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 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.
Once you have your tree, here’s what you’ll need to plant it:
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.
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.
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.
If you don’t have an unobstructed sunny window in your home, you can supplement it with a grow light.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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/.