How to Grow and Care for a potted Lemon Tree

Lemon trees are typically grown in tropical or subtropical regions, but if you live in a colder area and want to enjoy homegrown lemons, you can learn how to grow lemon trees in pots and best of all It’s easier than you might imagine. 

When you grow lemon trees in containers, it allows you to grow them in any environment. You can bring them inside when the weather starts to get colder, and they make a fragrant, beautiful houseplant, or you can grow them outside year-round if they have the right climate.

  • Start in a 5-gallon container and gradually increase your pot size as your lemon tree grows.
  • Lemon trees need 6-8 hours of sunlight. If you’re growing a lemon tree inside, you might need to add a grow light.
  • Keep the soil moist but never soggy.
  • Lemon trees are heavy feeders and need to be supplied with ample nutrients throughout the growing season.
  • You can harvest fresh lemons from the trees from November to April.

If you’ve always wanted to try growing lemons at home but felt like you couldn’t because of your climate, you can do it! This guide shows you everything you need to know about growing lemon trees in pots. 

Learn How To Grow Lemon Trees In Pots

If you’ve never grown fruit trees on pots before, lemon trees are an excellent choice for beginners.

They are relatively easy to grow, and they aren’t too picky about conditions. Trust me; learning how to grow lemon trees in pots is easier than you might imagine.

1: Choose Dwarf Varieties Of Lemon That Are Perfect For Container Growing 

Pick A Lemon Tree Variety for Pots

When you grow a lemon tree in a pot, it’s not going to get as large as the ones grown in the ground.

While you can grow any type inside your house – the conditions will cause the tree size to be limited – it’s best to select dwarf lemon tree varieties for optimal growth. 

Growing lemon trees in pots have become more popular over the past few years, and gardeners identified several varieties that do exceptionally well in pots. 

  • Kumquats
  • Meyer Improved Dwarf
  • Lisbon
  • Ponderosa Dwarf 

Ideally, you’ll want to start with trees that are 2-3 years old. This is the age when they are mature enough to produce fruit, but you still might need to wait a year or two before fruit appears. The trees will be small, but they will grow, even dwarf varieties. 

1. Start With A 12-Inch Diameter Container With Proper Drainage

 Start With A 12-Inch Diameter Container With Proper Drainage

Perhaps one of the most critical factors when selecting a container for lemon trees is drainage. They need good drainage, so pick one that has several drainage holes. 

  • You might see pictures of citrus trees in large pots, but with these trees, it’s better to start with a small pot and gradually increase your containers’ size.
  • Start with a 12-inch container, which is typically called a 5-gallon pot, for small trees. It’s an ideal size for beginners.
  • Mature plants will need containers that are 24 inches in diameter and 24 inches deep – so 10 gallon pots. That size gives your roots plenty of space to grow and expand.
  • You can use any material that you want, but terra-cotta is an excellent option because it allows for air movement. At the same time, they’re quite heavy, especially when filled with soil, so consider keeping it on top of a wheeled plant dolly, which lets you move it with ease.
  • It would be best if you used light-colored pots because it won’t absorb as much sunlight. Believe it or not, even though lemon trees like heat, their roots prefer to be cool.

You will need to repot your tree every few years or at the beginning of spring. In warmer climates, winter is the best season to repot your trees.

Avoid using a pot that is too big or too small for your tree. It should only be one size bigger than your previous pot. 

2. Place The Pot In A Warm, Sunny Location

Lemon tree in a clay pot with a lot of yellow lemon fruits

You can keep your citrus trees outside when the weather is warm and frost-free. Potted lemon trees need to be kept in a spot that receives 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. 

  • When the temperature dips down, and the forecast of frost gets close, it’s time to bring in your lemon tree inside.
  • When inside, keep your lemon trees near southern or southwest facing windows.
  • The natural light shifts with the seasons, so you cannot keep your tree in the same spot all year-round. You do need to adjust with the season, moving to locations that get more sunlight.
  • If there comes a time when you’re short on sunlight, you can use grow lights to make up the difference.

3. Fill Container With Well-Draining Potting Mix

Fill Container With Well-Draining Potting Mix

You want to get the soil right the first time with your lemon tree. Garden nurseries sell potting mixes created for cactus, palms, and citrus trees, containing a balance of ingredients designed to retain moisture while also draining freely. 

  • Never use garden soil or topsoil for container gardening. You must use a potting mix blend. Not only will it not contain the nutrients needed for proper growth, but it won’t have the proper pH balance for your trees.
  • The pH level should be between 5.5 and 7; these trees before a slightly acidic to neutral soil. You can use a soil testing kit to check the pH balance.
  • Always mix in additional organic matter, such as earthworm casting, compost, or aged manure.
  • You want a lightweight potting mix that contains ingredients such as perlite, vermiculite, coconut coir, or peat moss to increase the drainage.

4. Planting Lemon Trees In Containers 

Planting Lemon Trees In Containers

You can only plant your trees one time in your container, so you want to do it right. Planting depth is vital to understand because citrus trees need plenty of air circulation.

Take a look at your tree and find where it starts to flare out at the base; this should be slightly exposed. 

  • Fill your pot, leaving extra room to put your tree.
  • Loosen the roots in the root ball and place the tree into the pot. Holding the stem with one hand, cover the soil with the rest of the soil, patting down firmly. Make sure to leave some of the base flare visible.
  • Water deeply until water comes out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the container.
  • Spread mulch over the top of the oil to help reduce evaporation.

Caring For Potted Lemon Trees

Lemon trees make a fantastic container plants, and they don’t require an excessive amount of care. You have to remember to water and fertilize when needed and prune once a year. That’s not too bad! 

1. Keep The Soil Moist And Never Let It Dry Out Completely

Lemon trees prefer to have consistent, regular watering. If the soil dries out too much, the leaves will fall off of the plant. It’s best if their soil is evenly moist, but they should never be soggy. 

  • Lemon trees also need a high level of humidity. The best way to create this artificially is by putting a tray of pebbles near your plant with water, or you can mist your plants daily.
  • Let the soil in the container dry about 2-3 inches deep, and then water thoroughly, letting the water run out of the drainage holes.
  • You can either test your soil by hand, putting a finger into the soil to determine where it’s dry, or you can use a soil moisture tester. You can buy those online or at your local garden nursery.
  • In the winter, you need to water enough to keep the soil moist.
  • You might be tempted to use a garden saucer underneath the pot, but that can reduce drainage. Use a saucer if you’re going on vacation and can’t water for several days, but otherwise, stay away from them.

2. Fertilize Your Lemon Trees

A crucial part of growing a healthy lemon tree is using fertilizer. Before planting, you should add compost to your soil for the initial nutrients needed for growth, but that’s not all you need to do.

  • Add a slow-release fertilizer to the soil to ensure your plants receive a consistent flow of nutrients.
  • Citrus trees, in general, need a lot of nitrogen as well as trace nutrients. If possible, it’s best to find a citrus-specific plant fertilizer for ongoing feedings.
  • You will need to fertilize consistently because watering washes away extra nutrients, and the needs do change based on the maturity of the tree.
  • If desired, you can supplement with kelp or fish-based products for additional nutrients. Your lemon tree won’t complain! Remember, nutrients wash out of container-grown plants easier than in-ground plants and trees.
  • Make sure you limit fertilizer applications during the fall and winter. The tree needs to know that it’s time for growth to slow down.

3. Don’t Forget About Pollination

Don’t Forget About Pollination

Lemon trees bloom in the winter, and there aren’t as many pollinators inside of your home. If you have to bring your plant inside for the winter because of your climate, you need to hand pollinate.

You can use an electric pollination tool if you want, but hand-pollinating each flower is simple, but it’s often overlooked by those new to growing citrus trees inside. 

  • Take a q-tip and roll it on the stamen of a flower to collect pollen. 
  • Then, take that q-tip and roll it inside other flowers, moving pollen from flower to flower. You’re playing the birds and the bees but manually!

4. Overwinter Inside

If you live in USDA zones 8b-11, you don’t need to worry about overwintering and cold temperatures too much.

Zones below that require special care because of the cold, harsh winters. Temperatures below 30℉ are life-threatening for lemon trees, but the “Meyer” tree can tolerate as cold as 24℉. 

Lemon trees are vulnerable to cold weather and drought, so when wintertime hits, you’ll need to bring your trees inside away from the cold weather.

While lemon trees growing in the ground can handle mild frost, container-grown ones cannot tolerate lower temperatures.

When gardeners branch into growing houseplants, many don’t consider growing lemon trees in pots indoors, but they are fragrant, beautiful houseplants that also provide you with delicious fruits.
  • When your nighttime winter temperatures are consistently below 35℉, it’s time to move the trees indoors to protect them from frost.
  • If you only have periodic or the occasional cold nights, you can cover the tree with a frost cloth or use incandescent lights to warm the tree.
  • You must move them inside gradually, over several weeks. The same goes for moving them back outside. You don’t want to decide to bring them inside (or outside) and do it in one day.
  • Think about the process of hardening off but reverse it, and slowly keep your tree inside for more extended periods.

If your trees start to drop some or all of their leaves, don’t be surprised. They can do this whether you move them inside or outside; it’s a natural process as the plant adjusts to different light levels.

Your tree will soon produce leaves better suited to the new level of light; just be patient with your plant.

5. Prune As Needed

Prune As Needed

Pruning is needed for all fruit trees; citrus trees are no exception to that. Regular pruning limits the tree size and encourages larger fruit. Wait until your tree starts to flower before pruning; you don’t want to cut off your fruits.

  • You can prune your citrus trees for size, shape, and balance. It also helps your tree stay productive and removes dead branches. Some consider pruning unnecessary, but pruning is a must-do activity if you want to grow your tree inside.
  • The best time to prune your lemon trees is in the spring after the risk of frost passes, but before new growth appears on the tree.
  • Suckers below the graft union should be pruned off of the plant because they suck out energy from the tree without producing fruit.
  • Always prune off dead, damaged, and diseased branches.
  • Trim off any thorns you find. Cut off roots or shoots that form near the base of the plant.
  • You should prune carefully; any exposed bark can cause your tree to be sunburnt. If that happens, you can use water-based latex paint to cover any exposed bark.

Harvesting Fresh Lemons At Home

One benefit of growing fresh lemon at home is that many cultivars bear fruit year-round, such as the Meyer lemon tree. The main harvest takes place between the middle of November and the middle of April.

The trees are highly productive in colder areas, spreading the harvest more throughout the year. For those in warm climates, the harvest is concentrated in the fall and early winter. 

Common Pests & Diseases That Bother Lemon Trees

Citrus trees are vulnerable to many pests and diseases, but you do decrease the risks of both when you grow them inside. Here are some of the most common pests and diseases that bother lemon trees.

Citrus Canker

Citrus Canker

Citrus canker is a highly contagious bacterial infection that leads to halo-like lesions or scabs on the leaves, twigs, and fruit of citrus trees.

If your plant has a severe infection, it can cause leaf loss, blemished fruits, or tree dieback. Citrus canker spreads quickly through the wind, insects, birds, and humans, so it can easily become a problem. 

You can use various sprays to protect your tree from infection, such as a liquid copper fungicide, but it’s just a preventative treatment.

The problem with this bacterial disease is that it moves fast once your trees are infected, destroying trees before the bacteria spreads. 

Melanose

This is a fungal infection that bothers young, citrus fruits. While it does typically infect primarily grapefruits, lemons aren’t immune to this fungus. Melanose is more severe in older trees, ones that are over ten years old because it prefers deadwood. 

You can reduce melanose by regularly pruning to combat the disease. Another option is to use a liquid copper fungicide as a preventative treatment. 

Greasy Spot

Greasy Spot

Here is another fungal disease that bothers citrus fruit trees. You’ll know that you have greasy spot if you have yellowish-brownish blister spots on the leaves, mainly the leaves’ underside. As the disease progresses, the spots develop an oily look.

When your plants have a greasy spot, it can cause significant leaf loss, especially during the winter, and it also infects the fruits of the plant.

If you want to control this disease, you have to collect and get rid of all fallen leaves; this reduces new spores that could infect your plant.

Then, spray your plant with liquid fungicide in June or July; you might need a second application in August or September. 

Sooty Mold

Sooty mold is a fungus that develops when pests leave behind honeydew secretions on your trees and plants.

Aphids, whiteflies, and mealybugs are common pests that secrete honeydew as they suck on sap out of your plants. 

Sooty mold rarely kills your plants, but the insects that cause it can damage or destroy your plants.

Once you take care of your pest problem, you can wash away the plants’ blackened mold with soap and water. You also can use a liquid copper fungicide or Neem oil to treat your lemon trees.

Aphids

One of the most common pests that infect lemon trees are aphids. In small numbers, they won’t cause serious problems, but their population grows rapidly, which can damage your citrus trees during their primary growing season.

Apids suck out the sap from your leaves, causing puckered marks, yellowing, and curling. The leaves look deformed and ugly. 

You can knock aphids off of your tree with jets of water, or you can use some new insecticide to spray your plants.

The sprays should be applied to the leaves’ underside, and it only takes one or two applications to get rid of an aphid infestation. 

Citrus Whiteflies

If you see tiny, white-winged insects that measure around 1/12 of an inch, you more than likely have citrus whiteflies.

They swarm out when you shake the branches of your trees, and they also lay eggs on the leaves’ underside. Then, once they hatch, the juvenile whiteflies suck the leaves’ sap, leading to curled leaves. 

One way you can control citrus whiteflies is with insecticides, but it also takes several applications. It’s essential to take control of these pests because they secret honeydew, leading to sooty mold. 

Orangedog Caterpillars 

These are large caterpillars that measure up to 2 inches in length with a brown color.

They attach to the citrus trees and start to eat the leaves; you’ll know it’s orangedog caterpillars when the leaves appear to be eaten or chewed from the outer edges inward. 

You should remove any caterpillars on your tree that you see by hand. You should know that they don’t smell the best, but it’s the best control method. You also can use an insect spray that contains spinosad or Bacillus thuringiensis as organic control methods. 

Citrus Thrips 

If your tree is infected with citrus thrips, the first thing you’ll notice is shriveled leaf buds and leaves that are curled and distorted.

They often have a silvery grey color on the leaves and a silvery color scabbed or streaked on the fruit. 

Citrus thrips are orange or yellow, small in size, primarily attacking young leaves and juvenile fruit.

The adults lay their eggs in the fall, and the juveniles hatch in the spring, immediately feeding on the leaves and fruit. Their damage is most notable during hot, dry weather. 

To control citrus thrips, you can spray the trees with insect spray with spinosad, but you need several repeat applications to control the population fully. 

Citrus Bud Mites

Citrus Bud Mites

If you live in a coastal region, citrus bud mites might become your archnemesis.

They’re small, elongated insects that peak in the summer, so fall blooms are at risk.

It’s hard to detect these tiny insects, but you can find them if you closely inspect your fruits. You’ll need to use an insecticide to control the population. 

Final Thoughts

When gardeners branch into growing houseplants, many don’t consider growing lemon trees in pots indoors, but they are fragrant, beautiful houseplants that also provide you with delicious fruits.

Updated on by Amber Noyes

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