Fresh-picked, homegrown citrus isn't a luxury reserved for gardeners in sunny, tropical zones. You can grow citrus trees in containers and enjoy their fragrance and zesty fruit even in wintry northern homes. Short on garden space, in any climate? Container citrus can deliver your freshness fix. All it takes is some simple citrus basics, and you're on your way to growing your very own.
Getting the Right Tree for Your Goals
Standard citrus trees grow too big for indoors, but dwarf varieties are grafted onto special roots that limit their size and speed up fruiting. Growing them in containers keeps them smaller, too. If you're new to growing citrus, start with dwarf types known to flourish and fruit well indoors. Easy-to-grow favorites, such as Improved Meyer lemon, Makrut and Key limes, kumquats and Calamondin oranges, fit the bill.
Shop for trees at least two to three years old — the age when they're mature enough to produce and support fruit. Garden retailers know this information, so you don't need to become a pro overnight. Trees may seem small now, but even with dwarf varieties and regular pruning, most container citrus trees will eventually measure near 6 feet tall.
Choosing Pots to Suit Your Trees
Images of potted Mediterranean citrus can steer you toward big pots, but start small instead. Extra soil around trees complicates moisture control, so work your way up in pot size as trees grow. For small trees, a 12-inch-diameter container — what nurseries call a five-gallon pot — is perfect for starters. Mature trees need pots double that width and at least 18 to 24 inches deep. This gives roots growing room and prevents tippy, top-heavy trees.
Any pot material works, as long as there are ample drainage holes in the bottom. Terra-cotta containers allow helpful air movement through the sides, but larger pots can be heavy when planted. Placing a wheeled plant dolly underneath simplifies handling and moving trees. Lightweight resin or fiberglass planters offer good alternatives. Pair pots with firm, deep saucers to prevent accidental spills. Skip dark colors, which absorb sun and generate heat; citrus like cool roots.
Perfecting Your Soil and Planting Style
Citrus trees prefer their soil evenly moist and never soggy. Soil that stays too dry or too wet spells trouble. Commercial potting mixes labeled for cactus, palms and citrus provide a good balance of ingredients to retain moisture, yet drain freely and quickly. Mix in extra organic matter* with Pennington® Earthworm Castings 1.5-0-0 to help keep nutrients available.
Citrus roots need air, so planting depth is important. The area where the tree trunk starts to flare out at its base should always be slightly exposed. When replanting, firm the soil underneath, so you can accurately judge your planting level. As you fill your pot, leave plenty of room at the top for watering, and finish it off with decorative mulch, pebbles or moss. Give your citrus a post-planting boost with Pennington® UltraGreen® Plant Starter with Vitamin B1 to prevent transplant shock and deliver special micronutrients that help roots get established.
Caring for Container Citrus Year-Round
With the right soil and container, citrus trees aren't that different from other houseplants — except for fragrant blossoms and fruit, of course. Provide these simple needs, and reap the rewards:
Light: Citrus needs at least six to eight hours of bright, daily light— more is better. Placing trees near southern or southwest windows works well. Remember, natural light shifts with the seasons, so adjust accordingly. If you're short on sunlight, grow lights can make up the difference.
Water: Never let pots dry out completely, but avoid overwatering. Allow the soil to dry about two to three inches deep, and then water thoroughly so water runs through the drainage holes. Test your soil by hand or use a soil moisture tester, available in home and garden stores. During active spring and summer growth, containers may need water daily. In winter, water just enough to keep soil moist.
Pruning: Regular pruning helps limit tree size and promotes bigger, better fruit. Don't be shy about pruning — just wait until trees flower and set fruit, so you don't accidentally prune away your treats. Trim off thorns and any roots or shoots that form near the soil.
Temperature: Normal household temperatures suit citrus fine, and most withstand brief, near-freezing cold. However, avoid placing your tree near drafts or heating and air conditioning ducts. Container citrus can summer outside, but keep them inside until frost danger passes in spring. Then move them gradually, so they acclimate over several weeks, or they may drop their ripening fruit. Move them back inside before fall frost strikes.
Pests: When trees summer outside, pests can seize the opportunity and even hitch a ride into your home come fall. If pests strike outdoors, a combination fungicide/insecticide, such as Lilly Miller® Sulfur Dust, makes treatment easy and keeps your citrus ready for the move back inside.
With container citrus trees in your home, you'll enjoy the sweet fragrance of late-winter citrus blossoms. By the time winter rolls around again, you'll be feasting on fruit. Let premium products from Pennington®, Lilly Miller® and Alaska® brands help your container citrus trees look and produce their very best. When fragrance fills the house and fresh fruit hits the table, you'll be glad you gave container citrus a try.
*Not for use in organic crop and organic food production.
Alaska, Lilly Miller and Ultragreen are registered trademarks of Central Garden & Pet Company. Pennington is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc. OMRI Listed is a registered trademark of Organic Materials Review Institute.
Always read product labels thoroughly and follow the instructions carefully.
All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.
By Dan Heims, president, Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.
Photographs courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.
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