When Life isn’t Giving You Lemons

The one plant present in my garden throughout my entire life and the plant that I get asked the most questions about just happen to be the same plant. Which you know, makes the decision to write an article about it really easy. Cheers guys. They are also one of the most versatile ingredients in cooking and one of the most jaw-droppingly over priced items in the produce department of your supermarket. Dem lemons. Jamie Oliver wants us to splash their juice over everything, your gin and tonic is begging you for a slice of it, and when you’re sick you can not beat a lemon and honey drink with real lemons -but- at $8.99 a kg, all of the above can leave a bitter taste in your mouth #lemonjoke. So while it is not the ideal time of year to be investing in a lemon tree, it very soon will be and it is a tender time of year for existing lemon trees, so let’s do our best to help them out. Here is a list of things I know to be true about lemon trees, with a sprinkling of what I suspect to be true. I hope it helps.

Planting Lemon Trees:

If you are looking at investing in a lemon tree, firstly, great call. Secondly, lemon trees take a bit of commitment to help them establish. It’s kind of like getting a puppy, you have to have time for it, be patient and understand that the good work you put in when they are young will influence their success later. Most garden shops or market stalls selling plants will have a variety of different breeds of lemon tree and not all types sold, even locally, will be suited to your garden. Do some research around what breeds of lemon tree are successful in your climate or ask anyone who has a successful one what type it is. I have only seen Meyer lemon trees be successful in a Christchurch climate. Dunedin is a very difficult place to grow lemons so if you know anyone who has a tree that is producing I would pick their brains. Trees don’t need to be large or even bearing fruit when you purchase them in order for them to be successful. I would lean towards buying a smaller tree with good leaf growth and colour over a tree that had fruit without many leaves. Buying a tree should cost $25- $45, in my opinion.

Like most fruit trees, you can plant them in pots or in the ground. If you choose a pot it is important to make sure that your particular tree will survive it (certain breeds can get very large) and that it has good draining potential. You will also need more than potting mix for this one as lemon trees require a lot of water and may need feeding. I suggest planting it in potting mix and using a layer of a product called Magic Moss – this will help with maintaining the moisture without allowing the roots or plant to rot. If you are confused by this, there are instructions on the packet or ask someone at the shop. Also pick up a bag of citrus food and if you feel like it, mix a small amount through the soil when planting.

I prefer planting lemon trees in the ground simply because that is how I have always had it and it has always been great. I would chuck a handful of potting mix mixed with some citrus food in the hole, and mix that in with some surrounding dirt before dropping in the roots. Make sure not to dig the hole too deep especially if you have a young and small tree, we need it to be secure in the ground but we can’t limit its growth. Once it is planted in the ground or pot, slowly give it a good drink of water being careful not to drown the plant, just enough that you are confident it is draining all the way down to the roots.

Yes E Cus, but WHERE do I plant it? Yeah, yeah I hear you… Just chill. This one is hard to get right but when you do, it’s bliss. This applies to pot placement as well as ground planting. Lemon trees hate frosts and too much exposure to the elements, so places like against the house or against a fence are great. Lemon trees also need a lot of sunlight, to the point where if the ground is commonly quite dry then you are probably in the right place. Striking the balance between these two can be hard, especially when you don’t want to plant too close to a house or a fence as you have to account for the plant growth, too. Mine is by a bedroom window just covered by the lip of our roof and protected from the wind, but also in perfect view of the sun all day. Good luck. If you are planting in a pot, you at least have the luxury of being able to move it if you suspect it is not quite right.

I strongly advise not planting right now, but the second winter is seemingly over, leap on it. By seemingly over I mean guide it by when the harsh frosts in the morning are definitely all done for the season. You will want all of spring to establish the plant before the summer heat kicks in and you are thrown into the responsibility of keeping up its water intake.

Peeing on lemon trees:

I’m sure by now we have all heard that peeing on your lemon tree is the thing to do, and when researching this further I really wanted to say that there was no science around this. I can’t say that. Peeing on your lemon tree is legit. The fact is, your pee is mostly water but the small amount of other stuff your pee produces are all things that lemon trees need. So really it’s your call. I know people who have pee’d on their lemon trees. I’m never going to pee on mine. Whatever you decide is cool, just make sure that if you are peeing that you avoid the fruit and leaves at all costs- your golden bounty is not meant to actually make its way into the fruit but merely provide the plant with nutrients. Happy peeing.

Common problems with lemon trees:

Frosts will kill small or new lemon trees and if it is your first winter season with this lemon tree, you must protect it from frosts at all costs. Buy a frost cover. If it is a smaller tree then place a bucket over it overnight. You may need to always cover your lemon tree come winter, but if your placement is spot on sometimes the shelter provided will protect it, and also when they are bigger trees they can handle the rougher weather a bit better. A bad winter can create leaf discolouration, little to no fruit, and lack of plant growth. It can be a bit of a commitment but when you have a full tree of fruit almost all year round it is worth it.

Under-watering is the most likely thing to happen to your lemon tree. When plants are young in summer they need a good watering every day. When they are old trees they need a huge amount of water- I throw around 8-10 litres on my tree in summer everyday. In the cooler weather you don’t need to worry too much about the watering, but when you can you may as well. Watering the plant well obviously encourages the plants growth but you will notice the difference in your fruit very quickly. No one likes picking dry lemons with a dense white pith.

Feed your plant. When in doubt use a liquid fertiliser or pallets and mix it into the soil. This is a good pick-me-up for most lemon trees.

Draw an imaginary circle, or a physical one, in the dirt around the tree. I am meaning the circle around the tree where the leaves and fruit end. The roots of your tree go as far as that so when watering or feeding remember that you don’t need to just aim for the trunk, in fact you need to make sure that it’s reaching all of those roots. In younger trees this will not be so obvious but once your tree has developed you will see the importance.

Play Fool’s Garden ‘Lemon Tree’. It won’t help your tree but you know, it’s a good jam.


Once your lemon tree is humming you will be surrounded by fruit all year round. Don’t be a jerk and let your fruit drop to the ground only to rot. Give those gems away! There is no better treat than a bag of lemons unless the person is like, allergic or something. You will know your fruit is ready to be picked when it is yellow top to tail, and use the three twist rule, i.e. if you twist the fruit more than three times on the tree and it hasn’t delicately popped off into your hand, then it is not ready to be picked and will be fine to be left.

Get stuck in mates. Any more thoughts, ideas or questions around this just hit me up or comment here. I love a challenge. Also, get making those lemon meringue pies. I’ve been pumping the recipe from my Edmonds cookbook for a decade and it is still going down well at dinner parties. If you need the recipe or tips re this please also contact me.

E Cus.

4 thoughts on “When Life isn’t Giving You Lemons

  1. How old does a sapling have to be generally before it starts producing fruit? Is there any way to speed up the process?

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    1. It depends! You are more likely to get your first crop in summer. If you planted near summer time last year it might not crop until this summer. If your lemon tree is flowering but not producing fruit it might be a pollination problem. Plant some bee friendly plants nearby like lavender or sage to get them interested in your tree. Other than that I would talk to your local garden shop about a liquid fertiliser to help kick on growth.

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