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Growing Citrus in Containers

Dec 14, 2012

You can grow delicious Oranges, Lemons, Limes and more almost anywhere. By growing them in pots, you can enjoy their evergreen beauty and fragrant flowers even during the coldest winter months. Our very dwarf varieties make it easy to keep the plants small and harvest good crops of full size fruit. While most Citrus are not hardy, growing them in containers allows you to bring your citrus plants indoors during the winter, protecting them from damaging cold temperatures.

Growing a Citrus plant in a container is not difficult. For good growth and ultimate success, it is important to consider the following:

Container & Soil

Choose a container large enough to support your plant for several years. Eventually the pot will fill with roots and it will be necessary to remove and re-pot the plant. The larger the pot, the longer it can grow without repotting. A 5 gal. pot should be adequate for 3-4 years. A 7 or 10 gal. pot will allow more years of growth. A 15 gal. pot or ½ whiskey barrel will likely allow 8-10 years of growth before re-potting. For larger pots consider placing a wheeled dolly under the pot to make it easy to move it indoors and out.

Once you have the container, choose a coarse, well-drained potting soil. Fine potting mix holds too much water and is not suitable. Check the label on the bag to see if any fertilizer has been added. If not, it is a good idea to incorporate some slow release fertilizer, either chemical or organic. Citrus plants like acidic soil so choose a fertilizer that works for Blueberries, Azaleas or other acid loving plants.

Planting & Site 

Partially fill your new container with potting soil, making a mound in the center high enough so the original soil surface of the plant will be a couple of inches below the rim of the pot. Remove your plant from its existing pot and inspect the roots. Usually it will be necessary to loosen them a bit to stop them from circling and get them growing away from the rootball. Loosen and pull out some roots from the edge of the existing rootball and drape them evenly over the mound of soil in the new pot. If roots are not long enough to drape them down the sides of the mound, simply rest the original rootball on top of the mound. Once your plant is positioned properly, fill the remainder of the pot, working soil around the roots, and then water well.

Citrus like an outdoor environment during the growing season. You can leave your plant outdoors in late spring, summer and early fall, when there is no danger of frost. This will keep your plant healthier and reduce the potential of pest damage. Choose a site with at least ½ day sun. This can be a deck, patio, or any similar place. It should be close enough to your house or greenhouse so it is easy to move indoors in the fall.

In the fall, move your plant indoors to a location with significant light. A south wall with windows will work. Even better is a solarium. If you do not have a suitable location, you can use a grow light, turned on about 16 hours a day. Try to keep your plant cool during the winter. Do not put it in front of a heater vent or close to other such heat source.

The transition from indoor to outdoor growing conditions and vice versa should be done over a period of several days. An abrupt change of environment can cause leaf and fruit drop.

Watering & Fertilizing

When you grow a plant in a pot, you are responsible for its environment. It is important to check soil moisture often. While your plant does not want to dry out, the biggest danger is overwatering. During the growing season, a deep watering once a week is often enough. In the winter, when the plant is growing slowly, if at all, a deep watering every two weeks or even less frequently should be enough. Check the top 2-3 inches of soil to determine water needs. When dry, it is time to water. You can also check water by tipping the plant slightly. You will notice the difference in weight between a fully watered plant and a dry one. Be careful when watering dry plants as water may run off the side of the soil mass, giving the appearance of adequate water but actually leaving the root ball quite dry. An odd but effective way to water a pot is to use ice cubes. They will melt slowly and the water will be absorbed into the soil without runoff.

Fertilizing can be done with liquid or dry fertilizer. Dry fertilizer can be applied monthly during the growing season, while liquid fertilizer can applied during weekly waterings. Micro-nutrients are important, including iron, zinc and manganese. Leaf yellowing between the veins is a sign of micronutrient deficiency. Be sure to follow label instructions with any fertilizer you use.


Most Citrus varieties are self-fertile so only one plant is needed for fruit production. Since Citrus typically bloom in the winter, you may want to play bee and help move pollen from flower to flower. You can do this with a small brush, with the appropriate buzzing sounds. Citrus fruit usually ripens the winter after flowering.


Outdoors, Citrus plants are usually not bothered by pests. Indoors, the most common pests are aphids, spider mites, and scale. Thankfully, dwarf Citrus are small plants and pests can be easily controlled. Dealing with pests begins with prevention. Before moving your plants indoors, spray them well with water to remove any unwanted guests. When they are indoors, inspect your plants every time you water them. Scale is dark grey or brown and looks like a little bump on stems and trunk. Control scale by removing them with rubbing alcohol or spraying with horticultural oil at the summer rate. Spider mites live on the undersides of leaves, and make some fine webs. Use Safer’s Soap or a similar spray to discourage them. Safer’s Soap and oil also work on aphids.

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