Fresh, juicy lemons and fragrant blossoms are just two benefits of growing an espaliered lemon tree (Citrus x limon) in your garden. An ancient method for growing trees against a vertical surface such as a wall, fence or wires between wooden posts, a tree trained as an espalier also provides structure in potager gardens, orchards and ornamental gardens. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 11, a lemon tree can grow up to 25 feet tall, so select a compact variety to espalier. Create an informal structure, as a lemon tree's growth habit doesn't conform well to training into a regular pattern.
One suitable lemon cultivar is Dwarf Lisbon, which grows 8 to 12 feet tall and wide. For fruits that are sweeter and less acidic, consider the Improved Meyer lemon (Citrus x meyeri 'Improved'), which is also hardy in USDA zones 9 through 11. Improved Meyer is a compact, low-maintenance hybrid of a true lemon and a mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). Suitable for training as an espalier, it grows 6 to 10 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide.
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Things You'll Need
Prepare the Structure
Select a sunny, well-drained location against a south-facing wall. In the hottest climates, a little dappled shade in the afternoon protects the lemon tree from the hot summer sun.
Step 1: Don Safety Gear
Put on safety gear before you begin. Gloves, long sleeves, long pants, closed-toe shoes and safety goggles protect your hands, skin and eyes.
Step 2: Measure and Predrill
Measure and mark the espalier pattern on the wall or other structure with a marker, pencil or chalk. Predrill the holes for the eye screws to a depth of 1 1/2 to 2 inches.
Step 3: Screw Eye Screws Into Supports
Screw one 6- to 8-inch eye screw 24 inches above the ground into a fence, post or other structure to support the lemon tree. Screw in another eye screw horizontally 4 feet from the first screw, also 24 inches above the ground; and screw in another screw horizontally 4 feet in the opposite direction from the first screw, also 24 inches off the ground. This gives a line of three screws 24 inches above the ground and 8 feet wide.
Step 4: Add More Eye Screws
Screw an eye screw 18 inches above the first screw and another screw every 18 inches to a height of 6 feet 6 inches. Screw eye screws above the other lowest screws every 18 inches to 6 feet 6 inches.
Step 5: Thread the Lower Wire
Thread galvanized steel wire through the eye screws that are lowest to the ground. Fold the wire over and twist it together at one eye screw on an outer edge of the grid to secure it. Pull the wire tight through the eye screw at the other edge of the grid, and cut it with wire cutters to leave a 2-inch tail. Fold this tail in and twist it around to hold the wire in place.
Step 6: Add the Upper Wire
Thread and secure wire horizontally through the higher eye screws in the same way. Untwist and retighten wires as needed to create a taut framework.
Plant the Lemon Tree
Prepare the balled-and-burlapped or container-grown lemon tree for planting. Loosen the burlap wrappings or slide the tree out of the grower's pot. Keep the tree's rootball covered with wet burlap and in the shade until the planting hole is ready.
Step 1: Dig the Planting Hole
Dig a hole in front of the center of the espalier support, 1 foot wider and at the same depth as the lemon tree's rootball. Remove the wet burlap and any other coverings from the rootball and place the tree in the hole so the surface of the rootball is level with the surrounding soil and the tree trunk is 6 to 8 inches from the base of the espalier support.
Step 2: Backfill the Planting Hole
Replace and firm soil at the base of the hole as needed so that the tree sits at the correct depth. Fill in the gaps around the rootball with the excavated soil and firm the soil gently with the heels of your hands. Water the lemon tree thoroughly.
Step 3: Add a Layer of Mulch
Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch such as wood chips or bark, garden compost or leaf mold around the base of the lemon tree. Spread it from the outer edges of the branches to 6 inches from the trunk.
Step 4: Sterilize Your Tools
Sterilize your pruners before you prune. Dip the blades into rubbing alcohol. Allow to air dry. Also put on your safety gear; some lemon cultivars have thorns.
Step 5: Attach the Tree to the Structure
Select three or four of the thickest vertical shoots on the lemon tree. Tie these shoots to the closest wires loosely with plant ties or garden twine at a 45-degree angle from the ground. Prune all shoots thicker than your little finger where they join the rest of the tree. Tie side shoots horizontally to the closest wires and prune side shoots that aren't growing near wires where they join the tree.
Step 6: Tie Shoots to the Wires
Shoots grow vigorously when trained at a 45-degree angle. If you need to reduce a shoot's vigor, bend it gently until it is horizontal and tie it to a supporting wire.
Step 7: Water the Tree Regularly
Water the lemon tree regularly throughout the growing season so that the soil is consistently moist but never sodden. Add more mulch as needed. Also fertilize the tree with a fertilizer formulated for citrus trees , beginning in January or February and following with two more treatments in April or May and August or September.
Step 8: Tie Growing Shoots
Tie the main lemon tree shoots to the wires as they reach them over the growing season. Continue to tie side shoots along the wires horizontally.
Step 9: Prune in Spring
Each spring, prune dead, diseased or overcrowded lemon tree shoots and those growing toward or away from the support or otherwise spoiling the shape of the espalier. Tie new shoots to the support, and prune shoots that grow beyond its edges.