In the fall of 2021, I was gifted a large beautiful blue planter for my birthday. I just knew I had to put something special in it. I debated whether to use it for a large houseplant or plant a seasonal arrangement. I went to Maryland over Thanksgiving and visited a garden center one afternoon. That’s when I saw it—An Improved Meyer Lemon dwarf tree.
What is a Meyer Lemon?
A Meyer Lemon is a hybrid of a lemon and mandarin orange. Meyer lemons are juicer, sweeter, and less tart than other lemon varieties. You can use them in anything that you’d use a regular lemon. Meyer lemon trees bloom in the fall or early spring with fragrant white blossoms that smell like jasmine.
Pick the Right Variety
Not all citrus trees are suited for life in a pot. Citrus trees can grow up to 20 feet tall and just as wide. The key is to pick a dwarf variety. Dwarf citrus trees have a compact growth habit but will still produce full-size fruit. The Improved Meyer Lemon dwarf tree can grow between 6 and 10 feet tall—still larger than many houseplants, but it’s a reasonable size plant to grow in a planter. It’s possible to keep its size under control with regular pruning. My dwarf variety is self-pollinating, so only a single tree is required to bear fruit.
How Big of a Container Does a Lemon Tree Need?
One of the keys to success with growing a Meyer lemon in a container is choosing the right container size. Even though it’s a dwarf, it still needs ample room to grow roots and enough soil volume to hold a reserve of water and nutrients. When starting with a two or 3-gallon nursery-grown plant, I recommend planting it into a 7 to 10-gallon container. Doing so allows room to grow for a couple of seasons. For larger specimens, plant into containers up to 15 gallons.
Keep in mind that you may need to move the plant on occasion. Large potted plants become extremely heavy, but a few tricks will help make them less cumbersome. Choose a lightweight plastic or foam pot instead of traditional stoneware to reduce weight. If you plan to grow your tree in a place with hard floors, leaving it on a plant dolly or a furniture dolly with a plant saucer on top makes it infinitely easier to move. Avoid common soil-saving strategies, such as filling the pot halfway with mulch before planting, since your tree will need all the soil it can get as it grows.
Meyer Lemon Tree Care
Citrus plants need a lot of light. For peak performance, lemon trees need close to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. The more light it gets, the more likely it will bloom and set fruit.
Temperature and Humidity
Most citrus trees are not cold-hardy. Some varieties can withstand cold temps, but not the Meyer Lemon tree. These trees prefer nightly temperatures near 65 degrees Fahrenheit but can tolerate temps down to the 50s. It, however, will not tolerate frost or freezing temps. Their growing zones are 9 to 11, so unless you live in this zone, the tree cannot stay outdoors year-round. Even if you live in zones 9 to 11, the tree must be protected if the temps drop below 50 degrees.
If you live in a colder zone, it’s best to put your tree outdoors once the overnight temps are steadily in the mid-’60s. The added warmth and humidity will help your tree put on robust growth during the summer. The tree must be brought indoors prior to the first frost (more info on that to follow).
Citrus trees prefer an acidic soil pH between 5.5 and 6.5. In the ground, they thrive best in a well-draining loamy or sandy mixture. For your container-grown tree, choose high-quality potting soil with a coarse texture.
Proper watering is one of the keys to successfully growing a plant in pots. A potted plant will typically dry out faster than a plant in the ground. Meyer lemon trees prefer moist but not soggy soil. The best way to determine if your plant needs water is to feel the soil. Stick your finger into the soil, at least up to the second knuckle. If the soil feels moist, wait to water. If it is dry, water your plant until you see water run out the bottom of the pot.
Feed your citrus plant with specially formulated, slow-release citrus fertilizer during the growing season. Citrus trees also respond well to additional feeding with a liquid fertilizer during the growing season.
Pruning your citrus tree has no bearing on its ability to produce fruit. However, pruning helps the tree keep an attractive shape and helps keep the branches strong. Meyer Lemons ripen in the winter, so prune after harvest. Once the plant sets fruit, you’ll want to remove a few lemons when they’re pea-sized to help promote the growth of larger lemons when they reach maturity.
Citrus trees are typical targets for whiteflies, rust mites, mealybugs, aphids, and scale. After providing optimum light, moisture, and fertility, the best way to stay ahead of an infestation is to inspect your tree regularly. Inspect the undersides of the leaves and along the branches. If you spot a pest, remove it with a blast of water from the hose. For larger infestations, you can treat the plant by spraying it with food-safe horticultural oil, like diluted neem oil. Reapply frequently until all signs of infection have ceased.
Can Lemon Trees Grow Indoors?
Lemon trees can grow indoors if you provide the right elements. Like any plant you bring indoors, for it to thrive and not just survive, you will need to provide it with adequate light, water, and nutrients. The most common issue most people have when bringing a plant indoors is to provide adequate light. The Meyer Lemon tree (and other citrus trees) needs at least 8 hours of direct sunlight daily and at least 50 percent humidity. The best place to put your citrus tree indoors is in a south-facing window with direct sunlight. You can increase the humidity with a humidifier or place the pot on a large tray of water-covered rocks.
If you do not have adequate light, you can supplement the light with a full spectrum grow light. These lights must be kept about t 1′-2′ above the trees for 8 to 12 hours daily.
How Long Does it Take for a Meyer Lemon Tree to Bear Fruit?
The time it takes for a Meyer Lemon Tree to bear fruit depends on how the tree was grown. Grafted trees can bear fruit in as little as two years. Seed-grown Meyer lemon trees can take three to seven years to produce fruit. When shopping for a tree, look for the graft union – the swollen stem tissue where the rootstock and scion cutting healed together – near the soil line. All nursery-grown plants are grafted.
Overall, I had a successful first year. However, I did not prune away some of the lemons once the tree set fruit. I allowed any lemon that grew on my tree to stay on to ripen. As the fruit got larger, it became too much weight for my poor little tree to handle, and I did lose a few branches. Overall, I harvested 14 Meyer Lemons in my first year! However, my Meyer has dozens of flowers, and this year I will remove at least half the fruit to help out the branches.
Harvesting Meyer Lemons
It can take nearly a year for a Meyer Lemon to be ready for harvest. When the lemon is ripe, it will be orange-yellow (like an egg yolk) and feel slightly soft. Don’t pull the fruit from the branch, or you may damage the branches. Instead, use a knife or scissors to cut the fruit from the branch.
Storing Meyer Lemons
Meyer Lemons have a short shelf life. This is why you only see them available in grocery stores for a short time each winter. If not using the lemons immediately, store the citrus in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Freezing the lemon zest and juice separately is another great way to preserve the lemon flavor for a longer period of time.
How to Use Meyer Lemons
Meyer Lemons can be used in the same manner as regular lemons. Use them in lemonade, sauces, and desserts. Check out A Cook and Her Book’s famous Meyer Lemon Cheesecake with Biscoff Crust Recipe. My dear friend and neighbor, Lucy, developed this recipe, which has been featured on Food52.
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