Imagine eating grilled fish or peri-peri prawns without lemon? Or no lemon meringue pie, lemon curd or lemon sauce? No lemon in the bar? Or leaving out neat lemon juice from your list of home cleaners or beauty treatments? Well imagination is one thing, reality another and I would join all who would miss this fantastic plant. Every garden can do with a lemon tree, and your container garden is no exception. And you can choose whichever cultivar suits you, I went for a Meyer three year old but a little advice for your particular zone from the nurseryman will not go amiss. Lemons grow best in zones 8 to 11 because of their sunshine requirements.
First, you can sprout a lemon pip for fun, and the kids will love it, but I have yet to grow a lemon tree from one of these though I did set out to try several years ago. It just took too long and I wanted something more ‘instant!’ Besides, you never know the ‘DNA’ of that lemon pip from that bought lemon … you can't know how tall it will grow or what its fruiting behaviour will be.
So, I have always bought a ready-to-transplant tree at least one year old from my trusted nursery. This was the youngest but because I am an impatient gardener at times, I usually go for a well established 3 or so year old. This way it is often in fruit when I buy it, and I can be assured of a good and appropriate specimen which will produce if I look after it properly. The one I have now has borne fruit every year since I got it some 4 years ago.
So what do you need to grow a lemon tree successfully in a container?
Well essentially you need to buy a well established baby tree (can be expensive depending on your budget) and then you must choose the right size pot with enough drainage holes; you need to ensure that the right soil mix is light and friable and drains well; you must provide at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day and if you can’t then you should use grow lights to make up the difference; and most important of all, you must watch that your watering is regular and that you neither overwater nor underwater your lemon tree. Finally, when you transplant or repot it, expect transplant trauma (leaves may drop off) but will grow back quickly and when planting or potting up you must be careful to ensure that the root collar is above the level of the soil. You must make sure the stem stands above the soil level. Do not cover the lemon tree trunk with soil at all.
The PLANT: Go for a dwarf variety of Meyer Lemon. It may be balled or it may be in a plastic container. Be ready to pot it up when you get it home and I have always gone one size up for this. A lemon tree in a container needs to be repotted annually until it reaches the height you want it to be (5 - 8 foot maximum). In order to maintain your tree at your chosen height, the roots will need to be pruned, besides which you need to revitalize the container soil. Eureka is another good dwarf cultivar – I prefer the Meyer fruit.
The CONTAINER: Start off with one around 14” (25cms) wide and go to the biggest at 20” (45cms) wide. I invested in a self-watering container on wheels so that I can move my plant around easily. I used smaller containers until last year when the tree reached 6 feet or so and now it is in a container, in another container, sort of bonsai’ed. This way I keep it the size I want and now feed and water carefully. Got 14 lovely smooth-skinned lemons at first crop and now it is heavy with fruit again, I have 16 fruits nearly ready to pick. This is also one time I use plastic pots on purpose as they are lighter and easier to handle.
WATERING: Just make sure the tree never dries out and never has wet feet. Lemon trees can be finicky with watering but also easy to set up a schedule once you have worked out everything according to your circumstances. Citrus does well in moist soil. If you are not going to remember or if you are away a lot, then consider putting in some kind of drip irrigation system with a timer. Lemon trees are like kids … they like a splash of rain sometimes so water them down with a hosepipe if this is practical on your deck or stoep. Remember, deep watering is better by far than the shallow kind. In fact, you can kill your lemon tree by incorrect watering. If you 'surface' water because you are I a hurry, there you are thinking you have watered but meanwhile the roots are still dry.
SOIL: A light sandy friable potting mix is best, slightly acid and an all-purpose is good. Peat moss is a good addition if you mix your own soils but when you buy don’t go cheap. Give yourself the best start you can, your tree will thank you prolifically. I do not mix my own soil, and I always make sure my earthworms are happy by adding coffee grounds and a handful or so of carrot and other after-juicing vegetable and fruit fibre about monthly. I just dig it all in then mulch with bark.
FERTILISER: for lemons you need a higher ration of nitrogen (N) to phosphorus (P) or potassium (K), my nurseryman mixes this for me but I am told that there are some commercially available fertlisers specially mixed for citrus. I wouldn’t worry too much as an all purpose liquid food with trace elements and a general fertiliser will work just as well. When to do this? I go for every 4 – 6 weeks and if I see any yellow leaves I feed and check drainage.
LIGHT: Lemon trees must have around 6-10 hours of sunshine daily or use growth lights. Without this they will not fruit.
POLLINATION: If you are growing your tree in a place where there are no bees or other pollinators, (yep me too) then you must do this yourself. I do and it never fails; just take the blossoms and make them ‘kiss.’ I know this does not sound too scientific and of course it isn’t, but it works for me, as what you are actually doing is passing the pollen from the ‘male’ stamens to the ‘female’ pistols.
PRUNING: I use my bonsai principles here and pinch out the ends of the branches to shape my tree. I do this as and whenever, I cut off lower around branches waist high and below, I trim away the thorns and while I do not want a lollipop lemon tree, I go for a neat not unruly but natural look. Also, if you notice any growth from the lower stems, remove them. These are called suckers and will use up valuable resources from the main plant and it/they will affect fruiting. Anyway, cutting the branches stimulates the tree.
PESTS: Watch out for snails and ants and take whatever action is needed (no chemicals at all), this is a food and I use the lemon leaves in the kitchen a lot. Funnily enough other insects like ladybirds, lacewings and praying mantis are beneficial, so you can leave them alone in this instance.
WIND and FROST: Lemon trees do not like cold winds and will need protection from icy temperatures. Our temps here in my area are mild in comparison and I have only had one occasion to fear some black frost. I jumped around and wrapped the pot in newsprint and covered the tree with a sheet. It looked silly but it worked.
HARVESTING: I let my fruit ripen on the tree and leave it there only removing the fruit to share or use, my ‘organic’ lemons are a valuable bribe for when I need some plant stock to swap or a job to be done!
My first two lemon trees died on me. But I persevered and am so pleased that I did. I get much pleasure from my tree now and my container garden would just not have the character that it does without my lemon tree. Very pretty.
What do you want your container garden to do?