Days to germination: Lemons are grown from seedlings
Days to harvest: 3 years
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Frequent watering
Soil: Well-drained soil
Container: Dwarf lemons are fine for containers
Lemons are usually too sour for regular fresh eating, though some people love the taste and will eat them like an orange. Lemons are best known for their juice and lemonade. There are a few different lemon varieties but there isn’t a large amount of variation from fruit to fruit. Most home gardeners grow Meyer lemons.
You need warm weather to grow lemons, and your winters shouldn’t drop below 50F at night. That usually keeps them within growing zones 8 and 11. Though quite acidic, lemons are high in vitamin C and various antioxidants.
Starting Your Tree
Gardeners rarely start lemon trees from seed except as a novelty. Buying a seedling is the usual way to go.
After digging the hole for your seedling, add some lime to balance out the pH of the soil. Ironically, lemon trees do not like acidity in their soil.
Choose a spot that gets all-day sun but where there isn’t going to be low-lying water after a rain. Lemons need regular watering but will quickly suffer if left with soggy roots. Lemon trees grow to a height around 15 feet tall, so should not overpower your yard once its mature.
Water your lemon trees regularly, about once a week. It’s better to give them a deep watering rather than short drinks more often. Help keep their soil moist with a deep layer of organic mulch. Just don’t let it pile up in contact with the actual trunk of the tree.
Lemons can be a little finicky when it comes to their care. Too much or too little water, or the wrong amount of fertilizer can drastically effect your final fruit harvest. Be prepared for a little trial and error with a lemon tree.
Most lemon trees will do well with 2 or 3 fertilizer applications during the spring and summer months. Don’t just apply it down at the base of the trunk. Put out the fertilizer in a ring around the tree the same number of feet at the tree is tall. So a 6-foot tree should have its fertilizer applied approximately 6 feet around the trunk in order to get the active ends of the roots.
Lemons trees aren’t particularly huge, but a little pruning can help it maintain its shape and keep the height to a reasonably level. You shouldn’t need to do extensive pruning like you would with an apple tree. Cut out any dead branches, and give the central “leader” or tallest branch a good trim to keep the tree short.
You can definitely grow lemons in containers, and this can be a preferred method for anyone wanting a smaller harvest of this sour fruit. For regular family use, a full-size tree may produce more lemons than you can use. A dwarf tree may suit better even if you don’t plan on using a container.
When you grow potted lemon trees, you can also take more care of them during the winter months. This can mean an opportunity to grow lemons in cooler zones if you are willing to bring it into a sheltered location when the temperatures dip too low.
There are no specific varieties of lemon that are naturally small, but as long as the branches are grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock, it will still produce a small tree. When growing in a container a lemon will grow to about 5 or 6 feet tall. Your container should drain well, and be at least 10 gallons in size.
Container lemons will need frequent watering and should be fertilized just as often as a tree planted out in the garden.
Pests and Diseases
Like other citrus fruits, lemon can be attacked by scale. Scale are small dome-like insects that can be hard to see and harder to get rid of. They just look like bumps on the branches. Small numbers of them aren’t a problem but they can overwhelm a tree and cause it to start dropping its leaves. There are various sprays that can be used to control them but they can be hard to get rid of. You should water your tree more often to help it stay healthy while you battle scale.
Scale give off a sweet fluid called honeydew, that ants love. If you see a lot of ants on your trees, it’s a good signal that there are scale around.
Aphids and mites are two other very small insects that can stress your trees when present in large numbers. They can cause yellowing or wilting of the leaves, or new leaves may have a crinkled appearance. Treat your trees with a standard insecticide spray as soon as you detect the pests.
And aphids have a tendency to spread disease, giving another reason to take care of them when they appear. One in particular is Citrus Tristeza Virus (CTV). CTV can cause various symptoms, including the yellowing of the leaves and the overall decline of the tree. There is little you can do once your tree is infected. Some varieties of lemons are resistant.
Harvest and Storage
Lemons will usually be ripe enough for harvest about 4 months after the blossoms come out on the tree.
The fruit color will be a deep bright yellow with no green remaining. Once the rind starts to get wrinkled, you’ve left it on the tree for too long. It still may be edible but will be drier inside than a fresh lemon.
Your trees may start to produce lemons as early as 3 years old. Once producing at full capacity, each tree can produce 2 or 3 bushels of lemons each year. For the average family, that is more than enough since they are not usually eaten as whole fruit.
You can store your fresh lemons out at room temperature for about 2 weeks. They will keep for closer to 6 weeks if you keep them in the fridge. If you only use the juice, you can freeze lemon juice for convenient use. Freeze juice in ice cube trays, then bag up the cubes in a large ziplock bag. The juice cubes will last for several months when frozen.