You can grow a lemon tree anywhere in the world, as long as you are willing to bring it indoors for part of the year. But what about growing a lemon tree purely indoors, all year long? Will you still get lemons? Yes. You will. This article will show you how to grow a Meyer lemon tree completely indoors, all year long. And hopefully, we’ll show you how to keep it just happy enough to get a lemon out of the arrangement.
Meyer lemon trees are typically found in the Southern-most climates of the US, as well as the temperate coastal regions. They are typically not found growing in the High Rocky Mountains, where we live. Here, if planted outside, they’d be dead by Turkey Day.
So why in the world should you read advice from someone who lives in zone 4 about growing a lemon tree? Because I’ve kept a Meyer lemon tree alive, completely indoors, for three years now. It’s not terribly lush or fertile, but it’s not dead. And, it has even finally rewarded us with a beautiful, perfect, yellow, fragrant lemon. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is the ultimate sign of approval from a lemon tree.
The advice that follows is based on a mix of research and experience, and is specifically geared toward the completely indoor Meyer lemon tree grower. There is a lot of information out there on how to grow these amazing little lemon trees. Some of it, you absolutely have to do. But I have found that a lot of it is negotiable. These trees actually are a bit more forgiving than you might expect them to be.
So don’t let climate, or yard space, or lack of experience be the things that stop you. Let me be your guide, so you too, can grow your own Not-So-Lush-and-Fertile-But-also-Not-Dead-Indoor-Meyer-Lemon-Tree. And maybe, you’ll even get a lemon.
Introduction to the Meyer Lemon Tree. (Citrus × meyeri)
Meyer lemon trees are supposedly a very popular citrus tree for home gardeners and chefs alike. They are one of the most “winter hardy citrus trees”. Meaning they are hardy all the way down to zone 9. Which, frankly…isn’t very impressive. But this does mean that, however slightly, they will be a bit more forgiving of temperature changes to the home gardener. Although Meyer trees’ main crop of lemons is in the late fall, they can produce fruit all year long when they are particularly happy in their surroundings.
What makes Meyer lemons so unique, is that they are a hybrid between a lemon and a mandarin. This mixture means that Meyer lemons have a sweeter taste than supermarket lemons, which are primarily Lisbon or Eureka lemons. Meyer lemons are yellow to yellow-orange, and rounder than a true lemon. Their rind is thinner, and is itself sweet and edible. Because of this thin skin, they don’t ship well. So they aren’t typically grown commercially. This makes them hard to find for recipes. Unless of course, you have your own Meyer lemon tree at home.
Speaking of recipes, Martha Stewart whet the world’s whistle for Meyer lemons when she used them in a few of her recipes back in the early 2000’s. After that, they gained significant popularity. Now you see them all over the place. Or so I’ve heard. Living in the high Rockies, we don’t come across them too often except for in lemon tree catalogs. And then there is our little indoor specimen…
I realize ours looks nothing like the advertisements for Meyer Lemon trees. Those beautiful, catalog-ready lemon trees, all bent-over from the lemons hanging off of them. Nope, ours is scrawny. More like a Charlie Brown Lemon Tree. But it’s still only about five years old, and it lives completely inside. In the dehydrated air and relative darkness of a mountain bedroom. But, it clearly isn’t dead. I know I keep pointing that out, but it’s important to bear in mind the alternatives for lemon trees in Zone 4.
A quick look at the nomenclature and what type of lemon tree to purchase.
The lemon tree that we have been keeping marooned inside our house, specifically, is known as an “Improved Meyer Semi-Dwarf” Lemon Tree. Confused by the name and what kind of lemon tree to purchase? So was I. Let me clarify the parts and pieces.
- The name Meyer is for Frank Meyer of the USDA. Born Frans Nicolaas Meijer, in Amsterdam, Meijer was a botanist and agricultural explorer who emigrated to the US and adopted the name Frank N. Meyer when he became an American citizen in 1908. Meijer explored China as part of the USDA’s mission to expand the agricultural repertoire of the US, specifically to find drought-resistant plants that could be grown in the expanding agriculture of the Great Plains regions. Meijer sent back over 2500 species of plants with field notes, including the Meyer Lemon tree, which was named in his honor. (Which it seems to me, maybe we should be calling the Meijer tree, but I guess history has decided otherwise.) Either way, the Meyer lemon is the beautiful hybrid of citrus and mandarin, resulting in the sweeter fruit than the traditional lemon.
- Improved refers to the fact that it is virus-free. Unfortunately, in the 1930’s the majority of Meyer lemon trees being cloned were carriers of the Citrus Tristeza Virus. Tristeza literally means “sadness” in Portuguese and Spanish, referring to the devastating citrus epidemics that occurred, beginning with Brazil and Argentina, when these imported trees were introduced. A virus-free rootstock version was released in 1975 by the University of California, and was named the “Improved Meyer Lemon”. They are supposedly more disease resistant as well. So that’s a bonus.
- Dwarf and Semi-Dwarf simply refers to the size. Normal Meyer Lemon trees will grow to be about 6-10′ tall. They will be on the larger size if grown in the ground, and a little smaller if grown in containers. By grafting the lemon tree onto dwarfing root stock, the lemon tree should only get to about 3-4′ tall when fully mature, but the lemons will still be the same, full-size. So this is a very good thing for indoor, container growing.
Tip #1. Planting it. Take the time to do it right.
You’ve decided to purchase your tree. Now what? Well, you want to give your lemon tree the best start you can by getting the right variety, planting it in an appropriate container, and using citrus-friendly soil that drains well.
- Get the right variety for your spot. If you have a large space, or cathedral ceilings, go for the bigger variety! But think about where you’re going to put it before you buy the tree. Make sure, if the space you have is very small, that you have a dwarf variety. As I mentioned above, these do well in containers, won’t get as large as their non-dwarf counterparts, and you’ll still get wonderful, normal-sized lemons from them. Eventually.
- Plant your lemon in as big a container as you can. At very least, the container needs to be 2″ larger than the root ball. Ours is in an over-sized basket we lined with plastic. Which isn’t honestly something I’d recommend, but I really liked the basket and I’m not repotting it now. A better option would be to get a large self-watering planter like this one (something about 20″ wide and at least 18″ tall) and then place it in a decorative basket. Way smarter. The gold standard (for drainage) for a citrus plant would be a large terra cotta pot. But those are so heavy, especially when filled with dirt. Since our tree is indoors, we need to move it to vacuum around it. So a light basket with handles makes moving it much more convenient. If you are one of those lucky people that will get to bring your lemon tree inside and outside, maybe think about putting it on a planter with wheels.
- You will want to plant your lemon tree in soil that drains well. Because we planted ours in a container lined with plastic, which is not terra cotta, nor even a real plant container, we are clearly breaking all the rules. So we wanted ours to really drain quickly and resist compaction. We planted it in specialized citrus soil, and then added perlite to that in almost a 1:1 ratio. Soil specialized for citrus (and cactus) often contains sand or perlite to encourage drainage, and to stop the soil from compacting. It sometimes will contain iron or bone meal, as well, to prevent leaf yellowing. You can also just use regular potting soil, especially if you add some perlite or vermiculite to help with drainage.
Tip #2. Pick a spot where it will be warm enough. Consistently.
If you live in zones 9-11, you lucky ducks, you can plant your tree right in the ground. You probably can plant a sandwich in the ground and new little sandwiches will grow, your climate is so fertile. And of course, you never need to read this crazy blog, because you don’t need to bother with gardening indoors. Moving on.
If you live in zones 6-10 you can plant your lemon tree in a container and bring it inside for winter, but let it bask outside in the sun for the hotter months of the summer. Just remember you’ll need to “harden it off” before bringing it outside every year.
If you live in zones 3-5, you can still bring your lemon tree outside for the longest days of the summer but you need to keep a close eye on the nightly temperatures and rescue that lemon tree to the indoors as soon as the nighttime temps fall below 50 degrees.
We live in zone 4, at high altitude (8000 feet). Literally any night of the year we could experience a quick dip into the freezing zone. Also, I am lazy and don’t want to deal with the “hardening-off process”. Also, I am an indoor gardener at heart. So our lemon tree, as you may have guessed (if you’ve read this blog at all), has never set foot outside. The day it arrived at our doorstep, we immediately scooped it up, brought it indoors, and that was the last moment it breathed outside air.
But just bringing your lemon tree indoors isn’t enough. Make sure it’s not exposed to huge temperature swings indoors and, in general, keep it between 50-80 degrees. So, that means keep it away from air vents, outside doors, radiators, fireplaces or windows that don’t quite keep the cold out.
With that said, my lemon tree is next to a window and a fireplace. So this rule is probably one of those negotiable ones. Honestly, if you can keep your tree near a window that does keep the cold out, that’s great because they like a little air circulation. And they don’t seem to mind a (small) drop in temperature at night.
Don’t get too caught up in worry about your temperatures, and certainly don’t let this deter you from getting a lemon tree. The way I look at it is, if I’m comfortable, my lemon tree is comfortable too. It’s pretty much that easy.
Tip #3. Make sure it gets enough light. This step is critical if you actually want fruit.
The first year that our lemon tree came to live with us, it didn’t do very well. Its leaves looked a bit yellow and it didn’t make much new growth at all. Maybe it was depressed, because it realized it was going to spend its whole life inside. We had placed it in the sunniest spot in our entire house, just under a south facing window in our bedroom. I think once that little lemon tree saw all the snow through the window though, it realized things could be worse.
The second winter we had it, I decided to place it under supplemental lights. By this point, I had already gotten pretty deeply into indoor gardening and realized that most houseplants can benefit from supplemental lighting. My favorite lights to use for my house plants are the Cree LED 100W light bulb. It has a more pleasant light than a typical LED, so its nice for your normal living spaces. But it still has the benefits of being LED namely, the long life span, low energy use, and the fact that it doesn’t get hot and burn your plant. These lights are on a simple timer. They come on every day at 8 am and stay on until 8 pm. This has made all the difference.
Meyer Lemon trees need between 8-12 hours of direct sunlight to produce lemons. If they don’t get that much direct light, you may not get lemons.
Tip #4. Water your Meyer Lemon tree. Not too much, but enough.
This is the tricky part with all plants. If it doesn’t get enough water, the citrus tree will be stressed out and not make lemons. If it gets too much water, it will get stressed out and not make lemons. And If it is in standing water for any significant period of time, it will start thinking about dying. So I suggest that if you make the investment in a lemon tree, you also could pick up a water meter to protect your purchase. They are only about $10-15, don’t need batteries, and can really help you with your tree care. It can help you with all of your houseplant care, actually.
You shouldn’t use a water meter as your only guide, because they can fail or need recalibration every now and then. So always correlate your readings with how the plant looks, and how the soil feels when you stick your finger in it. But it can be a really helpful tool, especially when starting out with indoor plants.
“Water your tree deeply, but infrequently”. You will read this over and over about lemon trees. They often say the worst thing you can do is frequent, light waterings. And I certainly believe that. But the way I water this poor lemon tree, it clearly hasn’t read that book. I water it every morning with the little bit of water left over from my nightly drinking cup. And then about once a week, I check it with the meter. If your lemon tree continues to make new growth, you’ll know you’re probably doing a good enough job. The goal really is simple. Keep the soil moist, but not wet.
Another thing you’ll read is that citrus trees like moist air. So you could place your plant near a humidifier, place a tray with pebbles underneath your lemon tree to hold water, or regularly give the leaves a mist of water. I have a nice mister next to my lemon tree and I have used it several times. Total. And we live in Colorado where it’s extremely dry. So, go figure.
Tip #5. Fertilize your lemon tree.
Citrus trees growing in containers, especially if they’re producing lots of lemons, can be heavy feeders and will need to be fertilized about every three months. We use an acid-based fertilizer like Dr Earth Acid Lovers Organic and Natural Premium Fertilizer or a citrus-specific fertilizer like Down to Earth Organic Citrus Fertilizer, but pretty much any balanced fertilizer will do. Just follow the directions on the package.
Lemons prefer a ph of 5.5-6.5, and you can check the ph of your soil with your handy water meter as well (they often check light, pH, and moisture level). Adjust accordingly throughout the year. If your soil is too alkaline (basic), your tree may not be able to absorb iron and become iron deficient. If the leaves of your tree turn yellow, but the veins stay green, this may be exactly what is happening. In this case, add a more acidic fertilizer, and you may even give your tree iron supplements made specifically for plants.
Tip #6. Don’t be hesitant to help pollination along.
This step I completely forgot to do. Even though I am a self-professed indoor gardener. I am very embarrassed.
About two months ago, our lemon tree was covered in lovely, fragrant flowers. And only one turned into a lemon. I didn’t figure it out until I was reviewing how to prune the Meyer lemon tree for this article and saw that you need to hand pollinate your lemon tree if it’s exclusively indoors. Well duh. That’s something I should really have know.
Meyer lemon trees are said to be self-pollinating. That’s true, but what that actually means is that you only need one tree to get fruit because the lemon tree flowers have both female and male parts. But something still has to cause the male bits and the female bits to contact each other. And hopefully, there is nothing in your bedroom that will get this done. Like huge gusts of wind or pollinating insects. So, if a lemon tree lives exclusively indoors, the only lemons you will get will be Virgin Mary level miracles. Like our one, immaculate lemon.
Pollination can happen indoors without assistance, but it is much more likely if you help them along. Just like we do with our indoor tomato plants, cucumbers, zucchinis and eggplants in the indoor Tub Garden. When the plants are blooming, you simply need to lightly shake the branches. Similar to a gentle wind, this will encourage the male pollen to drop into the female parts of the flower. If that isn’t working, you can use a small paint brush or Q-tip to physically brush the pollen all around each of the flowers. This should make a big impact on the amount of flowers that actually turn into fruit the next time around.
Tip #7. The maintenance phase. Watch your growing lemon tree for bugs and other signs of stress. And consider pruning it.
Observe your lemon tree often for signs of stress. Curling leaves, brown leaves, or any bug infestations are always easier to take care of the earlier you find them. White flies, spider mites and aphids can be easily blown off with a firm jet of water, as long as they are discovered early. And that way, hopefully you will never have to use any chemicals on your tree. I’m not against chemicals, it just gets a little more complicated if you have to start using them. Better not to need them. If you are misting your lemon tree on a semi-daily basis, that can be the perfect time to just have a gander and make sure those leaves continue to look good.
Typically citrus trees respond well to pruning. The goal of pruning is to remove any dead or damaged branches, as well as any unwanted branches that, for example, are growing into your TV screen or whatever. You can keep your tree’s size and shape manageable by some thoughtful pruning.
Pruning should generally be done just after the harvest in fall until early spring. Pruning will allow more light in to the inner branches, and more air circulation as well, theoretically. As you can see, my own little lemon tree really doesn’t have enough branches to seriously worry about that just yet. Don’t get too crazy and take too much off. And wait until your tree is well established before you do any major pruning. Let it get its roots nice and comfortable for a year or two before you make any big shape overhauls. The “rule of three” applies, never prune more than a third of the tree’s branches even with your most aggressive pruning. Always use a pair of sharp, clean shears if you can. You wouldn’t cut off a fingernail with a dull or dirty knife. Treat your citrus-y friend the same way.
Tip #8. Be patient. Meyer lemons take time.
Most Meyer lemon trees won’t produce fruit until at least their second year of life, if they are a grafted tree like mine. And any disruption like getting transplanted or moved may make them put energy into their root system, rather than into their fruits, giving you a pause in production of about a year. If you’ve grown your tree from seed, you’ll need even more patience, as it can take three to seven years to get your first lemon.
Once you do finally get lemons, they may take as long as 9 months to actually turn from green to yellow. Not coming from a Southern-lemon-tree-growing-tradition, I had no idea the fruit could take this long to ripen. The first green fruit we got from our lemon tree stayed green on the tree for about three months and we figured it was just a dud and plucked it. I started wondering if we’d actually been growing a lime tree. We just didn’t know.
With our second lemon, we happened to let it sit. We were either being patient or lazy, I’m not sure. But after about 6 months it started to turn from green to yellow, and then in another month or so it turned to that slightly warmer, egg yolk-y color that is classic to the Meyer lemon. And it was very much worth the wait.
Tip #9. Enjoy. Your tree has given you lemons, make lemonade!
Or lemon pound cake! Or lemon bars! Or any of the many wonderful things that Meyer lemons can be used for. Like Martha Stewart’s Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Meyer Lemon, Arugula and Pistachios. Which sounds kind of weird but if Martha made it, it’s probably pretty good. Of course, I had to include one of her recipes since she is apparently responsible for the whole Meyer lemon craze anyway. Thank you, Martha.
So as you can see, the Meyer lemon tree is not too hard to live with. Unlike many other types of roommates that may stay indoors all the time, it doesn’t take up a lot of space or effort… and it even smells good. If you have any questions, or want to argue any of these points, comment in the space below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next week I will be posting this delicious lemon bar recipe, and how to make the recipe with just one lemon. Perfect for any owner of a young Meyer lemon tree, just starting to produce.