Have you always dreamed of growing your own lemon tree but worried that your garden isn’t hot enough? Luckily, there is a solution.
The lemon tree is perfectly happy to grow in a container. This means that you can grow these attractive plants indoors. Unlike some houseplants, the lemon tree provides year round interest thanks to its glossy foliage, fragrant flowers, and tart fruit.
Growing lemon trees outside not only requires warm temperatures, it also requires patience. It can take up to 6 years for an outdoor plant to bear fruit. Indoor plants tend to deliver fruit sooner. This is partly because of their more compact growth habits.
An attractive plant, when in bloom the scent from its fragrant flowers fill the air. It is also surprisingly easy to care for. Here is everything you need to know about growing an indoor lemon tree.
Stately and attractive, this is a great choice if you want to introduce some greenery or structure to your home.
Selecting the Perfect Plant
Before we begin to discuss how to care for your lemon tree, it is important to select the right variety. Lemon trees planted outside, in the right conditions, can reach over 20 ft in height. While container plants rarely grow as large as this, it is always best to select dwarf varieties. These have a compact growth habit, making them ideal for indoor cultivation.
- Lisbon is an old but reliable cultivar. It is also pleasingly hardy and tolerates low light levels and cool positions well. Producing medium sized citrus fruit, you can find tree and dwarf Lisbon cultivars.
- Dwarf Improved Meyer is one of the easiest varieties to cultivate. Not a true lemon plant, it is a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange plant. Consequently its fruit is sweet and tangy.
- Ponderosa Dwarf is another reliable choice for indoor cultivation. A cross between a citron and lemon plant its fruit is larger than other dwarf varieties and has a distinct lemon flavor.
- Dwarf Variegated Pink Lemonade is a true lemon tree. The plant is prized for its green and yellow variegated fruit. Interestingly, while the flesh of the fruit is pink, the juice is clear.
As well as the traditional looking plants, there are more exotic options available. These have the same care requirements as standard plants.
There are also a number of more exotic options to choose from. One interesting variety is known as Buddah’s Hand. This lemon tree produces fruit that looks like a yellow hand. The fruit is best used for its zesty pith, which has a lemon-lavender taste. It is not a juicy fruit.
Where to Purchase Your Plant
Most specialist or plant nurseries sell dwarf varieties that are two or three years old. This means that, while they are not fully mature, they are mature enough to bear fruit.
Purchasing a plant from a nursery is by far the easiest way to get a new lemon tree. However, if you have the patience you can also grow from seed. Plants grown from seed rarely grow true to type, this means that they may not produce similar tasting or looking fruit to the parent plant.
You can also begin a new tree by taking a cutting from a mature plant. Propagation from cuttings can be difficult. Also, because many dwarf trees are grafted, your new plant won’t be as compact and won’t have the same disease resistance as the original plant.
Be warned that plants growing from cuttings or seed can take many years to mature and bear fruit.
How to Grow a Plant from Seed
Growing a lemon tree from seed is a long process. It can take a number of years for your plant to bear fruit. Also, citrus plants grown from seed are not identical to the parent plant. This means that you may find your new plant produces inferior fruit when compared to the original plant.
To begin growing your citrus plant from seed you will need some lemon seed. Select seeds from nice, juicy fruit.
Wash any pulp or debris from the seed. They should be as clean as possible.
Sow your seeds as quickly as possible. Dried out seeds are unlikely to germinate.
Fill small pots with a fresh potting mix. Alternatively you can fill the pots with an even mixture of peat moss and perlite. Sow one seed per pot about half an inch deep. Moisten the soil and place in a propagator.
To encourage germination the temperature should constantly be around 70 ℉. Keep the soil evenly moist. The Super Sprouter Premium Propagator not only helps to protect your seeds it also comes with a heat mat. This enables you to maintain the ideal temperatures around your seedlings, making the germination process a lot easier.
Following germination move the seedlings to a light position. If you can’t find a position filled with enough natural light, grow lights can also be used.
Continue to keep the soil moist. Once the seedlings have several sets of leaves transplant them into larger 4 to 6 inch sized pots. The new pots should be filled with a fresh or sterile potting medium.
As the seedlings grow keep the soil evenly moist. Apply a potassium rich fertilizer every two to four weeks to encourage growth. Water soluble or liquid fertilizers are easily incorporated into your watering routine.
Aim to give the growing seedlings at least 4 hours of direct sunlight every day. The temperature around the seedlings should average between 60 and 70 ℉.
Potting and Repotting a Lemon Tree
It is often wise to re-pot your plant soon after purchase. Nursery plants can be allowed to sit in nutrient poor soil or pots that are too small. Repotting soon after purchasing your plant also helps to get it off to a good start.
You should also repot your lemon tree once every three to four years. At this stage in the plant’s development, when it is mature or almost mature, you can either transplant it into a larger container or lift, prune the roots and repot in the same pot with fresh soil. The second option is useful if you want to contain the size of the plant.
Selecting the Right Pot
Selecting the right pot makes indoor cultivation a lot easier. Good drainage is key. Your chosen pot should be clean and have plenty of drainage holes in the bottom. Adding a layer of crocks or small pebbles to the bottom of the pot helps to further improve drainage.
Most young, nursery purchased plants start off in a pot about 12 inches in diameter. As the plant grows regularly repot, gradually increasing the size of the pot each time. Eventually the final pot will be twice the size, in both depth and width, of the original pot.
Don’t be tempted to immediately pot your young plant in a large container. This can shock small plants. Instead, gradually increase the size of the pot. This allows the plant to grow into the space without causing it too much trauma.
Light or terracotta pots are more likely to stay cool than plastic, black pots. This helps to prevent the plant’s root system from overheating and drying out.
Limiting the pot size also helps to contain the plant’s growth habit. This is useful if you are growing a large variety. If you are growing a dwarf variety size is less of an issue. Most dwarf varieties, such as the Dwarf Meyer reach a maximum height of 4 ft.
Finally, planting in an overly large pot can also make it difficult to tell when your plant requires water.
Terracotta and lightweight pots are perfect. Avoid planting in black, or dark colored pots. These tend to become warmer in the sunlight than lighter colored pots, heating up the roots of your plants. Citrus plants like their roots to stay as cool as possible.
What Soil Should I Use?
Always plant your plants in fresh or sterile, well draining potting soil. Specific citrus soil mixes or soils designed for indoor palm trees are ideal. These are well draining soils that retain enough moisture to keep your plants hydrated without saturating the roots.
How to Re-pot a Lemon Tree
Use a trowel to loosen the soil around the root of the plant. Firmly hold the tree near the base and lift. If you are transplanting a large tree, you may require help from a second person who can pull the pot downward.
Inspect the roots. Any roots that completely encircle the root ball should be cut away with a sterile knife. This prevents the root ball from becoming constricted and strangling the plant.
Add some crocks or pebbles to the bottom of the pot to improve drainage. On top of this put a layer of potting soil. When the plant’s root ball is placed on the soil the flare at the trunks base should sit one to two inches below the eventual soil level. There should also be a few inches between the soil level and the top of the pot. You may have to add more soil, or remove some before you find the right level for your plant.
When you are happy with the level of the soil lightly flatten it to create an even base. Don’t compact the soil. Water the soil well.
Center the plant in the new container. Once you are happy with its position, fill the gaps in the pot around the plant with more potting soil. Be careful not to disturb the position of the plant.
Gently firm the soil down. Water well and apply a plant feed such as a plant starter. A fertilizer rich in vitamin B1 helps to reduce transplant shock while also introducing nutrients to the soil.
Allow the soil to settle after watering. In some cases you may need to add more soil once it has settled.
Where to Position Your Plant
The sunnier the position the better. I find that my lemon tree loves to sit in a large south facing window. A south-west facing window, sunroom or conservatory are also ideal. The plant should receive about 8 hours of sunlight every day. The more light the plant receives the better it will grow.
If you are unable to provide enough natural light, grow lights are a great source of artificial light.
Avoid placing the plant close to air conditioning units and heating ducts. Citrus plants don’t tolerate hot or cold drafts. At night the temperature should not drop below 65 ℉.
Gradually increasing the amount of light your plant receives helps to prevent sunburn.
Positioning the plant on a tray or deep saucer protects your floors from excess water dripping out.
You may also want to place the plant on a wheeled plant dolly. The Bosmere Plant Caddie makes transporting large plants around your home an easy task. It is particularly useful if you want to place the plant outside during the summer months.
How to Care for a Lemon Tree
During the warmer months of the year you may want to move your lemon tree outside to enjoy the heat of summer. This can help to keep the plant healthy. If you decide to move your plant, move it gradually. Lemon tree dislikes sudden changes in environment and temperature.
Slowly increase the amount of light your plant receives until it is sitting in a full sun position. You will also need to remember to take the plant back inside at the end of summer. This should ideally be before the temperatures begin to fall too much.
Don’t worry if you are unable to put your plant outside for a few months every year. While it can help to keep the plant healthy it is not necessary.
When to Water
It can be difficult to know how often you should water your houseplants. While some require daily hydration, others can go for weeks between waterings.
The lemon tree requires a regular, consistent watering regime.
Don’t allow the soil to dry out completely. This can cause the foliage to fall from the plant. You should also try to avoid watering too frequently. Wet soil can cause root rot.
If you are unsure how frequently to water, allow the top 3 inches of soil to dry out before watering. For a more accurate way of monitoring the moisture content of your soil why not try a soil moisture meter? The Gouven Soil Moisture Meter is an easy to use gadget that quickly tells you the moisture content of your soil.
At the height of summer you may need to water your plant once a day.
Plants that are actively growing, especially if placed outside during the summer months, require more frequent watering than dormant or sheltered specimens.
During the winter months the frequency with which you water the plants can be reduced.
When you water, use a watering can to evenly soak the soil. Continue to water until excess moisture begins to drip through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.
Use a watering can to evenly soak the soil around the plant. Liquid and water soluble plant feeds can be diluted into watering cans making fertilizing your plants an easy process.
How to Fertilize
The easiest way to fertilize your lemon tree is with a slow release fertilizer. This gives the plants the nutrients it needs to thrive.
Citrus fertilizers, or those with a 10-5-5 ratio, provide the plant with the right blend of nutrients and micronutrients, such as magnesium and iron, that it needs to thrive. A single dose of fertilizer keeps the plant fed for about 4 months. The amount of fertilizer you should apply varies depending on the age and growth habit of your plant. Consult the instructions on the packet for full information.
If you don’t want to use a chemical fertilizer, organic and homemade fertilizers are also available. These are just as effective and are suitable for houseplants.
Liquid fertilizers are easily incorporated into watering routines. Be careful if you are applying a granular fertilizer. Lemon plants have a shallow root system, accidentally disturbing the root system can stunt or deter growth.
Maintaining high humidity levels is vital to cultivating a healthy plant.
Mist your plant every day. You can also place smaller plants on humidity trays filled with pebbles and water. The waterline should be just below the top of the pebbles. When the pot is placed on the tray it is not in direct contact with the water. Allowing the pot to sit in water for a prolonged period can cause waterlogged soil and root rot.
A humidity tray is an easy way to maintain humidity levels. Just remember to regularly top up the water.
Compact, dwarf varieties don’t require regular pruning. However, you may occasionally need to prune your plant to keep it neat. This is best done after the fruit has set. The lemon tree sets fruit on its outer branches. Waiting until the fruit has set before pruning helps you to avoid accidentally pruning away any emerging fruit.
Some varieties may have thorns. Wear gloves and a long sleeved top when pruning.
Always use sharp garden scissors or shears to prune your plants. This enables you to make precise cuts.
If you are growing a larger variety of lemon tree you may find that after a few years the plant is beginning to take up too much space. Root pruning can help to prevent this. This is best done when repotting.
Every three or four years, depending on the growth of your plant, gently trim the roots back. This makes them more compact and cutrails the growth habit of the plant. While the plant’s growth habit is slowed, the tree is still able to grow and produce fruit.
Indoor lemon trees, particularly dwarf varieties, are often created by grafting. This means that sucker branches can sometimes emerge from the root stock, or scion of the plant. These should be removed immediately.
Do I Need to Hand Pollinate my Plant?
Lemon trees are self pollinating. This means that they don’t need insects, or humans, to transfer pollen from another plant to bear fruit.
While the plant doesn’t require hand pollination, you can help the process along. When the flowers are in bloom, gently shake the branches. This helps to spread pollen around the flowers, encouraging pollination and fruit production.
These fragrant flowers are self pollinating. This means that you don’t have to pollinate the plant by hand if you want fruit to form.
Common Problems and How to Solve Them
Yellowing foliage is a sign that the plant is low on iron. It can also be a sign that the plant is under watered. To determine the cause, closely inspect the foliage. If the leaves are yellow but the veins are still green your plant is suffering from an iron deficiency. To cure the deficiency apply an acidic fertilizer or plant specific iron supplements.
Leaf drop can be a sign of cold damage or over watering. It can also be a sign of a nutritional deficiency. Regularly fertilizing your plant helps to prevent most nutritional deficiencies. If your plant is still struggling, use a soil test kit to assess the condition of your soil. These can tell you what nutrients your soil, and plant, is lacking in. Once you know which nutrients your plant needs, it is an easy problem to amend.
Regularly inspect your plant for any warning signs. The foliage should be green and healthy. Spotting problems early makes it far easier to treat them.
Flower drop can be caused by a sudden change in environment or exposure to cold weather. Don’t position your lemon tree in a place where cold drafts may be an issue. Under and over watering can also cause flowers to fall from the plant.
Browning foliage is a sign that the plants are becoming sunburnt. This can often occur after you have moved your plant outside for the summer. Instead of placing the plant straight into the sunniest part of your garden, gradually move it outside. Slowly increasing the amount of unfiltered light it is exposed to helps the plant to acclimatize. While this may be time consuming but is the easiest way to prevent sunburn.
Why is my Plant not Producing Fruit?
Lemon trees don’t produce fruit until they are mature. This can be three to four years of age. Poor pruning, a lack of sun, over or under watering and over fertilization can all deter fruit production.
Another common cause for indoor plants failing to fruit is a lack of chilling time. The lemon tree requires daily exposure to cooler temperatures, about 60 ℉, in order to bear fruit.
Common Pests and Diseases
Most lemon tree issues are more commonly found on outdoor plants, while indoor plants are largely problem free. However you should be aware of any potential issues, especially if you are moving the plants outside during the summer months.
Diseases such as alternaria leaf blight cause foliage to yellow and darken. It can also cause fruit to drop. Greasy spot fungus also causes foliage to yellow before brown blisters emerge. Both these issues can be treated by regular applications of copper fungicide.
Copper fungicide can also be used to treat citrus canker. This is a bacterial infection that causes yellow halo-like lesions to form on the foliage, branches and fruit of the plant.
Root rot, or phytophthora is a symptom of overwatering. Plant in well draining soil and water only when the soil is drying out.
Citrus leaf miners are hard to notice and difficult to control. Remove and burn any infected areas. Do not place on a compost heap.
Infestations of aphids or ladybugs can be easily removed with an application of homemade insecticidal soap.
Caring for these plants is nowhere nearly as difficult as it may seem. With just a little time and effort the lemon tree can become a standout addition to any home.
While growing a lemon tree indoors may seem a challenge, it really isn’t. Once you have identified the ideal spot and established a reliable care routine these are easy to grow plants that reward your efforts with year round interest.
As you can see, with just a little time and effort, growing a lemon tree is not just for gardeners in exotic climates. One of the most attractive houseplants, any home can become the ideal place for a lemon tree. Why not add one to your collection today?
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.