny window in your home, you can supplement it with a grow light. 

Time

If you’re within the correct growing zone for planting lemon trees and your area freezes, wait until there is no longer a threat of frost in early spring to plant. Planting as early as possible in these areas will give your young tree more time to acclimate before cool weather returns. 

frost
In the proper growing zone, don’t put lemon trees outdoors until after the threat of spring frost is past.

In what’s known as the “citrus belt” (Florida, Texas, Arizona, and southern California), you can plant lemon trees in the ground any time of the year. If you’re growing your tree indoors, this can also be done at any time. 

Techniques

If you purchase your lemon tree bare root (not in a container), take a look at the root system before you plant it. If the roots appear to be tangled or tightly wound, try to break them up gently.

When you place the plant in its container or on the ground, you should spread the roots outward – which is how they should grow.  

lemons on tree
To plant a lemon tree, dig a hole 1.5 times as wide as the root ball, with the same depth.

The hole you dig for the tree should be around 1.5 times the width of the root ball and about the same height. Ensure that the graft union (where the top and bottom sections were fused together) is 4-6 inches above the soil level. 

Watering Lemon Trees 

The first time you water your lemon tree will be when you plant it. While you’re placing it in the ground, fill the hole with soil about halfway and then water it.

This helps remove the air pockets in the soil, and the dirt will inevitably settle. Next, fill the rest of the hole with soil, water again, and add more soil until it settles at ground level. 

water
When planting a lemon tree, fill the hole halfway and water to remove air pockets. Then, fill the hole the rest of the way and water again.

Initially, your lemon tree will need to be watered frequently to help the roots establish themselves. The soil should be moist at all times, but never soaked or soggy. A good rule of thumb is to stick your finger in the soil, and water once it’s dry an inch below the surface. 

After the first year, you can decrease your watering frequency, while still making sure that the root ball never dries out completely. At this time, you can wait until the soil is dry 2-3 inches below the surface to water it.

Fertilizing Lemon Trees 

Lemon trees go through nutrients fairly quickly from foliar and fruit growth. Maintaining a fertilizer schedule year-round will ensure they get what they need for consistently healthy foliage and harvests. 

lemons on tree
Use a fertilizer formulated for citrus plants. You may need to fertilize multiple times during the growing season, depending on the type you use.

The best kind of fertilizer to use is one that is specifically formulated for citrus plants. As for application, you can either use a granular fertilizer every 6-8 weeks during the growing season, or a slow-release product once in the spring, and once in the fall.

If you choose the slow-release option, you should supplement with a biweekly dose of liquid plant food during the growing season, but not in the winter when the plant is not actively growing. 

Pruning Lemon Trees 

Be proactive about pruning your lemon tree for optimal growth. When you plant the tree, pick 3-5 main shoots to form the main framework of the tree, and keep removing competing shoots until the plant matures. 

pruning shears
Prune a lemon tree to control its shape and prevent competing shoots from growing until the plant matures.

Once the tree starts to mature, your pruning goals will involve shaping it to control its shape and height. You’ll want to maintain a dome-shape through light, yet frequent pruning.

According to the University of Florida’s Extension program, heavily pruned trees produce less fruit than those that are lightly pruned. Dead, diseased, or non-productive branches should be pruned as soon as you notice them. 

Do Lemon Trees Need To Be Pruned Every Year?

If you’re growing your lemon tree mainly for its fruit, pruning every year is necessary. Diligent pruning helps to keep the tree in the optimal form required for a bountiful harvest.

lemons on tree
Prune carefully each year to help your lemon tree produce more fruit. Don’t overdo it, but don’t be afraid to get rid of dead or damaged branches.

Fruiting requires a lot of energy, and if the tree has to sustain more branches than it needs, it won’t be able to focus on growing fruit. 

Lemon Tree Pollination

One of the best things about lemon trees is that they can self-pollinate, so you don’t need to own more than one variety for cross-pollination. Their flowers are very fragrant and easily attract honeybees and other pollinators outdoors. 

(You can learn what else to plant for attracting bees & other pollinators here).

bee
Lemon trees are self-pollinating, but bees can still help to improve pollination to give you more fruit.

You can manually pollinate your lemon tree if you’re growing it indoors. When your tree flowers, take a paintbrush and lightly brush the inside of each flower to gather the pollen and transfer it to neighboring flowers.  

A mature lemon tree should produce fruit at 3 to 5 years old (sooner for an established tree) – you can learn more here.

Lemon Tree Diseases & Pests (Plus Remedies)

Lemon trees are prone to a handful of pests and diseases. Here’s what to look out for:

Citrus Red Mites: These tiny red mites damage the surfaces of leaves, leaving brown spots behind. Severe infestations can lead to leaf drop. To treat, apply a sulfur spray to the foliage. 

Citrus Leafminer: These are small moths with silvery white wings that cause leaf distortion, particularly to newer leaves. Applying a 1% solution of horticultural oil to new leaf clusters should help protect the foliage as it grows.

Florida Red Scale: This tiny armored pest ranges from reddish-brown to purple, and attacks both leaves and sometimes fruit. Apply a solution of 1% horticultural oil to the leaves to manage infestations and prevent them in the future. 

Citrus Canker: This bacterial disease mostly affects young leaves, shoots, and fruit. Tiny spots on the leaves and fruit are the first sign of illness. Those spots grow and become raised, and then are surrounded by a yellow ring. Apply a copper-based fungicide and maintain adequate airflow to control citrus canker.

Algal Disease: This pathogen infects the foliage and bark of lemon trees and eventually leads to the loss of leaves and dying stems. Spraying the plant with a copper fungicide once or twice in mid-summer should control the spread.

Citrus Scab: Lemon trees are more vulnerable to citrus scab during rainy seasons when kept outdoors. The disease is evidenced by corky growths on immature leaves, stems, and fruit, and can lead to malformation. To control citrus scab, apply 1-2 sprays of copper fungicide during early fruit development. 

Conclusion 

Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a novice wanting to dip your toes into raising fruit trees, lemon trees are an excellent choice for anyone. As long as you’re patient and do your research, you should have success.

If you are interested in other fruit trees that are more cold-tolerant than lemons, you can learn how to care for apple trees here, and how to care for peach trees here.


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~Jonathon


About the author:
Kathryn is a plant enthusiast and freelance content writer who specializes in home and garden topics. Based in New York, you can get in touch with Kathryn at https://kathrynflegal.journoportfolio.com/.

Kathryn F.

Jon M

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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