How to grow a Meyer lemon tree from a store bought lemon
Meyer lemon trees are easy to grow from seed. But you won’t find a package of lemon seed at the garden centre. Citrus seeds are only viable for a short time. You must plant your lemon seeds as soon as you harvest them from fresh organic lemons.
Meyer lemons aren’t actually lemons. They are a cross between a bitter orange and a lemon, that originated in China. But they’ve been in North America for almost 100 years. They grow with a bush habit and are adaptable to containers. What I’m telling you here about Meyer lemons applies to growing other citrus fruit from seed, as well.
If you are in Canada, choose organic citrus fruit from the grocery store. Nonorganic fruit may have been irradiated. Radiation damages the seed.
If you live in warmer climes where citrus grows, use seed from fruit from a tree growing in your neighbourhood. This will be acclimatized to your growing conditions and give you the very best start.
This winter I receive a gift of Meyer lemons from Angi of Schneiderpeeps, all the way from Texas. The organically grown fruit was freshly picked, and the seed germinated within a week of putting it in potting soil. There was such vigour in that box of lemons that I’ve been passing out Meyer lemon starts to my friends.
Fresh lemon seeds will germinate between 20C and 28C. I’ve had good success germinating citrus seeds indoors without additional heat.
Plant fresh seed
Begin by rinsing the seeds in cold water to remove any sugar or fruit pulp that may cause mold or inhibit germination.
Plant the seed ½ inch deep in potting soil. Cover the seed. Water it. Keep the soil moist.
The seed will germinate in 2 to 3 weeks. Keep the plant soil moist but not wet, in order to avoid damping off the disease. Once the baby lemon trees have 4 true leaves, allow the soil surface to dry between watering but don’t allow the plant to dry out completely. The soil should still be damp when you poke your finger an inch below the soil surface.
Normally citrus will grow true from seed. Occasionally, some citrus varieties produce multiple seedlings from one seed – a phenomenon called ‘polyembryony. If this happens, one seedling is the result of pollination and may grow a completely new hybrid plant. The other seedling is an exact clone of the mother plant. With those Texas Meyer lemons, which are a cross between an orange and a lemon, I’ve gotten twins coming from one seed. If this happens to you, let them grow out until they each have 4 leaves and then carefully separate the plants and pot them up separately. Mark them so that you can identify them. You won’t know if you have a new variety of citrus until the trees mature and produce fruit, which will take 5 years or more.
Once the lemon trees have 4 leaves, transplant them into 4 inch pots. Don’t cull your seedlings just yet. A lot can go wrong between now and when they start to produce fruit. If you have the room keep 4 to 6 plants until you see how vigorous they are and whether they have complete blossoms.
Continue to water regularly. Once a month add 1 tbsp. magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) to ½ gallon of water and water with that. Do this more often if you see that the leaves are yellowing, a sign of magnesium deficiency.
Soil pH and fruiting with lemons
Lemons like the soil slightly acidic with a pH between 5.7 and 6.5. You can acidify the soil by watering with leftover, cold tea or coffee once a month. Soil should be well drained and light, not compacted. If your tree looks stressed, try replacing the soil with fresh potting soil. Peat moss can be too acidic for citrus, preventing the plant from setting fruit. Soils that are too alkaline prevent the plant from taking up nutrients from the soil, which results in yellowing leaves and deficiencies.
At the end of the first year, transplant them into 6 inch pots. And then as they grow, increase the size of the pot gradually until your lemon tree is in a 10 to 12 inch pot. Once the tree is 4 to 5 years old, and 4 to 6 feet tall, you’ll see its first blossoms. Congratulations. I bet the song “Lemon Tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet” will start to go through your head.
Here in BC, Canada, a fruiting lemon tree is around $70 so you are saving about $15 per year of growth by growing your own tree from seed. If your tree becomes root bound you can prune the roots to keep the height controlled.
Citrus leaves will drop if the humidity gets too low in winter. This is a problem if you are heating with wood and the tree has a sudden change in humidity levels, such as when you bring a tree indoors after it’s been outside on the patio all summer. To prevent shock and leaf drop, keep the humidity level at 45 to 50%. You can increase humidity by using a humidifier, or by keeping a bowl of water next to the growing citrus, in a heated room or by putting the tree in a humidity tent.
How to prune the roots on a lemon tree
After all the fruit has been harvested from your lemon tree, gently remove the tree from its pot. Using a bread knife cut off about 1/3rd of the length of the roots. Replace 1/3rd of the potting soil with well composted but bug free manure or worm castings. Repot in the same pot. Then prune about 1/3rd of the branches to reduce the stress of the tree.
Hand pollinating indoor lemon trees
A lemon tree kept indoors requires hand pollination to allow it to set fruit. Citrus flowers have both male and female parts. You don’t need a second citrus tree to cross pollinate. Citrus trees will fruit, even if you only have one tree, provided that you pollinate the blossoms. If you are growing your tree indoors you won’t have bees to pollinate the blossoms.
You can hand pollinate the blossoms by using a soft paintbrush with a fine tip. Gently brush the male anthers, at the tip of each stamen, of the lemon flowers. The anthers encircle the sticky female pistil in the citrus flower. Immediately take the pollen to another flower and brush the female pistil parts of the flower, in the centre of the ring of male anthers. Take up more pollen from another blossom and fertilize the female parts of another blossom. In this way, you will help your citrus to set fruit.
Not all fruit that sets will actually remain on the tree. There is often fruit drop. But citrus trees bloom for a long period, even while they are setting fruit, so you have a good chance of getting mature fruit with hand pollination.
Lemon trees aren’t like apple trees that bloom once in the spring. Lemon trees can have blossoms and fruit at every stage of maturity, all at the same time.
Sometimes a lemon tree will produce male-only flowers. These are the blossoms that have the circle of male stamens with the anthers on the tips, but no central pistil. These blossoms won’t be able to produce fruit, but they will produce viable pollen. Hopefully, you’ll find other complete flowers on the tree that will produce fruit.
You can put your lemon tree outdoors on a deck or patio once the nighttime temperatures remain above freezing. Once outside the sweet smell of the lemon leaves and flowers will attract many pollinators and your fruit set will increase. Sunshine will also increase the fruit set and improve the condition of your tree. Be sure to continue to water your tree outdoors and beware of the expected nighttime lows. You’ll want to bring the tree indoors before the nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. Citrus trees can be damaged by frost.
Lemon leaves and flowers have a refreshing citrus perfume that is an asset to your home and garden. The fruit is lovely and can be grown year round in the greenhouse or indoors. All this benefit for the cost of a seed that you were going to toss in the compost. What are you waiting for?
How to prune a Meyer lemon tree
How to grow a Meyer lemon in containers
So what are you waiting for?
Once your trees start producing you’ll have lemons growing year round. Plant those lemon seeds.