I’ve always wanted to grow citrus, lemons specifically, as I buy them regularly to add to my herbal tea blends and because, let’s face it, so many foods are enhanced with a bit of lemon zest.
This winter, I decided to invest in a lemon tree to grow indoors...one of the fruits I believed I was missing out on growing because I live in New England where it’s too cold to grow citrus outside. These plants require warmth, and sunlight… lots of it. The good news is that whether you live in a temperate or tropical climate or live in an apartment or a house, growing a lemon tree successfully in containers is totally possible and easier than you think.
After doing some research on what citrus can grow indoors, I realized my best option was to purchase a dwarf lemon tree that can be easily grown in a container indoors.
I am lucky enough to live close to Logee’s, a world-famous greenhouse that has been in operation since 1892, and produces fruiting, rare, and tropical plants and is AMAZING!
Logee’s greenhouse has a lemon tree that more than a century after being first planted, still stands today, producing lemons the size of small melons. Thousands of cuttings have been taken from the tree, and thousands of visitors have come to pay homage, including Katherine Hepburn, Tasha Tudor and Martha Stewart. And if you visit Logee’s during the holidays, you’ll be sure to witness an abundance of ripe fruit on the tree. You may even be able to sample one!
Happily, I received a gift certificate for my birthday (my family knows me well), and I knew exactly what I wanted to spend it on…a lemon tree! So, this weekend I took a little trip to Logees to pick out my lemon tree. After doing a bit of research, I knew that I wanted a Meyer Lemon Tree.
Why a Meyer Lemon Tree
(Citrus limon) is an heirloom dwarf lemon with delicious golden-yellow fruit. All of my research indicates that Meyer Lemon makes an excellent choice for growing indoors in containers and is the hardiest lemon tree for cool temperatures, perfect for a New England climate.
The fruit is said to be more flavorful than store-bought lemons and is prized by chefs. The best part about growing Meyer Lemons is that they produce fruit heavily at a young age, flowering and fruiting year-round.
While my new tree doesn’t yet have any lemons, it does have new growth and is “ripe” with the possibility of future fruit, for which I cannot wait!
Because lemon trees are tropical plants, it stands to reason that they would require lots of sunlight to be at their best. If possible, place your lemon tree near a south-facing window where it is sure to get at least 6 hours of daylight. You can also supplement natural light with a grow light, especially in the winter.
Be sure to rotate your tree every week or so to get even light exposure. Citrus trees thrive at temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, making them happy trees when grown indoors.
Choosing the Right Container
The choices for containers for your indoor lemon tree are many. Acceptable materials include glazed, plastic, terra cotta (clay), cement, and even wood are all viable choices.
I would recommend that most first-time lemon tree owners opt for terra cotta since the natural moisture wicking properties of a terra cotta pot help to lessen the danger of overwatering, something I am working on.
Terra cotta and ceramic pots are made of fired (or baked) clay. When unglazed, terra cotta and ceramic pots are porous, meaning water and air can pass through the material. Almost all terra cotta and some ceramic pots are sold unglazed. You can tell if a pot is unglazed by simply touching it- it will feel slightly chalky to the touch.
If the pot is glazed, it means that the material has been sealed. It will feel much smoother to the touch and will also no longer allow for water to escape from the soil. Go with an unglazed pot to take advantage of the moisture controlling benefits inherent in clay and terra cotta.
Also, I just like the way terra cotta pots look as they age.
Another thing to keep in mind when choosing your pot is not to over pot (choose a pot that is too big). Over-potting often leads to over watering and can invite root rot and disease. Also, citrus like a somewhat tight container and actually prefer to be a bit root bound.
Soil Mixture and Watering
To pot up your lemon tree opt for a standard soil-less mix of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and composted bark. Check the ph levels of your mix; citrus like a ph up to around 6.
Accurate watering is essential, in fact, the biggest threat to the health of your lemon tree is over watering. Your lemon tree’s soil should be brought to near dryness between waterings. As a general rule, water only when the top layer of soil is dry, and the plant appears to be a bit wilted. Otherwise, keeping the soil too moist can lead to root rot.
What is Root Rot
Root rot happens when a lemon tree’s roots are too wet for too long and begin to rot inside the pot. A plant’s roots need oxygen to maintain healthy functioning. Plant roots get oxygen by absorbing it from small pockets of air within the soil.
Unfortunately, when root rot begins, even if the overwatering conditions are corrected the plant will often still die. This is why maintaining proper soil moisture for your lemon tree is so important. Choosing terra cotta can help with that.
Plant Feeding & Fertilizing
Lemon trees and other citrus benefit greatly from regular fertilizing.
Slow release or organic fertilizer blends can either be used. Both are sprinkled on the surface of the soil and give many weeks of nutrition to the plant. Most fertilizers contain trace minerals necessary for healthy growth. However, many citrus varieties are prone to iron chlorosis, an interveinal yellowing of the young leaves. This most often happens during the winter when growth is slow, and temperatures are cool. Adding chelated iron as a foliar spray will correct this problem.
The general rule is to feed plants when they are actively growing and discontinue fertilization during the winter months. It is best to reduce fertilizer as late summer approaches to allow the new root and leaf growth to harden off.
The reason for avoiding fertilizing in the fall and winter is because during this time your citrus plants have stopped growing and excessive nutrients will cause weak or soft growth especially in the root system that can lead to root diseases.
Once new growth is visible in late winter, you can begin your fertilizer program once again.
Go easy on the fertilizer. Excessive fertilization can create difficulties in culture, so it’s best to err on the lean side.
Pruning & Maintenance
When grown in containers, your lemon tree may need an occasional pruning to keep a nice shape. It’s totally okay to trim back a branch that reaches out in a way that detracts from the plant’s uniform appearance.
Pruning when the tree is young also helps to create a full form and strong plant structure as it matures. In general, you’ll most likely not need to do much pruning.
One thing to keep in mind is that the flower buds for the next season’s fruit often form on the late summer’s growth and over pruning can cause a sparse crop. For this reason, it is best to prune right after the fruit is picked.
Insects & Disease
For the most part, citrus is not highly susceptible to insects. However, they will attract scale, mealy bugs and mites if infected plants are nearby. Citrus plants in general are susceptible to root disease but following the water recommendations and keeping temperatures no lower than 60 degrees will help negate the problem.
Here are a few fun facts to celebrate this unique source of citrus sweetness and encourage people to plant one on their own:
- The Meyer lemon tree originated in China and was primarily known as a decorative plant for almost 100 years until it was brought to the US, where it became a food item.
- Many grocery stores don’t carry Meyer lemons, so you may need a tree of your own to access this fruit.
- In the 1960s, a virus nearly wiped out all Meyer lemon trees growing in California.
- One stock that was found to be virus-free was saved and used to develop the virus-free cultivar “Improved Meyer Lemon” tree, which is what we consume today.
You can learn more here:
Growing a lemon tree indoors is perhaps one of the most rewarding ways to grow citrus plants. If you have the right container, plenty of sunlight and water, a lemon tree is a great choice for indoor growing and worth the investment.
This year, grow something new and unexpected and watch your plant grow into something beautiful. You will soon find yourself with a gorgeous little tree that produces enough lemons so that you never have to buy them again.
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