New twist on
Try your hand at growing citrus

January 14, 2010

by Nancy Kramer
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Victoria County Master Gardener
The off-white blossom of the Meyer lemon tree opens from a purplish-white bud, bears a sweet, perfumed scent, and attracts bees and butterflies, particularly the swallowtail.
The Meyer lemon fruit is thin-skinned and less acidic than other lemons. It is also larger in size than most other lemons and orange-yellow in color when fully ripe. It is moderately seedy and sweeter than the true lemon, since it's probably a cross with a sweet orange.
This improved Meyer lemon tree in its container is every bit the size of the normal 4 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. It is shown prior to bloom or fruit as an example of a lush small green tree that fills a limited space on a carport area.
"When life gives you lemons, throw them back really hard."

That's what one of my friends had as a signature line for a long time, and I immediately thought of her when I started writing this article about lemons.

Then, I immediately thought of another good friend who always loves eating her lemon wedges. I don't know too many people who can eat the true acidic lemons, like the Eureka or Lisbon types that we buy in the grocery stores and get with our iced tea.

The majority of lemons grown in our area are not true lemons. They won't grow well in our area at all, because lemons are the most cold-sensitive of all the citrus.

So, what kinds of lemons grow well for us in the Victoria regional area? None.

At least that's what the Master Gardener Handbook infers when it says, "Only cold-hardy citrus varieties should be planted outside the Lower Rio Grande Valley."

But it does state we are able to grow a special variety of citrus, called Meyer lemons.

Not True Lemons

So, why do Meyer lemons do all right here with our cooler temperatures? Because it's not a true lemon. Most authorities believe it to be a cross between a lemon (Citrus limon) and a sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) or a mandarin (Citrus reticulata), making it more cold-hardy than the true lemon. They are hardy to 24 degrees.

Origins and Description

The Meyer lemon, introduced from China in 1908, is a lemon substitute, despite being much less acidic than true lemons. Its fruit, which is much larger than the usual lemons, is orange-yellow when fully ripe, moderately seedy and sweeter than the true lemon, since it's probably a cross with a sweet orange.

The tree is spreading and relatively small, nearly thornless, and more cold-tolerant than true lemons. In a container, the trees grow to about 4-5 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide and are great on a small patio or a balcony or garden with limited space.

The lovely, waxy off-white blossoms open from a purplish-white bud, have a wonderful, sweet-perfumed scent and attract bees and butterflies. The fruit is thin-skinned and less acidic, and you can actually eat the whole lemon, peel, pith and all, or use the whole lemon chopped up in cookies, cakes, muffins or other dishes you prepare.

Improved Means Virus Free

The original Meyer lemon variety was found to carry a disease devastating to other citrus, so we now recommend purchasing only the improved Meyer lemon.

Available since 1975, its popularity grew, beginning with Martha Stewart's suggestion of using it in many of her recipes, according to this NPR story:

Well, why don't we all go out and buy some improved Meyer lemons at the grocery store if they are so great?

Well, one of the drawbacks is they can't be commercially shipped like the true lemons, because they have such a thin peel, they would get damaged during shipping.

How to Grow Meyer Lemons

So, if you want ready access to improved Meyer lemons, the best thing is to grow your own.

You can use any type of container, and it must be large enough to permit maximum growth, but small enough to be readily moved during freezing weather. A half whiskey barrel works very well . on a small rolling furniture dolly.

On the other hand, I have heard stories about people planting Meyer lemon trees in the ground and still having success and not losing them through our light freezes in our area.

An important consideration when planting the lemon in the ground, is to place it on the south side of a building to protect it from cold winds.


Your Meyer lemon will grow best in full sunlight, but should be placed to receive partial shade to reduce growth and to provide better acclimation when moved in during winter.

It's extremely important to avoid extremely low light for prolonged periods, as the plant will become leggy and unattractive.


The root system of a container plant is not as well insulated as in the ground, so moving them in during a freeze is the simplest solution for protection, but you can also put hay around the bottom and cover it to protect it and move it out of the wind to the south side. They actually need temperatures below 68 degrees for flowering.


Over watering is a common cause of poor performance, so allow the upper inch of the medium to dry out, and then water slowly to fill the container until the water runs out of the bottom. Reduce watering during winter.


Use a water soluble fertilizer according to label directions. A deep green color of mature foliage indicates adequate nutrition.


Cut back during February to produce more branching and bushiness if your lemon becomes leggy. If the plant gets too large for the container, you'll need to prune to balance the top with the roots and rejuvenate the plant.

Fruit and Other Benefits

If you have an abundance of lemons ripe by fall, start using some and leave the rest on the tree until you are ready to use them.

No fruit yet? An added benefit is that the Meyer lemon grows into a great waxy, green small landscape bush that is the host plant to the giant swallowtail butterfly. Many times, I have gone out and found what looks like bird droppings on my lemon tree. But the bird droppings move and eat and eat and eat . and develop into a beautiful butterfly. So, if you don't really like the lemons, maybe you'll enjoy growing them for the butterflies.

Now, when life gives you lemons, what twist will you take? Will you throw them back real hard and ask for limes, sell them on eBay, or make lemonade, lemon pie, feed the swallowtail caterpillars or the hundreds of other uses you can find in a Google search for what to do with lemons?

Go plant an improved Meyer lemon.
MEYER LEMON INFORMATION,1,5139743,full.story
100 Things To Do With Meyer Lemons

Information by Julian Sauls


1. Prune after harvesting crop. (February)

2. Remove diseased, damaged, dead stems.

3. Prune out spindly stems-those thinner than a pencil.

4. Prune out branches crossing or rubbing each other.

5. Remove suckers that grow around the base or below the graft.

6. Prune/shape the plant to be narrower at the top than the bottom.

7. Thin out fruit when golf ball size to ideally 1 per cluster 6-7 inches apart.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at