Fool's Garden
August 31, 2009 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Please help me save my beloved lemon tree!

I'm hoping that some of you can help me prevent a case of unintentional herbicide.

Here are the facts of the case:

* I bought the lemon tree about 4 years ago.
* This year I moved to a new place, and the tree is now on a small balcony facing west. (It does get some direct sunlight after about 4 or 5 p.m.)
* I'm watering it every other day.
* It didn't bloom this year. In fact, I was sure it was dead. As you can see in this picture, the top looks positively devastated.
* A few weeks ago, after I had already given up, a fresh branch came bursting out of the bottom. There also seems to be some clover in the pot. (I was told that lemon trees like company, so I've left it in.)
* I have no idea what to do at this point. Should I replant? When should I bring it indoors? Should I clip? How to best survive the rapidly approaching autumn/winter?

I've consulted local florists and the intraweb, but have found lots of conflicting advice and the oft-repeated caveat that lemon trees are just plain persnickety. So... any help would be greatly appreciated!
posted by Ljubljana to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
I have an orange tree in a big pot. Every year, twice a year it "dies." My wife threatens to toss it, but I tell her that I've lived with the tree longer than I've lived with her and she should be patient. Sure enough, little green sprigs appear and soon the tree has a full set of new greenery, then it blooms and fills the house with orange blossom and my wife has me move it into the living room.

I trim back the truly dead brown bits ocasionally, but mostly I just treat it the same regardless of if it has leaves or not. I keep it moist, but not too moist. I fertilize occasionally. I fill the pot with a sandy mix of sand, pelletized lime, and potting soil when it gets depleted, thinking to myself, "if I were in central Florida, what would my dirt look like?" I don't know if this is typical citrus behavior, but it seems to be for my little guy.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:23 AM on August 31, 2009

Best answer: That looks pretty grim. How long has that top part been like that? Try scrapping the bark from a small section of one of the branches and see if there is any green there. Green = still alive, brown = dead.

The new sprout may be coming from below the graft union which means that the roots are still alive (but the fruit bearing upper branches may not be). Check closely to see if there is a bigish knot-like thing on the main trunk near the soil line. That is the graft union. If the sprout is coming from below that union then that is your root stock trying to sprout, which will not grow into the same type of tree.

If the upper part is all brown (inside and out) and the new sprout is coming from below the graft, then I would say this plant is a goner.
posted by banshee at 11:36 AM on August 31, 2009

Best answer: I would toss it. If it is a dwarf lemon tree, it has been grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, and your new shoots are the rootstock, and not the lemon. The top is dead.

Also- did you water it every other day when it was thriving? Because that is kind of a lot. It is also way too much for a stressed plant. You should water citrus when the top 2-3 inches of soil is dry.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:18 PM on August 31, 2009

Oh, if you decide you want to keep what is there, cleanly cut the top off at an angle just above the new growth.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:22 PM on August 31, 2009

Oops, sorry for multiple posts- the stuff in the pot isn't clover, it is oxalis.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:25 PM on August 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the grim diagnosis.

I scraped away some bark and it's all brown. I wasn't able to find any knot-like thing. It (the rootstock?) just looks like two thin branches coming out of the base.

Is it worth even trying to cut the top off? What would happen then?
posted by Ljubljana at 12:50 PM on August 31, 2009

Best answer: If you cut the top off, you'll be removing the dead part so that you can have whatever is growing at the bottom. If it is grafting rootstock, it will be a vigorous small citrus of some type, most likely with thorns. If it is not grafted, it will be the lemon you had, but in multitrunk form.

Most citrus I have worked with are grafted just below the crown, not at the base. In your photo it looks like you may have a graft about a hand's width below the crown (where branching begins).

Personally, I wouldn't bother, unless you enjoy the experiment of possibly growing a mystery plant.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:11 PM on August 31, 2009

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