How To Grow Lemon Trees

Every garden needs at least one lemon tree. Here’s how to grow lemon trees successfully!

These acidic yet aromatic fruits are indispensable for culinary and household purposes, and a well-tended lemon tree provides an abundance of fruit for months on end, many of them upholding the term ‘ever-bearing’ perfectly.

They flower and fruit sporadically through the seasons, although spring is the main flowering period. The fragrant blossom is just another virtue of these attractive evergreen trees that are as much at home in the ornamental garden as the orchard in the back of many old gardens. Make sure that your garden is complete by having a happy and healthy lemon tree conveniently at hand. Here’s all the advice that you need to accomplish this.

Selecting The Right Tree

Most citrus trees, including lemon trees, are propagated by the process of budding the required cultivar onto a suitable rootstock. This ensures trueness to type, early maturity and thus fruit borne on a young tree, as well as disease resistance, amongst many other benefits as opposed to growing from seeds.

Be sure to purchase or acquire your trees from a reputable source, making sure that they are budded (similar to grafted) onto a good solid rootstock. Young trees should be straight with healthy, lush green foliage and no signs of pests and disease. Make sure that they are not root bound in their nursery container. There should be a balance between the size of the tree and the container that it’s growing in.

Planting Lemon Trees

Lemon trees need a full-sun position in the garden. They are best planted directly into the ground but can be successful in large pots or containers for a number of years. Potted citrus tends to lose condition once their roots become pot bound, which depends largely on the volume of soil in the pot.

Planting holes must be well prepared – there is absolutely no point in planting a good lemon tree into a meagre hole in poor soil. Dig large square holes of at least 500 x 500 x 500mm. Larger is preferable. Add compost and kraal manure along with root promoting fertiliser like bonemeal from Starke Ayres or superphosphate at the recommended rates for the size hole that you are preparing.

Make sure that all the ingredients are well incorporated with the garden soil before filling this back into the hole. If the soil is dry then fill the hole with water and allow it to drain away before returning the prepared soil mixture to the hole. This ensures that the surrounding soil does not absorb the water that is used to supply the young, newly planted tree.

Dig a hole in the centre of the prepared soil large enough to accommodate the root ball with comfort. Carefully remove the tree from the pot or bag and place the root ball in the hole, making sure that it’s at the correct depth. When complete, the soil level of the root ball must be the same as that of the new surrounding soil. In other words, do not bury any deeper than the level of the nursery bag.

Additional soil built up around the stem can cause a problem called collar rot. Fill in with soil around the roots and firm down thoroughly. Build an irrigation basin around the newly planted tree with any excess soil. This should be about 500mm away from the stem all the way around the plant. This ensures that water is channelled to the root zone and does not simply flow away into the garden. Once complete, water thoroughly. Continue watering well every 4 – 6 days for the first three months after transplanting. The period and amount of water depends on the weather conditions.

Maintaining Lemon Trees

Once the tree has been planted it’s advisable to tie it to a strong stake. This prevents wind damage and makes sure that the tree grows straight and upright. Do not tie the plant too tightly as this can damage the bark on the stem. Regular inspection of the young tree is part of the process of having a good lemon tree. Check that it has sufficient water. Inspect for any rootstock growth below the bud scar on the stem and remove it carefully.

Fertilise every six weeks with a balanced plant food – a 3:1:5 formulation works efficiently. Apply a high-nitrogen fertiliser in summer as a once off. Be careful when applying fertiliser that the correct amount is used, and spread evenly around the tree well away from the stem. Water immediately after application.

Check on watering regularly, especially during prolonged periods of dry weather. Apply water as soon as any signs of wilting appear on the leaves. Be aware of any insect pests or fungal diseases and treat them immediately. Prune out any straggly growth or dead wood that may appear from time to time. Generally, lemon trees do not require regular pruning, but old trees can be cut back hard to rejuvenate them and initiate a new lease of life. Any growth that occurs below the graft line should be cut off. 

This information was supplied by Lonehill Media, publishers of The Gardener and Die Tuinier magazines. For more gardening tips and advice, visit

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