How and When to Properly Prune a Lemon Tree
Having a lemon tree in your garden offers a plant with year-round glossy green leaves, delicate, fragrant white flowers, and, in many growing zones, year-round fruit. While multiple lemon tree varieties can be grown in the garden or in a container, ranging from small to medium-sized to trees that reach 30 feet or more in height, all of them will need to be pruned to help maintain their shape and improve fruit production.
Pruning a lemon tree requires some basic gardening equipment and easy-to-learn skills. Let's get your lemon tree into good shape.
When to Prune a Lemon Tree
Since a lemon tree is an evergreen fruit-producing tree, it requires less pruning than deciduous fruit trees like peaches and figs. The pruning should be done in late winter after harvest or early spring after the risk of frost has passed but before the heat of summer arrives.
For newly planted lemon trees, it is important to remove shoots or small limbs that sprout from the base of the tree, as these are suckers from the plant's rootstock. Most citrus trees are grafted onto rootstock, and the suckers do not produce the desired fruit variety. They can interfere with the health and development of the tree.
Mature lemon trees produce best and are easier to harvest with regular pruning. Remove injured, diseased, or dead branches, as well as vertical water sprouts, crossing limbs, or touching branches to improve airflow and light. "Topping" a tree also helps keep it at a manageable height for easy harvest. Also, if a lemon tree is crowding other trees or impinging on a building, it should be pruned to prevent damage.
Before Getting Started
Before starting a pruning project, all cutting tools should be sharp and clean. Sharp blades will cause less damage to tree tissues, and less damage helps prevent problems from insect pests and plant diseases.
If you are pruning several lemon trees or moving between different types of trees, take the time to clean the tools between each job to prevent the spreading of diseases. This is particularly important if there are fungal or insect infestations in the garden.
Lemon trees have thorns that can cause some pretty deep scratches. To protect your skin, wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, sturdy shoes, and eye protection, especially when pruning larger trees.
It is also important to understand how to operate pruning tools, especially chain saws before you climb a ladder to reach high in the canopy. Always use a sturdy ladder or step-stool when pruning the tree or even picking lemons.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- 1 pair heavy-duty work gloves
- 1 pair secateurs or hand pruners
- 1 pair loppers
- 1 pole saw
- 1 chain saw
- 1 sturdy ladder
- 1 trash bag for clippings
- 1 pair eye protection glasses
How to Prune an Outdoor Lemon Tree
Before you begin a pruning project, gather the equipment you need for the job.
- Secateurs or hand pruners for water sprouts and suckers less than 1 inch in diameter
- Loppers for branches up to 2 inches in diameter
- Pruning saw for branches larger than 2 inches in diameter
- Pole saw for larger limbs out of your reach
- Chainsaw for branches larger than 3-4 inches in diameter
- Sturdy ladder for trimming a lemon tree canopy
- Rubbing alcohol or 2-percent bleach solution to sterilize tools, cloth
Small shoots in a bud union (the angle between a leaf and the stem) should be removed as soon as they appear. Shoots that grow from the rootstock will not be productive and should also be removed with secateurs or hand pruners.
Remove Water Sprouts
Water sprouts, also called gourmands, are long, thick, vigorously growing branches that appear in the canopy of a lemon tree. The branches grow rapidly and use up large amounts of nutrients and water. Typically, they do not produce fruit but if they do, it is poor quality. Gourmands should be removed with a clean cut at the base of the shoot.
Removing Larger Branches
Any larger branches that have freeze damage, those crossing and touching another branch, and branches resting on structures should be removed. Dead wood can be removed safely at any time of the year. Because lemon tree wood is brittle, a three-cut system for branches larger than 1 inch in diameter prevents the weight of the branch from tearing the bark or splintering the remaining portions of the branch.
- For the first cut, start 10-12 inches away from the branch union to the trunk of the tree.
- Cut a third to halfway through the branch from underneath (undercut).
- Then move a few inches up the branch and cut from above, removing the branch. Make the final cut at the desired pruning point above the branch collar. The branch collar is the area around the base of a large branch, often visible as a ridge or wrinkled bark around the branch.
Thinning the Canopy
The fruit of a lemon tree needs sunlight to mature and achieve the best flavors. If the canopy of the tree has become too thick because the tree has not been pruned correctly, it will need to be thinned. This may diminish fruit production for the year but will help the next crop be more tasty and plentiful.
If the canopy is ideal, you should see dappled sunlight on the ground beneath the tree at midday. To thin the canopy correctly, visually divide the tree into quarters based on the primary branch structure. Prune one section at a time removing branches to open lower branches to sunlight.
How to Prune a Container Lemon Tree
If shoots appear from the rootstock after planting the lemon tree in the container, remove them immediately.
Top the Young Tree
Newly planted container-grown lemon trees should be topped soon after planting if they are tall and spindly. Removing the top shoot will promote side shoots, which will develop into a lower, fuller, more attractive canopy. The shorter the tree remains, the easier it is to maintain.
Remove Dead and Flagging Branches
After growing in a container for three or four years, the lemon tree will develop flagging branches or dead wood. Flagging branches have only one leaf at the end of the branch or very small leaves.
These branches usually occur at the top of the container lemon tree. Remove flagging branches one by one with sharp hand pruners to improve the health of your tree. It is safe to remove up to 25 percent of the branches of your tree.
When to Call a Professional
If you need to completely remove a large lemon tree, it is best to call a professional tree removal company.
Pruning Citrus. University of California Cooperative Extension
Citrus Culture in the Home Landscape. University of Florida Extension