I’ve grown citrus trees in many states including Florida, California, and now—Texas, and there were A LOT of lessons learned over the years. Orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, kumquat, and Kaffir lime trees frequented our gardens, but my favorite is the humble lemon tree.
Which is why we currently have a full-sized lemon tree in the garden along with a potted Meyer lemon. While some online information helped me care for them at times, I found a lot of things I had to learn the hard way.
So, I wanted to take all of the lessons I’ve learned, and create a comprehensive guide to caring for lemon trees (both indoor and outdoor, planted and potted). Let’s dive in.
|Varieties||Meyer, Eureka, Lisbon|
|Growing Zone||9 to 11|
|Temperature||35ºF to 100ºF|
|Maximum Size||6-10′ (Dwarf), 10-20′ (Full-Size)|
|Sunlight||6 Hours Minimum, Direct|
|Soil Type||Loamy, Sandy|
|Fertilizer||2-1-1 NPK or Compost, in Early Spring|
|Pruning||Optional, in Early Spring|
|Blooming Season||Early Spring|
|Time to Harvest||1–3 Years (Grafted), 3–7 Years (Grown from Seed)|
|Repot (Indoor Only)||Every 3-5 Years|
|Common Problems||Root Rot, Fruit Drop, Yellow Leaves|
Like most citrus trees, lemon trees grow best in USDA hardiness zones 9-11. This makes certain areas of the South and Southwest, such as parts of Florida, Texas, and California, ideal for growing lemon trees.
However, being in these zones doesn’t completely absolve you of looking out for extreme weather.
Lemon trees can handle temperatures between 35ºF-100ºF but prefer 70ºF-100ºF. When the temperature dips below 35ºF, cover planted trees and bring potted ones indoors. When temperatures are above 100ºF, lemon trees can benefit from being shaded during the hottest part of the day (generally the late afternoon).
This past winter, we had snow a couple of times in Austin, Texas, and my lemon tree got iced-over. It quickly started to die and you could see the leaves starting to get bruises (like when you cut up fresh basil). Luckily, I moved it indoors in time, and the leaves thawed, turning green again almost immediately.
On the other hand, there were times when it was too hot outside (above 100ºF). In this case, I brought our potted Meyer lemon tree inside. If left in temperatures that are too hot, the lemon tree’s leaves can start to dry, brown, and fall off.
Our full-size lemon tree is about 20′ high, so it’s too tall to provide shade for it, but it’s now big enough to take care of itself. This is because when lemon trees are fully grown, they have deeper roots and can access more water, transferring the moisture to cool the leaves during hot weather. If I had a smaller, planted lemon tree, I would have covered it with a large umbrella.
However, if you’re in zones that are 8 or below, you can still grow lemon trees, you just may need to take a slightly different approach. Typically, this means growing lemon trees indoors, or in greenhouses. Also, you can sometimes create a microclimate to better provide for lemon trees. For more about microclimates, check out this video by Gardener Scott.
Sizes and Costs
|Lemon Tree Type||Height||Cost|
While I gathered some of the above data from across the web, I wanted to know the cost of 15-gallon and full-sized lemon trees. Ideally, I wanted to get this info directly from a seller. So, I called up my local nursery and asked them how much their lemon trees cost.
Our 15-gallon fruit trees cost about $120 and our trees in 24″ boxes cost $499. That includes free delivery. We have avocado, citrus, and other fruits available.Local Nursery
Different kinds of lemons will grow to different heights. For example, Meyer lemons are a popular choice for both planted and potted lemon trees, and they’re typically semi-dwarf, or growing to about 10-15′ tall. However, this depends on if the tree was grafted and the height of the grafted tree. When in doubt, it’s best to check with the seller you got your tree from.
Where to Plant
To avoid damage to structures, plant full-sized lemon trees at least 40 feet away and semi-dwarf varieties 20 feet away. Most true dwarf varieties won’t grow thick or long roots, so planting them at least 10-15 feet away should be fine. You can also keep dwarf citrus trees potted to limit root spread.
Aside from proper sunlight and water (more on this later), one of the biggest concerns when planting lemon trees is the invasiveness of their roots.
Sometimes lemon tree roots can damage:
- Fire Hydrants
- House Foundations
This is because a tree’s roots are designed to seek out water. Many times, water can be leaking from pipes or collect under a house’s foundation, which can attract the tree’s roots and lead to damages.
It should go without saying that repairing any of the above can be incredibly costly. For example, the average price of a house’s foundation is $9,260, and that’s not including any other repairs. So, if you’re planting your lemon trees, make sure to properly space them.
For best results, water lemon trees only when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry and keep the base mulched. Lemon trees benefit from a watering that leaves the soil moist, but not waterlogged. Generally, this means deep watering every 1-2 weeks. However, this depends on the weather, soil, and the size of the tree.
When it comes to lemon trees, watering is the easiest thing to mess up (I’ve done it plenty of times). Typically, most lemon tree owners overwater their lemon tree, and this is especially easy to do for potted lemon trees.
Potted lemon trees often get overwatered because they usually don’t have the best drainage. Also, indoor lemon trees have it even worse as they don’t have strong sunlight or wind to help dry out the soil. If lemon trees are waterlogged for too long, they’ll likely develop root rot (a fungal disease, more on this later). This is why checking the soil before watering is key.
On the other hand, most planted lemon trees will have enough drainage and won’t get overwatered unless they’re in clay soil or sit lower than the rest of your property (collecting too much water). In these cases, you can amend the clay by providing 1-2 inch layers of compost every 1-2 months (this is also a great option for fertilizer), or plant the trees on an elevated ground such as raised mounds or beds.
If you notice that your lemon tree’s leaves are starting to curl, then it’s likely underwatered. In this case, increase the amount of water you provide first. If this doesn’t help, then also increase the frequency. Make sure to check the soil is still draining well and the water isn’t stagnant.
Mulching the base of lemon trees helps the soil retain water and protects it from the sun and wind. This is especially useful in hot weather as it results in having to water the tree less often. Outdoor lemon trees benefit from mulch more than indoor since indoor trees can easily become overwatered.
Some good mulches to use for lemon trees include:
- Pine Needles
You can apply mulch around the drip line of your lemon tree. Just make sure to keep it at least 3 inches from the trunk as it can introduce mold.
In combination with proper watering, mulching is one of the best practices you can do for your lemon trees. Mulch is a great natural cover for the soil, which is surprisingly fragile.
We’re finding out that soil life is much more important than we previously thought, and keeping it alive drastically improves the health of the lemon tree, along with the surrounding life.
So, if you don’t yet mulch your lemon tree’s soil it’s probably a good idea (unless you have an indoor lemon tree with not-so-great drainage).
Lemon trees should have a loamy, sandy soil that’s loose, well-draining, and rich in nutrients. It should also have a pH between 6.0-7.0. Soil that is too alkaline or acidic can render the lemon tree’s roots unable to absorb nutrients.
A lemon tree’s soil should be:
- pH of 6.0-7.0
- Organic (Ideally)
Soil is a vital piece of the puzzle for lemon tree care as it is the key to its nutrient uptake. If a lemon tree’s soil is too compact, acidic, alkaline, or poor in nutrients, the tree will become stressed and will have a hard time fruiting and surviving.
On the other hand, if the soil is loamy, loose, slightly acidic, and rich in nutrients, caring for the lemon tree will be fairly easy.
While this seems like a bit of a juggling act, with a bit of practice, you can hit all of these values.
A good way to amend the soil and address multiple issues at once is to provide the tree with compost. Apply 1-2 inches of compost 1-2 times per month, and you’ll find that most of these issues will be resolved. Like mulching, keep the compost at least 3 inches away from the lemon tree’s trunk.
If you’re interested in making your own lemon tree potting soil at home, I recently made a post all about how to do this, so make sure to check it out: Create Amazing Homemade Potting Soil for Your Citrus Tree.
Lemon tree fertilizer should have an NPK of 2-1-1 or twice the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium. You can either use chemical fertilizers or compost, although compost has been found to have more benefits. Generally, provide your lemon tree with 1-2 inches of compost every 1-2 months during the growing season.
Fertilizer can be a complicated subject, but it doesn’t have to be. While many store-bought fertilizers can work well, quality compost will often provide your lemon tree with the most benefits.
These are the main types of composting methods:
- Hot Composting
- Cold Composting
Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is one of the fastest methods of composting as the worms help break down and aerate the nutrients. Hot composting is another fast method, but it requires keeping the compost pile’s temperature above 135ºF for at least 2 weeks. Cold composting is simply adding kitchen and lawn scraps to a bin and letting it passively decompose, although this can take up to a year.
I personally have a worm bin and currently provide my lemon trees with 1-2 inches of worm castings every 1-2 months.
Alternatively, if you’re interested in the best store-bought fertilizers for your lemon tree, I’ve recently created a guide. To see which ones I recommend, check out my other post: The Full Guide to Lemon Tree Fertilizer (& The Top 3 Brands).
Pruning lemon trees can train them to either grow more foliage or provide more fruits. For example, younger trees should be first encouraged to grow more foliage to reach a full size sooner. Mature trees that have already reached full size can be pruned to support more fruit growth.
When pruning lemon trees, you typically have two options:
- Prune Branches
- Prune Flowers and Fruit
Which one to choose depends on the growth stage of your lemon tree. Young lemon trees that still need to grow can benefit from pruning all of their blossoms, buds, and fruit. By severing these parts, the tree will redirect its nutrients to the remaining parts of the tree (the branches, leaves, and roots).
However, many citrus trees often experience “June Drop” and shed most of their blossoms and fruit naturally (more on this later). Because of this, some growers avoid pruning the blossoms, buds, and fruit.
On the other hand, mature lemon trees can benefit from pruning excess branches which redirects their energy to more blossom and fruit production.
There are also other times when pruning can make sense, such as if a branch becomes diseased.
While lemon trees can benefit from pruning, it is an optional practice. Many conventional growers prefer to prune lemon trees while permaculturists prefer to allow the lemon tree to use its instincts and grow without much intervention. There are cases to support either side.
I personally would love to spend less time managing my garden and keep it on auto-pilot as much as possible. This means taking more of a permaculture-like approach and not pruning my lemon trees. However, the choice is up to you.
Like most citrus trees, lemon trees are self-pollinating, meaning they don’t need a second tree to pollinate and bear fruit. However, there is evidence that suggests self-pollinating fruit trees can still benefit from cross-pollination. This can lead to increased fruit load and size.
“Although it has been suggested that cross pollination on Washington Navels is not required to increase yield, there is evidence to show that pollination by bees may contribute to less fruit drop.”Malcolm T. Sanford, University of Florida
So, whether you grow your lemon tree indoors or outdoors, it can likely still benefit from cross-pollination. While pollen is commonly carried by the wind, it’s most often transferred by pollinators.
The most common pollinators include:
If your lemon tree is planted in your garden, you can plant pollinator-friendly flowers to encourage more cross-pollination. You can also set up things like hummingbird feeders.
If your lemon tree is indoor only, you may be wondering how to cross-pollinate its flowers without inviting bees into your home (I don’t recommend this!). Don’t worry, you can hand pollinate your lemon tree fairly easily.
To hand pollinate, you can use any of the following items:
Just make sure that the brush is clean and simply (and lightly) brush the pollen from one flower to another.
For more information on the pollination of lemon trees, you can check out my post on Citrus Tree Pollination.
Lemon trees usually start fruiting in the spring and can take 6-8 months to ripen. Generally, grafted lemon trees can begin to fruit at 1-3 years of age while those grown from seed can take 3-7 years. Full-sized lemon trees can provide about 40 lbs of fruit annually after year 3, and later up to 100 lbs.
If all goes well, your lemon tree can start producing fruit regularly within 1-3 years of age. However, this largely depends on if you have a grafted tree or one grown from seed.
Lemon trees are often grafted onto orange tree rootstocks (as they’re typically hardier). This provides additional benefits such as frost and disease resistance.
While most lemon trees that are purchased are grafted, if you aren’t sure, it’s best to check with the seller.
Despite the care that we provide our lemon trees, there’s still a chance of a few potential issues. The bad news is that you’ll likely run into at least one of the following issues. The good news is that they’re all fairly easy to fix.
Root rot is a fungal disease that most commonly develops in waterlogged soil. The fungus spreads through the roots and slowly kills eats at them. If untreated, the lemon tree will die. Root rot is most often caused by overwatering and can easily be corrected.
Lemon trees that are planted outside typically don’t get root rot as most ground drains well enough. On the other hand, potted lemon trees can get root rot rather easily.
For example, my potted Kaffir lime tree got root rot a couple of years ago. I noticed it after the soil started smelling swampy. Sure enough, when I checked the top 2-4 inches and the bottom of the soil, the water had been stagnant for a while and began to rot. Luckily, I caught it soon enough, and planting the tree into the garden successfully fixed it (we’ve since moved it back into a container).
While some soil amendments such as sand and perlite can help improve drainage (and prevent root rot), they’re best used when you first pot your lemon tree.
The best way to prevent root rot from occurring in the first place is to provide well-draining soil and only watering when the soil is dry (reference the above section on watering!).
If your lemon tree is already potted and has root rot, the best approach is likely to repot it. For planted lemon trees with root rot, consider transplanting it to a more elevated ground such as a mound or garden bed.
For more information on preventing root rot and mold from growing in potting soil, you can visit my other post: Why Mold Grows on Potting Soil and How To Fix It.
Lemon trees commonly drop their flowers and fruit as they’re intentionally overproduced and cannot all be sustained. This is a normal event that usually occurs in June, which is why it’s commonly called “June Drop”. Other reasons why lemon trees drop flowers and fruit are due to overwatering or other stressors.
“June Drop” is a normal occurrence with most fruiting trees, including lemon trees. This is a perfectly normal event and it’s not uncommon for a lemon tree to lose 90% of its flowers and fruit. This helps prioritize the healthiest flowers and fruit to develop.
For example, my potted Meyer lemon tree is in its first year of fruiting, and it currently has a grand total of six fruits. Six! While this might not seem worth it, fruit trees do increase their yield as they age (assuming you provide what it needs).
If a lemon tree developed all of its flowers into fruit, instead of shedding them, we’d be left with blueberry-sized lemons that wouldn’t taste good. The lemon tree simply wouldn’t have enough nutrients and water to provide to all of the fruits.
However, if you believe your lemon tree is dropping its flowers and fruits for reasons other than June Drop, consider the following potential issues:
- Extreme Weather
- Lack of Pollinators
Overall, if you see your lemon tree shedding most of its flowers and fruit, know that it’s likely June Drop and is a normal thing for your tree to go through.
Lemon trees typically get yellow leaves due to overwatering. However, issues such as pests, disease, and a lack of nutrients can also cause this issue. The best way to resolve yellow leaves on lemon trees is to check (in order) the watering, nutrients, and any pests or disease and apply the appropriate solutions.
As you can see, overwatering is not only the most common issue for lemon trees, but it also causes the most common conditions lemon trees can get.
For this reason, it’s important to check the top 2-4 inches of your lemon tree’s soil every 1-2 weeks and water only when dry. For more information, scroll up to the above section on watering lemon trees.
If you’d like more information about yellow leaves on lemon trees, you can check out my recent post: How to Fix Yellow Leaves on Your Lemon Tree.
More Tips for Indoor Lemon Trees
- Keep indoor lemon trees away from central heater vents. This can cause the lemon tree to get too hot or dry and develop leaf loss (this happened to my potted Meyer lemon tree). Simply move the tree to a cooler room of the house that has good light levels.
- Southern-facing windows have the longest daylight, which means they’re the best for potted lemon trees. This is especially true during the winter when days are shorter. Just be careful the temperature on the leaves doesn’t get too hot.
- While lemon trees can handle light and short frost, move potted lemon trees indoors when the temperature falls below 35ºF. Make sure to factor in rain, snow, and wind chill!
- Potted and indoor lemon trees are the easiest to overwater. For this reason, consider getting a moisture meter to check the water levels deeper in the soil. To see which moisture meter I recommend, you can visit my recommended tools page.
- Instead of buying fertilizer, consider making your own homemade fertilizer from kitchen and yard scraps. You’ll likely find that your lemon tree likes it better anyway!
Where to Buy Lemon Trees
The best place to buy lemon trees is your local nursery followed by a reputable online nursery such as naturehills.com. Often, some home improvement stores don’t have good availability or quality of fruit trees, so they can be hit or miss. For this reason, stick to your local or reputable online nursery.
I bought several fruit trees over the years (Meyer lemon, Kaffir lime, avocado, fig, and more), and while they’ve done fairly well, I definitely found some sources were better than others.
Generally, the most common places to buy fruit trees are:
- Home Improvement Stores
- Local Nurseries
- Online Nurseries
While I like to shop around nurseries to see what kinds of fruit trees they have (I lucked out finding my Kaffir lime), I found that some regions don’t have a good selection.
Along the same line, some home improvement stores have a lack in availability and quality, especially post-covid.
That’s when I accidentally came across naturehills.com. I was doing some research for my recent post: How Much Do Fruit Trees Cost?, and they came up as a suggestion.
I’ve since checked out their site and products, and found that they’re one of the best places to buy fruit trees online.
So, my recommendation for buying lemon trees would be to check your local nurseries first, and if they don’t have what you’re looking for, check out naturehills.com.