Growing Lemon Trees

Homeowners in the southern United States can grow lemons in their yard. And everyone else can grow lemon trees as an indoor potted plant that might even bloom and produce lemons.

History of Lemons
No one knows where the first lemon tree grew, somewhere warm, possibly northwest India. They were known to be cultivated in southern Italy, the Mideast and China in ancient times. Sailors and other travelers frequently carried lemons with them to prevent scurvy. Columbus carried lemons with him when he landed in the New World in 1492.

Lemons were grown as a crop in California as early as 1751 and in Florida in the early 1800's. While lemons are still grown as a crop in those states and in Arizona, the biggest growers of lemons are the Mediterranean areas of Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Southern Mexico and other Latin American countries also produce lemons.

How Lemons Grow
The true wild lemons are small trees rarely more than 20 feet high. The branches and leaves are alternate on the tree. Lemon trees have sharp thorns, particularly when young. Some thorn-less or nearly thorn-less varieties have been bred however. Lemon leaves are thick, shaped like a long oval with fine serrations on the edge and small "wings" on the leaf stems. They emerge reddish in tint and turn dark green on top and lighter green below. The tree is evergreen, retaining its leaves year round.

Lemons flower sporadically throughout the year, although commercial varieties are bred to have larger crops at various times of the year. The lemon flowers are small and white; they have a pleasant fragrance like orange blossoms, although not as strong. The lemon fruit varies by variety but is generally some shade of yellow, although some lemons have green or white stripes. The fruit is oval with a characteristic nipple on one end and numerous oil glands on the thick skin.

Lemon fruit may be left to ripen on the tree and will remain edible on the tree for several weeks. Commercial growers pick lemons before they are ripe and "cure" them before they are sold.

Growing Lemons at Home
Lemons are very susceptible to frost and will survive outdoor planting only in areas that do not drop below 30 degrees. They can be covered for a few nights if temperatures get low, but won't survive a long cold period. Zones 9 and above are probably the limit of hardiness for outdoor planting but some people have had success with the hardiest varieties in Zone 8 with some protection.

Most lemons that are sold are grafted on to rootstock from oranges or other citrus. The varieties that grow best in your area will differ considerably from what will grow in other areas. If you are in a citrus growing county consult with your county Extension office as to what variety of lemon will grow best in your area.

The lemons that are most often planted in yards are probably the Meyer Lemon and Ponderosa Lemon. Both of these are not true lemons, but are hybrids between lemons and mandarin oranges. The fruits taste and look like lemons although they are not as acidic as true lemons. These are the plants sold most often for growing as potted plants too.

Outside lemons prefer full sun, well drained soil, and protection from strong winds. They do well in courtyards and against the south wall of homes. Lemons like fertile soil with plenty of organic matter, preferring a slightly acidic to neutral ph.

Plant your lemon tree at the same level it was growing in the pot or nursery. After planting, sprinkle high nitrogen, slow release fertilizer, about a cup per tree, on the top of the soil around the tree and water well. Do not put the fertilizer in the hole as you plant. In areas where citrus is grown special citrus fertilizers are generally sold in garden stores. Feed lemons about three times a year, evenly spaced between March 1 and November 1.

Water your lemon tree if it gets very dry, although lemons tolerate some drought. Deep watering several times a month is preferable to many small amounts of water, as a tree might get in an irrigated lawn. Frequent watering where water gets on the trunk makes the lemon tree susceptible to rot diseases. Also keep mulch from touching the trunk of the tree.

Lemon trees produce a lot of water sprouts, tiny shoots that grow on the trunk. These should be removed as soon as they appear. You can prune the tree to keep it smaller or to shape it but avoid pruning during the winter months. If your tree has thorns you can clip the points off without doing any harm. Remember when you prune you may be removing flower buds.

Growing Lemons in Pots
The Meyer and Ponderosa lemon are often sold as house and patio plants. In the south where the cold period is short, simply move the pot inside by a sunny window for a few weeks. In the north where cold periods are much longer, you will probably need to provide supplemental light from a grow light for several hours a day.

Lemon trees should be moved inside before temperatures fall below 40 degrees. They prefer an indoor temperature of 65-75 degrees. As soon as temperatures are safe the lemon plant should be moved back outside.

The pot for your lemon must drain well. Outside on the patio it should be elevated a few inches so water drains out quickly. Use a light, all purpose potting soil in the pots. Do not start the plant in too large a pot. A 6-8 inch pot is good for a seedling tree. As the tree grows move the pot size up by a few inches a year.

If you can find citrus fertilizer, use that at half the strength recommended for outside plants. Otherwise use a houseplant fertilizer for blooming plants as the label directs. Water the tree when the soil feels dry. Do not over water potted lemons, but they should never get to the point of wilting.

Keep your potted lemon pruned so that it remains manageable. Even small plants can bear fruit in pots. The lemon is self pollinating and doesn't need another lemon to bear fruit.

Harvest a lemon for use whenever it feels plump and looks yellow. They will hold for a long time on the tree if you don't need them all at once.

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