Plants I love

The supermodel of lemons

A few weeks ago the baby green fruit on my lemons were so well-camouflaged I feared the harvest would be a dud. But they have now fattened up and are starting to weigh down the branches with promise of lemons through to summer.

I grow ‘Dwarf Meyer’ in pots. The meyer is thought to be a cross between a lemon and one of the Chinese oranges. Frank Meyer, who worked for the US Department of Agriculture, found it on a visit China in 1908, and naturally he named it after himself. The parentage explains its deliciously sweet flavour and beautiful smooth skin.

Meyer lemon

My supermodel reference is all about the skin – look at that glowing complexion and tiny pores!

Its good looks and fine flavour are reason enough to grow it, and there are practical considerations too. A dwarf meyer, grafted on to ‘Flying dragon’ rootstock, gets to just 1.5 metres, which means the fruit is always easy to reach. I considered a dwarf version of the ‘Eureka’ lemon, which has the benefit of year-round fruit, but it gets to 3m, which is not dwarf enough.

To grow lemons successfully in containers, go large. Forty centimeters in diameter is the minimum, but bigger is better. Use a quality potting mix and choose a spot with at least six hours of sun a day. Water regularly, but don’t let the roots get sodden. Ditch the pot saucer or anything else that would prevent water draining from the pot. Feed often. Lemons are called gross feeders, which is the horticultural term for ‘must be fed like a sumo wrestler’. Use something organic like Dynamic Lifter Plus Fruit Food every two or three months. The lemon’s hungry habit means that gardeners should resist the temptation to underplant with a fringe of blue lobelia looping over the pot, or a blast of freesias mixing scents with the lemon blossom in spring. Gorgeous, but, trust me on this, they will diminish the health and vigour of the lemon.

Villa Gamberaia

What do the Italians not know about growing lemons in pots! These at Villa Gamberaia, above Florence

It’s not necessary to prune lemons to promote fruiting, so the only pruning needed is to tidy the plant, trim it to shape, or remove dead growth.

Espaliered lemon, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

If you did want to get busy with the secateurs, lemons make a good espalier subject. These on the sunny south-facing wall of Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore.

A warning: there will be pests. Green or black sap-sucking aphids may attack new growth through the warm weather and citrus leaf miner will put silvery trails through leaves in summer and autumn. Squish the aphids and control leafminer with sprays of Eco-oil or Pest Oil. Scale might get a hold if the tree gets water-stressed, and this can cause a cascade of problems. The scale produces honeydew, which in turn causes sooty black mould and attracts ants. The ants protect their honeydew feast by protecting the scale against predators. To avoid all this keep the tree sun-drenched and regularly watered and fed. If scale attacks, Eco-oil or Pest Oil will deal with all but a major infestation, and if ants are a problem, smear a barrier of Vaseline around the trunk. But don’t get fixated on potential problems. The minimal effort demanded is more than compensated for by the pleasure of sunshiny lemons all through winter.



2 thoughts on “The supermodel of lemons

  1. Ruth McMahon says:

    Robin, when you discuss problems, you talk about them being “water stressed” and how this can lead to pests. Do you mean too much water or enough?
    I am having exactly the same scenario with my large lilly pillys which are in pots on my northern balcony.

    • Robin Powell says:

      Hi Ruth, scale tends to hit plants that are already feeling unwell. In the case of lemons, that might be not enough sun, or not enough water. For your lillypillies, it could be not enough water, or perhaps not enough nutrition. If I were you I’d probably start with a soilwetter as I find that after a hot summer, the mix in pots stops taking up water and it just runs straight out of the pot. The soilwetter breaks the surface tension (I use Eco-hydrate) and allows the pot to take up plenty of water. Then try feeding with a native fertiliser. If you already have scale, you’ll need to get on top of that too to get the plants back to good health.

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