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Organic cultivation of lemon trees: Sustainable Practices for Healthy Citrus

Whether you have a garden, learn the crucial tips for successful cultivation. Discover the care needed for your potted lemon tree to thrive and yield abundant citrus fruits.

by BioGrow

Today, we’re talking about how to grow a lemon plant in a pot. The lemon, scientifically known as Citrus Limon, is a fruit tree widely cultivated in our territory. If desired, it can be easily grown in a pot, in the garden, or on the balcony. What matters for healthy and lush growth is to follow the proper precautions and the right techniques for organic cultivation.
Having such a valuable fruit always available, a single lemon tree can be more than enough. When in full production, a single plant can meet the needs of a family’s consumption. Unfortunately, most of the lemons available in supermarkets are imported. Moreover, they often undergo a series of treatments with phytosanitary products to give them a “commercial appearance”, making their consumption, particularly the peel, strongly discouraged.

In this article, we demonstrate how it is possible to grow a lemon plant in a pot using entirely natural techniques. And above all, we will explain how to defend it organically against the various parasitic attacks that this plant may suffer from.

The Lemon Plant

Tree loaded with lemons
The lemon plant is an evergreen tree native to India, belonging to the Rutaceae family.
Although it is a well-defined species from an agronomic point of view, the lemon tree is considered a natural hybrid between two different citrus species: citron (Citrus Medica) and lime (Citrus Aurantifolia).
In the Mediterranean basin, the introduction of the lemon plant is traced back to the early 12th century. Its importation took place in Sicily, carried out by the Arabs. It was then Christopher Columbus who exported it to South America, where it is now widely grown. South American countries are among the leading lemon producers globally.

Botanical Characteristics of the Lemon Plant

Branches and thorns of the lemon plant
A lemon tree grown in open ground, without pruning, can reach up to 6 meters in height. It also adapts perfectly to cultivation in a pot, remaining of smaller dimensions.
The lemon plant has an open posture. The fruit-bearing branches are prostrate, meaning bent towards the ground. All the branches are typically spiny.
The leaves are arranged alternately on the branches. They have an elliptical shape and are dark green on the upper side and lighter on the lower side.

Flowering

Flower of the lemon tree
The lemon flowers, typically very fragrant, appear solitary or in pairs. They are located in the axil of the leaves and are white with purple shades on the lower part. A prominent characteristic of the lemon plant is its propensity to reflower, meaning that, with favorable climatic conditions, it can bloom multiple times throughout the year.
The main periods are, however, spring, which gives rise to winter lemons, and the beginning of autumn, which produces verdelli lemons, which ripen the following summer.

Lemons

Lemons cultivation
The lemon is easily distinguished from other citrus fruits by its typical shape, which varies from oval to elliptical. At the end, this fruit has a protuberance called the umbo, which can be more or less pronounced in different varieties.
The skin is usually rough and yellow in color, but there are also varieties with green or whitish skin. Depending on the variety, the skin can be thicker or thinner.
The flesh of the fruit is divided into 8-10 segments, is very fleshy, and has a typical sour taste.
Inside the flesh, there are seeds, but some varieties are seedless.

Main Lemon Tree Varieties

Regarding the lemon tree varieties present in our country, there are several well-known ones. Naturally, there are also many foreign varieties of agronomic interest.
Among the most widespread lemon cultivars in Italy, we recall:

  • Femminello Comune
  • Monachello
  • Femminello Bianzo Zagara or Femminello Fior d’Arancio
  • Interdonato
  • Femminello Siracusano
  • Femminello Continella

Many of these varieties are typical of Sicily. This region, in fact, accounts for 85% of the national production of lemon trees.
As for foreign varieties, the most well-known include:

  • Eurek
  • Lisbon
  • Berna
  • Mesero
  • Gallego
  • Genoa
  • Karystini

Propagation and Rootstocks

The lemon plant can be propagated from cuttings or seeds. However, it is recommended to graft it when it has reached a certain maturity.
The main rootstocks are different and include:

  • Franco rootstock
  • Volkamerian lemon
  • Alemow
  • Cleopatra mandarin
  • Bitter orange, the latter, however, is incompatible with some, for example, the “Monachello”

For inexperienced cultivators, it is advisable to start with a grafted plant from a certified organic nursery certified organic. It is essential to have a clear label that identifies the rootstock.

Climatic Conditions for Cultivation

The effects of frost on a treeLemon trees are very sensitive to low temperatures, more so than other citrus fruits.
If the temperatures drop below zero for a prolonged period, there is a risk that the lemon tree will lose all its leaves.
Temperatures below -5°C can also damage the wood and jeopardize the tree’s life.
The lemon plant is delicate, so besides fearing frost, it also suffers from scorching heat during the summer months. Prolonged heat can affect the proper ripening of the fruits.
Another known sensitivity of the lemon plant is to the wind. Therefore, it is essential to choose an optimal location in our garden.
We will soon see how these characteristics will influence the cultivation of lemon plants in pots.

Cultivating Lemon Trees in Pots

Lemon tree in an outdoor pot
Lemon trees are highly productive, with a long harvesting period. Since they are delicate plants, cultivating them in pots allows for easier protection. For this reason, it is recommended for domestic cultivation. With the right care, lemon trees can thrive in various latitudes.

Exposure and Protection

Choosing the right exposure for the lemon tree is crucial. The advantage of growing in pots is the ability to move the plant according to its needs and the season.
In the winter, it is best to place the lemon tree in a sunny and bright area of the garden. This way, the temperatures during the day should not drop excessively.
To provide further protection during the colder period, it is advisable to use coverings. The most common option is to use a non-woven fabric cover. Using this cover, the tree will be protected from frost.

Extreme Climatic Cases

Tree protected by a fabric coverIn extreme cases, with significant temperature variations between day and night, especially when the lemon tree is still young, the pot can be moved inside the entrance of the house.
It is advisable to proceed gradually in this case to avoid excessive stress on the plant. Also, avoid placing the pot near a radiator.
Naturally, when placed indoors, the plant will not need the protective cover.
Another rule to follow in choosing the optimal placement of the plant is to avoid excessive exposure to winds. As we have seen, lemon trees are sensitive to drafts.
A rational choice may be to position the pot near the external walls of the house.
It is better if the area is sunny but sheltered from the wind (southwest).

Soil

Now let’s talk about the soil to use for preparing our lemon tree in a pot.
The ideal soil is soft and porous, amended with organic matter, such as compost (preferably homemade, as we explained earlier) or, alternatively, a good lemon fertilizer such as pelleted manure (which you can purchase here).
Great care must be taken when preparing the bottom of the pot, which should be well-draining. This will avoid dangerous water stagnation that can compromise the vitality of the plant’s root system.
For this reason, it is recommended to use a layer of expanded clay of at least 4 cm at the bottom of the pot.

Irrigation

The irrigation of the lemon tree follows, if you will, the seasonality. In the autumn and winter, watering should be sparing and limited. On the other hand, special attention should be given in the spring and summer.
The substrate housing the plant should always be kept moist, especially if it has been recently repotted. Avoid excessive watering and, as already mentioned, never let the pot sit in water.
If you notice leaf yellowing, it indicates that the lemon tree needs more water.

Transplanting, Pot Selection, and Repotting

Young plant in the groundThe ideal time to start cultivating a lemon tree in a pot is the beginning of spring when the risk of frost is minimal.
Let’s now understand how to carry out this transplant effectively.
Suppose you choose a lemon tree already grafted in a 20 cm diameter soil ball. The diameter of the pot in which it will be placed should be large enough to contain the plant’s canopy. Alternatively, it should be no more than 1/3 smaller.
This means using a pot with a diameter of 30-40 cm and at least 40 cm deep. It is highly recommended to use outdoor terracotta pots and avoid plastic pots. Terracotta pots provide better temperature regulation for the root system, prevent overheating and excessive cooling, and facilitate water drainage.
Large lemon tree in a big garden potA fundamental secret for successful transplantation is to cover the lemon tree with soil up to the base of the trunk (not beyond). This will prevent the formation of troublesome basal shoots. But there is another important precaution to follow.
To grow the potted plant adequately, it will need to be periodically repotted.
Usually, the first repotting takes place after two years. The recommended period for this operation is always spring.
The new pot for the plant should naturally be larger, with an additional 15-20 cm in diameter.
When the lemon tree is mature, repotting can be delayed and done every 3-4 years.
The last repotting, the final one, will require a pot with an 80 cm diameter.

Pruning

Lemon trees, like other citrus trees, require limited pruning. The best time for pruning is the end of winter, giving the tree time to regenerate with the arrival of spring.
Remove water shoots from the tree to give more energy to the branches that will bear fruit.
Other parts of the tree to remove include dried or frost-damaged branches. Removing these damaged parts will promote the plant’s vigor.

Harvesting

Harvesting lemons in a domestic setting does not require any particular instructions. The fruits can stay on the tree for a long time, so it’s best to pick them when they are fully ripe and as needed.
In intensive cultivation, lemons are often harvested when they are still green. This is because lemons, unlike other citrus fruits, continue to ripen after being detached from the tree.
This early harvesting method involves subsequent handling, fungicidal treatments, and waxing. Plus, additional treatments to ripen them further. For this reason, we strongly advise against consuming the peels of non-organic lemons. With such treatments, the peel is not safe.
Of course, this issue does not apply to our organic lemons, where nothing will go to waste. In this case, the peel can be used for various preparations, such as limoncello!

Biological Pest Control

MealybugsUnfortunately, lemon cultivations, like other citrus trees cultivations, are susceptible to pest attacks. Let’s see how to adequately defend them. The most dangerous pest is undoubtedly the citrus mealybug, which we have already discussed. The mealybug causes sooty mold, progressive drying of the foliage, ruins the flowers, and thus prevents fruit set. To combat the citrus mealybug, you can wash the tree with pure Marseille soap and then remove the sooty mold using a brush.
In more severe infestations, you can add neem oil to the water and soap solution. This ancient natural remedy is very effective against this pesky parasite.
Other annoying pests of lemon trees are aphids and whiteflies.
To combat these insects, it is recommended to start with nettle macerate and garlic macerate. But if the infestation is severe, intervene with natural formulations based on azadiractin.
Special attention should also be given to fungal diseases, which unfortunately is widespread in lemon trees. But we will address these types of diseases in future discussions.

Further Reading

  • University of Arizona – Growing Lemons in the Verde Valley – An article providing advice on lemon trees cultivation under specific climate conditions.
  • University of Florida – Lemons for the Florida Home Landscape – An article discussing the cultivation of lemon trees in Florida, with a particular focus on varieties suitable for this climate.
  • PubMed Central – Citrus limon (Lemon) Phenomenon—A Review of the Chemistry, Pharmacological Properties, Applications in the Modern Pharmaceutical, Food, and Cosmetics Industries, and Biotechnological Studies – A review presenting important botanical, chemical, and pharmacological characteristics of Citrus limon (lemon), a species with valuable pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and culinary properties.
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