Imagine strolling through your back yard and returning with arms full of juicy Honeybell oranges. Picture your neighbors swooning at the stately Meyer lemon tree gracing your front lawn and dripping with sunny jeweled fruit. Even if you live where an occasional frost walks down from the north, you can grow citrus trees at home and enjoy amazing blood oranges, Persian limes, or nutritious ruby red grapefruit.
Choosing a strong, well-grown tree from a reputable citrus tree nursery will start your growing experience off on the right foot. Knowing your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone and where the citrus tree you choose thrives compared to your area, will let you know if your new citrus tree can be planted in the ground, or grown in a pot to overwinter indoors. But these steps are only the beginning if you want to learn how to grow a lemon tree or other citrus at home. This article explores some of the most important aspects to help you successfully grow citrus in your garden.
How to Plant a Citrus Tree
Before you start digging be sure that your tree’s new location provides plenty of room for your orange or lime tree to grow. Know the mature height and width of the variety of citrus you are planting, and allow enough space for the new tree to grow without impeding walkways or structures. Be mindful of power lines and other plants as well.
Once you have selected the perfect location to grow a citrus tree in your yard, dig away any grass or ground cover to prepare a circle at least four feet across. The hole you dig should be one foot wider than your citrus tree root ball all the way around. Be sure to plant your citrus tree so that the surface of the root ball is at the same level as the ground once you have backfilled the hole around the planted tree. Do not over bury the tree, because the surface roots must be able to breathe.
You can add organic matter such as peat, grass clippings, or mulched leaves to the soil as you fill the hole, but avoid harsh fertilizers when planting a new citrus tree.
Establishing Citrus Trees Once Planted
As gardeners we have learned there is no such thing as too much mulch. Citrus trees are the exception to this rule. You can use mulch three inches deep or less around the perimeter of a citrus tree growing in your yard. However, be sure the citrus tree trunk and immediate base (at least one foot from trunk) is free from mulch at all times. Never stack mulch around your citrus tree trunk. Also, be sure the soil surface is free of weeds, seedlings, grass, or creeping groundcover. A good rule of thumb is to allow no grass or other plants to grow under a citrus tree from the trunk, out to the drip edge of the furthest limb.
Once you have planted your new citrus tree, water it thoroughly two to three times the first week, then one to two times each week for the next three weeks depending on rainfall and soil conditions. After the initial three weeks of watering in this way, you can then water your citrus tree deeply whenever the soil becomes dry to about two inches below the surface. Build a circular berm of topsoil around your tree that is about six inches high and three feet from the tree base. You can then fill the water ring each time you water.
Your tree’s water basin will erode in time, but by then the tree will be established so you will not have to rebuild it. At this point you can use a soaker hose to water your citrus tree periodically. Watering frequency can be as often as once per week, or up to once a month, depending on rainfall and ground moisture.
Do not fertilize your new citrus tree at planting time. Once the tree begins to put on new growth, fertilize once a month from February through October. Find and use a fertilizer formulated specifically for citrus to be sure you are giving your tree the proper nutrients. Scatter the recommended amount around the tree at least one foot from the trunk, and promptly water the fertilizer in. A good rule of thumb is to use one cup of fertilizer per fertilizing month for each year the tree has been in the ground. Always refer to the fertilizer manufacturer’s directions for exact amounts, because various brands may have unique concentrations and recommendations.
Growing Citrus Trees In Colder Climates
In climate zones where weather conditions commonly drop below freezing, growing citrus trees in containers is a great option. Standard nursery pots are excellent for growing citrus, because they are sturdy, and have adequate drainage. But any decorative or sturdy improvised container can be used, as long as the pot has holes for drainage in the bottom.
When selecting a pot to grow your citrus tree in, remember that you will be moving it to shelter when cold weather strikes. Therefore the weight of the pot is a consideration. Plastic pots are far lighter than clay or concrete containers.
Newly purchased citrus trees with a vigorous root system will normally be in a 6 to 8 inch pot upon arrival. Your initial potting should use a 12 inch container for a 6 inch potted tree, and a 16 inch container for an 8 inch potted tree. Although your citrus tree may grow to require a pot as large as 20 inches, gradually pot your tree up to this size, rather than skipping to it in the beginning. Too much extra soil can cause drainage issues and encourage weaker root development.
The Best Soil For Growing Citrus In A Pot
The soil you use when planting a new citrus tree in a pot is a critical component to your tree’s success. Cover the bottom of your new container with one to two inches of small gravel for drainage.
Most pre-bagged potting soils are too high in sphagnum peat to achieve the best results when growing citrus. You can easily remedy this by purchasing a potting soil product that already contains perlite and adding 1/3 volume of redwood or cedar shavings to the mix and blending well. Do not use pine or spruce shavings. Cedar shavings are readily available in the pet section of most pet supply stores. Once you have created your mix, partially fill your container with the citrus tree potting blend and you are ready to inspect the new tree’s root system.
Container grown citrus trees will often be a bit root bound. This is normal and easily corrected at re-potting with some careful pruning of any larger, or badly twisted roots. Then loosen the rest of the outer roots for better root growth in the tree’s new container. Place your citrus tree in the partially filled pot so the surface of your new citrus tree is at least one or two inches below the container rim. This will allow for aeration of surface roots and give you space for watering. Finish filling the container and lightly firm up the potting soil surrounding the root ball. Do not cover the root ball surface with soil and don’t fertilize at this time. Water your newly potted citrus tree thoroughly.
It is best to plant your container grown citrus tree in the warmer time of year so you can give it as much outdoor sun as possible. Once the weather cools and frost threatens, you can move your citrus tree indoors. When you do, be sure to put it in a location that gets the most direct sunlight possible. When you have passed the threats of freezing temperatures, put your tree outside in a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight per day. When transitioning your citrus tree from indoors to out, it is a good idea to give your tree a few days in a bright but partially shaded spot to acclimate it to the brighter light, such as under a shade tree. Once your tree is acclimated to the outdoor light, the more sun the better. Anything above eight hours of sun per day is ideal.
Citrus trees cannot tolerate extended freezing temperatures. With any type of container grown plant, the roots are much more exposed to cold than those grown in the ground. Take care when moving your container grown citrus tree indoors. Do not locate them near heaters, fireplaces, stoves, or heating vents. Move your potted citrus trees indoors when low temperatures dip into the upper forties Fahrenheit or below.
Whether you are growing Honeybell oranges in your back yard, a blood orange tree in your garden, or a Meyer lemon tree in a pot so you can overwinter it indoors, growing citrus is rewarding and fun. Follow the steps and tips in this article and you will be thrilled when the first blooms turn into gorgeous citrus fruit. A properly cared for citrus tree can provide your home with years of nutrition and enjoyment. Give your citrus trees what they need, and they will give you those delicious citrus fruits you love.