Here’s How Lemon Trees Can Survive Mild Winters

Lemons on underside of lemon tree

During winter, many trees that are not cold hardy will have trouble in colder environments. However, mild winters may provide some room for tropical trees like citrus to survive. In that case, how exactly do lemon, and other citrus, trees survive these mild winters?

Citrus trees are durable, and this includes lemon trees. A frost is not often enough to end a lemon tree that is both mature and healthy. Lemon trees are able to survive mild winters due to their special adaptations, availability of light, and their durable nature.

If you have a lemon tree growing in conditions that fall outside of the subtropical and tropical categories, there may be hope for them. Stick with us for a bit to find out how lemon trees can make it through mild winters outside of their hardiness zones!

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How Do Lemon Trees Survive And Grow During Winter?

Lemon trees are subtropical citrus plants, which means that they are going to do better in warmer environments.

It also means that they will thrive most in soil that is moist but drains well, which is common in their native environments.

Finally, it means that they do best with lots of sunlight, as in 8-12 hours a day.

When you think of a citrus tree in general, you likely think of warm weather and lots of sunlight.

Can these trees even survive during the winter, then? How might they manage to get by during those months with less sunlight and cooler weather?

There are a few ways that lemon trees survive during the winter months.

Lemon trees are durable, but they can also be helped by the human hand to have greater success in the cold.

Regardless of where you are growing them, lemon trees usually follow a basic timeline that dictates when, and how fast they will grow .

So, how do they do it?

Lemon Trees Are Durable 

Like all citrus trees, lemon trees are particularly durable. The average lifespan is over 50 years, though healthy and well-kept lemon trees can easily hit the triple digits.

Lemon trees also tend to be quite easy to care for. So, even in the winter when you have to do more to maintain your tree’s wellbeing, the process is not an overly difficult one.

Lots Of Light Helps Lemon Trees To Thrive

Lemon tree grove on a stormy winter day

Lemon trees do well when there are about 8-12 hours of sunlight a day. When there is less sunlight in the winter, no matter what location you are in, you may be concerned about your tree’s needs being met. 

You may want to use some artificial sunlight to supplement the lessened sunlight that is outdoors. However, real sunlight is always best and will do the most for your tree, citrus and otherwise. 

Getting sunlight is a key factor for the growth of almost any tree, aside from those that are particularly adaptable to dark forests, for example. 

To make sure that your lemon tree will get as much sunlight as possible, it is important to plant it somewhere out in the open. You should find a space that is not too close to other trees that may overshade your young citrus. 

It would also be best to avoid planting too close to any buildings. These could also shade your young tree but, later on, the foundation and roots may compete for space, or the branches of the mature tree may be too close to the structure.

Sunlight is key to making sure that your lemon tree can survive mild winters. So, make sure to love your lemon tree and give it lots of light!

Lemon Trees Adapt For The Winter

During the winter, citrus trees tend to store more nitrogen than during warmer-weather months. Later, once temperatures and sunlight hours are on the rise, nitrogen absorbed is not stored as much.

This is just one example of the general adaptation of plants to their environment. Nature is pretty darn good at keeping itself in check, and lemon trees are not an exception to this rule. They can use internal processes and evolutionary adjustments to stay healthy and strong during mild winters. 

In fact, lemon trees are actually considered to be evergreens, meaning that they keep their foliage (and possibly grow) all year long!

While there are things that trees can do, and other things that humans can do to help the trees, is there a limit?

Are There Limits To Winter Conditions For Lemon Trees?

Lemon dripping with rain water

Though lemon trees are durable and tend to have a long lifespan, there are also limits to the resilience you’ll see displayed in these trees.

At a certain point, whether that is too little sun or too low of temperatures, your lemon tree will begin to decline.

This decline can be avoided in many cases, especially if you are aware of some of the causes.

What Might Cause Lemon Trees To Decline Or End In Winter?

So, you are wanting a lemon tree of your own but need to know more. Good for you, many of the causes of lemon trees declining in the winter can be proactively avoided.

Lemon trees may decline or end in the winter for the following reasons:

  • Temperatures got too low
  • Temperatures were moderately low, but for too long
  • Available sunlight declined too much
  • There is too much wind
  • Soil becomes depleted of nutrients
  • Soil becomes too dry
  • Soil is wet but unable to drain well

Okay, there are a lot of factors that might damage or even lead to the demise of your lemon tree. What can you do about that?

The main culprit is going to be the temperature of the area your lemon tree is planted in.

To understand the needs of the lemon tree, we should discuss cold hardiness and the USDA hardiness zones.

How Cold Hardy Are Lemon Trees?

If you read our pieces or know much about plants, you may be familiar with a little thing called USDA Hardiness Zones.

The USDA hardiness zones help us to understand and differentiate between the different regions of the United States based on their average extreme low temperatures.

The temperature ranges are extremes and may not be typical for winter in a given area. However, the important thing to note is that those extremely low temperatures are possible

Lemon trees are best when placed in an area that has an extremely low temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit. That is to say that lemon trees will not do well if temperatures get below 20 degrees

You shouldn’t try to plant a lemon tree in an area with this winter weather, because it is the absolute extreme minimum that a lemon tree may be able to endure. As an extreme, in USDA hardiness zone 9, that temperature is going to be handled as a one-off event. 

Confused about hardiness zones? 

Let’s go over them in a bit more depth. 

Each zone covers a range of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, designated by numbers like 9, 10, and 11, for example. Zones go from 1 to 13, as seen on the USDA’s plant hardiness zone map.

Zones are each broken up into 5-degree sections, labeled A and B. So, 9a would cover 20-25 degrees Fahrenheit while zone 9 (a+b) would cover 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Areas in the United States that are considered proper growing locations for a lemon tree are as follows:

  • The Western parts of Washington, Oregon, and California
  • Southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Lousiana, Alabama
  • All of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina
  • The Eastern parts of North Carolina and Virginia

What Are The Signs Of Winter Damage To My Lemon Tree?

Without discrimination, winter is the hardest season for any plant to bear. Cold hardy trees still have the potential to not survive a particularly harsh winter. So, trees that may be able to survive a mild winter could quite quickly be damaged by a more intense winter. 

Keep an eye out for some signs of winter damage to your lemon tree so that you can confidently gauge the health and success of your tree. 

Lemon Fruit Damage

One of the easiest ways to spot winter damage to a lemon tree is by checking the fruit of your tree. 

The rind of a cold-damaged lemon will become loose and even potentially fall off. This is because the inside of the lemon will become waterlogged, essentially, and will not be able to hold the entire fruit together any longer.

Stunted Growth

Any cold that is fighting to survive cold temperatures or other difficulties will put its energy toward staying alive. This means that there will be less energy available to put toward normal growth processes. 

The growth of a cold-damaged lemon tree will be stunted, and if this becomes a pattern it will be easy to see the lack of growth in your tree.

This could lead to the inability to grow fruit, so lemon production will go down and the tree may fall into a cycle of survival mode.

Dead Or Dying Lemon Tree Branches 

Branches of a old lemon tree in the garden, looks very attractive.

If you see branches that are dying or have already died on your lemon tree, this is another good indicator that your tree is no longer thriving.

This is common to see as a result of cold damage because these smaller parts of the tree can’t handle the extreme temperatures as well as the base of the tree can. 

Dead branches can cause much larger issues like fungus growth or even the rot of other parts of the tree that they are attached to or resting on. 

If you see dead or dying branches on your tree, you should prune them as soon as the weather warms up a bit in the spring. Pruning right before the blossoming period is best.

Dying Leaves On The Lemon Tree

Similar to dying branches as a result of the cold, you’ll see there may be sections of leaves that begin to have dieback. 

Dieback is when leaves brown, wilt, or even rot, but stay on the tree. This can cause issues quite like those that dying branches can cause. 

Anytime a dead or decaying portion of a tree is left on the tree, it can impact the rest of the healthy tree. So, it is important to remove dieback as soon as you can. This will allow you to maintain the health of the rest of your tree.

Dying leaves can also be a sign that the tree isn’t getting enough nutrients or energy. Lemon trees have shallow roots, so it is easy for them to get damaged or run out of available nutrients!

How To Keep Your Lemon Tree Growing In The Winter

You want to keep your lemon tree happy, healthy, and most of all allow it to continue growing, right? 

I have good news. There are some things you can do to maintain your tree’s health in the winter.

Keep up with a few standard practices to give your lemon tree the very best chance of getting through any winter, mild or otherwise.

Choosing The Right Location For Your Lemon Tree

Location is one of the most important things when it comes to the success of your tree. 

Your primary focus should be:

  • Planting your lemon tree in the proper USDA hardiness zone of 9-11
  • Planting your lemon tree in an open area, away from buildings and other trees so that it can get the best light
  • Planting your lemon tree in moist, but well-drained soil
  • Planting your lemon tree in an area where you can monitor it and take care of it

Use Mulch To Protect The Tree’s Roots

Mulch can help you protect your lemon tree by covering the roots and keeping a healthy amount of moisture in the soil. 

I recommend a mulch like these Natural Cedar Shaving that come in bags of 4, 8, and 16 quarts. They can last a long time depending on your needs and are inexpensive.

Give Lots Of Water To Your Lemon Tree 

Water is key, anywhere and anytime. The amount, however, varies. So does the frequency of watering.

In the winter, for a citrus tree, you only need to water it every 3-4 weeks.

Afraid you’ll underwater or overwater? To avoid messing up, or forgetting to water, you can use something like this Automatic Drip Irrigation Kit with a Water Timer.

Fertilize Your Lemon Tree

Sometimes your tree just needs to be fertilized. 

For lemon trees, and any citrus, you’ll want a balanced fertilizer such as this ENVY All-Purpose Plant Food. The elements in the product should all have equal representation. 

Seeing an NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) number of 6-6-6 or 10-10-10, for example, is ideal. 

This number is meant to help you see how much of which element is in the fertilizer and can be even easier to spot when it’s the same number all in a row of 3. 

Keep Your Lemon Tree Pruned

Gardener pruning a young lemon tree in spring using pruning shears or secateurs with ripening fruit in a close up view of the hands and garden tool

Especially if you are seeing that your tree’s branches have begun to die as a result of the cold, you’ll need to prune your lemon tree. 

Removing dead branches could mean the difference between a healthy tree and your tree developing fungus and rotting in damp conditions. 

You should prune your lemon tree on a semi-regular basis and as-needed, anyway, so this one is good to keep in mind at all times.

Wrapping Up!

When life gives you lemons…plant a new lemon tree. That’s the saying, right?

Anyway, lemon trees are durable and adapt well, but to a certain point. 

Planting these trees in hardiness zones 9-11, along with making sure they have proper water, sunlight, and a good soil type, will ensure that your tree lives a long, healthy life.

For now, keep up the good work. Good luck as you continue along your personal tree journey, this time with lemons!

References

Castle, W. S. (1983). Growth, yield, and cold hardiness of seven-year-old’Bearss’ lemon trees on twenty-seven rootstocks. In Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society (Vol. 96, pp. 23-24).

Kato, T., Kubota, S., & Bambang, S. (1982). Uptake of 15N-nitrate by citrus trees in winter and repartitioning in spring. Journal of the Japanese Society for Horticultural Science50(4), 421-426.

Dacko, I. G. (1950). Lemons overwintered successfully. Sad i Ogorod, (7).

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