Squeeze All You Can May 18: Plant a Lemon Tree Day

Pity the poor, maligned lemon, regularly associated with things gone wrong.

The terrible first date, the new car that quit running a mile off the lot, basically any defective product — they’re all referred to as “lemons.”

And this is despite the fact that lemon trees, with their glossy green leaves and fragrant blooms, make an attractive addition to any in-ground garden in USDA zones 9-11, and can also be container-grown.

It also ignores the fact that lemons are a key ingredient in some of life’s delights. After all, there’s nothing so refreshing as a fresh glass of lemonade on a hot day or as satisfying as a slice of tart lemon meringue pie, well, just about any time.

And what about those invigorating, lemon-scented cleaning products we’re drawn to, which came about because of lemons’ natural antibacterial properties? No one ever describes their home as smelling limey-fresh.

Though we don’t know for sure how “lemons” came to mean something negative, one theory is that when something doesn’t work out as it should, we say it leaves a bad taste in our mouth, just like an overly bitter lemon does. (History also suggests that lemon was once a synonym for “loser,” but the origins of that are even murkier.)

Equally unclear is how or why the third Sunday of May became Plant a Lemon Tree Day (in 2024, that’s May 18). But since it is, here’s what makes the lemon worth celebrating and how to add lemon trees to your landscape.

Dense, evergreen canopy

In ancient times, lemons were considered a luxury item, rare and expensive. 

Southeast Asian cooks began using lemons to flavor and preserve their foods as long ago as 2,000 B.C. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egypt treated illnesses with lemons, including scurvy, wounds and digestive ailments, and medieval Europeans expanded the practice to care for coughs and the plague.

Today, we know that lemons are a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants. 

Most modern gardeners, though, love lemons for their culinary versatility. Having a crop of fresh lemons as close as your back door means you can whip up a pitcher of coolers in minutes or can avoid a trip to the store when a recipe calls for grated zest or fruit slices.

What’s more, lemon trees are easy to cultivate and can help bring continuous shade and beauty to your yard. That’s because unlike deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall, lemon trees are actually evergreen. Old leaves are continuously replaced by new ones, meaning the canopy remains regardless of the season.

It’s important to note, however, that while lemon trees produce fragrant white blooms year-round in warm climates, their flowers are seasonal in other regions. 

Lemon trees’ dense foliage provides more than adequate shelter for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Lemon trees also produce nectar, but their ability to entice pollinators to aid in fruit production is limited: The blossoms might not be as appealing to pollinators as other flowering plants.

There’s still potential for a good yield, however. Some lemon varieties are self-pollinating, meaning they can produce fruit without the help of pollinators. In general, cross-pollination results in larger, more uniform fruit.

Creating a more pollinator-friendly environment by adding companion plants — flowering herbs, shrubs, and wildflowers — alongside your lemon tree is worth the effort.

Easy to plant and care for 

As with any gardening endeavor, before you purchase a lemon tree, you’ll want to research which varieties thrive in your climate. Don’t forget to take factors such as mature tree size, fruit production, and cold tolerance into account.

Lemon trees like sunlight, so plant them in a location that gets at least six to eight hours of direct sun each day. They also prefer well-draining soil. Improve your soil with compost or organic matter if needed. Consider the mature size of the tree when planting. 

The planting process is simple:

  1. Dig a hole: For in-ground planting, dig a hole 2-3 times wider than the root ball and slightly deeper.
  2. Prepare the root ball: Loosen the root ball gently to encourage outward root growth.
  3. Position the tree: Place the tree in the hole, ensuring the root flare (base of the trunk) is slightly above soil level.
  4. Backfill and water: Fill the hole with soil, tamping gently to remove air pockets. Water thoroughly to settle the soil.
  5. Mulch: Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of the tree but keep it a few inches away from the trunk to prevent rot.

Once the tree is planted, water regularly, especially during hot, dry periods; fertilize with a balanced citrus fertilizer according to package directions; and prune after fruiting to maintain the tree’s shape.

For container planting, consider a dwarf variety that you can move indoors during colder months. Choose a pot with adequate drainage holes that’s twice the diameter of the root ball.

With the right start and some basic care, you’ll have a tree that enhances your yard immediately. And though it may require patience on your part to wait out the time it takes for fruit production (it can be as long as six years), it’s likely the experience will be easy peezy lemon squeezy.


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