Growing lemon trees outdoors isn’t an option for most of the US. They thrive in zones 9-11, with the occasional 8b location. Most of us go to the grocery store to get our fix if we’re craving iced tea with lemon or irresistible homemade lemon squares.
But what if we could just pluck fresh lemons from a tree growing in our living rooms? Some lemon varieties work well as container plants and can be grown indoors if you can provide the right conditions.
The Meyer lemon tree is the most popular variety to grow indoors. It’s a pretty plant whether it fruits or not, so any fruit-challenged plant lovers can still enjoy its beauty while they wait for a lemony miracle. The Ponderosa lemon is another contender, though it’s not actually a lemon. If you want something special, the Pink Lemonade lemon will be a striking conversation starter that will wow your house guests.
You don’t need to live in a tropical oasis to grow lemons at home; just grow them in your home! I’ll show you how to grow an indoor lemon tree so you can enjoy fruit picking, even if it’s snowing outside. Lemon-flavored snow ice cream, perhaps?
Indoor Lemon Trees Overview
The Meyer lemon tree’s yellow-orange fruits are sweeter and less acidic than other varieties.
Though you may associate lemons with the Mediterranean, these mouth-puckering fruits are believed to be from southeastern Asia and as far west as northern India.
They’re now grown in many warm areas worldwide, including Florida, Arizona, and California in the US. You can also find them growing indoors as ornamental plants since they have pretty foliage, but you can also get fruit from indoor lemons.
The ‘Improved Meyer’ lemon tree is a cross between a true lemon and a mandarin orange.
This is likely the lemon tree you’ll find in your local plant nurseries. It’s the Meyer lemon tree, though it’s technically called the Improved Meyer lemon tree. The improved version came to be in the 1970s and fixed the previous version’s disease issues. The tree is scientifically known as Citrus x meyeri and is a cross between the true lemon, Citrus limon, and the mandarin orange, Citrus reticulata.
It’s popular as an indoor tree for good reason. It blooms and fruits all year and is hardy down to 22°F, giving you some wiggle room if you accidentally leave it outdoors for too long or near a poorly insulated window. The lemons look like the Citrus limon but are sweeter, making it a good choice for desserts and drinks.
Meyer lemon trees can reach a maximum height of 10 feet and a width of 8 feet. However, the size of its container will reduce its potential. If you don’t repot it into larger containers, the tree will stay pretty small as it grows. This goes for the other lemon varieties, too. A small tree can be good if you have limited space to work with.
This hybrid of regular lemon and citron yields grapefruit-sized, yellow, bumpy fruits.
The ponderosa lemon, Citrus x pyriformis, is a cross between a regular lemon and a citron, Citrus medica. Some may call the fruit giant lemons since they can reach the size of a grapefruit when they can reach their full size outdoors. They’re yellow and bumpy, and their shape can look like a lemon, orange, or pear.
Ponderosa lemon trees can grow up to 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide, matching its impressive fruit size. Again, its final size will be as small as you let it be when confined to a container, so don’t let its potential deter you from keeping it as a houseplant.
This tree is a little more limiting in that a single frost can kill it, though it can survive a short exposure to a frost-free 32°F. It typically fruits in only the fall, though it may spontaneously start fruiting at any point in the year.
The ‘Eureka Variegated Pink’ lemon is a true lemon cultivar with a unique appearance.
Citrus limon ‘Eureka Variegated Pink’ is a true lemon cultivar boasting green and yellow leaves, green and yellow striped peel, and pink flesh. It looks very much like lemon-shaped watermelons hanging on the tree and a grapefruit when you open it up. But it’s a true lemon that will taste like one and make you pucker!
If you don’t like super tart lemons, leaving the fruit on the tree will allow them to mature. (I’m sad to report that the pink flesh doesn’t yield pink juice, so don’t get your hopes up for a glass of natural pink lemonade.)
So, how’d this fun-looking tree come to be? It wasn’t due to years of cross-pollination; it was a natural mutation that occurred in someone’s backyard in California. Now, you can buy a mutated yet stunning tree for yourself and grow it in the comfort of your own home. Reaching 15 feet tall and 8 feet wide, it’s the mid-size tree of the three recommended and shouldn’t have any problem staying petite indoors.
Now that you know your options, it’s time to think about planting. Indoor lemon trees are easy to plant since you can often keep them in their nursery container for a bit, and you’ll just be moving from planter to planter as they grow.
Growing a lemon tree from seed can take many years to reach fruiting stages.
Citrus doesn’t grow true-to-type. You might plant a seed from an extra sweet Meyer lemon that will grow up to produce extra tart lemons. Growing from seed is like opening a box of chocolates without a chocolate map—you have to take a bite and find out what you have.
Another drawback is how long it will take to get fruit. At best, it will take five years before you get anything, and the tree might not even produce fruit at all, which is another part of the mystery that comes with not being true to type. In the worst-case scenario, if you plant a lemon seed with your four-year-old, they may be in college by the time the tree starts fruiting.
Despite the drawbacks, the process of planting a seed is simple:
- Remove the seed from a lemon and wash it to remove any flesh or pulp clinging to it. Plant it as soon as it’s clean because letting the seed dry out will lower the germination rate.
- Use a small seed-starting container to plant your lemon seed, like the Small Garden Seed Starting Kit filled with sand, peat moss, and perlite, or use a seed-starting mix.
- Plant it one-half inch deep and cover it loosely.
- Water it enough to moisten the soil and cover it with plastic wrap.
- Keep it under a grow light or sunny window in an area that’s consistently 70°F for the best results.
- Keep the soil moist, giving it some water each day as needed.
- Once the seed sprouts and you see the seedling, remove the plastic and increase the brightness of the light.
- Transplant your seedling to a 4-6 inch pot once the seedling has two or three sets of true leaves, keeping the soil moist. At this point, give the seedling liquid fertilizer with high potassium once or twice each month.
- Reduce fertilizer and water in the winter months. Continue growing your lemon tree this way, upsizing the container as needed.
Indoor lemon trees need periodic transplanting, usually every three years.
You’ll probably need to move your tree to a larger container every three years or so as it grows. You’ll know it’s time to upsize if your plant shows signs of stress, like losing leaves or dying back, even if it has no water or sunlight problems. You can even transplant in the same container if you just need to freshen the soil.
Ensure the new pot is about 25% larger than the old one. It will give your tree plenty of room to grow and reduce the chances of you needing to repot it again soon.
Before you start to transplant, give your tree a little trim. A little trim goes a long way by encouraging your plant to put out new growth. Take the plant out of its container and remove the soil from the root ball. Prune the branches by one-third of their total spread and cut off up to three inches of the roots.
In the new pot, add enough soil to make the top of the root ball, the soil line, and the edge of the container even. Then, add your tree to the container and backfill it with new soil. Water the tree well and backfill it with more soil to fill in air pockets.
How to Grow
Growing an indoor lemon tree is easy, but getting it to produce fruit can be a challenge. Even so, lemon trees offer lovely evergreen foliage that will add summery joy to the room all year. Let’s look at how you can keep the tree happy in your home.
Indoor lemon trees require abundant sunlight for optimal growth, thriving best by a sunny window.
Lemons might remind you of sunshine, which can be your reminder that lemon trees need as much direct sunlight as possible. Keep indoor lemon trees by the sunniest window you have in your home. It can do well in partial shade, but it will look its best when it receives at least six hours of sunlight daily.
Consider letting your tree stay outdoors throughout spring and summer to take advantage of the sunlight. You can bring it indoors once the temperatures cool down. If keeping it outdoors isn’t an option, you can supplement it with grow lights.
Keep your lemon tree consistently hydrated by watering when the soil’s surface is dry.
Lemon trees don’t like to dry out, so you must keep your plant well-watered. Water it whenever the top of the soil is dry to the touch. Be careful not to waterlog your plant, however. Ensure your container has drainage holes and doesn’t sit in water collected in the tray for too long.
If your house is dry, you may need to keep a humidifier nearby. If the soil is sufficiently moist, you might be able to get by without one. But a small humidifier near the tree will help reproduce a somewhat tropical vibe that citrus trees are biologically used to.
Lemon trees prefer sandy, well-draining soil with organic matter.
Lemon trees don’t have any outrageous soil requests. All they want is sandy, well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter.
Combining sandy soil and compost will help water drain out quickly and prevent rotting the roots. The pH level should be neutral or slightly acidic, ranging from 5.5 to 6.5.
Fertilize your lemon tree with a high-nitrogen fertilizer during its growth season.
You can fertilize your lemon tree during its growing season, from spring through summer. Choose a fertilizer high in nitrogen since the plant is a heavy feeder. You can use a fertilizer made specifically for citrus; it will be slightly acidic, which will help keep the pH in balance.
It doesn’t matter which form of fertilizer you choose, but follow the directions listed on the package. Granular fertilizer releases slowly and only needs to be applied about once a month. In contrast, liquid fertilizer doesn’t last as long and must be applied each week or so. Keeping your tree supplied with compost is a great way to ensure it will have enough nutrients.
Lemon trees require some TLC to thrive, especially when you want them to produce fruit indoors. As long as you stay diligent with your care, your tree will be easy to maintain and reward you with beautiful and tasty fruit.
Indoor lemon trees need manual pollination with a cotton swab or brush.
Lemon trees produce tons of flowers that must be pollinated to produce fruit. When the trees are outdoors, they have the wind and insects to help them. But when they’re sitting pretty in your living room, you’ll have to be the one to pollinate. Letting your plant stay outdoors during the blooming period is an easy way to solve this problem, or you can take a few minutes to do it by hand.
All you need to hand pollinate is a cotton swab or a paintbrush; you need something small, dry, and grabby. Rub your pollinating tool along the center of a flower until it’s holding pollen. Then, take your pollen-coated tool and rub another flower. Continue this process until you’ve pollinated as many flowers as possible.
Pruning and Thinning
Pruning and thinning lemon trees ensures better fruit by promoting larger, higher-quality lemons.
Lemon trees will require some pruning and thinning to keep the tree a good size and produce better fruit. Thinning fruit may seem counterproductive, but it’s actually quite helpful because it helps the plant produce bigger, higher-quality lemons rather than many subpar ones. The tree will shed many of its fruits, essentially thinning itself.
It may seem concerning for the plant to drop so many lemons, but that’s because too many flowers were successfully pollinated (all thanks to you, probably!). The tree knows its limits, so it thins itself.
If it doesn’t shed enough of its own fruit, you may need to step in and remove some yourself. Leave the bigger lemons and remove the smaller ones. Break up groups of lemons so that just one is on the end of a branch. You may be inclined to disagree (I know I am), but fewer is truly better because you’ll get better-tasting fruit that will be well worth it.
You can remove dead branches as needed throughout the year. It helps improve airflow between the branches, but it also helps the tree stay aesthetically pleasing—your indoor plant is like a living piece of furniture or art. Pruning live limbs should happen in the dormant season in fall and winter. If you leave your plant outdoors in the summer, wait until you bring it inside to prune it.
Prune the roots periodically to keep the plant in the same pot. Doing so will prevent it from growing too large and becoming rootbound. You can also prune the roots when transplanting to encourage new growth. Trim off a couple of inches, ensuring you don’t remove large portions to prevent damaging the plant.
Acclimate your lemon tree slowly to prevent shock for safe transitions between indoor and outdoor settings.
You’ll only need to worry about overwintering if you set your plant outdoors during the warm months. Never put your plant out spontaneously and leave it there; you might shock the plant and cause it to lose blooms.
Once the spring temperatures are consistently above 55°F, gradually move it outside over two weeks. Set it outside for an hour or so, then bring it back in. After a couple of days, increase its time outdoors, repeating this process until the plant can safely be left outside for the season.
Bringing it indoors to overwinter will be the same kind of process. Once the temperatures cool, bring it indoors for a couple of hours at a time. If nighttime temperatures drop below 55°F, bring it indoors and take it back outside during the day.
After two weeks, it should be acclimated and safe to keep it indoors for winter. It may seem like a lot of work, but moving it inside too quickly can cause the plant to lose its fruit. Since fruit can take nine months to mature, you should take every precaution not to lose your progress.
Propagation is a somewhat complicated process, but if you enjoy a challenge, you might like propagating your own lemon trees. The best ways to get more lemon trees are via cuttings and graftings. You can do it by seed, but lemon seeds aren’t true-to-type. If your plant produces the best-tasting lemons you’ve ever had, planting its seeds probably won’t give you the same results.
If you want to take a chance and propagate from seed, follow the directions I mentioned earlier in the Planting section. You may not get what you were hoping for, but it’s still a fun process. If you want a copy of what you already have, try the cutting, budding, or grafting methods.
Taking cuttings from lemon trees is a straightforward way to multiply your plants.
Taking cuttings is the easiest at-home method. You don’t need to learn about grafting, and you don’t need a second tree to use as a base. It’s a simple way to turn one tree into many.
Look for fairly new growth that has had a chance to harden. Hard but nimble branches have a good chance of taking root and will be sturdy enough to support new growth. You can cut the branch at the base by the main stem, or you can cut it about halfway up. Though pruning should always be done during dormancy, you can take cuttings in the growing season so they will be in “vigorous mode” to continue growing. Take a few at a time so you can have more than one chance to get a new lemon tree started.
Place the base of the cuttings into a lightweight medium like sand or perlite and water it daily to keep it moist. This will allow it to develop roots. If you want to jumpstart the rooting process, dip the ends into a rooting hormone before placing it in the medium. Once the first roots appear, you can move the cuttings to the soil and let them stay there until they establish more roots. If you’d like, you can skip the sandy stage and go straight to the soil, but it may take a little longer for roots to appear.
Repot the cuttings once their roots are an inch long. Then, you can repot them as necessary as they continue to grow. Follow the steps for transplanting as the plant gets larger. Eventually, it will be large enough to produce fruit, and it should taste just like the mother plant’s fruit.
This is a method that involves transferring buds from one tree to another.
Budding requires two trees and is the intermediate level of the three propagation methods. This process is straightforward but may seem daunting if you’ve never tried it before. Budding is taking buds from one tree and putting them on a different tree. The second tree is the base, and the buds you put on it will produce the same lemons as the mother plant, regardless of what kind of tree the base is. You’ll need a sterile budding knife and budding tape.
Take budwood from the mother plant, which will be green new growth with plenty of buds. Don’t take stems from new growth but from the next-to-last set of growth. The budwood should be in the beginning stages of hardening, which is still flexible and the same size as the branch you’ll be budding into on the second tree. Remove the leaves, leaving behind ⅛ inch of petiole so the buds can have some protection.
Cut the bud out of the budwood by making a horizontal cut underneath the bud. Cut a T-shape on a smooth part between two branch nodes on the second tree. Insert the bud into the T-shape and wrap it in bud tape immediately. It should take no more than three weeks for the bud to get settled onto its new tree, and you shouldn’t leave the bud tape on it for more than one month. Once the bud is established, cut just above the bud and bend the stem into a loop. This is called lopping, and it forces the bud to start growing.
This is a method that involves transferring buds from one tree to another.
Grafting is the most common way to propagate lemon trees. If you bought your tree from a nursery, you likely bought a grafted tree. This method seems a lot like magic; you can change the fruit of a tree by grafting all the branches! It’s the fastest way to get fruit to grow, but it’ll take some know-how and practice to get it right.
There are several types of grafting, including cleft, whip, in-arch, and stump, and that’s not even all of them. The process involves taking the branch of one tree and attaching it to a different tree. You don’t have to have the same type of tree as the base. You could graft Meyer lemon branches onto Ponderosa trees or even orange trees.
Harvesting and Storage
Harvest your lemons when they reach 2-3 inches in size.
Have some patience while you wait for your lemons to grow. It will take 6-9 months before lemons are ready to harvest, and they should be about two or three inches in size. They’ll be somewhat glossy when they’re at the perfect stage for picking. To harvest the lemons, twist them off the tree. Pulling them could damage the tree by breaking off some of the branches.
Size is more important than color, so you can harvest them when they’re still a little green, and they’ll continue ripening off the tree. If the lemons are squishy on the tree, it’s too late to harvest them.
Uncut lemons will last about one week at room temperature on the kitchen counter or up to one month in a plastic bag or airtight container in the fridge. Cut lemons last about a week in the fridge. Lemon juice can last about four days in a container in the fridge. If you want lemon juice later, you can freeze whole, uncut lemons for up to four months. The pulp can’t be used because it’ll be squishy, but the juice is still good. Frozen lemon juice will also last about four months.
You may encounter a few problems while growing a lemon tree indoors, but it’s nothing a little TLC can’t fix. Let’s look at how you can prevent and treat these problems.
Inadequate water or sunlight can impact your lemon tree’s growth.
The two most basic growing problems you may encounter are inadequate water or sunlight. You’ll know it needs water when leaves turn yellow, shrivel, and fall off the plant. Too much water will also make the leaves fall off, but they won’t turn yellow first, and you’ll probably see black stems.
Determining if your tree needs more sunlight is trickier since the main symptom is not producing as many blooms or fruit. It will take time to notice this, which can be frustrating!
Aim for six hours of direct sunlight daily, supplementing with grow lights as necessary. However, if necessary, it can get by with as little as three hours of direct light. When a tree that needs more light produces fruit, the fruits will be much smaller than you expected, so that will also be a sign that it needs more light.
Pests like aphids, scales, and mites harm lemon trees, causing leaf damage.
The pests you’ll likely find on your lemon tree are sap-sucking insects, including aphids, brown soft scales, two-spotted spider mites, mealybugs, and whiteflies. They drink from the leaves and can cause discoloration. In severe cases, they might do enough damage to cause leaves to fall off the tree. They may even transmit diseases as they feed and travel between plants.
The most notable pest that causes major problems is the Asian citrus psyllid. It causes Huanglongbing, also called citrus greening disease, a major problem among citrus trees.
The best way to keep pest populations at a minimum is to spray the lemon tree with water or wipe down the leaves. Both methods will physically remove the pests from the plant, reducing their population. You can do this whenever you see them, but it’s important to do this when you bring your plant indoors after leaving it outside over the summer.
You can kill these pests with neem oil or insecticidal soap. Spray them on the leaves where you see pests; the oil or insecticidal soap will coat the pests and their eggs and suffocate them. If the infestation is hard to control, there are many chemical pesticides for specific pests you can try. Still, water, neem oil, and insecticidal soap are usually enough to eliminate them. The Asian citrus psyllid is typically treated with chemical pesticides due to the severity of its damage.
Prevention is key in managing lemon tree diseases, such as citrus greening and tristeza.
The worst affliction your lemon tree may get is citrus greening, or Huanglongbing (HLB), transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid. The leaves will turn a yellowish lime-green color, and the fruit will be deformed and may stay green despite being ripe. The plant may become stunted, and portions of it may die back. This disease is so prevalent among citrus trees that some states have quarantine regulations for citrus sellers. Only buy lemon trees from trusted nurseries and dispose of infected trees in a way that won’t infect other trees.
Another major disease among citrus trees is tristeza. It’s a viral disease that damages roots and crowns. Diseased trees don’t grow well, drop leaves, and have light green rather than dark green leaves. They may develop lots of small fruit, giving you a poor-quality harvest. The disease is spread by grafting and aphids, so keeping pests under control and buying rootstock from trusted sellers is crucial to keeping your trees healthy.
Lemon trees may develop fungal diseases like anthracnose, root rot, black root rot, or Mal secco. These diseases are often caused by plant damage or excessive moisture and spread by grafting. Keep plants protected in bad weather, only water them when needed, and ensure their containers have proper drainage.
Bacterial diseases like bacterial canker and citrus canker cause brown spots on leaves, stems, and fruit, and sometimes oozing. These can be spread by insects or during grafting. As with other diseases, there isn’t a cure, so remove damaged plant parts or entire plants as needed.
Frequently Asked Questions
A: Dogs and cats should be kept away from all lemon trees. The leaves produce essential oils that are upsetting to pets and can cause them to vomit or have diarrhea. The lemons are considered toxic because they produce citric acid, which could cause liver damage or death.
A: Meyer lemon trees can grow in a pot, as well as ‘Ponderosa’ and ‘Pink Lemonade’. The pot will determine their overall size and productivity, so be generous with the pot size.
A: Yes, indoor lemon trees will produce lemons under the right circumstances. Take good care of them by providing sufficient light and water and keep them pruned and free of pests and diseases. Lemon trees can take a while to develop fruit, so have some patience.
You don’t have to have an expansive backyard to grow your own lemons. You can have a lemon tree inside your home by a bright window. It will brighten the space with its gorgeous foliage and fruit, and you’ll get the joy of homegrown produce!