Lemon Tree Trimming: How To Prune Lemon Trees for More Fruit (5 Steps)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Gardening | October 19, 2023

Woman holding a pair or pruning shears after reading a lemon tree trimming guide that explained how to prune lemon trees, correctly cut lemon tree branches, get more lemons from trees, and improve lemon tree health.

Lemon tree trimming is crucial for ensuring the health of your fruit trees.

In fact, properly pruning your lemon tree will help you have healthy harvests, producing bountiful fruits you can use to make delicious drinks, seasonings, marinades, and sweets. But, your trees will also present a more attractive appearance and heavenly scent.

But keeping your Lemon Tree healthy and productive requires several things, with proper Lemon Tree trimming being a key component of its maintenance.

This comprehensive guide outlines the steps involved in trimming the branches of your Lemon trees, whether they are outdoors, or ornamental indoor trees planted in containers.

Lemon Tree Trimming: How To Prune a Lemon Tree

Lemon Tree pruning is essential in maintaining the health and productivity of these vibrant citrus trees.

Graphics showing steps on how to prune a lemon tree with an image of a full-grown lemon tree and text and arrows pointing out water sprouts, large branches and shoots that need to be removed.

Take note of the following crucial steps to start proper trimming of your Lemon Tree.

Step #1: Remove Shoots

Remove shoots from the base to maximize fruit production and promote the overall health of your tree.5

These shoots will not produce the desired fruit variety or perhaps any fruit at all. They grow very fast and will suck up all the water and nutrients if you let them grow too much.

Remove base shoots as soon as you notice them, all throughout the year. Left unchecked, they can potentially grow larger than your tree within a matter of months!

They sometimes pop up in the soil surrounding the tree as well and should be removed just as promptly.

Step #2: Remove Dead or Diseased Branches

Remove dead or diseased branches. Doing so keeps your Lemon Tree in tip-top shape by giving it a chance to rejuvenate, making it less susceptible to damage and disease, and directing water and nutrients to the healthy branches.

Some signs of a diseased branch include having downward-hanging branches, moldy or fuzzy-looking spots, growths, or discoloration. For the most part, you know diseased or dead branches when you see them

Make the cut to a healthy part of the branch to ensure the damaged material has been removed completely.

Step #3: Remove Water Sprouts

Water sprouts, also known as gourmands, are found in the canopy of the tree. Like base shoots, these hearty, fast-growing branches either produce no fruit or low-quality fruit and will hoard the water and nutrients for themselves.

Remove the branch completely at the base with a nice, clean cut to make sure you get it all.

Step #4: Remove Larger Branches

When removing larger branches, do not cut them flush with (right up against) the trunk or a larger branch to which it is connected. You must preserve the area at the base of a large limb, known as the ‘branch collar.’

This part of the tree, also called the ‘‘branch defense zone’, has a ridged and/or wrinkled appearance. The branch collar contains cells that activate the growth of callus tissue, which forms over ‘wounds’ plants experience from pruning, helping them heal, and protecting against decay.

To prevent damage to the bark, use a three-cut system for any branches bigger than 1 inch in diameter. The bark is brittle and systematic cutting prevents you from tearing it, or splintering the rest of the branch.

Step 1: Make an angled cut about 10 to 12 inches out from the branch union (where the branch joins with the bark or another branch).

Step 2: Cut one-third to one-half of the way through from the other side of the branch. This is known as an undercut.

Step 3: Move at least a few inches up the branch and cut at the desired pruning point, remembering to preserve the branch collar. It is recommended to leave at least 5 inches of branch in place for optimal recovery.

Step #5:Thin the Canopy

While a nice, thick canopy is indicative of a healthy, thriving tree, it can become too thick, leading to crowding, branches competing with each other for resources, and insufficient sunlight, without which the fruit cannot mature properly and produce optimal flavor.

Thinning the canopy will undoubtedly reduce your yields for that year’s harvest, but will make next year’s haul more delicious and abundant.3

Visually divide the tree into 4 sections based on the primary branch structure (the branches growing directly from the trunk), and prune one section at a time to expose the lower branches to more sun.

Do not remove too many large branches from the middle. If the lower branches get too much direct sunlight, they will get a ‘sunburn.’

The ‘optimal’ canopy will have speckled sunlight beneath the tree at midday.

An Important Pruning Rule

Citrus tree maintenance wisdom holds you should not prune more than one-third of your Lemon tree each year.

Though a really damaged or diseased tree may require more radical measures, and in this case, you can remove up to one-half of the tree.

Considerations for Potted Lemon Tree Trimming

Pruning Lemon trees in pots is essentially the same as pruning a tree growing in the ground,1 but just on a smaller scale.

But because Lemon trees can grow upwards of 30 feet, which isn’t feasible for a potted plant, controlling growth is an additional consideration.

You can ‘top’ a newly planted Lemon tree to reduce upward growth, and encourage lateral growth, creating an attractive canopy, and making it easier to maintain. You may need to repeat ‘topping’ throughout the life of your tree to keep it at a manageable size.

As a potted plant grows, you typically move it into a bigger pot; but once a Lemon Tree reaches 4 feet, keep it in its current pot to prevent it from growing too big.

Once potted Lemon trees have been growing for at least a few years, they often develop a lot of flagging branches (a branch with only one leaf or a few small leaves) near the top. Removing them improves the health of your tree.

Tools For Pruning Your Lemon Tree

Using the proper tools is essential for properly pruning your Lemon tree and minimizing damage.2

The exact tools you need will depend on the size of your tree.

Graphics showing the proper tools to prune lemon tree such as protective gears like gloves and glasses, pruners, loppers, saws, saws and herbicide and seals.

Ensure all of your cutting tools are sharp; blunt tools do more damage to the tree, and a more damaged tree is more vulnerable to disease and pest infestations.

Protective Gear

Citrus trees are particularly thorny, especially if they are younger, so gloves and glasses are a must. It is probably a good idea to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts as well.


Use pruners, probably the most vital tool to have on hand, for cuts smaller than one inch.

Pruners and other gardening tools can transmit diseases from tree to tree. For this reason, not only do you want to clean the shears used on other plants previously, but you also want to clean them between different Lemon trees if you are working on more than one.

Proper tool cleaning is essential if there are any active fungal diseases or infestations in your garden.

Disinfect your pruners with rubbing alcohol or a 2% bleach solution (1 part bleach to 50 parts water) before using them. Bleach can have a corrosive effect so wash the tools down with water when you are done to prevent rusting.

These cleaning instructions apply to all subsequent tools mentioned below.


Loppers, which are essentially a ‘heartier’ version of pruning shears, are good for cuts up to two inches in diameter.


If you have an older, established tree, your pruning routine may require a variety of saws for larger, thicker branches.

Use pruning saws for branches more than 2 inches in diameter, and a chainsaw for branches more than 3 to 4 inches in diameter. You will need a pole saw for branches out of your reach.

These tools allow for neater, more precise cuts.

While the wood of Lemon trees is strong, like other citrus trees, its thin bark is easily damaged; so the blade should always be facing away from the tree when making cuts to avoid nicking it.

Herbicide and Seals

Citrus trees are more vulnerable to damage and disease, and pruning makes them even more so.

The fresh cuts expose tender areas of the plant to all manners of infestations from gall wasps to weevils to weeds. Applying substances like herbicides and seals to the exposed areas reduces the risk.

Best Time for Lemon Tree Trimming (When To Prune Lemon Tree)

If you don’t trim your tree in a timely fashion, you risk losing that year’s harvest.

Typically Lemon tree trimming is not needed until they enter their second year. But unlike many other trees, Lemon trees don’t have a complete dormancy period or lose leaves.

Their growth and metabolism will slow after being harvested, but everything will kick into high gear again once spring approaches. So prune your tree before new flowers start appearing.

The best Lemon tree pruning period is late winter to early spring; between February and April, in most cases.

If you do it too early in winter, colder temperatures risk damaging tender new growth.4 If you wait until later in spring, the tree may not have enough time to recover before the next harvesting period.

If you live in a warmer climate, you have more flexibility with the optimal pruning window, but do it before it gets too hot outside. Pruning can be a bit of a ‘shock’ to the tree’s system, and if you prune during more intense heat, it may not recover as well, increasing the risk for damage, disease, and suboptimal fruit production.

You may need to prune your tree at other times of the year—it produces flowers all year long, in fact—so keep an eye on it.

Why Do You Need To Prune Lemon Trees?

While all trees benefit from proper and regular pruning, it is particularly important for fruit-producing trees.

Proper pruning not only maximizes fruit production but also the quality. Trimming Lemon tree branches maintains the tree’s structural integrity, reducing the likelihood of broken branches or improper weight distribution.

Many people add Lemon trees to their gardens for aesthetic purposes, and regular pruning keeps a tree in tip-top shape appearance-wise.

Benefits of Pruning Your Lemon Tree

Lemon Tree trimming serves many different and equally important purposes beyond just general health.

Maintaining the Shape

To maintain the optimal shape not just for attractiveness, but function, regularly pruning your tree from a young age is very important.

Citrus trees typically look most attractive with a rounded crown shape, where the bottom is a little bigger than the top. This shape also allows for more even sun distribution throughout the tree.

Maximizing Fruit Production

Lemon Trees and other fruit trees typically produce way more fruit than they can handle.

Reducing the number of lemons helps redirect water and nutrients to the remaining fruit, allowing it to grow larger and ripen properly.

A lemon tree showing a dense canopy filled with yellow lemon fruits.

(Image: Tomwsulcer6)

While there is no exact science for determining how many lemons to keep on the tree, a good rule of thumb is about 20 for every three feet of tree.

Preventing too many lemons from growing at once is particularly important for younger trees, as too many will distort its structure, leading to weak branches and lower-hanging fruit more vulnerable to damage.

How To Choose an Arborist

If you do not want or are unable to prune your Lemon tree yourself, or you need help with a damaged or diseased tree, you can always seek the help of a professional tree trimming service.

However, knowing how to choose and the average cost of arborist are important. Ensure that for the right price, your arborist has the proper licensing, insurance, and bonding required for your state and local area.

ISA Certification

Only hire arborists certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). Receiving this certification requires passing a comprehensive test covering all aspects of tree care and maintenance.

Choose Wisely

Get estimates from various arborists. Be wary of really low bids, and people offering their services through door-knocking or cold calling.

You can use an online tree trimming cost calculator to get an idea of what you’ll need to spend.

While you generally don’t need to do any serious pruning on a Lemon Tree until it is at least a year old, pruning any small flowers or fruit that appear before this time will have the tree directing its energy to growing strong roots and branches, setting the stage for a heartier, more productive tree.

Keep in mind that regular Lemon tree trimming allows for sunlight to more deeply penetrate the entire tree, allowing all the lemons a chance to grow properly.

Frequently Asked Questions About Lemon Tree Trimming

Is Pruning a Meyer Lemon Tree Different?

These popular trees from China are a hybrid between mandarins and lemons and are a good choice for potted or indoor trees. Many people think they may be cared for differently, but you prune them the same way as any other Lemon tree.

Should I Cut Off the Thorns?

While removing some inconveniently located thorns is fine, there really isn’t a reason to remove all of them. In fact, doing so may damage the tree.

How Fast Do Lemon Trees Grow?

Smaller trees mature in as soon as 6 years, with regular trees taking up to a decade to reach their full height. It usually takes at least a few years for a Lemon tree to bear fruit.

Read More About Lemon Tree Trimming


1Carignan, C. (2023, March 13). Growing Dwarf Citrus. University of Maryland Extension. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from <https://extension.umd.edu/resource/growing-dwarf-citrus>

2Janssen, D. (2023). Pruning Tools – The Basics! Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from <https://lancaster.unl.edu/hort/articles/2002/pruningtools.shtml>

3Krajewski, A., Schumann, A., Ebert, T., Oswalt, C., Ferrarezi, R. S., & Waldo, L. (2021, February 2). Management of Citrus Tree Canopies for Fresh-Fruit Production. University of Florida – Ask IFAS. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from <https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/SS698>

4University of California. (2017). Training, pruning, and thinning citrus. UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from <https://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/GARDEN/FRUIT/CULTURAL/citruspruning.html>

5Wright, G. C., & Kelly, J. (2008, July). Pruning Citrus. Arizona Pest Management Center. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from <https://acis.cals.arizona.edu/docs/default-source/agricultural-ipm-documents/publications/older-publications/az1455.pdf?sfvrsn=c9ddb9d9_6>

6Lemon tree in Santa Clara, California Photo by Tomwsulcer / CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication. Resized and Changed Format. From Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lemon_Tree_in_Santa_Clara_California.jpg>