Plants I love

Lemon time

Lemons are weighing down the trees at my place, so this weekend I made the 16th century classic – syllabub.  It seems supremely unlikely, but if you put the juice and zest of a lemon in a bowl with 75g sugar and 100ml of white wine, let the flavours infuse for an hour or two, then add 250ml pure cream, whip it to soft peaks, spoon it into little sherry glasses, and chill it in the fridge, it will taste like the most magic and dreamy lemon mousse.

As it’s lemon time, here’s the story I wrote recently for Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald.


Potted lemons at Villa Gamberaia

Potted lemons at Villa Gamberaia

The famously large collections of potted lemons in the Renaissance villas of northern Italy were shifted indoors during winter – pot by back-breaking pot – to purpose-built glasshouses called limonaia. The effort of lugging hundreds of trees led lemons to be designated by how many men it took to shift them; an average tree was a six-man job. (I learnt this in Helena Atlee’s riveting book on the history and culture of citrus in Italy, ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’.)

I don’t know how many men it would take to shift my two potted lemons, because as an essentially lazy gardener, my lemons have not been moved for the 20 or so years I’ve grown them – nor have been re-potted. Instead, following advice given to me by a nurseryman years ago, I keep the leaf canopy pruned to not much bigger than the diameter of the pot. My man told me that cutting back the plant would trigger it to naturally trim its feeder roots in response, keeping everything in balance. It seems to have worked.

The potting mix is replenished each year as the level drops and a mulch helps keep the surface roots moist, but I think my success is mostly due to the spot the two pots have against a north-facing wall. Lemons like lots of sun; at least six hours of direct sun a day. Less than that and the tree becomes stressed, allowing all the usual pests and diseases to hop aboard.

Not re-potting does mean you have to pay a bit more attention to feeding and watering. I aim to fertilise four times a year with an organic fertiliser, and because time passes so fast and it’s easy to get behind, I also give a liquid feed of something organic whenever I get a chance.

Watering should be regular and deep. Potting mix shrinks if it dries out causing water to run down the sides of the pot or down some other well-established channel. To prevent this I use a soil wetter whenever I think the pots aren’t taking up as much water as they should. Watering lemons in pots is not a job for the impatient. A quick job is a bad job. The hose should be a gentle spray like an Irish rain that slowly soaks the potting mix.

Fortunately there’s plenty to do while you’re standing there. You can diagnose any problems, notice growth habits, breathe in the fragrance, count the bounty – about 70 lemons on each tree this year – and dream up what you’ll do with them. In memory of those Italian lemon-lovers perhaps a lemon risotto this weekend.

Espalier citrus, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, italy

Not potted, but Italian and gorgeous nonetheless – the espaliered citrus at Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore, Italy.


One thought on “Lemon time

  1. Susan Davis says:

    Hi Robin loved your articles about lemons and pomegranates. Have moved my lemon and lime to the north wall and have ordered pomegranates. One for the home orchard and one for the kitchen garden at work.
    Thanks for the info and inspiration.

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