By Lydia Geisel

Published on October 4, 2018

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photo by Lauren Liess

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. But what about when life gives you a whole damn lemon tree? Well, if you’re a proud plant parent, come winter, you bring said lemon tree inside.

Contrary to the popular belief that citrus plants belong exclusively outdoors, with enough sunlight and proper drainage, your little lemon love can actually live and thrive inside your home. And, aside from the obvious bonus of getting to enjoy fresh fruit whenever you want, their sunny yellow offerings promise to extend summer vibes all year long.

To get the low-down on all things lemon tree care, we asked our friends at The Sill and Little Leaf for their fail-proof tips and tricks for growing citrus. Compared to your Fiddle Leaf Fig, keeping your lemon tree healthy isn’t as scary as you would think.

“The real key to success with lemons is giving them enough light and letting them thoroughly dry between waterings,” explains Christopher Satch, head of plant education at The Sill. “The indoor, full direct sun will correct all their problems. As long as they are in a window that gets a few hours of direct sunlight, they will be fine.”

From watering and pruning to the most common problems to watch out for, here’s what Satch and Jennifer Wallace and Mollie Lee, managers at Little Leaf in Washington, D.C., have to say about caring for your lemon tree indoors.

 

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What do people need to know about potting lemon trees?

Satch: Lemon trees are interesting plants with specific requirements.  Miss those requirements, and they will be difficult to keep. Meet them, and they’ll be one of the easiest, most prolific plants you can have. Lemon trees like well-drained soil; general potting mix is fine if you’re regular with watering and it’s getting enough light, but you may want to consider amending the mix with sand to aid in drainage. Citrus/lemons like to get all their roots wet, then dry fairly quickly. They do not like to soak, and do not tolerate standing water or lingering moisture.  Since terracotta is so porous, it tends to work best. We’ve only seen the best citrus indoors grown in terracotta pots. It helps the soil dry faster, which the citrus likes.

Wallace: Lemon trees love nutrient-dense, well-draining soil. Make sure the pot has a hole on the bottom to eliminate excess water.

Tip: The Sill’s Organic Potting Mix is a great soil option for lemon trees and other tropical plants.

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Are there different types of lemon trees?

Satch: There are many many types of citrus.  In fact, lemons are not a species, but a hybrid of citrus. Limes too. There are only three species of edible citrus that are the ancestors to all the citrus we have today.  C. medica (citron), C. maxima (pomelo), and C. reticulata (mandarin orange).  Everything else—navel oranges, lemons, limes, and even grapefruits—are all hybrids of one or more of these species. Even within the hybrids, there is great diversity from the range of planting and span of cultivation. Citrus has been cultivated for thousands of years, and in that time, traits were selected, and genes have mutated.  There are even real pink lemons, variegated lemons, and variegated plants too!

Wallace: The most common varieties of lemon trees grown indoors include the Meyer Lemon and Eureka Lemon tree.

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photo by Brooke Cagle

Can lemon trees actually thrive indoors?

Laemers: Lemon trees prefer to grow outdoors, but can live happily inside under the right conditions. They love high humidity and good air circulation, so opening windows on warmer days is always a good idea. If grown outside during the summer, your tree should be moved back inside at the end of the growing season to avoid cold winter temperatures.

Wallace: Lemons are probably the easiest fruit to grow indoors. In fact, they’re often the first recommended for beginners.  They are native to a Mediterranean climate in Indochina, at the foothills of the Himalayas. They like to be where you like to be.  They are not hardy, so bring them inside when the low temperatures start to dip into the 50s.

 

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For people bringing their plant from the outdoors in, are there any changes they should expect to see?  

Satch: Expect some leaf drop, as they will be getting less light indoors, meaning that they cannot support as many leaves as they did outdoors with the bright light.

How big should people expect their lemon trees to grow?

Satch: They are a full tree, actually, and can get as big as you let them! Prune them back if you don’t want to repot, or want them to be a smaller size. Don’t be afraid—cut anywhere. These plants, if getting enough sunlight, will grow back in no time.

Wallace: With lots of light and love, lemon trees can grow up to 12 feet indoors!

 

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What about watering?  

Lee: Keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy. Try sitting your lemon tree on a pebble tray with water to increase humidity.

Satch: Water when the soil is completely dry. For different apartments and conditions, this may range from 5-10 days. Unsure?  Feel the soil! The soil will tell you when you need to water. Another great thing about lemons/citrus is that they will wilt a little when they need water.  Water them before they wilt too much, and you’re golden.

Tip: Be wary of their leaves. “They do like humidity, but they do not like getting their leaves wet too much. You can spritz them, but you run the risk of a foliar infection,” adds Satch.

How much sun exposure do they need?

Satch: Indoors, blast them with as much sunlight as possible. Don’t kid yourself: They cannot (and will not) tolerate anything less, and will do very poorly if not directly in a window.  The more direct sunlight you give them, the fuller and more blooms they’ll produce. Those blooms will fill your house with the smell of sweet lemonade… definitely worth it.

Lee: Lemon trees love basking in the sun, and require 8 to 12 hours of sunlight, daily. South-facing windows are best.

 

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How often should you fertilize?

Lee: Lemon trees should be fertilized April through September, using a balanced fertilizer every two weeks.

Satch: Fertilize once a month with a general purpose fertilizer. You can fertilize once every two weeks if the tree is in bloom or producing fruit.

What are some of the most common problems someone may encounter with a lemon tree?

Satch: If the leaves turn yellow and drop off, and you don’t know why, either the roots are too wet, or the plant is too cold. If perfectly green or yellow leaves fall off, it’s not receiving enough light. They tend to get spider mites, so keep an eye out for them. Occasionally mealybugs, but otherwise, not too many things bother it.

Lee: When grown indoors, insufficient light may cause some trouble. Lemon trees do best if you can mimic outdoor growing conditions, so we recommend letting your tree vacation outside during the summer.  If the soil gets dry during the growing season, lemon trees tend to drop leaves. They key is water, sun, water, sun, water, sun, water, sun, repeat! When caring for citrus trees, the juice is definitely worth the squeeze!

What about pruning and caring for the fruit? Are citrus trees, in general, more tricky to care for?

Lee: Pruning the branches back once in awhile will result in better fruit and encourage branching for more potential lemons. After a bloom, the tree will grow fruit; wait for it to get nice and plump, then pick! In general, citrus trees require a good amount of care to grow indoors, but ample light and water are essential.

Satch: Citrus don’t really need to be pruned unless they’re growing in a way that is not going to look good. If they’re super happy, they may grow into themselves, in which case, then you do prune. They really don’t need anything special other than that.

See more plant care stories like this:
How to Care for Succulents (and Other Low-Key Plants)
Aloe Vera 101: Everything You Should Know About This Versatile Plant
How to Care For Your Monstera Plant