How to grow lemon from seed
So you want to learn how to grow lemon from seed? Before you start, you need to think about what you want from the plant.
If you want to grow a beautiful lemon tree whether for the garden, the patio or as a houseplant with interesting greenery that has an enchanting lemony scent, then read on to find out how to grow a lemon tree from seed.
‘Citrus plants, like lemons, are excellent additions to conservatories and orangeries. As well as providing the ideal climate for the plants to thrive, they also lend the space a Mediterranean flair,’ says Melanie Griffiths, editor of Period Living.
How to grow lemons
If you want to harvest your own citrus fruit, then growing a lemon tree from seed is not the best option. This is because the seeds do not necessarily reflect the parent plant. Of course, you may strike lucky and your lemon tree will produce deliciously tangy yellow lemons.
But since it takes an average of five years for a lemon tree grown from seed to produce fruit – it’s definitely a high stakes gamble if you’re desperate to lemons to eat.
In this case, your best course of action is to grow your lemon tree from an established plant bought at a garden centre. These have either been grafted or grown from cuttings which mean they will replicate their fruit producing parent plant.
While this is a more expensive option, the average lemon tree can last up to 50 years and will produce fruit for nearly all that time once they reach full size. Alternatively, if you know someone with a lemon tree that produces good fruit, ask if you can take a cutting.
How to grow lemon from seed
Learning how to grow lemon from seed is an easy and affordable way to fill your home with beautiful lemon trees. So long as you have a lemon with pips, a pot of soil and a warm, light windowsill then you are good to go.
‘Ideally sow the pips in April, but any time of year is possible,’ advises Holly Farrell in her book Plants from Pips.
- Cut your lemon in half on a chopping board and remove the pips. Discard any small, shrivelled or sliced pips as these won’t germinate.
- Then place the remaining pips in a glass of water to see if they’re viable. If they sink they are good to plant but if they float then they probably won’t germinate.
- Since these lemons have not been bred to produce new plants and have instead been grown for their taste, you’ll want to plant at least 5 seeds to give you the best chances of successful germination.
- Having removed the seeds from the water, you now need to remove the slimy coating from the pips. This coating contains sugars which encourage rot and decay if planted. Usually this would be dissolved by the acid in the lemon as it decomposes but that takes a long time. Instead there are several ways to accelerate this process.
- Remove the coating by washing the pip under the tap or you can simply put the seed in your mouth and suck on it until the lemon flavor has gone – this is reportedly the easiest and quickest way to ensure all the coating has disappeared.
- Alternatively, you can remove the white shell from the seed. This is a little more fiddly and you have to be careful not to damage the seed inside. Use a craft knife to create a small nick that lets you peel the shell off.
- Do not allow the seed to dry out at any time, it needs to stay moist in order to germinate. If you are not planting immediately, then keep in a glass of water or wrapped in a wet paper towel until you’re ready to plant.
- Pick a small pot with lots of drainage, terracotta is a good choice as it allows moisture to leave the pot through the walls. This will help prevent root rot. Fill the pot with citrus compost – ideally a variety that includes sharp grit.
- Pre-moisten the soil and then plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep.
- Place in a warm location, like a windowsill and be sure that the soil never completely dries out.
Can you germinate lemon seeds in paper towel?
Yes, you can germinate lemon seeds in a paper towel and it’s pretty easy to do.
- Remove the white shell from the seed in the same way as outline above.
- Position the seeds about 1/2 an inch apart on a paper towel and carefully cover with another sheet.
- Wrap the ends of the paper towels so that they are folded underneath to create a little parcel.
- Spray the paper towel parcel until its wet and then seal in a ziploc bag – be sure to keep air in the bag.
- Place in a warm dark space and check on them daily so they don’t dry out. If they start to look dry, spray the paper towel parcel with more water.
- Once sprouted open the paper towel parcel.
- Once they have grown to 1.5 inches long. Fill a terracotta pot with citrus compost and plant the germinated seeds in the soil.
- Move the pot to a warm sunny location – like a windowsill – so your seedlings can continue to grow.
How long does it take to grow a lemon tree from seed?
It takes around three to six years to grow a mature lemon tree from seed, with fruit starting to be produced at around year five. However, it only takes a few months to get a small lemon tree that will look pretty in a pot in your home.
Can you plant lemon seeds from a store bought lemon?
Yes, you can plant lemon seeds from a store bought lemon. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that not all store bought lemons will have seeds, or viable seeds. You will also have a higher chance of germination if you buy an organic lemon as they won’t have been subjected to the same pesticides and fertilisers so the seeds inside are more likely to be viable.
Will dry lemon seeds germinate?
No, dry lemon seeds will not germinate. You are best planting the seed as soon as possible after harvesting the pips from the fruit. If you need to wait, however, you can put the seeds in a glass of water overnight and then plant the following day.
Should I grow my lemon tree in the ground or in a container?
Unless you live in a place with very warm temperatures all year around and no risk of frost, then you should grow your lemon trees in containers rather than in the ground.
‘Containers are ideal for tender plants like citrus (e.g. lemon) that live outside in summer, and come back indoors for winter,’ says Homes & Gardens‘ garden expert Teresa Conway. ‘Make a feature of your container displays in summer, grouping your pots prominently on the patio or deck. Remember to bring them inside before the first frosts in late autumn.’
This feature was created by H&G’s sister brand, Period Living magazine
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Period Living is the UK’s best-selling period homes magazine. A subscription provides you with all you need to know about caring for and improving a traditional house and garden.
Having graduated with a degree in English Literature four years ago, I started my career as a features writer and sub-editor at Period Living magazine, H&G’s sister title. Over the last four years, I have been learning all the intricacies of owning and caring for a period home from designing a luxury bathroom through to choosing the right windows for your old property. From here, I have honed my writing, developing interest in traditional interior design, especially kitchens. Writing for the Homes & Gardens website as a content editor, alongside Period Living and Country Homes & Interiors magazines, has also enabled me to write content focused around my interests, gardening and nature. There’s nothing I love more than getting out in the garden and adding new plants to my ever growing collection. When not writing, I can often be found in the kitchen myself and have a particular passion for baking. I also like to get out and about, hiking through the countryside and visiting National Trust properties.
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Growing Lemon Trees from Seed
Lemons are a great way to add flavor and bright acidity to home-cooked meals. Beyond our everyday cooking, I use them by the dozen making homemade limoncello. I also usually add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to homemade jam recipes, to both balance the sugar and add pectin to help the jam set.
All of that adds up to a lot of lemons in a year, which in turn means a lot of lemon seeds.
I always felt bad just composting them. Why not plant lemon seeds instead?
It turns out, lemon trees are incredibly easy to grow from seed. The seeds germinate so easily that some people plant them by the cup full and grow them as a potpourri (since the young leaves are so fragrant).
Lemon leaf potpourri might be a nice novelty, but I’m more interested in growing lemon trees from seed. About a decade ago I started planting lemon seeds and raising lemon trees at home so I could harvest our own homegrown lemons.
The trees aren’t exactly hardy here in Vermont, but growing lemon trees in pots allows you to bring them indoors during the winter months.
These fast-growing trees go from seedling to producing full-sized lemons in about 3 years, so it’s well worth the effort.
A young lemon tree seedling on our windowsill. This one’s just a few months old, but it’s already about 6-8” tall.
Growing Lemon Trees from Seed
Growing a lemon tree from seed, whether it eventually produces fruit or not, is a worthwhile endeavor if you’re curious about propagating seeds or learning how citrus trees grow. They’re fun houseplants that are not only beautiful but the leaves and foliage smell wonderful.
The actual fruit is just the icing on the cake, but it doesn’t take much to get them to produce.
Grown indoors, lemon trees will typically produce fruit after 2 to 3 years. Sometimes you’ll get a tree that doesn’t end up growing lemons, but that doesn’t mean the tree itself is a lemon, so to speak, as tending to a fruit-less lemon plant is still a pleasant and rewarding experience.
All you need to get started is a healthy-looking, juicy lemon (more specifically, its seeds). If possible, choose an organic lemon, or one that hasn’t been treated with pesticides.
Remove the seeds from a cut lemon carefully, they need to be intact (read: no cuts) when planted. I use my fingers to remove them from the fruit and then rinse them off using cool water, you want to get rid of any remaining pulp as the residual sugar causes fungus to grow, which in turn leads to seed rot.
Lemon seeds pulled out of a fresh organic lemon.
Lemon Tree Seed Germination
Unlike some seeds that require a germination period in paper towel or water, lemon seeds should be planted as soon as they’ve been rinsed.
Try not to let them dry out, they should still be wet when planted.
Plant the wet lemon seeds in a small pot with drainage holes, using pasteurized soil mix (the pasteurization part is important, as it improves the likelihood your lemon seeds will grow without issue).
At this point in the process, you can plant several seeds in a single pot. The seeds only need to be planted a 1/2-inch deep to successfully propagate, the soil should be gently moistened with water and the container covered with plastic wrap to keep the growing environment damp but not wet.
The growing lemon seeds need to be kept in warm environment, about 70° F, during the initial germination period. If your house runs cold, the top of the refrigerator is a good place to keep the pots.
Depending on the seeds and growing conditions, you should see growth in 1 to 3 weeks.
As soon as you notice the seedlings poking through the soil, remove the plastic wrap and place the pot in a warm, bright location. When the seedlings have grown several leaves, it’s time to transplant them to larger potting containers.
Using the same pasteurized soil mix as before, carefully move the seedings into containers that are 4 to 6 inches in diameter.
As the tree grows, replant it in a larger container to match its size and give the plant a good pruning in the spring.
Lemon Tree Care
The planted, germinated seedlings should be placed in a location where they’ll receive at least 6 hours of sunlight during the day, at a temperature between 60° and 70° F.
Keep the soil moist by watering when the top 2 to 3 inches feels dry, you can test this by sticking your finger directly into the soil and feeling for wetness. Like other plants, when lemon trees need water the leaves will begin to droop.
Unless you live in a truly cold climate, bring your lemon trees outside when the warm weather hits. Even if this is only for a few months, the steady, direct sun will make it so your trees are more likely to eventually produce fruit.
I’m fortunate, also, that we have a small greenhouse built off of the side of the house, which is where we keep our potted lemon trees throughout the spring and autumn months. The greenhouse extends their “outdoor” time, but we still have to bring them indoors for the coldest part of winter.
Lemon trees growing in our attached greenhouse in spring, next to our annual garden starts. They’re about ready to go outdoors for the summer season, once the risk of frost is past.
Lemon Tree Hardiness
Lemon trees are usually hardy to zone 9, meaning they can handle a very occasional light frost. They’ll take damage if the temps go below 32 F (or 0 C), but most can survive to 28 F (or -2 C). Some trees are a bit tougher and can make it as low as 22 F (or -5 C), but it’s best not to risk it.
When you see a frost warning in your area, it’s time to bring your lemon trees indoors for the season.
Best Fertilizer for Indoor Lemon Trees
You can keep your lemon trees happy during the warmer months by feeding them a water-soluble nitrogen- and potassium-rich fertilizer every two to four weeks, making sure the surrounding soil stays nice and moist (but not overwatered or soggy).
A common mistake is to apply fertilizer to lemon trees in winter when they’re indoors. People see the trees dropping leaves and panic. They start watering more and add fertilizer, which is just the opposite of what the trees need.
If the trees start to drop leaves indoors in the winter, reduce watering, stop fertilizing and allow the trees to go dormant. They’ll perk right back up in the spring once they’re in bright light again.
Winter Lemon Tree Care
The type of lemon tree winter care your plants need is entirely dependent on where you live, ambient temperature, and light exposure. So, for example, if you’re from a warm locale such as California or Florida, you can keep lemon tree plants outside in their pots all year long.
On the other hand, if you’re living in a cooler climate where the days get very short during the winter, it’s vital that the plants are brought indoors during that time. Keep the trees in a warm, draft-free location inside.
Reduce the watering schedule and cease fertilizer applications, waiting to resume until the following spring.
Here in Vermont, we keep our lemon trees indoors for the winter for about 4 months of the year.
As you can see in the photos, the greenhouse is an ideal place to grow citrus trees indoors during the shoulder seasons. The main idea is to avoid frost, so bring in the lemon trees before the first frost and after the (hopefully) last frost of the winter.
It’s normal, and in fact healthy, for plants to undergo a state of dormancy during this time. You might find the lemon tree stops growing or it loses some of its leaves; this is your plant’s way of conserving its energy and isn’t something to be worried about.
Once the weather warms up and the sunlight increases your lemon tree will begin to grow with gusto once more.
This 18-month-old lemon tree seedling is just going out to our attached greenhouse in the late winter. You can still see snow on the ground outside, but the greenhouse will allow the lemon tree to get a jump start on the growing season before it moves outdoors in the summer.
Harvesting and Using Lemons
After a period of 1 to 3 years, your lemon tree might begin to produce fruit. Lemons can take up to 6 month to ripen, depending on the variety, and are ready to be picked when they have firm, glossy skin and are 2 to 3 inches in size.
If you’re growing lemons from seed in a colder climate, your lemon crop will be small.
If, however, you lived in warmer part of the United States (or any other warm climate), you’ll be able to harvest lemons by the bucketload.
In either case, preserving lemons by one means or another is a fantastic way to hang on to that “fresh from the tree” flavor. My favorite and most hands-off way of preserving lemons is to make limoncello, a traditional sweet-tart Italian digestif that can be sipped on its own after a meal or mixed into a cocktail (like this effervescent drink made with limoncello, prosecco, and sparkling lemon soda).
Looking for more ways to preserve the fruits of your labor? Check out these options: