citrus container feature

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!

1. Understand the light and temperature requirements of citrus – Citrus trees need 8 hours of sun. A sunny, wind-free location is ideal. Citrus trees are very frost-sensitive and must be protected or moved inside to a covered area in cold weather. Kumquat and Mandarin trees are 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 and provide additional grow lights for the tree. If you only have occasional cold temperatures, covering the tree with frost cloth or using incandescent lights (not LED) to warm the air around the tree are options.

2. Choose a variety suited to containers – Almost any citrus tree can be grown in containers, but many types that are large trees (grapefruit and types of lemons) will outgrow the container quickly. Choose varieties on dwarf rootstock or varieties such as Improved Meyer lemon, Bearss lime, or Kumquat that are naturally smaller trees and they 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 – Pot should be larger than nursery pot of tree 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).

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 roots the air they need.   

5. Plant tree at the right depth – Remove plant from nursery pot and plant at original soil level of the nursery pot with 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 soil line. Backfill pot, leaving 1-2 inches at top of pot to allow for irrigation. Water pot well and add more soil if settling occurs. Roots should not be visible in dirt. Do not have 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 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. Water less often.

Citrus tree
harvesting limes
amalfi lemons

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 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 sap energy from the tree and 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 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.

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 Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

  • Rita Aguilar
    Posted at 06:32h, 25 July Reply

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

    • kellogggarden
      Posted at 19:43h, 24 October Reply

      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.

  • chris atkinson
    Posted at 20:50h, 27 October Reply

    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?

    • Midewest Zen Horticulture
      Posted at 17:17h, 13 March Reply

      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.

    • kellogggarden
      Posted at 22:19h, 15 April Reply

      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.

  • kellogggarden
    Posted at 20:11h, 19 March Reply

    Great advice, thank you!

  • Lisa Ferguson
    Posted at 23:53h, 09 July Reply

    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.

  • rohit aggarwal
    Posted at 07:12h, 13 September Reply

    thanks for the information

  • kshitij
    Posted at 07:13h, 13 September Reply

    good one keep it up

  • Janet
    Posted at 00:11h, 22 September Reply

    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?

    • kellogggarden
      Posted at 17:46h, 23 September Reply

      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!

  • Daniel Pemble
    Posted at 16:55h, 26 December Reply

    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.

    • kellogggarden
      Posted at 19:22h, 26 December Reply

      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!

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