With its dark green leathery leaves, compact size and juicy, acidic fruit, the lemon tree is as attractive as it is useful. If you're lucky enough to live in a warm tropical or subtropical climate, you can grow a healthy lemon tree right in your backyard. Even in cooler climates, some lemon varieties can be grown indoors or as novel indoor/outdoor patio plants. Raising a lemon tree is relatively easy. By paying attention to a few basics, you can count on harvesting this tart, fragrant fruit for years.
Choose the right tree for your location. True lemons are less cold hardy than other citrus and are best suited to subtropical climates like that of South Florida. In other areas, hardier hybrids like the popular Meyer lemon might be a better choice. If you prefer a true lemon but are worried about your climate, consider growing a potted lemon tree so you can bring it indoors as needed. Planting a lemon tree near the southeast side of the house will also offer some extra protection.
Give your lemon tree lots of sun. Like all citrus, lemons are sun lovers. While they don't need full sun all day, the more sun they receive, the more fruit they will bear. Before planting a lemon tree, make sure there are no structures or nearby trees that could shade it out now or in the future. If you already have a lemon tree and you suspect it isn't getting enough sunlight, consider moving it to a better location.
Protect your lemon tree from the cold. Be prepared to protect your tree if cold weather threatens. If possible, cover the entire tree with a blanket or fabric tarp, making sure it extends all the way to the ground. Secure the cloth to the soil to trap the ground heat around the tree. You may also want to temporarily pile up leaves or other mulch around the base of the tree. If covering the entire tree is not feasible, wrap the trunk several times with a blanket securing the blanket to the ground. Remove the blanket and any mulch when temperatures moderate.
Provide good drainage. Lemon trees can grow in most well-drained soils. Poor drainage can encourage disease and inhibit growth. If your lemon is already planted in poorly drained soil and seems to be suffering, give it a fighting chance by moving it to another location. If you don't have another suitable spot, you might want to dig it up, amend the soil and replant it.
Water regularly. Recently planted lemon trees should be watered two to three times per week. After a month or so, taper watering down to about once per week. Mature trees typically require watering every couple of weeks but lemon trees planted in dryer, sandier soils may require more frequent irrigation. Water slowly and deeply, giving moisture a chance to soak in and thoroughly saturate the soil.
Don't mulch. While mulching is often recommended for other trees as a way to conserve soil moisture, it's not a healthy practice for lemons. Mulching could encourage foot rot, which could kill the tree.
Do fertilize. The best way to determine your fertilizer needs is to test your soil. Contact your local university extension office for directions on obtaining a soil test. Don't begin fertilizing until after the tree is established and growing. Then fertilize three times per year with an organic fertilizer or slow-release commercial fertilizer.