How to Grow Lemon Trees

lemon tree

The Spruce / Kara Riley

Looking to grow your own citrus fruit and not sure where to start? Learn to grow lemon trees in USDA Zones 8 through 11. Citrus limon offers an awakening scent, color, and flavor. Young leaves are reddish, and mature to a dark green on the surface and light green below. Be aware there are often sharp thorns on the twigs of the tree. Mildly fragrant flowers come from reddish buds. These blooms are either solitary or in small clusters of two or more. Four or five petals make up one flower, each of which is white on top and subtly purple beneath. Light-yellow to warm yellow fruit is oval and dotted with oil glands.

Native to Asia, the specific origin of the lemon is unknown. It may have come from the Punjab region of Pakistan and India, or the eastern Himalayan region of southern China and upper Myanmar. People in China already knew of the fruit in about 500 BC and reportedly it reached Europe around AD 1000-1200. Stories suggest Captain Cook introduced the fruit to Australia in 1788.

Plant your lemon tree in the spring after the danger of frost has passed and you can expect it to be established within three years.

Botanical Name Citrus limon (Rutaceae)​
Common Name Lemon tree
Plant Type Broadleaf evergreen
Mature Size 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun 
Soil Type Well-drained fertile soil
Soil pH Slightly acidic and low in soluble salts
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 8-11 (USDA)
Native Area Asia
Toxicity Toxic to dogs and cats

How to Plant Lemon Trees

Lemon trees grow 10 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide. Space accordingly. Dig a hole twice as wide and deep as the root ball. If the root is bound, cut across the ball a few times; this will loosen the roots and encourage them to reach for nutrients in well-drained fertile soil.

Tropical and semi-tropical climates are best for growing lemons. The trees thrive with low to moderate rainfall through mild winters and warm to hot dry summer heat. Commercial production is most successful in sub-tropical regions of the world. The "citrus belt" of the United States ranges from California along the Gulf Coast to Florida.

In Zone 8, plant a cold-hardy variety such as Meyer, which produces nearly seedless fruit and a plentiful harvest on even a small plant. Try Lisbon and Eureka in Zones 9 through 11.

Lemon Tree Care

Light

Lemon trees thrive in full sun in a place that is protected from the wind. If a freeze is possible in your area, plant on the southwestern side of the house along a wall for protection.

Soil

All citrus trees thrive in soil of medium texture and moderate depth with a slight acidity.

One that is well-drained is an absolute must as root rot is a problem in soggy conditions. Mulching should be avoided to prevent pooling water.

Water

Getting the watering requirements right with your lemon tree is crucial for a successful harvest. During the period of establishment, more frequent watering will be required—even as much as once or twice a week. Once mature, lemon trees develop more drought tolerance.

During the summer months, the soil should be kept moist, especially for young trees. Be careful not to cause waterlogging as boggy conditions are problematic.

Temperature and Humidity

Lemon trees are best grown in warm and humid states. They are the most sensitive to cold weather of all the citrus fruits and thrive in temperatures that range from 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. They also prefer the humidity levels to be as close to 50% as possible.

Young trees are particularly sensitive to cold conditions and they should be brought indoors if temperatures take an unexpected drop.

Fertilizer

Like other citrus fruit trees, lemon trees are energy-hungry. Use a complete NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizer to encourage healthy growth and fruit production.

top of a lemon tree
The Spruce / Kara Riley
lemon tree branches
The Spruce / Kara Riley
blossom on a lemon tree
The Spruce / Kara Riley

Lemon Tree Varieties

There are three main types of lemon trees grown in the warmer parts of the United States.

  • Eureka lemon trees (Citrus x limon 'Eureka'): Along with the Lisbon lemon, this is the most widely available lemon in supermarkets across the globe and a popular homegrown variety.
  • Lisbon lemon trees (Citrus x limon 'Lisbon'): This variety produces a juicy, fleshy fruit with few to no seeds. They are slightly less sensitive to the cold than other lemon varieties and have a more upright growth habit than the spreading Eureka.
  • Meyers lemon trees (Citrus x meyeri): Sweeter, or less tangy at least than the other varieties above, they are actually a hybrid cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon. They have a compact form that doesn't require heavy pruning and are a little more tolerant of cold when compared to true lemon varieties.

Harvesting Lemons

It's natural for the flowers to develop into fruit and still take a year to mature to yellow and be mature for harvest. Leave the lemons on the tree to ripen. Like other citrus fruits, they will not ripen off the tree.

Each fruit can give up to 7% citric acid and is rich in vitamin C. Welcome lemons into your garden and you'll have nutritious, cheerful fruits to last a lifetime. They are perfect for adding to meal recipes and even as an environmentally friendly cleaning option.

Pruning

The different lemon tree varieties have different growth habits, and this can impact pruning requirements.

Pinch foliage to control the shape and encourage bloom. Prune young trees to encourage good branch structure. The upright growth habit of the Lisbon lemon tree means it needs more regular pruning to maintain a strong canopy and good food production.

Propagating Lemon Trees

Of all the citrus fruit trees, lemon trees are one of the easiest to propagate from cuttings.

Semi-hardwood cuttings can be taken from late spring to early summer. Look for new growth that has yet to produce fruit or flowers.

The cutting should be potted in a well-drained, consistently moist medium. They need warmth and humidity to guarantee success.

Overwintering

If you're bringing the lemon tree indoors, place your plant in a well-lit location that is not too warm. In winter, low indoor temperatures similar to early spring will actually encourage flowering. Bring it outdoors in late May to encourage natural pollination and let the fruit grow in the warmer spring and summer temperatures. Return the plant indoors in September.

Lemons are not fans of dry air. If you are concerned, misting or using a humidifier could be beneficial.