Citrus provides year-round greenery, sweet-smelling blossoms and tasty fruit….what’s not to love? Poor soil conditions and limited growing area? No problem….grow citrus in containers!
1. Understand the light and temperature requirements of citrus – Citrus trees need 8 hours of sun and a sunny, wind-free location is ideal. Citrus trees are also very frost-sensitive and must be protected or moved inside to a covered area in cold weather. Kumquat and Mandarin trees are the most cold-hardy followed by grapefruit and orange. On the other hand, lemon and especially lime trees are the most frost-sensitive. If your winter nighttime temperatures are consistently below 35 degrees F, you will need to move the citrus indoors for the winter to protect them from frost and provide additional grow lights for the tree. If you only have occasional cold temperatures, cover the tree with frost cloth or use incandescent lights (not LED) to warm the air around the tree.
2. Choose a citrus variety suited to containers – Almost any citrus tree can be grown in containers, but many types that are large trees such as grapefruit and types of lemons, will outgrow their container quickly. Choose varieties of dwarf rootstock or varieties such as Improved Meyer lemon, Bearss lime, or Kumquat that are naturally smaller trees and will last longer in containers. Dwarf trees produce the same size and quality of fruit but yield 50-60 percent less fruit. When purchasing your tree, keep in mind that smaller trees are easier to plant and suffer less from transplant shock problems.
3. Use the correct container – The pot should be larger than a nursery pot to give the roots room to grow. Use a large (28 inches or larger) durable pot. A half wine barrel is a good choice. Non-porous ceramic pots also work well. If you live in an area that gets cold in the winter, consider how you will move the pot. The pot should have several drain holes spaced evenly around the circumference of the pot, not just one in the middle, to ensure good drainage. Drill additional holes if necessary. It is best to have the pot off ground on pot feet rather than sitting in a tray (standing water can breed mosquitoes).
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4. The right soil gives life to your tree – Lightweight potting mix that drains well with inorganic ingredients such as perlite, vermiculite, coconut coir or peat moss added in is best. A soil that is all organic matter will decompose too quickly and become compacted, reducing aeration for roots. Avoid soils that contain chemical-wetting agents — these retain too much moisture. Native soil is also too compacted and will not give the roots the air they need.
5. Plant tree at the right depth – Remove the plant from the nursery pot and plant it at the original soil level of the nursery pot with the graft union (the small bump or scar where the fruit variety was grafted to the rootstock, usually 4″ to 8″ above the root ball) above the soil line. Backfill the pot, leaving 1-2 inches at the top to allow for irrigation. Water the pot well and add more soil if settling occurs. The roots should not be visible in the dirt. Make sure you don’t have any soil pushed up around the tree trunk.
6. Water correctly – Citrus roots like moist but not soggy conditions. The watering needs of citrus will be different when they are in containers because roots will dry out more quickly. A moisture meter can help you determine when it is time to water. The top of soil may feel dry — test it out by putting meter down deeper by roots. Water thoroughly until water begins to drain out of drain holes. In the hottest times of the year, containers dry out very quickly — you may need to water a few times a week. In cooler weather, you will need to water much less. Pay attention to the foliage. Leaves that are wilted and then perk up after watering are a sign of roots that have been allowed to dry out too much. Water more often. Yellowed or curled leaves that do not improve after watering may mean they are getting too much water so start watering less often.
7. Citrus trees are heavy feeders and need regular fertilizer – Remember that this tree is dependent on you for nutrients (and water) — its roots can’t go looking for other sources if you do not supply what it needs. The more frequent watering that is required for citrus in containers causes fertilizer to wash through the soil more quickly. Slow-release granular citrus fertilizers contain trace minerals like iron, zinc, and manganese, and are good for citrus in containers. The amount you apply will depend on the type of fertilizer as well as the size and age of the tree (follow label instructions for amounts). Fertilize citrus in containers every other month during the growing season. Yellow leaves can be a sign of lack of fertilizer (or over-watering, see above).
8. Take care when pruning your tree – Suckers below graft union should be pruned. Suckers take energy from the tree but do not produce fruit. Prune dead branches. Citrus can be pruned for size, shape, and balance, but it is not necessary. Prune in the spring, after the chance of freeze has passed and before new growth appears. Take care when pruning as exposed bark can be sunburnt. It is best to not prune lower branches. Use water-based latex paint to cover exposed bark.
Top Tips for Growing Citrus in Containers
Stephen from Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas, California shares his top tips for growing various citrus trees below!
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About the Author:
Angela Judd is an avid vegetable, flower and fruit tree gardener. A mother of five children, she enjoys growing and preparing food from the garden for her family. She is a certified Master Gardener. She shares inspiration and tips to help home gardeners successfully grow their own garden on growinginthegarden.com. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.