How to Grow Citrus in Pots
Appalachian residents don’t usually think of citrus as a local food but if you have a sunny window or greenhouse to overwinter your plants, you can grow citrus indoors.
Citrus require a moderate amount of maintenance to thrive but they can be very rewarding. The first thing to do is obtain some plants. If you are driving to Florida anytime soon, swing by a garden nursery on your way home. Otherwise, you will need to go to local garden centers that carry houseplants (citrus is most often for sale locally in the summer) or order from a catalog:
- Citrus from One Green World
- Citrus from Logee’s Tropical Plants
- Citrus from Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery, LLC
- Citrus from Four Winds Growers
Dwarf citrus trees give the most success in pots and they are all closely related with similar needs.
Once you have your citrus you can treat it similarly to other houseplants. They (like most houseplants) enjoy soil that is about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. It is okay (and advisable) to let the top 1″ – 2″ of soil dry out between waterings. It’s better to underwater than overwater citrus — soaked soil promotes root rot. These plants are somewhat drought tolerant but they do not appreciate drying out completely. Their sturdy leaves will not wilt to give you a warning that water is needed — if you wait too long they pout, sometimes days later, by dropping all their leaves and fruit. If this does happen, don’t worry, your tree will soon regrow leaves and flower again.
Citrus is also a heavy feeder compared to other houseplants and being from a warm climate it likes to be fed year-round. I add an organic slow-release fertilizer (with micronutrients) and an inch or two of compost every month or two. Underfed plants will develop nutrient deficiencies in a short amount of time. You can use this photo guide to identify the problem and add the correct amendment to your plant’s soil.
Another citrus requirement if you would like to have fruit is pollination. If your plant is indoors, insects can’t do this for you. Keep a small paintbrush near your citrus when it is flowering and dab a little pollen from the stamens onto the sticky pistils. You can also just use your fingertip. Pretty soon your citrus will start to form tiny fruits!
Sour citrus ripens faster than sweet citrus and both can stay on the tree for a very long time even when ripe. Sweet citrus usually bears once a year whereas sour citrus can have up to 3 crops annually.
After your frost-free date, move your plants outdoors into the heavy shade and slowly harden them off to bright sunlight. They may lose their leaves anyway since indoor citrus produce larger leaves to absorb dimmer light — outdoors they will not need as much surface area to gather light with. Your citrus may not appreciate full sun outside, they can get by with as little as 4 hours direct sun a day. Be sure to water them often enough in the heat of summer!
If you get scale or spider mites while your plants are indoors, treat them with insecticidal soap. It usually takes multiple applications to fully eradicate the problem. If you can move the plants outdoors, the beneficial insects and animals in the area will usually consume the pests for you.
If you’d like to know more try Citrus by Lance Walheim:
If you’re looking for my post on hardy citrus, you can find it here.