The best time to plant lemon trees is in early spring, either in the ground or in a pot in full sun. They are not very cold tolerant and should only be planted in the ground in USDA Zones 9 and above. Water soon after planting to establish a strong root system and adopt a regular feeding routine after about a year of growth. Prune correctly for the best possible harvest each season.
Introduction to growing lemon trees
Lemon trees are part of the citrus genus, botanically known as Citrus limon. The trees are native to Asia but spread hundreds of years ago across Europe to the Mediterranean, the area they are most commonly associated with today.
Lemons are known for their many uses in the kitchen and the home. But they also make wonderful beginner trees for those growing citrus for the first time. As they are self-pollinating, you only need one tree for a strong harvest.
Choosing the right lemon tree
There are several varieties of lemon tree to choose from when growing at home. Each has slightly different growth habits and fruits, so it’s important to pick the variety best suited to your garden.
One of the most widely grown lemon trees outdoors is the Eureka lemon, a true lemon species. Eureka lemon trees are grown commercially and in home gardens, known for their reliability.
For something a little more cold-tolerant, look for the Lisbon lemon, with slightly smaller fruits and smoother skin.
When growing in containers or in small gardens, the compact Meyer lemon is the best option. This hybrid (Citrus x Meyeri), a cross between a lemon and mandarin, has sweeter fruits and a shorter stature. This variety is easy to grow and doesn’t require much maintenance.
Planting a lemon tree
Once you’ve chosen your ideal lemon tree variety, it’s time to get ready for planting. When and where you plant your lemon tree and how you plant it will set you up for successful harvests in the coming years.
When to plant a lemon tree
Lemon trees should be planted in early spring in most areas. This balances any temperature extremes between cold and warm, allowing the roots to develop and settle in before the heat of summer.
Wait until the soil has warmed after winter before planting. The exact time will depend on your USDA Zone. Lemon tree roots are sensitive to cold and will struggle to establish in cold or icy soil.
Store-bought plants vs. growing from seed
Most lemon trees purchased from your local nursery will be grafted. The specific variety is grafted onto strong rootstock to improve growth and limit problems with pests and diseases. These trees are typically a few years old when sold, giving you a head start on growth and fruiting.
Growing a lemon tree from seed is possible, but it does take much longer to mature. Lemon trees grown from store-bought seeds also won’t reproduce true to seed, meaning the resulting tree and its fruit won’t be the same as the fruit you saved the seed from. Due to the genetic differences, the tree may not even produce fruit at all.
If you’re looking for reliable growth, growing from a small tree purchased from a reputable grower is best. However, if you want to try out a fun gardening experiment, there is no harm in growing from seed.
Where to plant a lemon tree
Lemon trees are native to warm climates and don’t tolerate cold well. They grow best outdoors when planted in USDA Zones 9 and above. They may survive in slightly lower zones but require additional protection in winter.
The Mediterranean climate these trees are often found in gives an indicator of how much sunlight they require. Lemon trees need a full day of direct light for a strong harvest. At least 8 hours is recommended, but they can survive on 6 hours with reduced fruit production.
Avoid partially shaded areas if you’re looking for a full harvest each year. The trees need plenty of energy to produce their bright fruits.
The same applies to growing indoors, where light quality is already greatly reduced. Here, a few more hours of direct light, or even supplemented grow lights may be necessary to ensure fruiting.
Lemon trees can adapt to a wide range of soil types. However, for the strongest growth, a well-draining loam is recommended. They typically prefer a slightly acidic soil pH below 7, but won’t struggle too much if it is slightly out of this ideal range.
Vertical support and staking
Lemons are strong trees that typically don’t require any support when planted in the right area. If your chosen spot is exposed to very high winds, staking while the tree establishes deeper roots can prevent any early damage. Once the root system is established, the stake can be removed.
How to plant a lemon tree outdoors
Follow these easy steps to plant your lemon tree in the ground outdoors:
- Prepare the planting area by digging a hole twice the width and depth of the bag or pot the tree came in. Setting the soil aside, mix in a generous amount of compost and a slow-release fertilizer if your soil is lacking nutrients.
- Remove the tree from the bag and loosen the roots gently. This encourages them to grow outwards rather than around each other.
- Fill the hole with the enriched soil and plant the tree at the same soil level as it was previously. Fill any gaps with more soil until it is completely covered.
- Press around the base to anchor the plant. Water immediately to settle the roots.
How to plant a lemon tree in containers
When planting in containers, start with a large pot. Even dwarf lemon trees grow quite large and have expansive root systems that don’t like to be too confined. Fill the container with a high-quality potting mix amended with additional drainage materials and compost and plant as you would in the ground.
Outdoor lemon tree care
Lemon trees are not fussy once you understand their needs. Planted in the right environment, they don’t require much attention to thrive.
Watering lemon trees
Lemon trees require consistent watering for flowering and strong fruit development. Soon after planting, they will need water a few times a week to establish a strong root system.
Once established, you’ll need to water every 1-2 weeks or so in the warmer months, slowing watering when temperatures drop. Monitor the weather to check for upcoming rain, which will also impact your watering schedule.
Fertilizing lemon trees
For a strong and continuous lemon harvest, fertilizing is essential. The most important times to feed your lemon tree are in spring and summer when the most growth occurs. Choose a fertilizer designed for citrus trees to encourage growth and fruiting.
Recently planted lemon trees won’t need additional nutrients unless the soil is very low-quality. Give them a year to get used to their surroundings before applying fertilizer around the perimeter of the tree according to the instructions on the packaging.
Potted lemon tree care
Lemon trees in containers will need watering more often than those in the ground as the soil dries out much quicker. Check the soil every few days and water when the top half of the soil has dried out completely.
Feeding is also important in containers. You should use a lower concentration in these environments to avoid overfertilizing and damaging the roots. To maintain soil health, apply a layer of compost to break down into the soil over time.
Indoor lemon tree care
Lemons can also be grown indoors, which is ideal for cooler areas where winter temperatures dip too low for these trees to survive. However, you are unlikely to see many fruits due to the differing environments and lack of light.
For the best harvest possible, plant in a container and leave your lemon tree outdoors to absorb as much sunlight as possible in spring and summer. During fall and winter, bring the tree indoors to protect it from the cold and supplement with indoor grow lights to maintain growth.
How to prune lemon trees
Pruning is an essential task that promotes new growth and boosts yields in later seasons. Lemon trees are best pruned in early spring for the quickest recovery and new growth. You will need a sharp pair of shears to prevent damage to any trimmed branches.
To prune, remove suckers at the base that draw water and nutrients from the branches above. Also, remove any damaged or diseased branches that can impact growth. Thin out overlapping branches and trim off any growing downwards or upwards to improve the shape of the tree.
When to harvest lemons
It will likely take a year or more for your tree to produce fruits, depending on its age at planting time. They can be removed from the tree when they change color to sunny bright yellow. Don’t remove the fruits too early as they will not continue to ripen once picked from the tree.
How quickly do lemon trees grow?
Your lemon tree’s growth speed will depend on your chosen variety and its care. Dwarf lemon trees mature in as little as six years, while others take ten years or more to reach their final height. Take note of their age at planting to determine when you can expect fruits.
How long do lemon trees live?
Lemon trees can live for 50+ years with the right care. An ideal environment and a focus on soil health will keep your tree fruiting for many years.