Growing up in Florida, I was always around lemon trees. But whenever we’d get a new lemon tree, it always felt like it took forever for it to fruit. Maybe it was me just being young and impatient, but it got me wondering—how long does it take for lemon trees to fruit, and what are some reasons why they won’t fruit? I did some research to find out more.
The most common reasons why lemon trees won’t fruit are their age, watering, nutrients, and pollination. Most of the time it is due to the lemon tree being too young as they can take at least 2-3 years to start fruiting. If your lemon tree isn’t fruiting, it’s best to use the process of elimination to find out why.
So, while age is the biggest factor when it comes to lemon trees fruiting properly, how can you check for the other causes and what can you do to encourage your lemon tree to fruit? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Causes for Lack of Fruit on Lemon Trees
Lemon trees commonly don’t produce fruit if they’re not mature yet, if it’s not the fruiting season, or if they have improper watering or nutrients. A big factor is if your lemon tree grew from a seed or a graft. Grafted lemon trees can take 2-3 years to fruit, while those grown from seed can take 10 years or more.
Here are the most common causes for a lack of fruit on lemon trees:
But how do you know what issue your lemon tree is going through? The best way is to check for each of the following issues use the process of elimination to rule each one out. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll have your answer. Let’s find out!
5 Ways To Encourage Lemon Trees to Fruit
1. Let Them Mature
Maturity is by far the most common reason why lemon trees (and other citrus trees) won’t fruit.
Lemon trees can take anywhere from 2-10+ years to fruit (like most citrus trees). The biggest factor in this timeline is if the lemon tree was grafted or grown from seed. While growing from seed sounds fun and easy, it’s actually a less-than-ideal way of growing most fruit trees.
This is because when you graft, you’re using the DNA from a tree that is already mature and are inserting it into a younger tree.
While the roots that grow will be from the younger tree (also called a “rootstock”), the branches that grow and provide fruit will be from the more mature tree. This means the branches can start fruiting much quicker since they’re already genetically developed.
Imagine if you had children that immediately matured into their 20s shortly after birth (I know, it’s a weird thought, but it’s the only comparison I could think of at the time of this writing).
This is similar to what happens to lemon trees when they’re grafted. They skip the young and adolescent phase and after growing to a proper size, are already mature and can provide fruit.
On the other hand, when you plant from seed, you’re starting with brand new DNA.
After all, seeds are a genetic variant of trees, just like our children are of us. It will take much more time for lemon trees to fruit if they grew from seed, and even then, they might not ever produce fruit.
I remember my potted kaffir lime tree only produced one fruit in the first year I had it. The second-year? Dozens of fruits. Sometimes it just takes a little time.
So, buy or grow a lemon tree that’s grafted if you can. If you’re not sure if your lemon tree is a graft or not, you can try inspecting the tree and see if there’s any sign or scar from where it was grafted. If not, you can always contact the seller or nursery and ask them.
2. Check the Fruiting Season
This one is a bit obvious, but if you’re worried about your lemon tree not fruiting, it’s always good to check its fruiting season.
Many citrus varieties fruit at different times and this is also true of lemon tree varieties.
Again, many gardeners have had their lemon trees for a while and know the fruiting season, but if you’re new to lemon trees, this can be helpful to know.
3. Water Properly
We know that lemons are juicy and sugary, but we sometimes forget what they need to get that way.
Lemon trees need plenty of water to keep their many fruits juicy and have proper sunlight to photosynthesize sugar for the fruit. Without these two factors, your lemon tree can provide minimal fruiting or fruit that are too small and sour.
While sunlight is fairly simple to provide (at least 6 hours is ideal), water is a different story.
The best way to water your lemon tree is to provide deep watering.
Deep watering is watering for longer periods, but less frequently. This helps train your lemon tree to grow deeper roots and access deeper water tables, which are incredibly helpful to help your tree become more self-sufficient and drought-resistant.
On the other hand, shallow watering promotes shallow roots (because why would the roots need to go deeper if all the water is towards the top of the soil?). This creates a lemon tree that is highly dependent on receiving water from you. If you miss a watering for a couple weeks, the tree can get curled leaves and begin to die.
Additionally, the deeper roots help anchor the lemon tree which can help in times of strong wind. Given that citrus trees are commonly grown in regions that experience annual hurricanes, this can be a huge benefit.
The toughest part about deep watering is to find the right balance and not drown your lemon tree or rot its roots. I accidentally caused root rot on my potted kaffir lime tree and luckily caught it in time and planted it in the ground with new soil.
The best rule to follow when watering is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil get dry. You can simply push your finger in the soil and feel the moisture. If you don’t want to check this way, you can also purchase a moisture meter. To see which moisture meter I recommend, you can check out my recommended tools page (it’s also a pH meter! More on this below).
4. Provide Balanced Nutrients
Aside from watering, finding the right balance of nutrients can be one of the most difficult tasks to properly care for lemon trees and get them to fruit.
Lemon trees prefer soil that is high in nitrogen, well-draining, and slightly acidic. The NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) ratio in fertilizer should be 2:1:1, such as a 6-3-3 fertilizer. Other secondary nutrients such as iron, calcium, and magnesium will be included in most fertilizers.
Like all citrus trees, lemon trees prefer to grow in warmer, humid regions. This means they need more foliage than other trees to create shade from the hot sun. Their large foliage also gathers plenty of sugar to help ripen their many fruits.
The problem is to grow that much foliage, lemon trees need plenty of nutrients in the soil, and most importantly—nitrogen. It turns out that nitrogen is a primary nutrient in growing branches and leaves. This is why having a fertilizer that has double the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium is helpful.
Generally, you don’t need to worry about providing the secondary nutrients as most store-bought fertilizers (and even homemade fertilizers) will include them.
However, to help your lemon tree thrive and fruit, it’s helpful to know the most common nutrient deficiencies in lemon trees.
The most common deficiencies are:
Most of the time, a lack of these nutrients will present themselves as yellow leaves on your lemon tree and some might even fall off.
This is a problem because citrus trees are evergreen, so they aren’t supposed to lose their leaves in the fall like other fruit trees do (also called deciduous trees).
So, if your lemon tree has yellowing or dropping leaves, it’s a good idea to check that it’s getting the proper nutrients and not getting over-watered.
When your lemon tree doesn’t have enough nutrients to go around, it will go into survival mode and focus on only the most vital functions. This means that in times of stress, lemon trees will prioritize foliage and water conservation over fruiting.
While it can be tough to figure out which fertilizer is best for your lemon tree, I recently did some research and testing on some of the highest quality fertilizers. To see which lemon tree fertilizers I recommend, you can check out my recent post where I reviewed the best lemon tree fertilizers.
5. Increase Pollination
Last, is promoting extra pollination for your lemon tree.
Most citrus trees are self-pollinating, and the same can be said of lemon trees. So, generally, you don’t need to do much in terms of increasing pollination for them to fruit.
However, like most self-pollinating plants, lemon trees can still benefit from cross-pollination. Namely, their fruit can increase in number and grow larger.
In summary, even though cross-pollination isn’t necessary, it can be helpful.
So, what are some ways that you can boost pollination for your lemon tree and get more of its flowers fertilized and fruiting?
- Attract more pollinators
- Plant more citrus trees
- Pollinate by hand
Attract More Pollinators
Pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies can increase in number if you provide more flowers for them to visit and take nectar from. Mostly, just about any flowering plant will do, but there are some that pollinators especially love:
- Bee Balm
- Butterfly Weed
To see more flowers and plants that attract pollinators for lemon trees, check out my recent post: The 7 Best Companion Plants for Citrus Trees.
Plant More Citrus Trees
This one is a bit obvious, but planting citrus trees near your lemon tree can greatly improve its pollination, and sometimes it doesn’t need a pollinator as even the wind can carry pollen.
By providing more lemon trees for pollinators, they’re more likely to establish a nest nearby (this is a good thing, even for bees!)
With the increase in the food supply, pollinators will make more frequent rounds to your citrus orchard and pollinate more flowers than if you had one tree.
Still, one thing to keep in mind is that citrus trees that are planted too far won’t be able to cross-pollinate successfully.
However, I recently wrote a post about the optimal distance to plant citrus trees apart, so make sure to check it out if you’re considering growing multiple citrus trees.
Pollinate By Hand
If you think your lemon tree could benefit from some cross-pollination, and pollinators aren’t doing the job, you can always pollinate by hand.
Simply use one of the following and lightly brush the pollen from flower to flower:
Again, this isn’t required, but it can help your lemon tree’s flowers become fertilized and fruit.
This is especially beneficial if you have an indoor potted lemon tree since it won’t have the same level of access to pollinators that outdoor trees will.
More Tips To Encourage Fruiting on Lemon Trees
- Compost: Adding 1-2 inches of compost will do wonders for your tree and the amount it flowers and fruits. Just make sure to only apply the compost once at the start of each growing season and check that it isn’t touching the tree’s trunk directly as this can introduce mold.
- Balance the pH: Lemon trees prefer a soil pH of 6.0-7.0 to grow properly. If the soil isn’t in that range, and it’s too acidic or alkaline, your lemon tree will be blocked from absorbing the nutrients it needs from the soil.
- Prune: Pruning excess foliage on trees will signal the tree to redirect its energy to fruiting. However, this should only be done when the lemon tree is mature and fully grown. A good rule is to prune enough to allow some sunlight to pierce through the canopy. This will also allow sunlight to reach and help ripen the lemons.
- Chill hours aren’t necessary: Lemon trees are natively from warm regions that don’t often get chilly or frost. Because of this, they don’t need chill hours to fruit. However, a small level of chilling can sometimes promote more fruit. Just make sure the lemon tree doesn’t drop below 32ºF, as the tree can freeze and die.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. Check out this list to see your local services.
- Permaculture Consultation: Need help with a bigger project? Send us a message.