Gardening

How to grow Meyer lemons in pots – anywhere!

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In this article, you’ll find out how to grow your own organic Meyer lemons in pots in any climate zone!


We live in Greenville, SC (Zone 8a) and have been growing potted Meyer lemons for over a decade. We also grow about a dozen other citrus varieties. 

Which citrus variety is our top recommendation for new citrus growers? Meyer lemons.

Reasons: They’re relatively easy to grow in pots, they tolerate cold weather well, and they consistently produce a huge amount of delicious fruit once the trees are over a few years old. 

Two potted Meyer lemon trees with ripening fruit in December in front of other potted citrus growing in our driveway. We live in Zone 8a in Greenville, SC. Just because you live in a non-tropical environment doesn’t mean you can’t grow citrus!

Table of contents:

In this article, you’ll find out: 

1. What a Meyer lemon is – and where Meyer lemons come from
2. Where you can grow Meyer lemons
3. Whether you can grow Meyer lemons from cuttings or seed
4. How to grow Meyer lemons in pots
5. How to overwinter potted Meyer lemons
6. How to harvest Meyer lemons
7. Culinary uses and recipes

1. What is a Meyer lemon?

Meyer lemon (Citrus × meyeri) is a hybrid citrus tree originally bred in China that produces delicious fruit akin to true lemons. It’s thought to be a cross between a true lemon (Citrus limon) and either a mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata) or an orange. 

Why are they called “Meyer” lemons?

The name Meyer lemon is an attribute to Frank N. Meyer. Meyer was an American immigrant-scientist employed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

He was tasked with traveling abroad to find and import agricultural plants that had potential economic importance. While exploring China in 1907-08, he took cuttings from what would later be named the Meyer lemon, and brought it back to the United States along with other plants he’d collected. Even though it bears Meyer’s name, the plant was likely cultivated hundreds or perhaps thousands of years prior. 

Also note that the Meyer lemon trees grown today are actually an improved Meyer lemon tree. In the mid-1900s, it was discovered that Meyer lemons were symptomless hosts of Citrus tristeza virus, which was killing citrus trees around the world. A virus-free improved cultivar was released and popularized in the 1950s, and that’s the Meyer lemon tree used today. 

How are Meyer lemons different from true lemons? 

Relative to traditional lemons (typically Lisbon or Eureka), Meyer lemons are:

  • rounder in shape; 
  • have a more thin, smooth skin; and 
  • feature a sweeter, less-acidic flavor. 

Their relatively delicate skin is what makes them more rare and expensive than standard lemons at grocery stores, which hold up better over time and during shipping.     

We’ve also found that our Meyer lemon fruit skins turn nearly orange in color if left on the tree for a month or two after they’ve initially ripened yellow. At that point, they become sweet enough to eat the fruit whole, skin and all, akin to a giant kumquat!  

A look at one of our potted Meyer lemon trees in March in Greenville, SC. As you can see here, the plant is blooming at the same time as the last fruit ripens to a deep orange color.

A look at one of our potted Meyer lemon trees in March in Greenville, SC. As you can see here, the plant is blooming at the same time as the last fruit ripens to a deep orange color.

2. Where can you grow Meyer lemons?

Where to grow IN-GROUND Meyer lemons:

If you want to grow Meyer lemons in-ground outside of a greenhouse, you’ll need to live in USDA hardiness zones 9-11. (Find your zone here if you don’t already know it.) 

That’s because Meyer lemons prefer warm climates (subtropical to tropical).   

Where to grow Meyer lemons IN POTS:

If you live in USDA hardiness zone 8 or lower and you want to grow Meyer lemons, you’ll need to grow them in pots / containers. That way, you can easily move them into protection when temperatures dip below freezing in the fall and winter months.

Below, we’ll dive into more detail about how to grow Meyer lemons in pots and provide winter protection. 

*Here we should also note that people without access to a yard or garden who live in warmer climate zones might also want to grow Meyer lemons in pots. If so, the growing information in this article will show you exactly what to do. 

​Are Meyer lemons cold-hardy? 

Technically, yes, Meyer lemons are considered a cold-hardy citrus that can “survive” down to about 20°F (-7°C). However, that doesn’t mean they perform well if they’re consistently exposed to sub-freezing temperatures. 

For example, we’ve accidentally left our Meyer lemon trees outside during light frosts. The plants live but the leaves will yellow a bit afterwards, due to cold stress. 

Also, Meyer lemon fruit is winter-ripening. Our potted Meyer lemon trees have ripe fruit on them from November through March, which are our coldest months. Meyer lemon fruit can be ruined if exposed to sub-freezing temperatures, so leaving the plants outside during frosts and freezes is not a good idea. 

3. Can you grow Meyer lemons from seed or cuttings?

Good news: Meyer lemons are self-fertile. This means you can have a single tree with no other citrus trees around and still produce fruit. 

You might then be tempted to use seeds from your Meyer lemon fruit (or someone else’s fruit) to grow new trees. However, growing Meyer lemons from seed is not recommended

That’s because they’re heterozygous hybrids. The single embryo in the seed will contain genetic information that will make the offspring different from the parent plant even if the fruit/seed was the result of self-pollination. The resulting tree might produce fruit similar to a Meyer lemon, or it might produce inedible fruit. 

Thus, if you want to produce a new genetically identical Meyer lemon tree, the best way to do so is via clonal propagation methods: cuttings, bud grafts, or air layering. 

Our experience:

Meyer lemons are VERY easy to propagate via cuttings. In fact, we’ve propagated multiple new Meyer lemon trees simply by cutting off one-year-old growth and sticking it into a pot with damp potting soil – even without rooting hormone. 

However, for a detailed, professional guide to propagating Meyer lemons and other citrus plants via cuttings, see our article How to grow citrus from cuttings (with nurseryman Ryan Merck). Our friend Ryan expertly propagated cuttings from eight types of citrus we grow, then compared success rates months later. He had a 100% success rate with his Meyer lemon cuttings!    

Where to buy Meyer lemon trees

If you plan to grow Meyer lemons in pots, it’s best to buy a dwarf variety. Why dwarf?

  • Regular / standard Meyer lemon trees can grow 6-10′ tall, which is not ideal for container growing. 
  • Dwarf Meyer lemons top out at about 5′-7′ tall but that’s only if they’re grown in-ground. In pots, they probably won’t grow over about 3-4′ tall. 

In addition to being stunted by dwarf rootstock, dwarf Meyer lemons will also have their mature height limited by: a) the size of the container they’re grown in, and b) pruning. Dwarf rootstock will also reduce the frequency with which you’ll need to root prune the plants. (More on that below.) 

When buying a new tree, be sure to use a reputable plant nursery or seller. For instance, if shopping for your plants via Amazon, try to find a seller with high customer reviews. 

Pesticides 

You’re very unlikely to find commercial vendors offering organically grown Meyer lemon trees for sale. This means any young tree you buy will most likely have been treated with various types of pesticides. 

However, once you get your tree(s), you can begin growing them using organic methods. If they come in nursery pots, you can even rinse off all the soil from the root ball and start in new organic growth media.

Since it will be an additional 2-3 years before your Meyer lemon tree begins producing its first fruit, pesticide exposure isn’t a high concern. 

An Eastern tiger swallowtail foraging Meyer lemon flowers in our yard. Pollinators love foraging citrus flowers which is one of many reasons we don't use pesticides on our trees.

An Eastern tiger swallowtail foraging Meyer lemon flowers in our yard. Pollinators love foraging citrus flowers which is one of many reasons we don’t use pesticides on our trees.

State restrictions 

You may also find vendors are unable to ship citrus if you live in certain states, namely Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Why?

These are citrus-growing states whose farms/farmers have been hard-hit by citrus greening, a disease spread by tiny insects (Asian citrus psyllids) which sickens and kills citrus trees. One way to reduce/prevent the spread of the disease and help the citrus industry in those states is by restricting the interstate sale of citrus. 

If you live in one of these states, you’ll need to source your Meyer lemon or other citrus trees from approved vendors within your state. 

Where did we buy our first Meyer lemon tree? 

Funny story: Our citrus infatuation / collection started over a decade ago when Susan (aka The Tyrant) and I were still living in an apartment. Not surprisingly, the single large sunny window in our apartment was completely stuffed full of plants. 

One day while passing through Lowes, Susan noticed a small, suffering Meyer lemon tree in the nursery area that was on sale. Despite my very reasonable objections, she purchased it. A couple years later, we had our first Meyer lemons. 

Once we had our own home, our citrus collection slowly expanded into new varieties. And we’ve since used cuttings from our original Meyer lemon tree to grow new plants for ourselves, family, and friends!    

4. How to grow Meyer lemon trees in pots

Here’s everything you need to know to successfully grow Meyer lemons in pots, regardless of where you live: 

Sunlight preferences 

Meyer lemon trees grow best in full sunlight, 8+ hours per day. 

Soil 

Select a high quality organic POTTING SOIL (not garden soil). A quality potting mix is essential to ensure good drainage. 

Our recommendation for the best potting soil and the one we use for growing our potted citrus: FoxFarm.

Container / pot selection 

You’ll start your Meyer lemon tree in a small nursery pot, then “pot up” your tree into larger pots each year. We prefer to give our plants a lot of room to grow, even when they’re relatively small in order to help them put on maximum growth. 

Minimum pot size might be 3-5 gallons for a young sapling, but by years 4-5 you’ll want it in the largest final pot size you can manage. For us that’s a 25 gallon pot (usually about 22″ in diameter), like this one.

If that’s too big or heavy for you, no worries. Your Meyer lemon will be fine in smaller pots, but you’ll need to do more regular root pruning, watering, and fertilizing, especially as the plant gets older/larger.

Also, make sure your pot has drainage holes in the bottom, otherwise the roots of your Meyer lemon will get too wet, eventually killing the tree. 

Plastic or clay pots? 

If you’re in a cooler climate zone like we are that requires you to move your potted Meyer lemon frequently in the cold months, a 25 gallon clay pot may not be ideal. That’s because it will be very heavy and also prone to breaking while moving. Yes, we know this from experience! 

However, something we’re becoming increasingly concerned about due to new scientific research is the degree to which plastic leaches harmful compounds into our food and soil, and is also potentially up-taken into the cells of the plants we eat. Could this be happening with our citrus that’s growing in large plastic pots? Quite possibly!  

If you’re a wealthy benefactor looking to give away part of your inheritance, we’d welcome you funding our dream: a heated glass and metal greenhouse that would allow us to grow all the citrus and tropical plants we covet in-ground! 

Should you put rocks at the bottom of the pot? 

No, you should not put rocks or gravel at the bottom of your pots, whether you’re growing potted tomatoes or fruit trees. This is an outdated practice intended to provide better drainage, but it actually has the opposite effect. Instead, fill your pot with potting soil.

Read more on this topic via University of Nebraska Extension if you’re interested. 

Planting your potted Meyer lemon tree (and mulching)

A common mistake that inexperienced gardeners make is planting their trees/plants at the wrong height. When planting or potting up your Meyer lemon tree, be sure to plant it at the same depth as it was in the nursery container, e.g. don’t bury the trunk! 

We also highly recommend top-dressing the soil surface with ~2-3 inches of mulch (we use fine wood chips). You’ll want to taper the mulch layer thinner as you near the trunk so the mulch isn’t piled against the tree. Mulch reduces weeds, helps maintain optimal soil moisture, and provides a slow-release fertilizer as it degrades (while also fostering beneficial soil microbes). 

You’ll want the top of your final mulch layer to still be at least 1-2″ below the top of the pot so water doesn’t spill out when irrigating.  

Watering 

Water your Meyer lemon tree thoroughly after planting. From then on, maintain a soil moisture consistency akin to a well wrung-out sponge: not too wet, not too dry. Excess water can cause root rot and kill the tree. 

From late spring through late summer when water needs are highest, we install a simple automated drip irrigation system on our potted citrus to keep the plants happy and save us time. Otherwise, we’d have to water our citrus trees twice per day, which would take quite a bit of time.  

Fertilizing 

Meyer lemon trees (like all citrus) are heavy feeders, so you’ll want to regularly feed your plant(s) throughout the year. This is even more true for citrus growing in pots rather than in-ground since the roots can only stretch so far and only have access to nutrients that you provide.

Highest nutritional needs are from late winter through late summer when the plants are actively putting on new growth and developing fruit.

Our citrus fertilization schedule is as follows:

  • Spring – fertilizer once every 2-3 weeks.
  • Summer – fertilize once every 3-4 weeks.
  • Fall-winter – fertilize once every 6 weeks.

Don't skimp on feeding your Meyer lemon trees if you want to make sure you get lots of fruit! At the same time, providing too much fertilizer can harm your plants and actually <a href=

Best fertilizers for Meyer lemon trees  

We use various combinations of the following fertilizers for our Meyer lemons and other citrus trees: 

  • Organic citrus fertilizer 
  • Worm castings, compost, and/or compost tea (*Pro tip: Put some worms from your garden into your pot to help keep the soil aerated. They’ll also add their own worm castings.) 
  • If you start to notice yellowing leaves or signs of nutrient deficiencies, you can apply a quick-acting high-nitrogen fertilizer like liquid gold aka diluted pee (it’s free!) and/or liquid kelp emulsion.

Pruning and Training Techniques

Dwarf Meyer lemons require the least pruning of all the citrus varieties we grow. 

  • Train young trees by removing competing branches. 
  • Prune mature trees after fruiting as-needed for shape and to remove dead or diseased branches. 

Root pruning

Once they’re in their final large pots, your Meyer lemon tree will eventually get “root-bound” inside the pot, even if you use fabric pots which naturally air-prune the roots on the outer edges. This means the root ball has completely filled the pot and (if you have a ceramic or plastic pot) started wrapping around the outer perimeter, choking off other roots. 

When a plant gets rootbound, its capacity to uptake water and nutrients is severely diminished. What to do? Root prune them. (Ideally you can do this preventively BEFORE the plant becomes rootbound.) 

So if you want to maintain healthy, highly productive potted Meyer lemon trees, you’ll need to root prune them in the late winter/early spring at least once every 2-3 years.

Instead of going through the how-to’s of root pruning here, we’d recommend you check out our detailed article/video about how & when to root prune your potted citrus

Pests and diseases

We’ve found our potted Meyer lemons and other citrus to be very low-maintenance on the pest and disease front… At least during the warmer months when the plants are regularly outside and there are plenty of predatory insects around to help control pest insects. 

However, when your Meyer lemon tree is either: a) indoors, or b) outdoors during winter months when predatory insects are absent, then pests like wooly aphids, spider mites, and scales can proliferate.  

What to do? Apply organic OMRI-listed neem oil as a foliar spray. (Size options: small ready-to-use spray bottle or large concentrate bottle to dilute and add to your own sprayer.) 

Neem oil works by coating the tiny pest insects in oil which quickly suffocates them. It also helps prevent plant diseases. Make sure to apply outdoors so the neem oil doesn’t make a sticky mess in your house! Once the oil dries, you can bring the tree back inside.

5. Overwintering potted Meyer lemons

Now comes the hard part (assuming you live in climate zones 8 or lower): overwintering your Meyer lemon tree! 

For us, that means moving our potted Meyer lemon trees into and out of a heated garage with a DIY pot moving device. (Not a fancy heated garage, we just use a space heater plugged straight into the outlet rather than via extension cord which would be a fire hazard,) 

A Meyer lemon tree (left) and blood orange tree (right) moving into our heated garage on a cold winter evening.

A Meyer lemon tree (left) and blood orange tree (right) moving into our heated garage on a cold winter evening.

Any time temperatures are over 37°F (2.8°C(out of frost range), our Meyer lemon trees are outside in natural sunlight. Below 37°F, and they’re in our garage. 

Exactly how you provide winter protection for your Meyer lemon will vary depending on how cold your climate is, the unique setup of your home, and other factors. For instance, one of our family members in Zone 8b overwinters their Meyer lemon tree in a bright south-facing sunroom. Then they bring it back outside in the spring.

If you live in a cold, northern climate zone (6 or lower) with low sunlight levels, you may want to get a tripod grow light with a timer to help you overwinter your Meyer lemon indoors. Due to the earth’s tilt and modern energy-efficient windows, even a sunny south-facing window likely won’t let enough light in to satisfy your Meyer lemon tree’s needs for months at a time. 

You’ll also want to mist your indoor lemon tree a couple times per week to help maintain optimal humidity levels. 

How to move your potted citrus

How the heck do you move a potted Meyer lemon tree that seemingly weighs as much as you do? Two options:

  1. heavy duty hand truck – works best if you need to move your pot(s) over bumpy surfaces, stairs, etc.  
  2. heavy duty plant caddy – works best if you only have to move pots over hard, flat surfaces.  

We have bout 20 large potted trees to move so we had to go a different route. Thankfully, we were able to pay an engineer friend to build us a customizable, heavy-duty pot moving device so I can now move all of our potted trees into or out of our garage in about 15 minutes! (If you’re a handy welder/engineer, you could try to replicate the design.)

How long can a Meyer lemon or other citrus tree go without light? 

We’re often out of town over the Christmas holidays for 1+ weeks at a time. During those times, there are almost always sub-freezing nighttime low temps. 

Asking someone to move 20 large citrus trees in and out of our garage on a daily basis isn’t an option. So we have to heavily water them, then leave our trees inside a dark garage during these periods. The plants aren’t thrilled, but they bounce right back as soon as we get home and start exposing them to sunlight again. 

So if you’re in a similar predicament and wondering how long your potted citrus can go without sunlight, the answer is probably no more than about 10 days before they start to get really stressed. They probably can’t go more than a week without water though. 

6. Harvesting

We saved the best part for last: how to harvest and use all those delicious Meyer lemons you’ve grown! The level of fruit production even on a small potted Meyer lemon tree is truly incredible. They’re probably the most productive citrus variety we grow.  

How long does it take for a Meyer lemon tree to bear fruit? 

Meyer lemons will start bearing fruit around their fourth year. Since purchased trees are usually 1-2 years old, that means you should have fruit within a few years of purchase. 

From then on, the trees will continue to produce more fruit until they reach their maxim mature size — or the size you keep them pruned to in their pots. 

When do Meyer lemons ripen? 

Meyer lemons are predominantly winter-ripening. In some climates, they can produce two rounds of fruit per year.

Here in Greenville, SC, (Zone 8a) our Meyer lemons produce once per year. Fruit starts ripening in November and can stay on the tree and continue ripening to a rich orange-yellow color until around late March. The flavor and texture continues to improve the longer they ripen.  

Should you thin flower buds or young fruit to promote the growth of larger lemons?

We don't thin our Meyer lemon flowers or lemon fruit. Our trees still produce large, consistently sized fruit. As you can see here, our Meyer lemons are about the size of small oranges.

We don’t thin our Meyer lemon flowers or immature fruit. Our trees still produce large, consistently-sized fruit. As you can see here, our Meyer lemons are about the size of small oranges.

Short answer: no, you don’t need to thin Meyer lemon flowers or young fruit to get larger lemons. Roughly 95% of the flowers your tree produces will not end up being mature fruit, e.g. the tree does the thinning itself. 

Side note: If you put an old sheet under your tree while it’s fragrant white blossoms are in bloom (peak bloom for us is around March) you can use the fallen petals to make your own delicious lemon blossom tea.

Even with optimal growing conditions, your tree will also drop some of the immature lemons as the season progresses — this is normal! You’ll still end up with an abundance of large lemons on your tree. 

Thinning your immature fruit might allow the plant to concentrate more energy into making the remaining fruit larger, but we see no benefit if the total yield is the same. 

How do you know when a Meyer lemon is ripe? 

  1. Look for a rich yellow or slightly orange color.
  2. Gently hand squeeze – the ripe fruit should yield slightly.
  3. Smell the skin to detect a fragrant citrus aroma.

Harvesting tips

Meyer lemons are relatively soft-skinned so if you pull them off the tree, you can easily tear the skin, leaving an opening at the top of the fruit. This can shorten the shelf life of the fruit. 

Instead, use pruning shears or scissors to remove the ripe fruit from the tree, cutting just above the stem attachment.

How to harvest Meyer lemons - Rather than pulling the fruit off the tree, use sharp pruners to cut the stem just above the fruit. This will help the fruit store longer after harvest.

Rather than pulling the fruit off the tree, use sharp pruners to cut the stem just above the fruit. This will help the fruit store longer after harvest.

Storage tips

Most advice about storing Meyer lemons is based on grocery store lemons which have already been off the trees for 1+ week prior to purchase. In our experience, Meyer lemons can be stored at room temperature without losing fruit quality for at least 10 days (starting from the day of harvest). 

For long-term storage of several weeks, store Meyer lemons in a bag in your fridge’s crisper drawer.     

7. Culinary uses and recipes

Our two remaining mature Meyer lemon trees (we gave away the others) produce a huge amount of lemons, more than meeting our family’s lemon needs throughout winter. 

What do we recommend doing if you have a lot of Meyer lemons to use? 

Of course, our top use of Meyer lemons is making fresh-squeezed lemonade (sweetened with stevia), which is a near-nightly beverage in our home. So good! 

Before juicing, be sure to zest your lemons. You can easily dry the zest on an open plate for ~5 days, then store it in airtight containers and use it throughout the year.  

Other favorite Meyer lemon recipes include: 

Now you know how to organically grow Meyer lemons in pots! We hope you enjoy your journey into citrus growing as much as we do!  

KIGI,

Other citrus-related articles you’ll love: 

 

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