Understanding how to grow a lemon tree in a pot and taking the necessary action will provide you with an attractive and food-producing indoor/outdoor plant. In tropical climates, a potted lemon tree can be grown outdoors, on a patio or porch, all year round. In cooler climatic zones a potted citrus tree will thrive outdoors during the summer but will need to be brought indoors during the winter months.
This migration between indoors and outdoors will allow you to have fresh lemons at your fingertips even if you don’t live in a tropical climate. Lemon trees make great houseplants and will thrive indoors in any location when grown in a pot.
Read on for my tips that will aid you to successfully grow a lemon tree in a pot.
Choosing Your Tree
Your success in growing a lemon tree will hinge upon starting with the right tree and providing it with proper ongoing care.
Any lemon tree can be grown in a container. The size can be controlled by pot size and by pruning. Standard varieties will grow in a container, but the tree will not reach its full potential and lemon production is typically reduced. Dwarf varieties of lemon trees are the best choice for growing in a pot.
Choose a grafted lemon tree that is about two years old from your local nursery. It should have a full, balanced but not overcrowded branch system with healthy dark green leaves. Depending on what time of the year it is purchased it may already have some fruits and flowers on it.
Which are the Best Varieties to Grow?
Some of the best dwarf varieties for planting and growing in a container are Meyer, Lisbon, and Ponderosa Dwarf. These dwarf trees will still produce the same size lemons as a full-size tree, and the nutritional value and flavor of the fruit will be the same also. All of these varieties are self-pollinating so you will only need the one tree.
– Dwarf Meyer Lemon Tree
Meyer lemons are a popular variety that are prized for their bright yellow to orange color, sweet flavor, and high vitamin C content.
A dwarf Meyer Lemon tree in a pot will reach a mature height of 4-6 feet, and it will produce white, highly fragrant blossom before developing fruit.
– Dwarf Lisbon Lemon Tree
The Lisbon lemon tree is very hardy and tolerates almost any climate except extreme cold. The trees are evergreen and produce fresh citrus fruit year-around. It matures to a height of around 8-feet.
Lisbon lemons are juicy, have a thin skin, and a high acidic content.
– Dwarf Ponderosa Lemon Tree
The Ponderosa lemon tree is a hybrid of a citron and lemon tree. It’s a slow-growing tree that will produce jumbo-sized lemons (the size of grapefruits) year-around. The peak season of lemon production for a Ponderosa dwarf is late spring, but the large lemons will develop on the tree sporadically throughout the year.
This dwarf lemon tree will produce citrus fruit the first year and will reach a mature tree size of around 6-feet tall.
Choosing the Best Container
The container should be about 50% larger than the existing root-ball. I find that a 15 gallon pot is generally ideal. Even dwarf citrus trees have long roots that need plenty of space to grow. The planting pot will need several drainage holes in the bottom (4-5) and more can be added with a drill and bit if needed. Lemon trees do need a lot of water but will suffer and may even die if their roots become waterlogged.
There is a wide variety of containers to choose from. The most common are glazed ceramic, clay, plastic and wood.
Ceramic and clay pots provide excellent drainage but they tend to be heavy. Although it is the most expensive, a nicely decorated ceramic pot is my personal favorite.
The plastic pot is the most common variety and is the ‘go to’ item for most planting purposes. It has the advantage of being light.
A wooden tub looks very decorative but is not as free draining as the other varieties. One made of hardwood, such as cedar, will be durable for a number of years.
Planting Your New Tree
First chose a location for your tree. Once the tree is planted and the container filled with soil it will be extremely heavy. It should be positioned to receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight each day. Don’t allow it to get too hot though; be sure there is some shade for part of the day. The area should also be sheltered from strong winds.
A lemon tree needs a free draining soil and any commercial potting mix that includes ingredients such as peat moss and perlite will be suitable.
Place a coffee filter over each drainage hole inside the bottom of the container, then place some potting soil mixture into the bottom of the container. Gently remove the lemon tree from its original container by turning it upside down and sliding the tree out. Don’t tug too hard on the limbs or the tree trunk as this may cause damage.
Place root ball of tree in the center of container and add or remove some of the potting soil mixture to get the top of the root ball at the same height as it was in the original container. When the height is is aligned, finish filling the container with the potting soil mixture. Mix fertilizer, that has been specially formulated for citrus plants, such as Jobe’s Fruit and Citrus, into the top layer of soil, and then water the tree thoroughly, until water runs out from the drain holes.
Ongoing Care and Maintenance
Planting the tree is just an introduction to the journey on how to effectively grow a lemon tree in a pot. Maintaining the tree for healthy citrus production will require a little daily TLC.
Watering and Feeding
Lemon trees need consistent watering and high humidity. If the soil is allowed to dry out, the leaves will fall off the tree. Water tree regularly and mist daily to keep the humidity level up.
A reliable way of testing whether the plant needs watering is to use an inexpensive soil moisture test meter. These meters often have other uses such as testing the soil pH and sunlight intensity. It you do not have a meter, another way to test the moisture is to push your finger about two inches into the soil and gauge whether it feels damp. If it feels dry, it is time to water.
Citrus trees are heavy feeders and to maintain healthy green foliage and encourage profuse blossoming and bountiful fruit, further slow release citrus fertilizer should be added to the soil about every 6-8 weeks. Your lemon tree will also benefit from a periodic foliar feed of a liquid fertilizer, such as liquid kelp.
Pruning and Shaping
Dwarf lemon trees generally need little in the way of pruning. It may be necessary to maintain the structure of the tree or to limit the height, for ease of care and to facilitate harvesting of the fruit. Any pruning should be completed when the tree is dormant, usually about February and March.
Make sure to use a pair of sharp pruning shears. The use of gloves is advised to protect your hands from the prickly thorns. Cut out any crossing branches as well as dead or diseased ones. Citrus trees often produce what are known as “water sprouts”. These grow vigorously straight up like a pole, from main branches. They are weak and don’t produce fruit, so these should also be trimmed out.
When pruning make sure that the cut is not too close to the larger branch. This may damage the branch collar, which contains healing compounds that will seal the cut and guard against disease.
Container grown lemon trees also tend to develop ‘suckers’ at the base of the trunk, below the graft. These suckers must be removed to prevent them from sucking energy out of the tree. If they are new growth, they can be rubbed out with fingers. Otherwise, remove them by snipping them off close to the trunk with a pair of sharp scissors.
Harvesting Your Crop of Lemons
Now that you have mastered how to grow a lemon tree in a pot and nurtured it through the season, you can look forward to a crop of juicy lemons.
Citrus fruits only ripen whilst they are still on the tree. You should therefore wait until they are fully ripe before picking. The fruit should be completely yellow and feel heavy but slightly soft to the touch. To avoid damage to the plant, cut the fruit off with scissors.
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Learning how to grow a lemon tree in a pot is definitely a worthwhile endeavor. Your reward will be a steady supply of fresh lemons for your beverages, dessert-making, or to brighten the flavor of an entree with a squirt of acidic lemon juice.
The tree will also add beauty and a wonderful fragrance to any space. If it is located indoors, the living greenery of the tree will also help purify the air.