How do you prune a lemon tree? Expert advice on shaping your tree

Learn how to prune a lemon tree to keep it healthy and vigorous as well as get more of this fresh citrus fruit

lemon tree laden with fruit
(Image credit: Yuliya Starikova/Alamy Stock Photo)

Find out how to prune a lemon tree properly to get the best out of yours. Pruning promotes growth and results in a healthier tree, as well as giving you more fruit. Plus of course your tree will look so much better after a smart clip as well.

These popular citrus trees are great for sunny decks and patios as well as conservatories, and will add a lovely touch of the Mediterranean to your space. They are good for small gardens, and also an attractive addition as lemon trees can be pruned into many different shapes depending on how you want to use them. 

Lemons are one of the best fruit trees you can grow if you want a good looking tree that crops well. When it comes to how to prune a lemon tree the first thing to consider is what height you want your tree and how it will slot into your garden design. Then all you need to do is follow our easy step-by-step guide to get your lemon tree in shape.

lemon tree on patio with bistro set

Add a lemon tree to a sunbaked patio, deck or balcony for a Mediterranean touch

(Image credit: Angelina Zinovieva/Alamy Stock Photo)

How to prune a lemon tree: step by step guide

'Lemon trees tend to need minimal pruning and generally this is only to keep them compact,' says Nick Hamilton of Barnsdale Gardens. 'The main pruning is carried out when they are still dormant, and this involves cutting out straggling or inward-facing branches and/or thinning overcrowded branches to keep an open centre that lets lots of light in.'

Another important thing to note when finding out how to prune a lemon tree is that you need to use a sharp pair of pruning shears or secateurs. It's also a good idea to follow advice on how to clean pruning shears beforehand so you don't spread any diseases. 

lemon tree being pruned with secateurs

Make sure your pruning shears are up to the job as they need to be sharp and clean

(Image credit: Jim Holden/Alamy Stock Photo)
  1. Start by looking at the bottom of the tree and remove any of the suckers and strong new growth around the base of the trunk, as well as taking out any new shoots. 'You want your tree to look like a tree not a shrub,' says Liesl van der Walt, head gardener at Babylonstoren. 'The idea is to help the tree put all its energy into growth. Aiming to take out everything less than knee height is the formula that works for me.' 
  2. Next, remove any dead, diseased or damaged branches to improve the overall look of your lemon tree. This includes taking out any ugly crossing or overlapping branches that can rub against each other and cause disease, as well as compete with each other for light and nutrients. You can use a similar approach when pruning apple trees
  3. Turn your attention to the top of the tree and think about how to shape it. The best way forward when it comes to pruning a lemon tree is to create a rounded canopy that is aesthetically pleasing. Take out any tall gangly branches that protrude and don’t look balanced to help give your tree symmetry. 'Thin out the middle crown removing any diseased or weak branches or any that are too heavy for the centre of the tree,' says Liesl. 'Aim for an airy structure in the centre of the tree that lets in lots of sunlight.' This will encourage more fruit.
  4. If you have a young tree prune off any flowers or small fruit In the first year to put energy back in the tree. Snip out the growing tips to stimulate new growth and keep the tree looking shapely. The point where you cut should always lie above a leaf. Be careful not to cut off too much though, aiming for no more than a third in a year.
  5. Stand back and check the overall shape of your lemon tree looks good. Next fertilize the tree well with citrus food or liquid seaweed, both available from Amazon, and water thoroughly.

removing shoots from base of lemon tree

Start by removing any new shoots and strong growth around the base of the stem. You want your lemon to look like a tree with a clearly defined trunk and not a bushy shrub

(Image credit: Future)

When is the best time to prune a lemon tree?

The best time to prune a lemon tree is when you see lots of healthy growth. You should avoid pruning it if it’s ailing or looking sickly though. 

'The time to prune a lemon tree is when they're starting to grow,' says gardening editor Ruth Hayes. 'It’s a simple task and you don’t need to take off much growth, although they will respond by producing more flower buds when they're trimmed.' It's fine also to pinch back the tips of the most vigorous growth now and then, using your thumb and forefinger. Regular maintenance like this is a key part of how to prune a lemon tree.

Generally it's best to prune in spring, thinning out the centre of the plant so light and air can get in, and removing any branches that look jaded. In early spring look at your lemon tree to assess what needs doing at the start of the new growing season.

You can also prune your lemon tree at the end of the growing season if necessary. 'You can prune twice a year in the spring and fall,' according to the experts at US Citrus. 'Snip out the growing tips to stimulate new growth from the end branches on your lemon tree in the fall.'

Find out when to prune fruit trees if you have more varieties in your garden and want to get the best out of them too.

potted lemon tree on deck

Prune your lemon tree when it has lots of healthy growth

(Image credit: Biosphoto/Alamy Stock Photo)

How do you prune a lemon tree in a pot?

Lemon trees are one of the best fruit trees to grow in pots. If you decide to grow yours in a pot it should be pruned in exactly the same way as other lemon trees, but remember you will need to keep it at a manageable size. You can do this by not replanting them in a bigger pot when they start to look like they've filled the available space in their current one. This will restrict their growth.

'Ideally, you should prune a lemon tree in late winter or early spring, after the tree’s flowering and fruit producing season is over,' says Dobbies’ horticultural director Marcus Eyles. 'When it comes to pruning your potted lemon tree, you should never cut back more than a third of your tree in a year.'

Both young and adult trees alike should have sprouts removed and any weak branches taken out to allow for new growth and healthy fruit. 'This is essential as not only will it prevent overcrowding, it will also ensure your potted lemon tree stays a manageable size,' says Marcus.

When growing fruit in pots, the best advice is to let your potted lemon tree grow to about four feet. Then instead of repotting it scrape out the top third of soil and top up with fresh compost. 

small potted lemon tree

Treat potted lemon trees in exactly the same way you would lemon trees planted in the ground

(Image credit: hobbies)
Sarah Wilson
Content Editor

Lifestyle journalist Sarah Wilson has been writing about gardens since 2015. She's written for, Livingetc, Homes & Gardens, Easy Gardens and Modern Gardens magazines. Having studied introductory garden and landscape design, she is currently putting the skills learned to good use in her own space where the dream is establishing a cutting garden.