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How to grow a Lemon Tree in the UK

Written by Sarah Talbot

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Posted on 27 June 2021

Cut and uncut home grown lemons arranged in a fan shape

Do you fancy growing your own little lemon tree?  If you do, you'll need quite a bit of patience.  From planting your pip, it will take around 3 years before it flowers and fruits.  But then your hard work will be rewarded with delightful perfumed white flowers, glossy green leaves and brightly coloured fruit. 

One key thing you will need, if you want to grow your own lemon trees in the UK, is some indoor space.  Lemon trees can go outside in summer but need to be inside all winter.  Ideally an unheated conservatory as they don't like central heating.  

What variety of Lemon to Choose

If you want to buy a tree rather than planting lemons from seed, then you need to buy the right one.  Pot grown lemon trees will never get as large as those grown in the ground. But it is still best to choose a dwarf variety for growing lemons in containers. Most only reach 1–1.5m (3–5ft) tall in a pot.

If you are trying to grow lemons from seed the first thing to do is to find a lemon that has pips as these days not all of them do (this was discovered the hard way when trying to film my little lemon planting Reel!) Once you have a lemon with pips in I am afraid that there is no way to tell if the tree it came from was a dwarf one.  Dwarf lemon trees produce full size fruits (who knew?)  So, you will just have to take your chances with your pip and see what size tree you get!

The good news is that lemon trees are self-fertile, so a single plant is able to produce fruit. So no need for a lemon orchard!

Growing lemons form seed lemon design spacer bar

What pot to use for a Lemon Tree

When you grow a lemon tree in a pot, the first thing you need to get right is the drainage. Lemon trees do not like waterlogged roots, so don't fall for a pretty pot with no drainage holes!

For small trees, a 30cm (12") diameter container is a good place to begin.  As your trees grow you will need to gradually increase the size of the pot to eventually 45cm to 60cm (18" to 24"). 

Any pot material will do - plastic, metal, ceramic and terracotta are all suitable but remember you will need to move it.  A pot full of compost, complete with tree, will be heavy, and decorative pots such as terracotta will add weight.

Planting a Lemon seed

Start with a lemon, a warm, sunny windowsill - your little lemon will want at least eight full hours of light per day as it grows - and a small pot.

Compost

There are specially formulated citrus composts but any potting medium will work. Add to it up to 20% sharp sand or grit to ensure good drainage. 

How to plant a lemon pip

lemon tree grown from seedFill your pot with the compost mix and moisten until it is damp. You can also do this in Rootrainers for super strong roots - Deep Rootrainers will be fine as the tree will not get large.

Prep your lemon seed by removing all of the pulp from its surface just before you are ready to plant. The easy way to do this is to suck it.  

Whilst the seed is still moist, plant about 1 1/2 cm (1/2") deep and cover. 

Spray the soil again with water - place the pot in a clear plastic bag with a few holes punched in the top. And put it in your warm, sunny location. 

Spray on more water occasionally, not allowing the soil to dry out. 

The seedling should emerge after about 2 weeks.  At this point you can take it out of the plastic bag.   

Look after it by keeping the soil damp and by giving it organic fertiliser. Watch over it to ensure it is not attacked by bugs or diseases. Prune off any dead leaves when necessary.

Repotting

Whether you have a tree or a seedling you will need to repot it each year around March time. As with most plants it is good to go up the pot sizes gradually so don't jump from a 3" to a 18" in one go.  The procedure for repotting is much the same as that outlined above for planting a seed. If you can't repot - it will get trickier as your lemon tree gets bigger - then at least refresh the pot by replacing the top 5cm (2") of growing medium with fresh compost.

Growing in Vigoroot

Lemon Trees grow well in Vigoroot pots because they air prune the roots of the plant.  This means that they never get pot bounding . You can start them in a 5L pot.

But Vigoroot pots aren't the prettiest so if you want to use one indoors then you may want to put it in a decorative pot.  If you do this then ensure that there is at least an inch gap all round so that the roots can air prune.  And also put some big stones in the bottom.  This will allow your lemon tree to grow in a much smaller volume of compost than in a standard pot.  It will also ensure that it keeps fruiting in years to come.  Fruit trees will stop fruiting if they become pot bound and this is often irreversible.    

Feeding and watering

Your tree will need consistent and regular watering. If the container is allowed to dry out, the leaves of the lemon tree will fall off.  

Water well in summer, preferably using rainwater. But reduce watering in winter - overwatering in winter is one of the commonest issues with lemon trees.  So in winter, allow the surface to partially dry out each time before watering.  Water thoroughly with tepid water and then leave excess to drain away from the roots.

Lemon trees are hungry so need regular feeding throughout the year. Use a slow release fertiliser to ensure a consistent supply of nutrients. You can get specific citrus foods.  The summer food is high in nitrogen and should be used from late March to October. There is a winter feed too which can be used for the rest of the year.

The last piece of the jigsaw for lemon tree growing is humidity.  Lemon trees need humidity to ensure pollination.  So you should provide this for them especially if your tree is positioned somewhere where you have central heating.  Increase the humidity by standing the pot on a large saucer or tray filled with moist gravel. Keep the water level below the gravel though so you aren't waterlogging the roots.  Mist the plant regularly throughout winter.

Training and pruning

Citrus require only minimal pruning.  During the summer, pinch back the tips of the most vigorous growth, using the thumb and forefinger. 

If the branches become overcrowded then they can be thinned toward the end of winter.  If a reshape is needed then cut back by up to two thirds to encourage bushy growth.

Lemon design

Pruning Mature Lemon Trees

If you have bought a tree, watch out for shoots from below the graft on the main stem.  Remove these shoots immediately.

Mature plants may also produce other unwanted, fast-growing shoots called ‘water shoots’. These can be trimmed back if they appear near the branch tips or removed if they appear at the bottom or middle of the plant. 

Citrus plants that are 1m (3ft) tall should be allowed to carry no more than 15 - 20 lemons.  If it looks like more than this are forming then thin out the fruits. 

Positions

If you wish to move your lemon tree outside in summer then find a sheltered sunny position from mid-June until late September.  Temperatures must be high though (unlike 2021!) Even in summer keep a Fleece Jacket handy in case of sudden cold nights .

A minimum winter night temperature of 10°C (50°F) is needed. Temperatures lower than this will at best inhibit flowering and at worst, kill our plant.   

Pests & diseases 

Home grown lemon martini

Mealybug, scale insects and aphids will affect lemon trees. These can be treated by introducing biological controls like ladybirds but with a single small lemon tree, washing them off gently with soapy water should work as well. As with most pests, keeping an eye on your plant and acting quickly will prevent any major infestations.   

Harvesting

Pick your lemons as soon as they appear large and yellow.  Enjoy!

Lemon design thumbnail A little extra:
If you are inspired by the humble lemon then find out how to draw

Sasaful Art's fantastic lemon design used above here

 

Comments

6 Comments

  • Hi Catherine, I am afraid that patience is needed! Lemons can take up to 9 months to ripen. They don’t ripen like other fruit but slowly mature and get sweeter. There are other things apart from time that might stop it ripening though. It needs lots of sunlight (a bit lacking this year!) Try pruning a few of the leaves off around the fruit and turn it so the fruit is facing the light. Also keep the watering regular so the tree isn’t stressed at any point. Hope that helps!

    Posted by Haxnicks | August 09, 2021
  • Good morning and thanks for the great information. I bought a lemon tree which had one green fruit back in March, kept it in the conservatory and put it outside mid June, the leaves appear to be bushier but the fruit hasn’t changed at all, how long does it take to turn yellow please and is it a gradual change through the colours over months or more instant, we live in the North West!

    Posted by Catherine | August 09, 2021
  • Hi Hilary, It pains me to say it but your husband is right! It could really sap your trees strength not to mention break the branches if there are too many fruits. So it is best to thin them out. That way you will have fewer bigger fruits rather than many smaller ones.

    Posted by Haxnicks | July 23, 2021
  • HI, my pot grown lemon tree has a lot of fruit which is weighing down some of the branches. My husband thinks I should thin out the fruit to avoid putting the tree under stress. What would you advise?

    Posted by Hilary Bedford | July 23, 2021
  • Its a pleasure Patrick – hope you have success growing your first lemon!

    Posted by Haxnicks | June 29, 2021
  • Thankyou very much for your information on growing and caring for the lemon tree very helpful

    Posted by Patrick mcdonnell | June 29, 2021
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