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Citrus in Containers: 10 Tips for Success

How to grow citrus in containers

The varieties of citrus I want to grow outnumber the spots I have available for planting. Luckily, citrus grows very well in containers. Through the years I’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t. Learn how to grow citrus in containers with these tips, and in no time you will be a container citrus growing pro!

The list of reasons to grow citrus in containers is long: 

  • Limited space for all the different varieties you would like to grow.
  • Unfavorable weather conditions makes growing citrus outside year-round difficult.
  • Poor soil and drainage issues prevent planting in the ground.
  • Proximity to garden beds. Growing citrus in containers keeps the citrus roots out of your raised beds and garden.

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10 Tips for How to Grow Citrus in Containers



1.  Choose the best container for planting citrus

The container should be twice as large as the citrus nursery pot to give the roots room to grow. A half whiskey barrel is my favorite size for growing citrus. Large ceramic or terra cotta pots also work well. Look for a container that is at least 2 feet wide (61 cm) and 2 feet (61 cm) deep. It should hold at least 20 gallons (about 2 cubic feet of soil) or more. 

Place on a plant dolly before filling with soil in cold climates so the container can be moved to a sheltered location during the coldest months of the year.

The pot should have several drain holes around the circumference of the pot. 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).


2. Plant citrus at the right time

The best time to plant citrus trees in containers is in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. In mild-winter areas, there is a second planting window for citrus in the fall. If you plant in the fall, be aware that newly-planted citrus is more susceptible to frost and needs frost protection


3. Some citrus is better suited to containers than others, here is what to look for:

  • Buy citrus trees grafted onto dwarf rootstock. Dwarf trees produce the same size and quality of fruit but yield 50-60 percent less fruit. 
  • Look at the roots and make sure they do not circle the nursery container. If they do, the citrus tree may be root bound and will not grow well.
  • Look for healthy trees with shiny leaves
  • Smaller trees are easier to plant and suffer less from transplant shock problems. 
  • Larger types of citrus trees (like lemons and grapefruit) may outgrow the container quickly and need to be repotted or have roots trimmed back. 
  • Smaller types of citrus that do well in containers include: Improved Meyer lemon, Bearss lime, Mandarins, Australian Finger Lime, Calamondin, and Kumquat.

4. Use the right type of soil for your container citrus tree

The best type of soil for container grown citrus is a potting mix with a combination of compost, coconut coir or peat moss, and vermiculite or perliteLearn more about this soil combination here.

The potting soil should be light, fluffy, and drain well. Soil that is all organic matter (compost) will decompose too quickly and become compacted. Garden soil and/or native soil is too heavy for containers and will not give the roots the air they need.



5. Choose the best location for citrus in containers

  • Citrus trees need 8 hours of sun.
  • Look for a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.
  • A wall that gets reflected heat is a good place for container grown citrus in cooler climates.

6. Plant your citrus tree correctly

Fill the container halfway with soil; set the tree in place.

Loosen compacted roots lightly but keep root ball intact.

If you are going to add an olla (oya) to your garden, add it to your container before you fill it with soil.

Fill the container with soil to the same level of the nursery pot. Do not bury the root crown or graft (the small bump where the fruiting type was grafted to the rootstock, typically a few inches above the root ball). 

Mulch well, but push back soil and mulch away from the trunk.


7. Citrus in containers will need more frequent watering

Check your containers frequently; citrus in containers dry out more quickly than citrus in the ground. Dip your finger into the soil an inch or so, and if it feels dry, it’s time to water. Use a moisture meter to give you a more exact idea of how wet the roots are.

Each time you water, water thoroughly making sure the water is being absorbed and not just draining out the hole in the bottom. If this happens to your soil, gently dig in the soil with a garden spade; don’t turn the soil over, just loosen it. Next, sprinkle the surface lightly with water. After several sprayings, the soil should begin to break up and loosen allowing more water to be absorbed. Adding a 1″–2″ layer of mulch can help prevent this in the future. 

Pay attention to your citrus tree. Your plants will tell you if their water needs aren’t being met. Leaves that are wilted and then perk up after watering are a sign of roots that have been allowed to dry out too much. Yellow, curled leaves that don’t perk up after watering may mean they are getting too much water. Citrus roots like moist but not soggy conditions.

How often you water will be influenced by the weather. During hot dry weather, water more often. During cooler weather, you will need to water much less.

Here in the low desert, I add ollas (oyas) to all of my container grown plants, including citrus. Water the container thoroughly, and fill the olla each time you water. This allows you to go a little longer between watering than containers without ollas. During the warmest months of the year in hot climates, you may still have to water every day, but the plant roots have access to more water.


8. Feed your citrus regularly

Because frequent watering means nutrients are washed away and roots can’t go looking in the ground for additional nutrients, it’s also a good idea to feed your citrus regularly

Use an organic fertilizer formulated for citrus. Typically for containers, fertilize more often but use less fertilizer (follow label instructions for amounts). Fertilize citrus in containers each month during the growing season.


9. Prune container grown citrus as needed

The best time to prune citrus is in the spring, after the danger of frost has passed and before new growth appears. Use water-based latex paint or tree wrap to cover any exposed bark. 

When pruning citrus in containers, prune for 3 things: 

  • Prune suckers below the graft union; they sap energy from the tree and do not produce fruit.  
  • Prune dead branches
  • Citrus can also be pruned to keep the citrus a desired size and/or shape. Avoid pruning lower branches.

10. Protect citrus from freezing temperatures

All citrus is frost-tender and needs to be brought indoors or covered with frost cloth when nighttime temperatures go below 35°F (1°C). For more information about protecting plants in a freeze, read this post.

If you move citrus indoors, provide additional grow lights for the tree. Move the container back outside after the danger of frost has passed in the spring. Dwarf Improved Meyer Lemon, Kumquat, and Calamondin are all more cold-hardy types that do well in containers.

Cover citrus during frost events

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Carmen

Sunday 10th of July 2022

Hi, great tips! How do I correct an overwatering of my mini mandarin? I've been using a moisture meter probe and at 2-3 inches is measures as dry. However when I measure at 4+ inches is measures as wet. The tree looks distressed so it looks like it needs water. Will it always measure as wet at 6 + inches deep? Thank you in advance. Carmen

Angela Judd

Tuesday 19th of July 2022

That's tough. Let it dry out a bit and see if the tree's overall health improves, then you'll know if you were overwatering or not.

David Lu

Tuesday 24th of May 2022

Hi Angela - We live in Chandler and are planting five 24" bag (20" high) grown improved meyer lemon trees in Italian Terra Cotta 40" diameter x 30" high pots. According to my calculation, I need about 90 cubic feet of soil (10" in the bottom and then around the 24" root ball/bag) to fill the pot. Will your worm farm mix work for such a large volume or will it biodegrade too much over time resulting in the root crown "dropping" too much? Also, the worm farm is out of your mix for a few weeks and the tree suppler in Mesa said I need to plant ASAP (by end of May). Will E.B. Stone Citrus and Palm mix (sold in bags at Summerwinds) work as a substitute? Am I planting too late? Any thoughts and recommendations are much appreciated. - David and Diana

Angela Judd

Tuesday 24th of May 2022

Hi David. The worm farm mix would work well. The citrus and palm mix would be a good alternative. Happy planting!

Jennifer G

Monday 21st of March 2022

Hi Angela! We have a meyer lemon tree that we bought last March and planted in a half whiskey barrel. I believe the tree was around 7 years old and had some fruit on it when we bought it but hasn't produced anything since. This year we had a TON of blooms and some tiny fruit, but most of the fruit is turning yellow and dropping. Nothing seems to get bigger than pea size (if even that big!). Any ideas? Thanks so much!

Jennifer G

Friday 25th of March 2022

@Angela Judd, that makes sense. I'll try to be patient! Thanks so much for the reply. I really enjoy all the content you're putting out :)

Angela Judd

Tuesday 22nd of March 2022

When you replant a tree it takes it a while to recover and the time to fruiting "starts over". The tree knows how much fruit it can support and will drop the rest. Older trees may have a harder time adjusting to planting.

Anna R

Wednesday 9th of March 2022

What size olla did you use for the citrus tree in the half barrel? Thanks!

Anna R

Thursday 10th of March 2022

@Angela Judd, thanks!

Angela Judd

Wednesday 9th of March 2022

I used the large olla from Growoya.