How to Water Lemon Trees


How to water lemon trees

Have you ever turned to your beloved lemon tree only to see that it is ailing? Perhaps the leaves have dropped off, and you suspect drought is the culprit. Or have you been heavy-handed with the watering and misplaced aft of kindness?

I, too, have gone through the trials and tribulations of lemon tree growing both indoors and outdoors. However, I now work in a garden center and have lots of first-hand experience in effectively watering lemon trees so that they thrive rather than lose their leaves due to drought or overwatering.

I have even spoken directly to some specialist citrus grows in the Mediterranean to tap into their expertise.

In this post, I’ll share with you all my tips and techniques to effectively water lemon trees indoors, outdoors and at different time of the year…

Let’s get straight to the point, shall we? Here is my brief low down…

Lemon trees are sensitive to overwatering, so water your lemon tree only when the top two inches of the soil have dried out, and then soak it generously. Lemon trees require more water in the Summer and should be watered less often in the Winter to avoid root rot.

As I alluded to earlier, it is important to get the watering right when growing lemon trees as they are susceptible to root rot which is caused by overwatering and slow-draining soils.

Lemon trees demand more water in the Summer as they prefer full sun and they are actively growing and have much less water in the Winter as they are in a state of dormancy.

Keep reading to learn how often and how much lemon trees should be watered in pots and gardens so they meet their water requirements and avoid root rot…

How Often to Water Lemon Trees

Interestingly enough, from my research, citrus plants are native to subtropical areas of India and China. However, lemon trees are a domestic form of citrus plant and have been cultivated most extensively in the Mediterranean.

Lemon trees thrive in Mediterranean environments with full sun and lots of heat, but their roots should not be sat in consistently moist soil as this causes water stress and promotes the conditions for the fungal disease root rot.

The soil around your lemon tree must dry out somewhat between bouts of watering as this replicates the natural watering cycle in their native environment. (I think it helps if we consider the weather in the Mediterranean, which has infrequent rainfall).

When I first started working at the garden center, the best technuiqe I was taught was that Lemon trees should be watered when the top two inches of the soil feel dry to the touch.

This is really important because I see universal watering advice given out online for lemon trees, which is why I think so many people have problems overwatering them.

Testing the soil to a finger’s depth can easily establish how often lemon trees should be watered in your climate, as it may take longer for the soil to dry out from one part of the country to another.

If the soil feels damp, I delay watering for a few days, but if it feels dry, this is the perfect time to water.

How often you should water, therefore, varies according to your climate and conditions.

I have listed the factors that can affect how often to water your lemon trees in order of importance:

  • Heat and humidity (humidity reduces water loss from the leaves and slow evaporation from the soil)
  • Hours of direct sun (Lemon trees prefer full sun).
  • The size of the pot in which it is planted (Smaller pots can dry out much quicker).
  • The material of the pot (clay and terracotta dries out more quickly than plastic pots).
  • The color of the pot (black pots dry out much quicker than lighter-colored pots and planters.
  • The amount of airflow (Windy areas sap moisture from the leaves quicker).
  • The capacity of the soil to retain moisture. (Lemon trees require good drainage to prevent root rot).
  • The time of year for your tree (Watering frequency varies significantly from Summer to Winter).

Every climate, garden, and home has different conditions, so it is important to adjust how often you water your lemon tree to meet its water requirements without overwatering and promote the condition of root rot.

What I’ve learned is that as long as the top two inches of the soil feel dry to the touch before watering, then you should avoid any problems.

Pro tip: I would recommend avoiding planting your lemon trees in black pots as lemon trees prefer to grow in full sun. On hot sunny days, the black pot absorbs all the heat from the sun and dries out the lemon tree’s potting soil before the roots have a chance to draw upon the moisture they require. I prefer white pots. I have even painted clay pots white which has made a real difference to my citrus trees.

How to Tell if you are Watering too Infrequently (Symptoms of Overwatered Lemon Trees)

The first indication of a lemon tree suffering from drought stress is when the leaves of your tree begin to curl with an overall drooping appearance.

In my experience, Lemon trees with curled leaves revive very quickly as long as you water them with a generous soak, and they return to a healthier appearance after around 2 cycles of watering.

However, I have observed that Lemon trees with severe drought stress can cause the leaves to turn brown and the leaves to drop off. Lemon trees drop their leaves as a survival strategy to minimize further water loss from foliage, which is a good tactic.

It should be noted that if your lemon tree is dropping leaves, this can indicate other problems as opposed to just drought stress.

(Read my article on lemon trees dropping leaves to learn why it’s happening and how to solve the problem).

How to Tell if You Are Watering Lemon Trees Too Much…

The easiest way to tell your lemon tree is overwatered is by feeling the soil. If the soil is consistently moist and does not dry out after a week or so then the lemon tree shows signs of stress such as the leaves turning yellow and drooping.

In this case, you should scale back the watering immediately and wait for the soil to dry out.

It should be noted that lemon tree leaves also turn yellow in reaction to cold temperatures or nutrient deficiencies, just to complicate matters! So, always feel the soil.

(Read my article Why are my lemon tree leaves turning yellow for how to save it).

How Often to Water Lemon Trees in Pots

As I mentioned, it is true of all lemon trees that you should wait till the top 2 inches of soil should feel somewhat dry to the touch before watering.

However it should be noted that lemon trees in pots do need to be watered more often then lemon trees in garden soil.

Of course ,as we discussed, it is not possible to give any universal advice on how often to water lemon trees in pots as there are many variables, but typically, in my experience, potted lemon trees should be watered once a week with a generous soak.

Potted lemon trees should be watered more often because:

  • If the pot is relatively small, then there is less capacity for soil, and therefore, the soil retains less moisture and dries out quicker. So, in the Summer months, I find my pots require watering once every 3/4 days.
  • Potted plants often have greater airflow around the leaves due to being raised higher than ground level which can sap moisture from the leaves.
  • Some lemon trees are taken indoors for Winter protection. The air in our homes is often far dryer than outdoors and the temperature can fluctuate with indoor heating which increases evaporation from the soil and increases demand for water.

Consider these variables and take them into account when watering your lemon tree.

However, I must re-emphasize that the only way to establish a reliable watering schedule is to monitor the soil moisture yourself to a depth of 2 inches.

This helps you avoid stressing your lemon tree by over- or underwatering it. On the other hand, what if you are growing lemon trees in a climate with much higher rainfall than is typical of the Mediterranean?

I’ve got a great trick for this…

Pro Tip: I plant my citrus plants in clay and terracotta pots. These materials are porous, which allows the potting soil to dry evenly, whereas plastic or ceramic can retain moisture for much longer.

So if your in a climate of high rainfall use clay or terracotta pots to reduce the risk of root rot!

How Often to Water Lemon Trees in Summer

The demand for moisture can increase substantially in Summer when the lemon tree is actively growing and developing fruit, so expect to water your tree more frequently.

  • I have had to water potted lemon trees that are in blazing sunshine and enduring high temperatures should be watered as frequently as once every 2 days.
  • Lemon trees in garden soil are more resistant to drought and can last up to a week without watering in Summer as long as they are watered with a generous soak and planted in soil with lots of organic matter to retain moisture.

Adjust your water schedule accordingly if you have particularly fast or slow-draining soils or perhaps more wind which and sap away moisture from the leaves.

As long as the top two inches of the soil are somewhat dry rather than damp before watering, then you can avoid any problems associated with overwatering or underwatering.

It is important to note that I have seen perfectly well-watered lemon trees with their leaves curling in reaction to really high temperatures as a strategy to conserve water in times of drought. Do not be tempted to keep on watering in this scenario if the soil is already damp.

As long as your tree is watered appropriately the leaves should recover in the cooler temperatures of the evening, you can literally sit down with a refreshing glass of lemonade (appropriately) and watch the leaves un curl as the temperature decreases. Trust me, its a great way to unwind after a long hot Summers day!

How Often to Water Lemon Trees in Winter

As I’m sure you can imagine, Lemon trees are most susceptible to the effects of overwatering in the Winter months as they are in a state of dormancy and require much less water.

As I expressed ealier I typically have an aversion to giving out universal watering advice due to the numberous varibales that can affect the frequency of watering, typically watering once per month for potted lemon trees is appropriate so that the soil does not dry out completely.

My lemon trees in garden soil can attain all their moisture requirements from the environment in winter if they are mature plants, and it is unlikely they will need watering until the following spring.

Pro tips: I have discovered over the years of growing citrus trees that the more mature your lemon trees the less sensitive to bother underwatering and underwatering so if you are buying a lemon tree i recommend you buy a big healthy tree with a thick trunk (as thicker trees are more resliant to cold stress as well).

It is important that we consider that lemon trees that are taken indoors can require more water if they are located near sources of heat or in the air current of any air con or forced air, which saps moisture from the leaves.

Lemon tree losing leaves
Here is a photo of my friend’s indoor lemon tree. As you can see, the leaves are dropping, which was easily diagnosed as the tree was near a radiator.

Keep a close eye on your indoor lemon tree and look for any signs of stress due to underwatering (leaves curling and dropping off) or signs of too much moisture (leaves turning yellow) and adjust your watering frequency accordingly.

How Much to Water Lemon Trees

So this is really important for those of you who are beginner gardeners, so I always think its owrth mentioning. Lemon trees should always be watered with a generous soak so that water visibly trickles out the base of the pot or you soak the soil with a hose if planted in garden boarders.

A generous soak encourages the development of the roots of your lemon tree so that it is more resistant to drought and can access the nutrients that it requires.

This is particularly beneficial if you are growing a lemon tree planted in the ground, as really mature trees are often very drought-resistant due to extensive roots tapping into groundwater.

If you water too lightly, so that only the first inch or so is moist, the water does not effectively infiltrate the soil and reach the roots where it is required, and your lemon tree shows symptoms of drought stress, such as the leaves dropping.

(If your lemon tree is dropping leaves read my article for how to save it).

Top Tip: I find after I fertilize my lemon trees, the growth rate can increase which increases the lemon tree’s demand for moisture. Therefore I would check the soil often after applying fertilizer as it my dry quicker which means you may have to increase the frequency of watering.

citrus fertilizer for lemon trees
This is the fertilizer I use for my lemon trees.

Well Draining Soil Mitigates Over Watering

Lemon trees are one of the most cultivated citrus trees in the world so there has been extensive experimentation and research on their preferred soil type.

Our Lemon trees should be planted in soil that is rich in organic matter (such as compost or leaf mold) as organic matter can retain moisture around the roots yet also be very well draining to allow excess water to escape.

This provides the optimal moisture balance for lemon trees to access the moisture they need to grow healthy whilst also avoiding water pooling around the roots which causes root rot.

If your lemon tree is in clay or compact soil, it is at a greater risk of root rot. You should water it less frequently and ideally transplant it to an area of the garden with well-draining soil or amend the soil by adding lots of compost and some horticultural grit to improve drainage.

If your garden soil is boggy, it is best to grow lemon trees in pots, as pots have more favorable drainage. Planting lemon trees in compost amended with some grit in pots is easy and creates the optimal, well-draining soil profile.

I have personally experimented extensively with potting soil for lemon trees. What I found worked best was 1/3 horticultural grit, 1/3 organic leaf mold, and 1/3 garden compost.

This formula works so well because the grit allows for good drainage to avoid root rot. The leaf mold is still very porous but holds moisture like a sponge, so your potted lemon trees are still drought-resilient even in full sun. The garden compost has lots of nutrients to support flowering!

This is also the potting mix that we use commercially for lemon trees at the garden center where I work.

Plant Lemon Trees in Pots with Drainage Holes in the Base

This may seem obvious to some, but believe me, many a citrus tree has unfortunately perished due to the fact it was in a large decorative outer pot that didn’t have drainage holes in, causing the roots to be submerged in water.

Lemon trees must be planted in pots with drainage holes in the base of the pot to allow excess water to escape after watering.

Watering your potted lemon tree so that water trickles out the base is also the best way to ensure that you have used a generous enough amount of water.

If lemon trees are in pots without drainage holes in the base then water pools around the roots and causes root rot, which turns the leaves yellow and causes it to die back.

We need to remember that water can still collect around the roots of your lemon tree and cause problems if:

  • The drainage holes become blocked with roots or compacted soil. If you notice water draining from the soil slowly, then check the hole in the base of the pot and clear anything that is slowing down the rate of drainage.
  • Saucers and trays are often placed underneath the pots of lemon trees to prevent water from spilling indoors. If the tray collects the excess water from watering, the soil remains too damp, which can cause root rot.
  • The ground underneath the pot is damp. It can be helpful to raise your potted lemon tree onto ‘feet’ when outdoors so that water can easily escape from the pot without being trapped on a patio underneath the pot.

(Read my article, how to revive a dying lemon tree).

Do you have any more questions about watering lemon trees? If so, please leave a comment below!

Key Takeaways:

  • Water lemon trees when the top two inches of the soil are dry to the touch, then generously at the roots. Lemon trees should be watered less often in Winter as they are dormant and more often in Summer when they are actively growing.
  • Typically, lemon trees should be watered once a week in pots in the Summer and once a month in the Winter, although the watering frequency varies according to climate, weather, and whether the plant is brought indoors for protection from frost in Winter.
  • Plant lemon trees in well-draining soil that contain a lot of organic matter or compost. Add some grit to improve drainage and prevent root rot in Winter.
  • Plant lemon trees in pots with drainage holes in the base to allow excess water to escape instead of pooling around the roots. Empty the saucers and trays regularly so that the soil does not stay damp and keeps the lemon tree healthy.

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