Lemon Tree Growth Stages | Life Cycle

I might live in a climate that’s too cold to support lemons but I still think this is one of the most versatile fruit trees for the home orchard. From lemonade to tarts, there’s no shortage of uses for a few fresh lemons!

While lemons tend to mature faster than any other type of citrus, it still takes several years for a tree to go from seed to bearing fruit. In this article, I’ll break down each of the various lemon tree growth stages in greater detail.

Conditions for Growing Lemon Trees

Lemons are only hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11 and comparable climates. With enough sunlight, however, it’s possible to grow these citrus trees indoors. 

In fact, there’s a local storefront down the street from my house that has a lemon and a lime tree potted in its front window. Small fruit appears throughout the year, and we’re several zones away from being able to cultivate these plants outdoors!

A lemon tree should receive about 8 hours of sunlight per day for optimal growth. When it comes to growing lemons indoors, I’m equally as concerned with the quality of light as I am with the duration. In many regions, only the light within a few inches of a bright, south-facing window will suffice.

All citrus varieties are sensitive to the cold but lemons are especially so. Be prepared to bring potted trees indoors or cover inground trees with blankets if your area experiences unusually low temperatures. 

Lemon trees require well-draining soil to prevent common health problems like root rot. Before planting lemons in the landscape, I recommend testing the soil salinity and pH level. Lemon trees prefer low salinity and an acidic pH between 5.5 and 6.5.

Lemon trees are surprisingly drought-tolerant once established. During the first year or so, however, weekly watering might be necessary. While consistent moisture is crucial for good blossom and fruit development, you should also be cognizant of lemon trees’ sensitivity to soggy soil.

The last key to growing healthy lemons is nutrition. These fruit trees are vigorous growers and heavy feeders but excess fertilizer can cause root damage. I recommend a low-concentration fertilizer with a nutrient ratio of 2-1-1 or 3-1-1. Balanced formulas (i.e., 1-1-1) also work well for lemon trees growing in nutrient-rich soil.

Growth Stages Of Lemon Tree 

It takes at least 3 to 5 years for a lemon tree to grow from seed to bear fruit. According to the University of California, however, it’s not unusual for some seed-grown citrus trees to fruit for the first time only after 10+ years of growth.

The vast majority of commercially available lemon trees — i.e., those sold at your local plant nursery — are grafted. Grafted trees may bear fruit after just 2 to 3 years.

Once mature, some lemon trees flower and fruit at a specific time each year while others set fruit intermittently throughout the year. 

There are dozens of different lemon varieties available to choose from. In day-to-day life, however, most of us will only encounter a handful of types. Some of the most popular include:

  • ‘Meyer’
  • ‘Eureka’
  • ‘Lisbon’
  • ‘Bearrs’

The average lemon tree reaches about 20 feet tall at maturity. Dwarf varieties — that typically grow to a maximum height of 6 to 10 feet — are commonly used for container planting. Smaller trees will sometimes (but certainly not always) reach maturity sooner than full-size varieties.

1. Seed Germination 

Like other citrus varieties, the seeds of lemon are oblong, pointed, and light in color. The outer seed coating tends to have a striated texture. Lemon seeds average ¼ inch to less than ½ inch in length.

A viable lemon seed should germinate in 5 to 14 days at an average temperature of 70°F. 

During germination, the first bit of growth to emerge from the seed is a primary root called a radicle. The radicle is responsible for anchoring the seed and providing soil access early on.

The seed’s plumule, or primary shoot, emerges shortly after the radicle. Unlike the radicle, however, this shoot intuitively grows up to pierce the soil’s surface.

According to New Mexico State University, some lemon seeds will produce more than one sprout. These seeds are polyembryonic, meaning that they contain multiple embryos (each capable of producing a single sprout). 

Only one sprout from a polyembryonic seed is the result of pollination. This sprout contains genetic material from both a father (the pollen) and a mother (the fertilized flower ovary). All of the other sprouts are genetic clones of the mother plant developed asexually.

2. Seedlings

When a lemon seed’s plumule breaks through the soil’s surface, it already has two rudimentary leaves known as cotyledons. These leaves differ from the plant’s mature foliage and actually develop inside the seed as part of the germination process.

Cotyledons are a valuable energy source for a young sprout. I like to compare a plant seed to a bird’s egg, with the cotyledons being the ‘yolk’.

It might take 14 to 21 days for a lemon tree seedling to produce its first ‘true’ leaf. From there, photosynthesis and overall growth will increase significantly. Don’t be alarmed if the cotyledons eventually wilt and drop off as mature foliage takes over.

At this stage, the lemon tree’s stem will be green and soft. You won’t see bark or additional woody growth for at least another 30 to 90 days. 

After 90 days, the average lemon seedling is mature enough to be transplanted and treated as a young tree rather than a delicate sprout.

3. Vegetative Growth

With proper care, a lemon sapling can grow quite fast. It’s not uncommon for a young tree to grow up to 12 inches per year!

The first several years of a lemon tree’s life are devoted to vegetative growth. During this time, the tree will increase in height and diameter and develop bark. It will also put out dozens of new branches and leaves that are thicker and larger than those from the seedling stage. 

Most lemon cultivars develop thorns along their trunks and branches at this point. These thorns are incredibly sharp but quite large, so a bit of caution is all that’s needed to avoid being pricked.

Keep in mind that a lemon tree will continue putting on size and new growth for its entire life. While the vegetative growth that occurs prior to flowering tends to be the most obvious, this stage never truly ends.

4. Bud Development

You’ll know a lemon tree has more or less reached maturity when it starts forming flower buds. Lemon flower buds are usually light pink or purple, forming clusters near stem ends.

Buds may start developing many months before blooming actually occurs. This development period is crucial to future flowering and fruit sets, so be sure to take good care of your lemon tree and protect the young buds from things like cold damage.

 lemon tree
Lemon tree flowering

5. Flowering

Once opened, lemon tree flowers are bright white and have 5 petals. Lemons have what are known as ‘perfect’ flowers, meaning that each blossom has both female and male reproductive parts.

Most lemon varieties primarily flower in the spring and/or fall. However, some trees display intermittent flowering throughout the year. In my experience, this is most common in indoor trees that aren’t exposed to normal seasonal changes.

Lemon tree flowering is triggered by cool nighttime temperatures. As a general rule, nightly temperatures averaging 5 to 10 degrees lower than those during the day are best for blooming. (The reason most lemons flower in the spring and fall is that these seasons tend to have naturally cooler nights.)

6. Pollination

Nearly all lemon trees are self-fertile, so you only need one tree to produce edible fruit! This isn’t the case for many fruit trees, which instead ‘filter out’ pollen originating from their own flowers to increase genetic diversity.

Planting multiple trees in a single location, however, can increase the odds of pollination via insects and birds. Most citrus varieties are capable of cross-pollinating, so you don’t necessarily need to plant only lemon trees, either. 

7. Fruiting

Each fertilized flower is capable of turning into a single lemon fruit. Fruit development and ripening can take anywhere from 120 to 365 days depending on the lemon type and growing environment.

If your lemon tree does cross-pollinate with another citrus, the fruit will remain true to the mother plant. Only the seeds inside the fruit will be affected by cross-pollination.

Why not take a look at Companion Plants for Lemon Trees | Good and Bad 

When To Harvest Lemons

Lemons need 120 to 365 days (or 4 to 12 months) to ripen before being ready to harvest. 

Tell-tale signs that your lemons are ready to harvest include being:

  • Yellow or yellow-green in color
  • Glossy
  • Firm to the touch
  • About 2 to 3 inches across

I find that color is the least important factor when determining a lemon’s ripeness. It’s almost always better to err on the side of harvesting slightly early, when the fruit is still a bit green, versus too late.

Lemon Plant
Lemon crop ready for harvesting, with a slightly green tint on the skin

You may be interested to read Can You Grow Avocado Trees Indoors and Do They Fruit

FAQ Lemon Tree Growth Stages

Citations

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.