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 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
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.