Growing a lemon tree can be rewarding
Australians have some funny terms for things sometimes. If something doesn’t work, it can be called a lemon. I owned a car once that turned out to be a lemon - broke down 10 km from home and never ran again – that’s what Aussies call a lemon! However, if you’ve ever owned a lemon tree or had one available to you with plenty of fruit to share, then you will know that a lemon tree is definitely not a lemon!
Lemons are very versatile in the kitchen – their juice and zest can be added to drinks, marinades, dressings, puddings, cakes, biscuits and sorbets – yet some gardeners often find them difficult to grow. Providing vitamins galore in the middle of winter and adding sweet or tart flavours to your favourite dish, a lemon can be used in so many ways- from the old fashioned sore throat remedy of lemon and honey to adding it to your spanakopita to give it some zing, there are so many uses for lemons, that having a tree at your place is worth the investment.
They will grow quite happily in a sunny spot or down at the end of the garden where they get very little attention. Lemons will happily grow in a pot with regular care, feeding and watering to produce a healthy crop or they can be espaliered against a fence. To do this, tie the stems to horizontal wires along the fence and place the wires about 20 cm apart. This way the trees provide an evergreen screen to hide the fence.
If you only have a small space, make sure you choose a near thornless variety such as Eureka. If you want (almost) year round fruiting, then you should make a Meyer lemon a priority in your garden –they do have big thorns, however as the tree grows older and stronger - and better able to handle animal damage - the thorns usually diminish. Lemonade lemons provide a slightly sweeter variety of the old sour favourite and are great for making cakes, desserts and cordial.
Plant your lemon tree where you want it to end up – lemons don’t like being shifted so take care when transplanting it that you don’t disturb the root ball. If you do, the tree may drop all of its leaves and look like it has died for a couple of years, but if you keep feeding it with an organic supplement and keep the water up to it, it should come good – don’t give up on it! I transplanted one a few years ago that took about three years to recover and when it did, it went off like a rocket and never looked back – but it sulked for at least two winters and I missed out on a lot of lemons in the meantime. And the old adage is true – if you want to fertilise them naturally, get a man friend to water it about once a week – they really do respond well to it – but don’t let him overdo it – too much uric acid and the tree will not be happy either it’s all about balance. This technique is not recommended however, if the tree is in a pot on your front porch where all the neighbours can observe the watering!
Trees don’t need pruning to fruit well, however they may need pruning to fit in the space you have. Prune lemon trees gradually – small prunings on a regular basis will keep it happy; then if you need to do something more drastic to keep it under control, prune it when it is dormant and not about to blossom or fruit. Older trees benefit from a hard ‘renovation’ prune every 5-10 years after fruiting by removing deadwood, rubbing branches and inward-facing branches, and reducing all other branches by at least half. Removing the inward-facing branches will open up the tree into a vase shape and get more light and air into the tree, which will help by reducing the risk of disease.
There are some warning signs to watch out for to make sure you get great fruit from your tree. Yellowing leaves are a sign of iron deficiency, cold temperatures or lack of feeding. Feed regularly (once a season) with blood and bone to combat this problem. Citrus leaf miner is a little insect that makes small tunnels in new leaves. A fortnightly spray of Eco Oil during the warmer months (Spring – through to Autumn) will encourage them to go elsewhere, as well as protect the plant from sooty mould, scale and mealy bug. Citrus gall wasps lay eggs inside the outer branches, so make sure you check them regularly. They will cause a deformed branch lump. If you find these, remove all the branches affected with galls and burn them to stop the spread of the disease any further.
If you have been kind to your lemon tree then an inevitable glut of lemons will follow and you will be popular with friends and family members alike – my neighbour sells them from her front gate for $1 a bag or you could give them away as a gesture of good will or barter or exchange them for something else. Perhaps take them along to your local food swap and pick up something else in return.
If you’re a whiz in the kitchen, you can make lemon butter, preservative free lemon cordial, lemon cakes, lemon muffins, preserved lemons, lemon icing, cakes, biscuits, biscotti or simply use them with your seafood dishes. You can even use them for cleaning the house as they help remove stains, providing a light bleaching agent and a fresh smell as well.
There is no doubt that getting yourself a fantastic citrus tree such as a lemon will be an addition to your garden that you won’t regret as it faithfully provides you with fruit, year after year. Make sure you talk to your local garden experts to find the variety that will suit your garden and your needs best. Otherwise it might just end up being a lemon!