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Lemon Tree Care

Lemon Tree Care 101

Lemon Tree Care 101

As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons… plant a lemon tree! 

Adorned with clusters of fragrant, ivory flowers and plump, tangy fruit, lemon trees offer both practical and aesthetic perks for you to enjoy—and plenty of curb a-peel! If you’re looking to add a little zest to your indoor or outdoor space, consider introducing this citrus perennial to the mix. 

Growing a lemon tree can be a reasonably simple and rewarding experience once you understand how to curate the best conditions for your citrus tree to thrive. By mastering the proper care techniques and paying special attention to your lemon tree’s unique needs, you can reap the fruits of your labor.

How to Grow a Lemon Tree Outdoors 

With a preference for temperate and subtropical climates, lemon trees find themselves at home in California, which offers the ideal conditions for lemon trees to thrive. In the right environment, lemon trees can reach fruit-bearing age in 3 to 5 years and grow up to 20 feet in a quarter century.

To ensure optimal lemon tree care, it's important to pay attention to the special demands of your citrus fruit tree at each stage of its life. Each growth stage may require slightly different care techniques with regard to:

  • Watering requirements
  • Fertilizer choices
  • Pruning procedures
  • Pest and disease management 

Lemon Tree Growth Stages 

Just like humans, lemon trees need more care and nurturing at the beginning of their lives, and less attention once they’ve matured and put down their roots. Lemon tree growth stages include:

  • Seedling and germination  Seeds are best planted in the spring, before your last anticipated frost, and in an area with plenty of sunshine. You may choose to plant your seed in an indoor pot and slowly acclimate your seedling to the outdoors in short increments. In time, your seedling will begin to germinate and produce small leaves and roots. They should be watered consistently to ensure the soil stays moist.
  • Saplings – Saplings are essentially young trees. Your lemon tree will grow taller, develop more foliage, and begin creating an extensive root system in the soil. Saplings should be watered regularly and protected from anything that may damage their delicate frame, like high winds.
  • Maturation – At maturity, your lemon tree begins its production phase. Between 3 to 5 years old, your lemon tree will grow small buds along its branches. These buds evolve into flowers that eventually yield delicious fruit. At this stage, your lemon tree requires lots of energy so it's important to establish adequate sunlight, well-drained soils, application of fertilizers, and protection against disease and pests.

MEYER LEMON TREE

Best Conditions for Growing a Lemon Tree Outdoors 

While knowing the different lemon tree growth stages is one part of learning how to care for a lemon tree, it is also important to pay attention to additional factors like sunlight, moisture, nutrients, pruning, and disease and pest management. 

Temperature and Sunlight

If there’s one thing you take away from this guide, let it be this: Lemon trees love sunlight. These citrus perennials are cold-sensitive and are accustomed to subtropical climates, meaning they like warmer temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees and require a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight a day. 

To allow your tree more energy for delicious fruit production and the development of a strong root system, find the sunniest spot in your outdoor space, mark it with an X, and begin digging. Your lemon tree will thank you. 

Watering and Humidity

Just like Goldilocks, lemon trees don’t like extremes. These trees seek out just the right amount of moisture to quench their thirst. Soil that is too dry will result in shriveled leaves and a negligible fruit harvest. And soil that is too wet will rot and decay your tree’s roots, preventing water absorption and hindering its growth. 

To hit the sweet spot, you want to make sure your soil is moist but not too dry or wet. It’s best practice to allow the top three inches of the soil surrounding your citrus tree to dry out before watering it again. To test your soil’s moisture, simply stick your finger in the soil. As you pull your finger out, any dirt stuck to your finger indicates moist soil. 

In other words, the cleaner the finger, the thirstier the tree. 

Mature lemon trees should be watered about once or twice a week, depending on the season. Watering should be increased during the hotter summer months if you notice your soil drying out more rapidly than normal.

Younger trees and seedlings may also require extra watering as they grow. It’s recommended to deeply water your young sapling and the larger circumference around it to ensure proper hydration and growth. 

Soil and Fertilizers

Healthy soils provide your lemon tree with the nutrients, water, and root anchorage that are essential to maximizing its fruit production.

As we mentioned before, lemon trees prefer well-drained and moist soils. Mulching around your lemon tree with lawn clippings or wood chips can help preserve soil moisture and enable proper drainage.

Like their acidic fruits, lemon trees also prefer slightly acidic soil. This acidity supports healthy soil bacteria, which help break down nutrients in the ground that your tree can then absorb.

As your lemon tree reaches maturity, it’s also important to provide it with ample amounts of fertilizer 2 to 3 times a year. You can add the following nutrients and minerals to the soil to help your lemon tree flourish:

  • Phosphorus – Helps plants form roots, flowers, and edible fruit
  • Potassium – Assists in water absorption and growth
  • Zinc – Aids in temperature and energy regulation
  • Iron – Supports chlorophyll production 
  • Nitrogen – Assists in leaf, flower, and fruit growth

Another way to add supplements to the soil is through companion planting. This practice involves growing different species of plants in close proximity so that they mutually benefit from each other. 

Simply plant crops like sweet peas and fava beans or flowers like blue false indigo and lupine next to your lemon tree. Not only do these plants add extra dimensionality and beauty to your yard, but they can also naturally add nitrogen to the soil!

Pruning

Regular pruning, or the selective removal of dead or unwanted branches, guarantees that your lemon tree remains in good physical condition by:

  • Allowing air flow between branches
  • Reducing the chance of limbs breaking 
  • Stimulating new shoot growth 
  • Cultivating aesthetic appeal 

The best time to prune your lemon tree is between February and April when temperatures are milder. This will allow your citrus fruit tree time to recover while avoiding exposure to extreme temperatures. 

For mature trees, use sharp pruning shears or a saw to cut branches at the branch collar, leaving a few inches around the base of the limb to avoid tree rot. Young saplings may require a more delicate approach so as not to stunt development. With younger trees, simply remove shoots and buds to ensure balanced growth. 

Disease and Pest Management

Facing the occasional attack from a pesky insect or disease-causing fungus is a natural part of your lemon tree’s life. As such, you must stay vigilant to protect your lemon tree from unwanted invaders.

Pest Invaders

Let’s face it, your lemon tree is irresistible—pests can feed on the crisp leaves, tender bark, or juicy fruit of your tree, which can cause serious damage to its foliage. Common lemon tree pests include:

  • Citrus leaf miners
  • Aphids
  • Mealy bugs
  • Thrips
  • Scales
  • Whiteflies 

Pest-repelling plants like marigolds, garlic, petunias, and strongly-scented herbs like rosemary and basil may help reduce the chance of infestation. You can also introduce hoover flies and ladybugs to your garden, which feed on common pests.

Ailments and Diseases

Diseases caused by fungal infections, bacterial overgrowth, and nutrient deficiencies can threaten your lemon tree’s health. The top diseases that can impact lemon trees include:

  • Citrus canker 
  • Botrytis rot
  • Anthracnose fungus
  • Phytophthora fungus or brown rot
  • Scooty mold fungus

Preventative care is really the best way to tackle these issues. Regular pruning, well-drained soils, and proper maintenance reduce the chance of bacterial or fungal overgrowth. 

If your lemon tree is already experiencing these issues, it may be best to consult with your local nursery or horticulture expert to explore possible solutions. 

How to Harvest Your Lemon Tree

As your lemon tree begins producing small, green fruits, you may believe you accidentally bought a lime tree! Don’t fret. As they begin to grow, all types of lemons are dark green in color. Over the next 9 months, they’ll ripen to the golden yellow color most of us are familiar with. 

Once the fruit is 2 to 3 inches long, it’s ready to harvest. Gather your ladder, gloves, and a basket to collect your tangy fruits. Then, simply use your hand to gently pluck the fruit off its branch, and voila, you’ve successfully harvested your first lemon!

Become a Lemon Tree Expert with Plants Express

Following this guide, you can master the techniques to properly care for your lemon tree. Special attention to watering, pruning, nutrients, and pest and disease management will allow your lemon tree to blossom and thrive.

At Plants Express we pride ourselves on providing the finest trees for your Californian backyard. Whether you’re a veteran horticulturist or novice gardener, we have the resources to help you beautify your outdoor space.  

Begin your journey as a lemon tree expert by purchasing the Eureka Lemon Bush or Meyer Lemon Tree, both excellent options that offer bright and flavorful lemons for you to enjoy!

Sources: 

University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. Irrigating Citrus Trees. https://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1151-2021.pdf 

Master Gardeners of Monterey Bay. Care of Potted Citrus. https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=25682 

University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Pruning Citrus. https://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1455.pdf

University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources. Young Tree Pests and Their Damage. http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/C107/m107apyoungtrees.html 

University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources. Diseases and Disorders of Leaves and Twigs. http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/C107/m107bpleaftwigdis.html 

Minneopa Orchards. 5 Important Facts About How to Harvest Lemons. https://minnetonkaorchards.com/how-to-harvest-lemons/ 

GreenUpside. When Does A Lemon Tree Produce Fruit? (3 Things You Need To Know). https://greenupside.com/when-does-a-lemon-tree-bear-fruit 

SFGate. Temperature Requirements for a Lemon Tree. https://homeguides.sfgate.com/temperature-requirements-lemon-tree-55795.html
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