I live in Montreal, Canada where the mercury drops significantly every winter. Some days, with the windchill, temps drop to -31°F. Bundling up is required most days, even when the sun is shining brightly. It's virtually impossible to grow citrus fruit outdoors around here.
But that doesn't stop me from dreaming about growing lemons. Who can resist the luscious, citrusy fruits?
I've experimented with growing lemons before, and I got oh-so-close to mastering it. I purchased a young lemon tree from a local nursery, got a large pot to fit it in and walked off to my home proud as could be. When I got home, I set the plant in a warm, sunny spot with a lamp for extra heat and light.
I watched over my new plant like a hawk. Little baby lemons started forming from the blooms, and I was already perusing recipe books to figure out what I would make. Then, my plant started dying.
The miniature lemons dropped off the plant, and the leaves turned yellow, then brown. I inspected the soil and leaves and could find no evidence of a pest infestation. What was going on?
Finally, my beloved lemon plant, almost in my home for a year and a half at this point, succumbed to its mysterious condition. As I took out the plant from its container, I realized what had gone wrong. At the bottom of the pot was a pool of water.
That's when I realized that I had accidentally walked out of the store with a pot that was actually two pots stuck together. My error made it so that the self-draining system wasn't able to function and the plant got waterlogged. In the end, the roots of my poor lemon tree rotted away without me having even the faintest idea what was happening.
Despite my misadventure, take heart knowing that anyone can succeed at growing lemons, whether you're in the northern climate like mine or a warm, sunny location. Below, you'll find all the info you need to grow lemons indoors or outside.
First, don't forget to note the difference between dwarf and standard-sized citrus plants. Standard-sized plants are better suited to outdoor growing since they can get tall. Dwarf-varieties are specially bred to grow well in small spaces and containers, which makes them ideal for growing lemons indoors.
- Meyer Lemon – This is a small lemon tree variety that produces moderately sized lemons. The fruit is exceptionally juicy and significantly sweeter than other varieties. Meyer lemons are cold hardy and grow in zones 8-11.
- Eureka Lemon – Eureka lemons bear large fruit that is highly acidic. This is a highly productive variety that grows in zones 9 and 10.
- Lisbon Lemon – This tall lemon tree variety produces classic, juicy fruits. It grows about 15 feet tall and is a popular kind for growers in California. Be careful if you plant it because the trees may have thorns. Hardy in zones 9 and 10.
- Bearss Lemon – This fast grower produces lots of juicy, high-acid fruits July through December. Bearss comes in a dwarf variety for growing lemons indoors. Hardy in zones 9 and 10.
- Ponderosa Lemon – The Ponderosa lemon is a thorny hybrid between a citron and a pomelo. It produces massive, grapefruit-sized lemons and grows in zones 9-11.
How to Plant Lemons
In suitable climates, typically zones 8-11 depending on the variety, lemon trees may be grown outdoors all year round.
Sun and Soil Requirements
Growing lemons successfully requires full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. Plants can tolerate soil that’s a little acidic – aim for a pH between 6-7.5.
Avoid planting in an area where the lemon tree will become waterlogged (e.g., at the bottom of a hill or incline). Add sand to the soil to improve drainage.
Avoid open areas where the wind might attack your tree. Give your trees enough room to breathe if you’re growing multiple. Standard trees need 12-25 feet and dwarf varieties require 6-10 feet of space.
Growing Lemons from Seed
Starting a lemon tree from seed is possible, but takes a while. Germination may take a long time, in some cases more than a month.
Plant seeds at 1/2 inch deep, water well, and cover with ventilated plastic wrap to keep moist. Place in a sunny location. Don't allow the soil to dry out. In two or more weeks, you should see a sprout emerge.
Growing Lemons Indoors
In northern climes, you can start your lemon tree from seed whenever the mood strikes, but we recommend purchasing a starter plant from a reputable nursery. You’ll get fruit quicker this way.
Choose a dwarf variety if you’re growing lemons indoors since standard lemon trees can grow tall. A lemon tree makes an excellent ornamental plant for the kitchen. In the summer, dwarf lemon plants may be put outside, but carefully watch the weather because these plants are sensitive to the cold.
Lemon trees and other citrus plants love a hot and humid environment, which isn’t typical of most northern homes, especially during the winter. Station a humidifier near your plant or use a mister bottle frequently. Keep your plant in a warm area away from entrance areas or drafty windows.
Tip: Learn from my experience. Always check that your drainage is unblocked. And don't doubt yourself when you're sure you're doing everything right. Sometimes, it's worth it to get to the bottom of a mystery! In my case, I solved it much too late – but I learned for the future.
Caring for your Lemons
Water often, but be careful not to overwater your plant. Do not keep your plant in super moist soil. Let the top soil dry out between waterings. Choose a pot that allows for proper drainage.
Lemon trees prefer a warm and humid environment. Dryness is the enemy!
Use a balanced fertilizer to feed your lemon tree. Feed it regularly, especially if it’s still young. Some companies sell special fertilizers designed to feed citrus trees, but we don’t recommend fertilizing without testing your soil first.
Skip this step with growing lemons. You may encourage root rot.
You may trim the plant if you find it’s getting unruly or too large. Cut stems that you want to be removed. Do this once every year or so, only if you deem necessary.
Pollinating the flowers yourself isn’t necessary since lemon trees are self-pollinating, but it can be helpful to move things along.
Lemon Tree Problems and Solutions
One of the best tips I can give you to prevent the spread of diseases is by getting rid of insect pests promptly. There are several diseases spread by insects that have no cure and will force you to destroy your entire tree.
- Yellowing leaves – Plant not looking healthy? It may be several things, but check that you're not overwatering and be sure that your container or outdoor growing area is draining correctly. Improper drainage is a surefire way to encourage root rot.
- Fruit drop – This is actually normal for most citrus tree varieties. Once per season, the majority of citrus trees experience a drop where a portion of immature fruit falls off the tree. If you're noticing that all the fruit is dropping, this might be another issue altogether.
- No fruits – Your tree may be too young to bear fruit, or you may need to help your plant with self-pollination.
Aphids are a problem when growing lemons because they spread disease. Use a powerful blast of water to knock aphids off your tree. If an infestation gets bad, use homemade sprays to get rid of these annoying pests.
This fungus infects weakened trees during the spring or wet season. Anthracnose on citrus causes premature leaf drop and stains on the fruit that results in decay. Use an organic broad spectrum bio-fungicide to kill it off.
If you're planting or re-potting a lemon tree indoors, make sure the soil is new and sanitize containers before use. Avoid root rot disease by choosing a well-drained area or pot for planting. Do not overwater your lemon tree.
Citrus canker is caused by a bacteria that can be spread by animals, humans, wind, and rain. In Florida, hundreds of thousands of trees have been destroyed to stop the spread. It causes brown, raised lesions with an oily yellow margin. Spray plants with copper fungicide as a preventative, but if you get an infection, your tree must be destroyed.
This bacteria is spread by a tiny insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. Once infected, you must destroy your tree, so prevention is essential. If you spot the insect, control it with an organic insecticide applied frequently and encourage parasitic wasps like Tamarixia radiata.
Tristeza is a virus that can cause poor fruit production. Infected plants should be destroyed, so make sure to purchase seeds and rootstock from reputable sources.
This tiny month makes tunnels inside young citrus leaves. Small infestations aren't a cause for concern. Remove the infected leaves and destroy. Larger outbreaks can be controlled with traps by encouraging predators like Cirrospilus wasps.
If your lemon tree starts dropping leaves and twigs, you may have soft scales. These are tiny insects that suck sap from the tree. The insects' secretion attracts mold, which prevents photosynthesis. Parasitic wasps and a neem oil soak make an effective control.
Thrips are tiny insects that feed on developing fruits. You'll see a ring of damaged tissue at the stem and scarring on the fruit. It doesn't hurt the flavor of the fruit, but if you want to control them, keep weeds at bay, use sticky traps and encourage ladybugs and lacewings to visit your garden.
Blast spider mites of trees with water and encourage pirate bugs and ladybugs in your garden. If you get desperate, insecticidal soap can help.
Companions for your Lemon Tree
You can plant other citrus trees near each other, but keep them at a reasonable distance. Avoid planting thirsty plants right under your citrus tree. Instead, choose to plant things that attract pollinators and beneficial predators nearby.
- Lemon Balm
- Sweet Potato
Harvesting and Storing Lemons
Lemon trees take 3-5 years to mature. Harvest time happens when the fruits are yellow or yellow-green, depending on the variety, and firm.
Ripening takes at least half a year, though some varieties may require even more time. You can test for ripeness by tasting the fruit. Some lemon varieties may display their ripeness via a color change.
When picking lemons, cut or gently pull them off the stem. Don't tug. Be gentle, lemon varieties with thin skins are easily bruised and damaged.
Store in the fridge and use as needed.
Once your lemon tree begins producing ripe lemons for the taking, you'll need to think about how to use your abundance of citrus fruit. Using lemons as garnishes for dishes and flavor boosters won't get you far. Use fresh lemon juice for drinks, making sauces and dressings, and even for making your own homemade household products such as cleaning sprays.
Lemons add so much dimension to a dish, and who doesn't love a nice fresh glass of lemonade? But if you're still having trouble using up all those lemons, gift them to friends and family! Bring them along as a host or hostess gift or invite neighbors to pick fruit throughout the season if you have an outdoor tree.
There’s something about the acidic taste of citrus fruits, and the perfumed white flowers that's impossible to beat.
Citrus fruits are often ignored by northern gardeners because they are best grown in warm, near-tropical conditions. While folks in California find nothing special about being able to pick lemons off a tree in the yard, I often fantasize about doing so. If you master the art of growing lemons indoors, be sure to let me know how it goes!