In order for your lemon tree to set the scene as an evergreen, flowering work of art with golden-yellow fruit, it depends on skillful pruning. Slow growth and conditional pruning tolerance require a special pruning approach, beyond native fruit trees. This guide explains in detail how to prune your lemon properly. The expert combination of maintenance and educational pruning here will not remain a closed book for newcomers to the Mediterranean garden. Here’s how to coax more blossoms and fruit from your lemon tree.
A brief excursion into the basics for pruning Mediterranean shrubs, clears away doubts when pruning. Lemon trees are characterized by leisurely growth and an evergreen foliage. Due to a long ripening period of lemons, a Citrus limon not infrequently bears white flowers and golden-yellow fruit at the same time. Native to the Mediterranean, budbreak in the cool spring of our regions is much less than that of native fruit trees. While extensive pruning supports the formation of fruiting wood on cherry, plum and apple trees, you are denied this strategy on the lemon tree.
Thus, pruning citrus trees to develop more flowers and fruit requires a change in thinking. The top premise is a cautious, moderate approach. Prune your lemon tree only when actually needed. Maintenance pruning pursues the goal of a shapely, densely foliated crown with numerous flowers and fruits. Maintenance pruning clears the crown of unnecessary ballast, such as dead or diseased plant parts. Rejuvenation pruning is used only in extreme emergencies.
The best time
Since any pruning procedure is pure stress for your lemon tree, the timing wants to be chosen wisely. The following dates and time frames have proven to work well in practice.
- in early spring during the months of February, March or April
- all year round if necessary
in late winter during the months of January and February
Since maintenance pruning relieves your lemon, it is not tied to any particular time and should not be put on the back burner. This does not apply to the nursery and development pruning. Here the focus is on a lush flowering, many lemons as well as a richly branched crown without superfluous water sprouts. Therefore, topiary should take place just before the start of the new growing season. On the other hand, to rejuvenate a lemon, a date in late winter is recommended, when its growth is almost in dormancy.
Tips for crown shape
In order for a lemon tree to develop optimum flowers and fruit, the crown shape chosen should simulate its natural habit. Unlike other citrus plants, a Citrus limon grows more unevenly, less compactly and branches only hesitantly. Thus, the spherical crown is not the ideal solution, as it is preferred for orange trees, among others. More promising is an upbringing to a semicircular crown that broadens upward from a low trunk. This silhouette, despite the limited pruning tolerance of a lemon, is easy to create as part of a training pruning and can be maintained for many years.
First, please place the lemon in front of a light background and take a few steps back. By planning the pruning contour mentally or in writing, you effectively prevent pruning errors. If the contour later shows holes, it can take up to 2 years to close them again.
Then pay special attention to the tool. The scissors should be freshly sharpened and disinfected with spirit. If it is an adult lemon tree with strong branches, put additional branch or pruning shears handy. If your lemon tree has sharp thorns, put on sturdy leather gloves before you start pruning.
Do you want to do the pruning outside because you have more freedom of movement there? Then choose a frost-free day with overcast, dry weather. Fresh pruning wounds should not be exposed to sunlight so as not to interfere with healing.
A young lemon tree from a retailer has 2 to 3 strong leading shoots that form the basic framework of the crown. This planting pruning comes from the hands of the master gardener and provides valuable guidance for beginners in citrus care. The following instructions start in the first spring after purchase.
How to grow the lemon into a tree rich in flowers and yields:
- prune the leading branches by no more than a quarter of their length
- cut side shoots so that they are 10 to 15 cm shorter than their leading shoot
- apply the shears just above a leaf or flower bud in a vertical direction
- below the desired crown height, cut all branches to just before the stem bark
- Dust larger cut wounds with charcoal ash or rock dust.
The 2 or 3 leading branches that have been cut back will now branch out with 3 or 4 new shoots each until next spring. From these, select the two strongest branches as part of the basic framework. Prune these again by a quarter so that they also branch. Cut all the remaining side branches 10 to 15 cm shorter than the supporting branch. Follow this rhythm in the following years until the desired crown shape has developed.
In the following period, pruning is limited to cutting back all branches growing out of shape in the spring. Branches that have borne fruit in the previous year should be pruned below the fruiting point. When pruning, please keep in mind that your lemon tree has already set the buds for this year’s flowering in the previous year. Therefore, do not prune more than is absolutely necessary.
Recognize and prune shoots
They primarily sprout at growing season and are not welcome. Water shoots sprout from dormant eyes of older, horizontal branches, and they reach steeply upward toward the sky. These branches are unproductive because they do not fruit. On the contrary, their larger leaves will shade the valuable noble branches and thus interfere with the abundance of flowers. If these water vines catch your eye, they are removed immediately.
If your lemon is a grafting on a robust wild rootstock, water shoots will also shoot up vertically from the trunk and root area. Stay on the heels of these comparatively fast-growing wild shoots to prevent them from overgrowing the magnificent crown. At the root slice, the nose-wise water shoots may also be torn off with a hearty jerk, as they will resprout even from the smallest tissue remnants.
Instructions maintenance pruning
Maintenance pruning serves primarily as a supportive measure for education. It also prevents senescence of the crown, so that flowering is preserved and numerous fruits thrive. Last but not least, this pruning repairs damage caused by care errors, diseases or pests.
This is how you proceed professionally:
- cut back dead branches to the healthy wood
- cut off branches that have broken off at the base with a smooth cut from the next larger branch
- remove shoots directed into the interior of the crown
- from crossing branches leave only the stronger one
- of 2 very close branches, cut the weaker one to a branch ring
- cut out leaves with fungal coating or pest infestation from the crown
Brown, withered and leafless branches are usually dead. If you have any doubts, a vitality test will bring clarity. Scrape off a little bark and green tissue appears, the shoot does not need to be removed. Brown tissue indicates that the branch is dead and will not recover.
In the end, your lemon tree should present itself with a light-filled crown. Only where sunlight reaches the branches with dormant eyes can flowers and fruit develop.
Instructions rejuvenation pruning
A lemon tree will completely senesce if it is not pruned or thinned out for several years. In the end, it will bear only a sparse foliage, few flowers and, for the most part, no fruit. By radically pruning back the crown, you breathe new life into the plant and vitalize its flowering. This plan succeeds because even in older lemon trees under the bark are still dormant eyes that can produce fresh shoots.
This is how you proceed:
- in the first step, thin out all dead wood
- cut back healthy, strong scaffolding branches by half to two thirds
- leave at least one branch with dormant eyes on each leading shoot
- cut all weak, puny branches to astringents
Radical pruning means that there will be no flowering in the following two years. Use this phase to grow a new crown shape according to these instructions. By subsequently repotting the lemon tree in fresh substrate, the nutrients it contains will further kick-start growth.