Few people know that propagating citrus fruit trees from cuttings is possible, but it is. It’s also a straightforward process that requires nothing more than a little time, due diligence, and care. And by giving your cuttings what they need – like high humidity and sterile soil – you’ll watch them grow into lovely, productive trees.
Propagating Citrus Fruit Trees From Cuttings
It’s pretty easy to grow citrus trees from cuttings, but you need to be aware of a few things before you get started. For instance, if you live in California or plan to order citrus cuttings from this state, they must originate in an insect-resistant structure. They must also come from trees that have been tested and proven to be disease-free.
Why are such regulations in place? California, like much of the world, now deals with a highly contagious disease known as huanglongbing, which reduces the life expectancy of citrus trees to a mere five years. This illness is difficult to detect and spreads via insects and human movement of citrus trees and cuttings. Even hobbyists must therefore use the proper cuttings to reduce incidences of this disease.
Trees propagated from cuttings may lack the same disease resistance commercially-grown lemon trees often have. They are, in particular, susceptible to Phytophthora foot rot, a pathogen that contaminates roots and easily spreads from tree to tree. Planting in sterile, disease-free soil instead of garden dirt will help prevent this disease.
Sanitize and Clean Your Tools
If you’re using your own cutting, and not purchasing one from a provider, you’ll want to sterilize your grafting tools. This helps prevent the spread of bacteria and also maximizes the likelihood your graft will survive. Using chlorine bleach is the preferred method, and you can simply spray your tools until the bleach drips off them. Keep in mind you should wear old clothes and safety glasses during this process, and wash any exposed skin immediately after.
Also wash your tools after using the bleach to protect them and your plants from toxins. The last step is to spray your tools with an anti-corrosion agent to prevent rust. If you feel averse to bleach, you can instead use a disinfectant spray or cloth – but you’ll still need to wash and spray all instruments before using them.
Ready Your Container
Propagating fruit trees from cuttings requires that you properly prepare your potting container. Any container is fine – some enthusiasts even make their own out of clear materials so they can monitor root growth – but it needs to hold about one gallon of soil. It also needs to have plenty of drainage holes; if yours doesn’t, simply add them yourself by making small cuts into the container.
The next step is to pour in your sterile soil. Alternatively, you can use a homemade mixture of half milled peat and half sand. Again, skip the garden soil because it may contain harmful bacteria. Mixtures containing peat, however, initially resist water. You’ll therefore need to keep adding and stirring until the mixture holds moisture.
Properly Take Your Cutting
Lemon is the easiest of all citrus trees to grow from a cutting. But you still need to take care, especially with your timing. You should obtain your lemon cuttings in late spring or early summer, and you want to cut at a 45-degree angle starting just below the point where a leaf attaches to a stem. The goal is to obtain a 6-inch cutting that:
- Is free of fruit and flowers so energy is concentrated in the root
- Has a few nodes (where leaves emerge) at the base
- Shows no signs of damage, stress, or disease
Keep only the top three leaves on your cutting, removing the rest with your sanitized, non-serrated knife. Before you move the cutting to your potting container, wrap it in a damp paper towel and then proceed.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Before potting your cutting, make a 2-inch deep hole in the pot’s center that is approximately the width of your index finger. Next, dip the bottom 2 inches of the cutting in a liquid hormone rooting mix, available from a local garden center. Place the cutting into the hole you’ve made and firm the potting mixture against the stem.
Because lemon tree cuttings grow best in heat and high humidity, you’ll want to cover the pot with a large, clear plastic bag that mimics a greenhouse effect. Fasten the bag around the pot lip with string, ensuring it doesn’t rest against the cutting, and cut two 1-inch openings in the bag to release excess moisture. Finally, move the pot to a sunny spot where temperatures stay between 75 and 90 degrees F.
A Few Tips
It’s a good idea to plant a few cuttings so that if one or two fail, you’ll still be rewarded with beautiful lemon trees. Avoid placing the cutting in direct sunlight so you don’t stress it but still choose a spot that gets bright, slightly diffused light. Finally, mist the soil every day to increase humidity. The soil should stay damp all the way through except for the surface; it’s a good idea to let this dry a bit between waterings.
The Fruits of Your Efforts
You may be surprised to hear this, but lemon tree cuttings need little to successfully root. Times vary, but this generally takes six to 12 weeks – the upper end of this spectrum represents cooler climates. You can perform a root test at the eight-week marker to see how things are going; gently tug on the base of the cutting and, if it resists your efforts, you know roots have grown.
Once you know roots are established, you can cut the bag open and allow the cutting to adjust to normal temperatures and humidity. Don’t remove the bag entirely just yet, however. Your cutting still needs some warmth.
Words for the Wise
You might see buds begin to grow on the cuttings in just a few weeks, but remember that rooting takes longer. Buds are a good sign, but you need to have roots before you can do anything further.
When It’s Time to Transplant
Once you see signs of growth, it’s time to transplant your lemon cutting. A 1-gallon nursery container will work the best, filled with traditional potting soil and placed in a sun-filled spot outdoors with shelter. Temperatures should stay above 60 degrees F, and you no longer need the plastic bag. To care for your new tree, you should:
- Touch the soil frequently and water when it feels dry to the touch
- Add water until excess streams from your pot’s drainage holes
- Feed every two weeks with a mixture of one-gallon water and 1/2 teaspoon of 10-10-10 fertilizer
After one year in the nursery container, your tree is ready for transplanting. You can move it into the garden or a permanent pot with drainage holes. Lemon trees can stay outside year-round in hardiness zones 9 through 11, although more substantial varieties like Meyer lemons can survive in zones 8b through 10.
Propagating citrus fruit trees from cuttings can be rewarding experiences for gardeners. You have a chance to be intimately involved with each cutting’s growth, and you can have as many or as few trees as you want. And, of course, you get to enjoy your own lemons.