Growing Citrus In Containers

Gardeners delight in growing the perfect tomato or even a few herbs for cooking, but when it comes to citrus fruits most depend on someone else to supply that kind of produce.

However, with new developments in plant breeding that trend is changing. Now there are many dwarf citrus trees available that make growing lemons, limes and oranges as simple as caring for a houseplant. The fresh fruit, fragrant blooms and glossy green leaves of these miniature trees are a joy to have indoors during the winter or close at hand on the patio during warm weather.

Dwarf fruit trees are created by grafting a standard variety onto a dwarf rootstock. In the garden many will grow up to 8′ – 12′ tall, but when planted in containers they stay a more diminutive size.

As you may have guessed by all the mail order catalogues arriving at your doorstep in late winter, this is a good time to order dwarf citrus trees. Once you make your selections, you should know that when they arrive, they will most likely be bare root plants. That means that they haven’t been grown in a container but in the ground, and when they were prepared for shipping the soil that was around the roots was removed. Although they won’t look like much, those bare twigs have a lot of potential in them.

Once you remove them from the packaging, prune off damaged or broken stems and then soak the roots in water for at least five hours, but no longer than twenty-four. This completely rehydrates the plant before it is potted up.

The next step is to select a container. Containers come in a wide range of materials these days, so it is often hard to choose the right one. I tend to go for those made of terra cotta. The look is classic and if it’s a well-made pot, it will last for years. Whatever type of material you choose, it is important that water can drain out of the container. Dwarf citrus trees must have good drainage; so select a container that has plenty of holes in the bottom.

The size of the container you choose depends on the size of the plant. If you purchase your dwarf citrus tree in a nursery pot, go up one container size. Bare root plants should be planted in a container large enough that the root system can be comfortably spread out, but not so large that the tree is swamped by soil.

Every 2 or 3 years as the plant grows, it should be repotted so it doesn’t become root bound. As you increase pot size, consider using a more light weight material than terra cotta or purchasing a plant stand on casters so that you can easily move your tree around.

As I stated before, citrus trees appreciate good drainage so it is important to get the soil mix right. I have often seen recommendations to mix equal parts soil, sand and peat moss but I find that a good, light commercial potting soil or a soil designed for cactus works just fine.

Dwarf citrus trees require a long day of full sunshine and good air circulation to thrive. Position your plant outdoors so that it receives plenty of light and protection from strong winds. They can remain outside as long as temperatures stay above 40 degrees F.

If you plan to overwinter your plant indoors, place it in a shady spot for about two weeks prior to making the move. This will allow it to acclimate to the temperature change and prevent leaf drop. Once inside the citrus tree will do best if placed near a bright, southern or western facing window and away from heating vents.

Water your containerized citrus tree as you would any other houseplant. The soil should be consistently moist, but not soggy. In general, you should deep soak the plants every 5 to 7 days and fertilize them once a month. Use a water soluble, acidic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen.

It is important to prune back any growth that emerges from below the graft. This is sucker growth, which will not bear fruit. The graft is identifiable as a knobby area on the trunk.

To maintain a nice shape, prune the limbs any time of the year if the plants are overwintering indoors. If you live in a mild area of the country and leave your citrus trees outside for winter, it is best to refrain from pruning until the danger of freezing temperatures has passed. Pruning encourages new growth, which is susceptible to cold weather and even some of the warmest regions of the country can experience a surprise drop in temperature.

Citrus fruits require 6 to 12 months to mature, depending on the type and cultivar. Lemons and limes usually take about 6 to 9 months to go from bloom to edible fruit, while oranges generally take a year. It is hard to determine ripeness just by looking at the fruit, so your safest bet is to taste one. Look for fruits that have deep color and feel heavy. Harvest from the lowest branches first and work your way up.

Just like growing other types of produce, I believe that you will find nothing beats the taste of fresh citrus that you have nurtured from flower to fruit. It is a fabulous way to bring the garden indoors.

Recommended Varieties

Meyer’s Lemon: bears large, sweet lemons almost year round.

Dwarf Bearss Seedless Lime: large fruits ripen in winter and early spring, established plants can be everbearing.

Minneola Tangelo: a grapefruit and tangerine cross, winter through spring ripening fruit.

Kaffir Lime: leaves and zest are used in Thai recipes, very fragrant leaves and unusual fruit.

Owari Satsuma Mandarin Orange: seedless, juicy fruit produced in winter and early spring, hardiest of all the mandarins.

Good to Know

You can grow citrus trees from a seed, but because of the length of time it will take the plant to mature and the likelihood that it will not produce fruit, you’ll get better results from starting with trees.