Improved Meyer Lemon
Updated: Apr 2
CITRUS IN THE WINTER GREENHOUSE
One of the great blessings of having a growing dome on our homestead is that it allows us to grow several types of perennial trees that would otherwise be to tender (frost sensitive) for our climate. There are few experiences as delightful for the winter gardener as being able to trudge through the snow to the winter greenhouse and be met by a bountiful crop of Meyer Lemons.
WHAT IS A MEYER LEMON?
Meyer Lemons were originally a product of China, and were brought to the United States by explorer Frank N. Meyer, for whom they are named. The current "Improved" varieties are a product of the University of California and are a cross between a lemon and mandarin orange; they have better disease and insect resistance than the original varieties. Meyer Lemons have a thinner rind and sweeter flesh than a traditional lemon, and they can be used either fresh or cooked. When we were first selecting plants for our growing dome, we searched with eager anticipation through a variety of catalogues. While there were many options, we were certain that we wanted a citrus, and the Meyer Lemon rose to the top of the list for several reasons:
harvest in the off season
(relatively) easy cultivation
We purchased our grafted Meyer Lemon from a Pacific Northwest nursery. At the time of purchase, it was just a slip of a tree with good branch structure and loads of potential. We allowed it to it grow as a potted plant (graduating through successively larger pots) for the first couple years. A mature Meyer Lemon will reach to 6-10 ft. tall, making it a priority to plan for the tree's long-term location. As it grew, we opted to move it into one of the dome's raised beds. This has allowed it to spread its roots. Each year, Kindra has pruned and trained the branches to create an open, espalier-like growth pattern that parallels the dome's northeastern wall.
When considering our purchase of a Meyer Lemon tree, we saw pictures of mature trees loaded with beautiful lemons. It was hard to believe that the tiny tree we brought home would ever grow to that level of production, but it has outperformed our expectations. Although it takes a few years before the tree is ready to support fruit production, once it is mature it provides an excellent return for the amount of space it requires. During the past few years (we've had it for five) it has produced 30-50 lemons each season.
PRODUCTION IN THE OFF SEASON
The growth cycle of a lemon--especially one growing in our warm greenhouse--is very different than that of other northern plants. The Meyer Lemon begins to bloom during early spring, usually March to April. The sweet smell of the blooms permeates the dome, greeting us as soon as the door is opened. The tree will bloom gradually, sometimes setting fruit throughout the summer. Because there aren't usually any pollinators in the dome, we use a soft paintbrush for hand-pollination.
The lemons develop during summer and fall, beginning to take on color in October or November. The first lemons become fully ripe around Christmas. Because they have mandarin orange genetics, ripe fruits will have a light orange cast to their rinds. The gradual nature of the blooming-fruiting-ripening cycle in our dome means that the harvest of ripe lemons can last all throughout the year.
Unlike a true lemon, the Meyer Lemon has a thin, flavorful rind and sweet flesh. This makes it versatile for kitchen use. The whole lemon (minus the seeds) can be chopped and added to recipes, imparting a powerful, zesty punch. We have enjoyed it in a variety of dishes, with two favorites being homemade frozen yogurt and creamy honey-lemon salad dressing. While it is tangy, the flesh is sweet enough to be eaten straight (by the brave of heart), or minced and added into any recipe that calls for lemons. Nothing brightens the winter palate quite as much as the invigorating flavor of citrus.
(RELATIVELY) EASY CULTIVATION
There is no such thing as a work-free crop on the homestead, but we are always looking for the most efficient ways to achieve a worthwhile harvest. The Meyer Lemon provides us with bountiful lemons with a reasonable amount of effort. As is the case for any perennial greenhouse plant, the lemon tree is susceptible to scale and mildew, both of which have to be addressed throughout the growing season. In spring, we hand-pollinate the blooms. In summer, we use a biodegradable spray (like Doctor Zymes) combined with natural produce wash to combat scale. Summer is also the time for more frequent watering (up to three times each week, depending on the greenhouse temperature), and for fertilization. In the fall and winter we prune and train the tree, and we clean away accumulated mildew and dust from the leaves. While these tasks require more time than do some of our other homestead crops, we are rewarded each year with a beautiful, flavorful crop of Meyer Lemons.
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