Eureka Autumn Wind

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Eureka Autumn Wind

How to grow great lemons - the GardenEzi way

Avoiding the lemon tree blues!

A lemon tree adds a grace note to any garden – but it can also be a continuous source of trouble and strife if your expectations are too high and your level of care too low.  I remember a well-known radio gardening personality saying that of all the thousands of questions he'd been asked on air over the years, those concerning lemon trees were by far the most numerous.

Yet it doesn't  have to be that way!   If you follow the usual GardenEzi Five Principles of Planning, Preparation, Planting, Practice and Protection you can have all the pleasure of a backyard lemon tree without the pain .

Planning

Lemon trees do best in dry, sunny climates where plenty of water is available to irrigate the root zone. Southern California is ideal and so are most parts of South Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean.   If you live in a warm temperate or tropical climate it's still possible to grow good lemons provided you understand the growing and protection requirements in your particular locality. In areas with colder, snowy winters lemon trees can be grown in tubs and over-wintered in a warm, well lit environment – but that's outside the scope of this article.

When planning the placement of your lemon trees, consider the following:

Soil – should be light, loamy and with a good six feet (2 metres) depth.  Sandy soil is fine if enriched with plenty of compost and regular mulching. Heavier, loamier soils should be lightened with river sand around the root zone.  Clay soil will need a lot of work – get some advice on how to lighten a heavy clay soil.  If soil is too shallow, the tree roots won't go deep enough and the tree is thus vulnerable to falling over in strong winds.  Citrus trees, due to their heavy leaf canopy and fruit burden, are easily uprooted.  Soil pH (degree of acidity or alkalinity) should be around neutral – from 6 – 7 or just over on the pH scale of 1 – 14 (if you don't know what this means then find out – it's important.  Go to www.gardenezi.com for information).  If your soil is too acid or too alkaline then you'll need to do something about it.

Drainage – good soil means good drainage.  Sandy soils drain faster (so more watering is required).  Clay soils are very slow to drain, leaving the tree prone to root rot and oxygen/nutrient starvation.  Poor drainage is a major cause of problems with lemon trees – they just won't thrive with wet feet.

Light – full sun is necessary for good growth and fruit development, though light shade in the late afternoon is acceptable.

Space – leave at least 10 feet (just over 3 metres) between your lemon tree and any other large bush or tree.  Lemon trees need plenty of space around them for good air circulation.  They don't like crowding.

Water – Lemon trees (once established) do amazingly well with just natural rainfall, even in areas with long, dry periods. But for really juicy fruit you do need to water generously, particularly when the young fruit starts to form.  So make adequate provision for watering young trees, as well as established  trees (two years old and upward)during dry periods and at fruit set.

Preparation

Identify likely problems and take steps to deal with them.  These may be:

Frost – cover tree with clear plastic if frost is likely.  Keep any mulch well clear of trunk.

Lack of rainfall/adequate water – make provision to supply as required

Too much rainfall (warm temperate and tropics) – improved drainage to prevent waterlogging,  thick mulch layer over root zone to break the force of deluges 

High humidity – prune to maintain a fairly open canopy, ensure plenty of sunlight and open space around tree

Also:

Make any necessary improvements to soil and drainage(see Planning)  – as with everything, when growing a lemon tree an ounce of preparation is worth a ton of cure!

If you are planting a lemon tree in a lawn, make sure that you leave at least two metres of grass-free area all around it. 

Selecting the right tree

My tip is to grow only the tried-and-true "Eureka" lemon if you want to make things easy on yourself.  There are some Florida-bred improved varieties of "Eureka" which are excellent, especially for the more humid climates.   The popular hybridised "Meyer" produces a lovely fruit but is just too prone to pests and diseases.  The Australian-bred "Lisbon" is rather like the Eureka but its dense canopy makes it harder to manage, especially in humid climates, and it's rather thorny. In my subtropical garden I grow only Eureka (after some trial and error with other lemon types) because:

  • Its thick skin is impervious to serious insect damage
  • It withstands long, dry periods but also copes well with seasonally heavy deluges
  • The fruit are large and born at the end of the branch, for easy picking
  • It bears an astounding amount of fruit, most prolifically in spring and early summer but with some fruit throughout the year
  • It needs very little attention

 

Planting

Best time to plant in all climates is late spring and early summer.

Dig a hole deep enough so that the base of the stem, just above the rootball, will sit level or just slightly below the level of the ground.  Make the hole wide enough so that the roots don't quite touch the sides and square off the corners slightly to encourage the roots to spread quickly and easily, so that your tree soon develops a good hold on the ground. Water well with about 1 ½ gals (5 liters) and leave to drain thoroughly.  Then put back the soil, making sure to firm it down well around the roots.  Make a shallow depression all around the stem so that water will collect there and not run uselessly away.  Water well, with at least another 1 ½ gals (5 liters).  Mulch, being sure to keep an organic mulch such as straw well clear of the stem.

Practice

Watering – give at least a gallon of water every day for the first week after planting.  Then water well  (about 1 ½ gals/5 liters) twice a week for the next month.  After that, give one good watering a week for at least a year, until the young tree is well-established.  More in very dry weather.  Even when it's raining, you'll need to give young trees a thorough watering because unless rainfall is very heavy it won't penetrate very deep into the soil.  This watering regime is an acceptable minimum, however lemon trees do best with lots of water (provided they are in well-drained soil) so if you have enough water to run a hose – or automatic irrigation dripper -  around the roots at least twice a week for about half an hour each time then your lemons will be particularly big and juicy.

Where I live we get heavy and generally reliable summer rainfall, with (usually) storm rains in late spring and reasonable rain in fall (autumn).  Winter and early spring is mostly dry.  I rely on natural rainfall and only water my lemon trees when we have gone for at least four weeks without any rain at all.  My lemons are not as juicy as I'd like but they are good enough – and as we are dependent on tank water we can't afford to waste any during dry periods.

So, summing up the water situation, the hotter and drier your climate, the more watering your lemon tree will need.

Fertilizing – After much trial and error I've developed a regime which works well, promoting good fruiting without making the tree too "soft".  Just before planting a new tree I dig plenty of home-made compost into the soil where the seedling is to grow.  After it's been in the ground for a year I give it a second application of compost, repeating this the following year, by which time a grafted, nursery-bought tree should be ready to start bearing fruit. The following autumn/early winter I apply a citrus fertilizer at the rate recommended on the packet.  And that's my regime – compost in spring and late summer, apply a bought fertilizer in late autumn/winter.  This regime needs to be modified slightly for "Lisbon" and other later bearing lemon varieties, by composting in late fall/early winter and adding a citrus fertilizer in late winter/spring. 

This is the simplest regime.  However compost can be added at any time during the year and more than one application will help improve poor, sandy or rocky soils. 

Mulching – Regular (at least twice a year) applications of an organic, fairly open soft mulch such as hay, straw or lucerne will protect and cool the root area and break down to improve soil quality.  Harder mulches such as nut hulls make a good mulch where soil is already of crumbly texture with high fertility.  In the tropics, pebble mulches, especially white pebbles, protect the soil washing away in deluges and help prevent fungal disease problems.

Pruning – keep your tree small, to make picking fruit easier.  Cut it back to manageable height after the main fruiting period is over and also thin out the centre to allow plenty of light and air in the canopy.  Remove any dead or damaged twigs and branches. 

These are the first four of the five GardenEzi easy gardening principles, which will help you plan, prepare, plant and establish a sound practice for growing a lemon tree in your backyard.  The fifth principle is PROTECTION and when it comes to growing lemon trees this is a very important principle indeed.  So important that it needs a separate article of its own!  So go and buy your lemon tree and follow Steps 1 – 4.  Then you'll be ready to read my follow-up article on Protecting Your Lemon Tree from Pests and Diseases.

About the Author

Julie Lake is a horticulturist and gardening writer with many years experience in creating great gardens and helping other people to do so. She is founder of the GardenEzi easy gardening concept, www.gardenezi.com,  and the author of many gardening books including the GardenEzi five-step program series Growing Great Azaleas, Gardening in a Hot Climate - Tropics and Subtropics, Tropical Foliage Gardening and the revolutionary  How to Have a Great Garden for Just Two Hours a Week.



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