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Tips For Growing Citrus Trees In Pots

Citrus provides year-round greenery, sweet-smelling blossoms and tasty fruit….what’s not to love? Poor soil conditions and limited growing area? No problem….grow citrus in containers!

lemon container

1. Understand the light and temperature requirements of citrus – Citrus trees need 8 hours of sun and a sunny, wind-free location is ideal. Citrus trees are also very frost-sensitive and must be protected or moved inside to a covered area in cold weather. Kumquat and Mandarin trees are the most cold-hardy followed by grapefruit and orange. On the other hand, lemon and especially lime trees are the most frost-sensitive. If your winter nighttime temperatures are consistently below 35 degrees F, you will need to move the citrus indoors for the winter to protect them from frost and provide additional grow lights for the tree. If you only have occasional cold temperatures, cover the tree with frost cloth or use incandescent lights (not LED) to warm the air around the tree.

2. Choose a citrus variety suited to containers – Almost any citrus tree can be grown in containers, but many types that are large trees such as grapefruit and types of lemons, will outgrow their container quickly. Choose varieties of dwarf rootstock or varieties such as Improved Meyer lemon, Bearss lime, or Kumquat that are naturally smaller trees and will last longer in containers. Dwarf trees produce the same size and quality of fruit but yield 50-60 percent less fruit. When purchasing your tree, keep in mind that smaller trees are easier to plant and suffer less from transplant shock problems.  

3. Use the correct container – The pot should be larger than a nursery pot to give the roots room to grow. Use a large (28 inches or larger) durable pot. A half wine barrel is a good choice. Non-porous ceramic pots also work well. If you live in an area that gets cold in the winter, consider how you will move the pot. The pot should have several drain holes spaced evenly around the circumference of the pot, not just one in the middle, to ensure good drainage. 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).

 Are You Planting the Right Tree?

Before planting your citrus tree, take a look at this guide we made to determine what the best tree wold be for you to plant.

kellogg-palm-and-cactus

Kellogg Garden Organics

Palm, Cactus & Citrus

**Only available in AZ, CA, HI, NV, UT. 

finger limes

4. The right soil gives life to your tree – Lightweight potting mix that drains well with inorganic ingredients such as perlite, vermiculite, coconut coir or peat moss added in is best. A soil that is all organic matter will decompose too quickly and become compacted, reducing aeration for roots. Avoid soils that contain chemical-wetting agents — these retain too much moisture. Native soil is also too compacted and will not give the roots the air they need.   

5. Plant tree at the right depth – Remove the plant from the nursery pot and plant it at the original soil level of the nursery pot with the graft union (the small bump or scar where the fruit variety was grafted to the rootstock, usually 4″ to 8″ above the root ball) above the soil line. Backfill the pot, leaving 1-2 inches at the top to allow for irrigation. Water the pot well and add more soil if settling occurs. The roots should not be visible in the dirt. Make sure you don’t have any soil pushed up around the tree trunk.

6. Water correctly – Citrus roots like moist but not soggy conditions. The watering needs of citrus will be different when they are in containers because roots will dry out more quickly. A moisture meter can help you determine when it is time to water. The top of soil may feel dry — test it out by putting meter down deeper by roots. Water thoroughly until water begins to drain out of drain holes. In the hottest times of the year, containers dry out very quickly — you may need to water a few times a week. In cooler weather, you will need to water much less. Pay attention to the foliage. Leaves that are wilted and then perk up after watering are a sign of roots that have been allowed to dry out too much. Water more often. Yellowed or curled leaves that do not improve after watering may mean they are getting too much water so start watering less often.

Pruning a lime or citrus tree.

7. Citrus trees are heavy feeders and need regular fertilizer – Remember that this tree is dependent on you for nutrients (and water) — its roots can’t go looking for other sources if you do not supply what it needs. The more frequent watering that is required for citrus in containers causes fertilizer to wash through the soil more quickly. Slow-release granular citrus fertilizers contain trace minerals like iron, zinc, and manganese, and are good for citrus in containers. The amount you apply will depend on the type of fertilizer as well as the size and age of the tree (follow label instructions for amounts). Fertilize citrus in containers every other month during the growing season. Yellow leaves can be a sign of lack of fertilizer (or over-watering, see above).

8. Take care when pruning your tree – Suckers below graft union should be pruned. Suckers take energy from the tree but do not produce fruit.  Prune dead branches. Citrus can be pruned for size, shape, and balance, but it is not necessary. Prune in the spring, after the chance of freeze has passed and before new growth appears. Take care when pruning as exposed bark can be sunburnt. It is best to not prune lower branches. Use water-based latex paint to cover exposed bark.

Top Tips for Growing Citrus in Containers

Stephen from Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas, California shares his top tips for growing various citrus trees below!

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About the Author:

Angela Judd

Angela Judd is an avid vegetable, flower and fruit tree gardener. A mother of five children, she enjoys growing and preparing food from the garden for her family. She is a certified Master Gardener. She shares inspiration and tips to help home gardeners successfully grow their own garden on growinginthegarden.com. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

58 Comments

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  1. What level should a HOLD ALL MOISTURE METER be for a clementine tree around two years old in a clay planter

    • In a container you may not need to use a moisture meter, but if you do you want it in the soil around the roots. You can use the soil meter to set your trend line and give you some idea of how your fast or slow the water is evaporating. You do not necessarily want to use it to determine how much to water your tree.

  2. I built a rather large redwood planter 32 x 32 inches on wheels for my lemon tree that is still the same size as when we bought it at Costco over 8 years ago. My little tree has been neglected, planted in wrong soil, dug up and put in a mini half barrel planter (and neglected again). It was brought back from the dead only to have its branches broken by horseplay. Fixing the branches, it healed as was thriving. until my two Great Danes chewed the bark almost completely off. It held on and again it is green with many lemons. Just amazing. Now I want this tree to have what it deserves – healthy soil and no more neglect.

    My question is since the container is so large, is it okay to put a layer of pea gravel under a little sand and then plant on top of that with a combo of organic raised container mix and citrus raised container mix?

    • i would not recommend adding a layer of gravel at the bottom. over time this will compact and along with the soil will create something resembling concrete and prevent water from draining properly. grab some small pine bark mulch and add that to your soil mix.

    • Hi Chris, apologies for such a late response. Sorry to hear about your poor lemon tree! Hopefully it is on the mend. You asked a great question about putting it in such a large container. Putting a gravel layer underneath soil seems like it would help drain water, but it actually isn’t as useful as it’s always been made out to be. Your soil holds moisture very easily, and the water likely won’t get to the gravel at the bottom. The best way to keep your soil well drained is to mix in perlite or another organic matter that will increase drainage throughout all your soil.

  3. So about a week before Father’s Day I was eating a grapefruit and came across a seed that had a tap root about 1-1 1/2″ long and had already started branching off I planted it in a 3 in. pot with some cactus, palm, citrus potting soil and a week later it broke through and has been a happy little plant ever since. It sits in our North facing living room window and we keep our apartment at about 75-78 degrees. We will have to get a lamp for it in the winter because we live in Nebraska and I’m sure we won’t get enough sun to keep it happy.
    I’m not sure of the variety as the fruit was on sale 2/$1 and I don’t have any preference. All I know was the fruit was a pale pink inside.
    My husband is the plant person but he has no experience with citrus and I’m the animal person so my experience with keeping healthy plants is limited to plants you basically have to never water or drown to kill.
    So we’re wondering when a good time to transplant to a larger pot would be and how much bigger it should be.
    I’ve seen recommendations for every spring or every 2 years but those are for trees that are well established purchased from stores and grafts. Or seedlings of particular varieties and as I said I have no clue what my tree is I just know that it’s not a ruby red because they were not on sale that day.
    Any advice or links to reference material would be very appreciated. I have no delusions of having edible fruits at any time but I would love to have a happy tree in my home.

  4. Question for a Meyer lemon tree in a large ceramic container. We want to place this on our concrete patio which gets burning hot at times (So Cal). Do we need to place it on a plant stand or would you advise another vessel that won’t dry out on a stand?

    • Hi Janet, great question. While growing lemon trees in containers (even Meyer dwarf) it is very important to have 2 things, proper drainage and frequent watering. If the location of your pot allows the soil to dry out without giving you the opportunity to water, your lemon tree will suffer. We suggest using a plant stand, or possibly placed on a bed of pebbles! Hope this helped, and happy gardening!

  5. I have a potted key lime plant that produced over 100 fruits this year. Since then, the plant has deteriorated – many yellow leaves and daily leaf drop. I have re-potted it from a 12-inch plastic pot to a 14-inch tera cota pot and added new Miracle Grow soil I cleaned the root ball’s compacted soil prior to placing it the new pot. I am aware that over or under watering, over or under fertilizing, and disease can cause the problem I am now having, but I felt the real problem was that the plant had become root bound in its original container; however, re-potting it hasn’t seemed to help my problem. I do live in Florida and my plant faces south and gets plenty of sun; our daly temps are in the high 60’s low 70’s at this time of the year.. After I re-potted the plant I did fertilize it with proper granulated fertilizer for citrus plants. My pot is elevated and its bottom has a drainage hole; I have placed a hand full of white limestones on the bottom to assist with drainage. ANY SUGGESTIONS YOU CAN PROVIDE TO HELP ME RESTORE MY PLANT TO ITS ORIGINAL LUSHNESS WILL BE MOST APPRECIATED.

    • So sorry to hear about your Key Lime plant! Strange that did so well and is now not seeming very healthy. The two reasons why citrus leaves turn yellow usually is because drainage is poor or needs more fertilizer. It sounds like you are doing a great job of making sure there is proper drainage in the soil. It might be a good idea to get your soil tested so you can see what minerals and nutrients that the plant might be lacking in, and then you can fertilize it based on that. You can get a soil testing kit very easily online or at a nursery and send it in to have it tested. Hope this helps, let us know how it goes!

  6. Could you help me with my grapefruit seedlings? They are 1″ growth from the soil, which is a seedling soil. They grew up looking great but now the tips are browning, and growth has slowed.

    • Hi Michelle, growing from seed can be done but it is not always easy. It can be hard to diagnose an issue without seeing the plant but most issues come from watering (either too much or not enough), feeding, and pests. If you think you are watering properly, it could be a nutrient deficiency. Have you used any fertilizer? Seedlings need a lot of nutrients to grow, using a diluted liquid fertilizer will help the plant get the nutrients it needs quickly. Pests can also be a problem, citrus leafminer attacks young citrus – yours sounds young for this but look for a very small, light-colored moth that would be a citrus leafminer.

  7. Hello. I purchased a trovita semi-dwarf orange tree and a navel tree from a big box store. I want to grow them in containers. Any tips or tricks to keeping it healthy. One tree is already full of blooms so I’m excited about that. I live in Vegas

    • Hello Carmeisha, congratulations on your purchase how exciting! Citrus that grows well in pots should be dwarf, large citrus trees will suffer from being in pots too long. You will need to protect your citrus when temperatures drop to 25 degrees F or lower. You can do that by bringing them inside. When growing citrus in pots you will need to watch and maintain fertilization, watering, and size or growth through pruning. While you grow your citrus tree in a 5-gallon container, bigger is better. A large container like a whiskey barrel or 20-gallon pot is ideal. Pots should have multiple drainage holes because good soil drainage and root aeration are key to successfully growing citrus in pots.

    • Hi Don! We need a bit more information to see if we can help. What type of citrus tree is it, is it in a container, and how old is it? Overwatering and underwatering can cause issues with citrus trees, you can see the signs of this with yellowing leaves, soil that does not drain well can cause root rot which will stunt fruit production also. If the tree can not sustain the fruit the fruit will drop early, making sure you use organic fertilizer and pot up if the tree has outgrown the container could help. Here is a resource you can check for other possible issues https://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1492.pdf

  8. I have lemon and orange trees that I have had for 3 yrs. when the bloom petals shed, the fruit turns yellow and falls off.

    • Hi Don, nutrient deficiencies can contribute to fruit drop. Have you been fertilizing your fruit trees? If you haven’t then getting an organic fertilizer specifically formulated for citrus trees and starting on a routine schedule can help. If you have been fertilizing then it could be a specific nutrient deficiency. Identifying the correct nutrient deficiency can help you find the right fertilizer to correct the problem. Low potassium levels can impact fruit drop, nitrogen deficiency starts with the yellowing of older leaves, a magnesium deficiency can display as yellowing but between veins on older leaves and result in leaf drop. A zinc deficiency causes results in abnormally small leaves and you can have yellow blotches between veins. A citrus tree lacking manganese has leaves that turn a lighter green between leaf veins.

  9. Hello,
    I just bought a small key lime tree, and I would like to plant it in a pot and bring it outdoors. What kind of growing medium is the best for it, I do have a bag of the orchid growing mix that has the bark, and also what kind of food do I feed it, and how big does the pot have to be for it? The one that it is in is a 4″ pot.
    Thank you so much!

    • Hi Marlene, you want a soil made for citrus trees. Citrus trees like a soil pH between 5.5 and 7.0. They like well-draining, sandy, loamy soil. You will need to pot up the tree, which means move it to a larger pot as it grows. Your key lime tree will need 28″ or larger in diameter pot as it gets larger.

  10. Hello I recently repotting my 6 year old Meyer lemon tree from its nursery container. Mother’s Day gift. I used a citrus cactus mix and citrus fertilizer. I followed the instructions on use for repotting. Fast forward 2 weeks and I notice several leaved in the lower part of the tree are turning yellow. I jump on google and I see I over fertilized my tree. I follow the instructions of watering the roots through and trimming the yellow leaves. My question is since the fertilizer is mixed into the soil and not at the top should I replant it into new soil? Thank you in advance. I do not want to damage and or kill this Meyers lemon tree!

    • Hi Maria, sometimes plants can go into transplant shock, a few lower yellow leaves can be a sign of this. Also when transplanting making sure the tree isn’t planted too deep is important. Your planting hole should be 2 to 3 times the tree’s root spread and the tree should be planted so that the root flare (the area where the trunk starts to bulge out at the bottom) is level with or slightly above the soil surface. If you used an organic fertilizer you shouldn’t have much issue with over-fertilizing, granular fertilizers release slowly and the tree will use what it needs, the rest just won’t be used. You flushed the roots so the yellowing could also be from not enough or even too much water. If you have potted up to the correct size and depth for the tree and you haven’t changed location to a shadier spot then keep an eye on the tree over the next few weeks to see if the tree shows more signs of deterioration. Leaf curling can be a sign that the tree is worsening.

  11. I have a fruiting cardamon tree that now has a lot of fruits pea size. What fertilizer is best to have the fruit grow healthy and large? Thank you much.

  12. Hi, I have a healthy and vigorous navel orange tree almost 8 yrs of age to date planted in a 45 gallons plastic pot. I was just thinking since it would be difficult and expensive for me to plant it in the ground without mechanical help, do you think I could just let the pot sat directly on the ground and let the roots find its way out of the container through the drain holes? I have seen it before but I’m not sure if it’s a wise idea. I just need some input from the expert. Thank you much.

    • Hi Andy, the tree will not do well with the roots growing out of the drainage holes. You can transplant the tree into the ground or lift it out, prune the roots and repot it in the same container with fresh soil. Both options sound like they may be difficult with the size of the tree. Is the orange tree a semi-dwarf tree? If it is then it should only grow as large as the pot will allow it to, if it isn’t then at some point the tree will need to be transplanted into the ground. I wish we had some more options for you.

  13. Hi
    I just bought a dwarf lemon and dwarf lime tree and want to grow them in pots.
    They are both about 2 feet tall. 2 questions:
    1. I want to plant them i large pots. What size should I get?
    2. Can I plant lavender or other plants in the same pot?

    • Hi Kathy, when choosing a container for your tree remember that bigger is better and a larger container will allow your tree to spread out its roots and grow. You’ll want a container that’s around 28 inches in diameter, but you can choose a container that’s as large as you like. Keep in mind that if you choose a very large container, such as a half wine barrel, it will be difficult to move around. You can plant lavender with your tree, it will not cause any harm. If you’re looking for more information on growing citrus check out this blog post, https://www.kellogggarden.com/blog/gardening/tips-for-choosing-which-citrus-tree-to-plant/. Happy gardening!

  14. I planted a lemon seed and it doing pretty good. Will it give lemons on it and how long before I see lemons on it.

    • Hi Pauline, we’re so happy to hear about your lemon tree! Typically, lemon trees that are grown from seed take 5 or more years to begin producing fruit. We hope this helps, happy gardening!

  15. I have an orange tree. I brought it in for the winter. A few days ago I started to notice white flakes on it. It look likes dandruff. I don’t want it to spread to my other citrus plants. What is it and what can I do to stop it?

  16. I have some fruit trees in a pot about 2 years old I was wanting to know if I can put straw around the base and put a sheet over them for the winter I’m in Louisiana so it not cold every day out weather changes like daily

    • Hi Karen, each variety of fruit tree has a critical temperature that you have to watch for, so make sure to check to see what those temperatures are for your trees. If you get a serious cold spell you may want to bring your potted fruit trees inside. Mulching is always a good idea, whether it is for warmth or water retention in the hotter months, straw can be used for that. Most trees need to be protected if temperatures dip below 32 degrees, if you are going to cover your tree with a sheet, or burlap, or frost blanket then make sure you bring the cover all the way to the ground and secure it so it traps heat in. Some people create a structure or teepee with PVC pipes or wood around the tree and then cover that with a cloth.

  17. Hi I have just been given 2 lemon potted lemon trees.
    They are flowering now . Which fertiliser would you recommend please?
    It’s beginning to grow quite rapidly ,should I trim these branches?
    Also I noticed a few buds have just fallen off ,it was quite dry at the time.

  18. Hi. I have a question… I have a Persian Lime tree that I bought May of 2020, from a chain nursery store. It’s in a one gallon pot. It had no blooms or limes on it when I bought it. It did great over the summer, and since I live in North Florida, I brought it in for the winter. It over-wintered great. I haven’t moved it back out yet. Yesterday, I saw beautiful blooms on it, and what looks like the beginning of limes. I want to repot it into a larger pot, But WHEN?? Now???, when its in bloom?? In the fall, after it produces, or before I over-winter it?? I’ve been searching for an answer. The one gallon pot seems so small, but no roots are growing out of it yet. Please help…When should I repot it and what would be the best size. Thanks,
    Liz

    • Hi Liz! Citrus trees are best repotted in Spring before you start to see active growth. You can tell it needs to be repotted when the roots start rounding the pot or coming out of the top of the soil or bottom of the planter. If you do not see these signs you can wait. Citrus tree roots don’t do well when exposed to air so if you see that a tree’s roots are starting to pop out then you should act, no matter the season. Your pot should about 25% bigger than the existing one and have good drainage holes. Typically a young tree 2-3 years should be in a 5-gallon pot, at 4-5 years 10-gallon would be your next size, and then 20-gallon. If the tree is growing at a standard pace, you can also prune roots and repot in the same pot to keep the size down.

  19. Hi,
    I bought 2.5” pot size Persian lime tree, I have Kellogg’s raised bed and potting mix (pink)and all natural potting mix(blue) on hand, which mix should I use to plant my key lime tree? I have slow release Osmocote for flower and vegetable fertilizer and I have all purpose plant food by Expert gardeners On hand, please advise if I can use this fertilizer or do I need to get a different one. Plant looks healthy and leaves are green on both sides.

  20. Hello, I planted some Meyer lemon seeds in a small pot hoping at least one would grow (I haven’t really been successful with seeds in the past) when to my surprise Five (!) seedlings grew. They range right now from 1/2″ to 1 1/2 inches. I need to separate them, but what size container would you recommend for indoor use right now? I am in Las Vegas, NV. Thanks so much in advance!

    • Hi Debbie, congratulations on your seedlings! Once your starts have several sets of true leaves, it is recommended to transplant them into 6-inch or larger pots. You can continue to pot up your tree as it outgrows its container.

  21. Thank you! This is all such helpful information. Where do I find 28 inch pots? The largest that I’ve seen is 20 inches at Target. Once I get the larger pot I can come back to insight into transplanting my 3 year old tangerine tree

    • Hi Denise! We are so pleased you found the article helpful. Plant nurseries usually carry larger containers, especially those that sell trees. We would start with local nurseries if they don’t have them in stock sometimes can order them or point you in the right direction to finding what you need. If that doesn’t work you can try looking online.

  22. I have an orange tree. I acquired it for the colder time of year. A couple of days prior I began to see white drops on it. It look likes dandruff. I don’t need it to spread to my other citrus plants. What is it and how would i be able to deal with stop it?

    • Hi Mohsin, if the spots are on the trunk it could be cottony cushion scales, if they are more on the underside of your leaves then it could be whiteflies. For scale Vadalia beetles are a natural enemy and for whiteflies lady beetles will go after them. If it is cottony cushion scale and it is just beginning you can take a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol and rub it on them to will kill them. You can also scrape them off and use a horticultural oil on them. Be careful using insecticidal soaps or oils it can hurt good bugs and kill plants.

  23. Hi, I’ve had a small, potted lemon tree in Charlotte, NC for about 4 years now and it’s always done well. The pot has drainage holes and doesn’t have a container catching anything on the bottom. This Spring I started to notice yellowing leaves that were curling, so I thought maybe we it was being overwatered. However I haven’t been watering it much but thought maybe we’ve had a wet spring that caused it? I put a citrus fertilizer stake in it (not an organic one which I’m reading now is better) and when I returned home from vacation all the leaves are gone and the branches are turning brown. I used the same stakes last year with no issues. The pot maybe getting small but it was doing fine earlier in the Spring and even had started to set lemons (which are now all gone). Any suggestions on what I should do to save it? I feel like it’s on it’s last leg. Thank you!!

    • Hi Stacy, we’re so sorry to hear about your lemon tree. Oftentimes, curled leaves are a result of overwatering, which, as you suggested, could be caused by a wet spring. However, since your tree is also experiencing browning and leaf drop, it sounds like it may be root bound and has outgrown its container. Lemon trees generally need to be repotted every 3 to 4 years.

      When repotting, choose a container that is about 25% larger and has drainage holes. Fill the new container 1/4 of the way with well-draining, nutrient-rich soil and moisten it thoroughly. Check your tree for any dead roots and prune them off with a sterile knife before transplanting. Place your tree in its new container, fill it with soil and water thoroughly. Please let us know how it goes!

  24. I’m getting conflicting info on when to fertilize my Meyer Lemon tree and Key Lime bush. Both are in ceramic containers. I just bought ML as a sapling from online nursery in April. One article online said fertilize once a month and then I read another which said fertilize every two months and then another article which stated fertilize quarterly. So far I have fertilized once a month. My Lime tree is flourishing with no issues at all, but my Meyer Lemon leaves look somewhat healthy but, some leaves have light circular blemishes on them and I have a couple of older leaves turning yellow. I want to make sure I am fertilizing properly.

    • Hi Vernisha, the rule of thumb is to fertilize more frequently during their growing season (April- September) and less during the slow season. Growing in containers will also require more fertilizer because the nutrients drain out with frequent watering. If you are growing in-ground, you can fertilize every 2 months the first year and then quarterly in subsequent years. Follow the instructions on the label of your fertilizer to determine how often to apply it. Keep an eye out for signs of overfertilizing; lower leaves will be yellowing, there may be browning on the tips of leaves, or the tree will drop its leaves.

      However, your Meyer lemon tree sounds like it may be having some other issues. Circular blemishes can be a sign of citrus canker. To be safe, we recommend taking some pictures or a short video of your trees and leaves to show them to a local garden professional at a plant nursery or garden center. You can also check with your local agricultural extension office for assistance. Garden professionals in your area that can see the issues firsthand will be able to assist you.

  25. I have an potted orange tree grown from an orange seed (not a dwarf variety). Living in New England, it will need to be brought inside soon. Can it withstand temps in the 40s? Having difficulty finding a place for it inside. I read that citrus leaves are toxic for cats and I have a cat who likes to eat plants.

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