Growing a lemon tree can be like having a fruit stand of lemons right in your own backyard, since many of these obliging trees bear their crops all year. That's good news for gardeners who want a steady supply of tangy fruits to make lemon bread, lemon curd, lemon meringue pie; or lemon sorbet - not to mention tall, cool glasses of fresh lemonade. And in the right climates (Sunset zones 8-9, and 12-24), lemon trees are handsome landscaping plants, offering not only fruit but also attractive form year-round; glossy, deep green foliage; and flowers as fragrant as daphne or gardenia.
Eureka Lemon. This is the standard lemon of markets. Its fruit is yellow, juicy, and highly acidic, with very few seeds. Its branches have a few thorns, and its foliage is dark green; new foliage is bronzy. It grows to 20 feet tall, with a slightly open canopy.
Improved Meyer. Not a true lemon, Citrus meyeri is thought to be a hybrid of a lemon and a sweet orange. 'Improved Meyer' is the virus-free variety that replaced the original. The yellow-orange flesh is very juicy and slightly sweeter than a true lemon, yet still moderately acidic.
Meyer lemons are popular among chefs and are becoming favorites of home cooks and gardeners. Their floral aroma and mild flavor make them perfect for dessert. It is said to be a cross between a lemon and an orange.
Prized for their floral aroma and mild flavor, they really shine at dessert
Its adaptability as a container plant allows it to be grown indoors even in the coldest parts of the West. It grows to 12 feet tall and spreads to 15 feet.
Lisbon. This vigorous, thorny tree grows upright to 25 feet, with a denser canopy than 'Eureka'. Its fruits are juicy and highly acidic - practically identical to those of 'Eureka'. They ripen mostly in fall, but some ripen throughout the year. 'Lisbon' is more resistant to cold than 'Eureka', and it's better adapted to hot climates (it's the best lemon for Arizona).
Ponderosa. This hybrid is thought to be a cross between a lemon and a citron. It bears large, rough fruits (a 2-lb. fruit isn't unusual) with thick, coarse skin and a mild lemon flavor. The main crop comes in winter, with some fruit throughout the year. The tree is open, with large leaves widely spaced on angular branches. It grows 8 to 10 feet tall, dwarf kinds to 6 feet.
SOIL. Provide good drainage. If your soil is clay, mix organic matter - peat, compost, leaf mold - into the soil before refilling the planting hole. Or plant in containers or raised beds.
If your soil is sandy, mix organic matter into it to increase water retention while keeping good drainage.
WATERING. Citrus trees cannot stand to be overwatered. Water a newly planted tree (or a tree in a container) thoroughly about twice a week in normal summer weather. Once it is established, water a tree in the ground every two weeks.
When you water, fill the basin so that the entire root zone is moistened several feet deep. Don't water when the top of the soil is still wet.
FERTILIZING. Use packaged citrus food that contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, plus iron and zinc, crucial to citrus fruit production.
Leaf yellowing indicates either overwatering or a shortage of trace elements, especially for trees in containers. If you are watering correctly, apply a chelated iron product containing trace elements, following label directions.
PRUNING AND THINNING. Prune anytime to shape the tree, remove dead wood, or thin the branches. Remove any suckers arising from below the trunk's graft union. Varieties that bear heavily in alternating years sometimes need to be thinned during the heavy years. For those varieties, after any fruit has dropped naturally, thin developing fruits to clusters of two or three.
As fruits mature, prop up the branches if necessary to keep them from breaking.
SUN. Lemon trees need full sun, but in areas with very hot sun, citrus bark burns. Wrap the trunks, paint them with tan or brown latex paint, or leave the lowest branches in place to shade the trunks.
HARVESTING. Flavor, not color, is the only reliable indicator of ripeness. Pick one fruit and taste it - if it's not ready, wait. Use pruning shears to nip the fruit with a bit of stem. Don't pick by hand or you'll risk breaking a branch.