Cultivated for thousands of years, citrus plants are popular for their shiny evergreen foliage, fragrant flowers and colorful edible fruit. Whilst they are versatile, attractive plants that are suitable for growing in a range of conditions, not all types of citrus plant are ideal for cultivating in small spaces.
Luckily the dwarf lemon tree is just as reliable, productive and aesthetically pleasing as its larger counterpart.
The dwarf lemon tree is an ideal addition to any home and garden. If you want to learn how to add one to your garden this guide is for you. We will take you through everything that you need to know, from selecting the best specimens to planting, care and harvest.
Citrus plants are an attractive addition to the garden.
What is a Dwarf Lemon Tree?
Like other dwarf citrus plants, the lemon tree is simply a regular sized fruit plant that has been grafted onto the rootstock of a smaller plant. This has created a compact plant that is just as productive as the larger cultivars.
Most dwarf lemon tree plants grow to a height of 8 to 10 ft. This makes the plants ideal for growing in smaller spaces.
The dwarf lemon tree, with the right care, is just as productive as a larger specimen. Its fruit grows to a similar size and quality as the fruit of larger lemon plants as long as the plants are cared for correctly.
The dwarf lemon tree has a variety of different uses. They can be used in living fences or hedges to mark the property line or add height to a perennial backdrop. The plants can also be espaliered against a wall or cultivated as a specimen or foundation plant.
Ideal for growing in containers, these are productive, compact plants.
The Benefits of Growing a Dwarf Lemon Tree
The dwarf lemon tree is pleasingly easy to care for. Ideal for smaller spaces the plants require less water and fertilizer than full sized specimens. Thanks to their compact growth habit, there is also no need to prune the plants regularly. This makes the plants a reliable, low maintenance option for citrus plant lovers.
Smaller cultivars are also easier to harvest and protect from birds.
Dwarf lemon tree plants are ideal for growers in colder climates or those who enjoy short growing seasons.
The Downsides of a Dwarf Lemon Tree
Like the larger cultivar, it can be hard to get your watering routine right. Too much or too little water can harm the plants.
The plants also have a relatively shallow root system. This means that they are not as drought resistant as other fruit producing plants and require more frequent watering during warm spells.
The dwarf lemon tree is also not as sturdy as taller cultivars. If you are growing in an exposed position, the plants may require staking or some form of support.
Dwarf Lemon Tree Varieties
There are 3 main types of dwarf lemon tree. These are:
Meyer (Citrus limon x Meyeri) is a compact plant that is ideal for growing in small gardens and homes. A mature Meyer plant can grow to a height of 6 to 10 ft outside and 4 to 6 ft undercover.
Popular for their dark green leaves with a light underside, sweet flowers and medium sized fruits that are a cross between the lemon and the orange, Meyers are evergreen plants.
Hardy in USDA Zones 9 and 10, Meyer cultivars are more cold tolerant than other compact cultivars. In cooler climates Meyer plants that are growing outside will require some protection from winter frosts.
Meyers are one of the most popular types of citrus plant.
Eureka (Citrus limon Eureka) is a medium sized plant that grows to a height of around 6 ft and spreads around 4 ft wide. A thornless specimen, the white flowers, following pollination, give way to elliptical, ridged fruit that are pleasingly juicy.
Hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 10 this variety of dwarf lemon tree is particularly cold sensitive. However, in favorable climates, the Eureka is a pleasingly heavy yielding plant. In fact many growers find Eurekas more reliable than the more popular Meyer cultivar.
Lisbon (Citrus x limon Lisbon) is an aesthetically pleasing cultivar which originates in Portugal. Sharing many of the Eureka cultivars features, Lisbon can, in the right conditions, produce fruit throughout the year.
The juicy fruits of the Lisbon cultivar are significantly larger than those of the Eureka plant. While standard cultivars grow to a height of 15 ft, dwarf varieties typically achieve a height of 8 to 12 ft. Plants growing in containers may be smaller. Lisbon cultivars are hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11.
Whichever variety you decide to cultivate, care and maintenance is largely the same.
Dwarf lemon tree plants can be sourced from garden stores and plant nurseries. When selecting your plant, try to choose a healthy looking specimen. This helps to make ongoing care a lot easier.
Where to Plant a Dwarf Lemon Tree
Whichever type of dwarf lemon tree you chose to cultivate, they all share similar positional needs.
The main thing to remember is that these plants like to bask in lots of light. Ideally they should be exposed to 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight every day.
If you are growing indoors, place the plants in a north facing window. This helps to maximize the amount of light they are exposed to.
If you are growing outside, a spot on a sunny balcony or patio is ideal.
A sunny position is ideal for your plant.
In homes that do not receive enough natural light, grow lights can be used to supplement natural light levels.
In addition to lots of light, these plants also require lots of humidity. The surrounding humidity level should be at least 50%.
If you are cultivating the dwarf lemon tree indoors, place the pot on a small container filled with rocks or pebbles and water. Known as a humidity tray this helps to maintain humidity levels around your plants. Remember to top up your humidity tray regularly, ensuring that the water level remains just below the top of the pebbles.
When to Plant
If you are growing indoors you can plant or transplant your dwarf lemon tree at any time of year.
Plants growing outside are best planted in early spring or late winter. The soil should be warm and workable before planting.
In warmer climates where frost is rarely a problem you can plant at any time of year.
How to Plant a Dwarf Lemon Tree
Depending on your growing conditions you can grow a dwarf lemon tree either in the ground or in a container.
Plants growing outside should be in well draining soil. Avoid planting in clay or sandy types of soil. These retain too much moisture and can lead to the plants developing serious issues such as root rot.
There are a number of ways to improve clay soil in your garden. One of the most reliable is to work in compost to aerate the soil and improve drainage before planting. Peat moss or sand can also be used.
Your soil should have a pH of 6.5 and 7. Use a soil test kit to measure the pH level of your soil before planting. Testing the soil before planting gives you the opportunity to make any necessary amendments before your plants start to suffer.
Take the time to prepare the soil before planting.
When you are ready to plant, dig a large hole in the soil. This should be large enough to comfortably hold the plant’s root ball. When placed in the hole, the top of the root system should sit in line with the soil level.
After positioning the plant backfill the hole, being careful not to sink the plant too much. Firm down the soil and use a watering can to evenly soak the soil.
If you are growing in a container select a pot that is at least 5 gallons in size. The pot should be at least 12 inches tall to prevent the plant becoming top heavy and toppling over.
If you are unsure, a good rule of thumb is that the size of the pot should be one third the plants mature height and width. So a plant that achieves a mature height of 3 ft should be placed in a pot 12 inches in diameter.
As well as being clean and a good size the pot should also have plenty of drainage holes in the bottom.
If you are planting in a pot, the potting soil should be well draining. A citrus plant specific potting soil, such as Miracle-Gro Cactus, Palm and Citrus Mix, can also be used. This mix contains more sand and loam than general purpose potting mixes making it ideal for citrus plants.
Fill your pot roughly half full with potting soil. Remove the plant from its container and gently shake the plant to remove any remaining soil. You may need to untangle the roots if they are matted.
Center the plant in the pot and, when you are happy, add more potting soil. The soil should cover the entire root system. Firm the soil down before watering in the plant..
After planting a layer of mulch can be applied. This helps to improve moisture retention. Organic mulches also break down over time, giving the plants a nutritional boost.
Dwarf Lemon Tree Companion Plants
Companion planting is the process of growing mutually beneficial plants together. This helps to boost growth and productivity whilst also keeping plants healthy.
The dwarf lemon tree is an ideal companion for most sub tropical plants as well as other citrus plants such as the Kaffir lime. Many kitchen herbs such as basil and rosemary are also good companions and are ideal for underplanting. Dill is another good companion choice because it wards off citrus bugs.
Dill is a reliable companion plant.
How to Propagate a Dwarf Lemon Tree
Whilst the plants can be purchased from plant stores and nurseries, you can also propagate your own. This can be done either by taking cuttings or growing from seed.
Propagation by Cuttings
To propagate cuttings you will need an established specimen that is producing new shoots. When the new shoots are firm but not hard, typically in late spring or summer, cut away a 3 to 6 inch section. Make the incision with a sharp knife or pruners below a leaf node.
Remove most of the leaves from the cutting, leaving only the top two pairs in place.
Dip the cut end in rooting hormone and plant in a pot filled with moist potting soil.
Place the cuttings in a propagator in a warm, bright location. If you don’t have a propagator a clear plastic bag can be used. Use small sticks to hold the bag up so that it doesn’t contact the cuttings.
Over the next 8 weeks you will need to check the cuttings daily. Mist the cuttings on a regular basis with a Plant Mister filled with fresh water. This helps to maintain humidity levels and keep the soil moist.
After 8 weeks gently wiggle the cutting. If you feel resistance from the young plant, it means that roots are developing. Continue to carefully care for the cutting.
Once roots have developed remove the cutting from the propagator and continue to care for it as you would a larger specimen.
Growing your own plant from scratch is a time consuming but rewarding process.
Growing from Seed
While it is possible, growing from seed is more prone to failure.
Many types of dwarf lemon tree such as the Meyer are hybrids. Seeds harvested from hybrid plants rarely grow true to type meaning that they are often disappointing.
The plants can also take a long time to grow into a mature specimen. It is even rarer for plants grown from seed to bear fruit.
Sow the seeds a quarter of an inch deep in pots filled with a moist potting soil. Place the pots in a bright warm place and water regularly.
Following germination, continue to care for the seedlings until they are large enough to transplant into their final growing position. Remember the seedlings need to be hardened off before transplanting into the final growing position.
Caring for a Dwarf Lemon Tree
Once planted, caring for a dwarf lemon tree is largely straightforward. Remember, plants growing in containers require more frequent watering and fertilizing than specimens growing in the ground.
When to Water
Knowing when to water is perhaps the most difficult aspect of caring for a dwarf lemon tree.
Do not overwater the plants. This can cause fungal diseases to develop. Early indications of overwatering include curling, yellow leaves and brittle bark. If your watering routine isn’t amended quickly the plant will die.
Most plants require watering once a week. Plants growing in warmer climates or containers may require more frequent watering.
How able your soil is to hold moisture also affects how frequently you water. A dwarf lemon tree sitting in soil that retains moisture well does not require as frequent watering as a plant sitting in a sandy, well draining soil.
Growing plants require regular hydration.
When to Fertilize
How frequently you fertilize your dwarf lemon tree depends on its age. Young specimens require fertilizing at least once a month during the growing season. Older, most established specimens require fertilizing once or twice a year.
A slow release, all purpose fertilizer, applied in the spring, provides the plants with a steady supply of nutrients throughout the summer months. A citrus fertilizer can also be used.
Growing citrus plants require nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and sulfur to thrive. A compost tea, applied a couple of times a year provides all of these, as does fish emulsion or liquid kelp.
You can also make your own micronutrient fertilizer by soaking comfrey herbs in a bucket of water in the sun for 24 hours. The water can then be applied to the soil around the plants for a nutritional boost. Stinging nettles can also be soaked in water to create a natural fertilizer.
How to Prune
Regularly pruning helps to keep new growth under control. It is also a key part of keeping dwarf lemon tree plants healthy.
While diseased or damaged branches can be removed at any time, pruning is best done in the winter or early spring months when the plants are dormant.
Use sharp, clean pruners to trim away inward growing branches and thin out dense growth. Removing excess branches not only helps to promote air circulation and light penetration through the plant, it also means that the main branches have more strength to support the developing fruit.
When pruning try not to leave any major branches bare. Exposing bare branches can damage the health of the plant.
In early spring offshoots that grow upwards can also be removed. These rarely produce fruit.
Make your cuts at a 45° angle which faces upwards. This helps to promote new growth.
Do I Need to Pollinate My Plant?
The dwarf lemon tree does not require cross pollination from another plant.
Plants growing outside do not require any intervention. The wind and visiting pollinators such as bees will do all the work for you.
Plants growing inside require a little help. Use a cotton swab or small paintbrush to dab each flower. This transfers the pollen around the plant, pollinating the flowers. This process should be repeated daily until all the flowers fall from the plant.
How to Harvest
If you are lucky enough to get fruit, allow it to develop and ripen on the branch. Ripe fruit is usually yellow in color and firm to the touch.
Use a sharp knife or garden scissors to cut the fruit from the branch.
Ripe fruit is easily harvested.
Common Dwarf Lemon Tree Problems
In the right conditions these are largely hardy, problem resistant plants.
Remember the dwarf lemon tree is not a cold tolerant plant so they will require some winter protection if you are growing outside. If you are growing in containers, placing the plants on a Metal Plant Caddy enables you to move them to a sheltered position in the fall. The plants can then be returned to their usual, outside position the following spring once all danger of frost has passed.
Protect the plants from cold weather and frosts.
Issues such as Sooty Mold can sometimes develop. Causing black patches to form on the leaves, Sooty Mold is easily treated with a copper fungicide. You may need to reapply the treatment a few times to cure persistent infections.
Similarly Greasy Spot, which causes yellow-brown spots to form on the underside of leaves, is also treatable with a copper fungicide. Should your dwarf lemon tree develop this issue, collect and destroy any affected leaves as they fall from the plant. Do not place the diseased plants on the compost pile.
Similar in appearance to Greasy Spot, Citrus Canker is a far more serious problem. Spread on the wind it can cause yellow-brown spots to appear on the foliage. Unlike Greasy Spot, these marks do not become greasy overtime.
As the Citrus Canker disease develops, the fruit may also become affected. A bacterial infection that is spread on the wind, there is currently no effective remedy for Citrus Canker. Instead affected plants should be dug up and destroyed.
Root rot, a fungal disease typically caused by overwatering, causes dark brown patches to appear on the bark. Over time the bark will turn brittle and the fruit will rot. Amend your watering routine, possibly with the help of a soil moisture sensor, as soon as you notice any signs of rot. A fungicide can also be used to prevent the spread of the disease.
Aphids adore the dwarf lemon tree. Regularly inspect the foliage for aphids or signs of infestation. Small groups of pests can be washed away with a blast from a garden hose. Larger infestations may require more serious treatment. One of the most effective ways to get rid of aphids is to gently brush the leaves with a neem oil solution.
Orange Dog Caterpillars can also cause substantial damage to plants. Hatching from the eggs of the Yellow and Black Swallowtail butterfly, Orange Dog Caterpillars are around 2 inches long making them easy to spot and pick from the plant. To prevent infestations you can cover your plants with Garden Mesh Netting during the butterfly season.
Once established these are low maintenance, problem free plants.
Easy to grow and pleasingly productive, the dwarf lemon tree is a rewarding addition to any home and garden. Why not add one to your collection?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.