Gardening

How to grow citrus from cuttings – with nurseryman Ryan Merck

How to grow citrus from cuttings - with nurseryman Ryan Merck thumbnail
Tyrant Farms is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Find out when, why, and how to grow citrus trees from cuttings in this helpful guide (assisted by nurseryman Ryan Merck of Blue Oak Horticulture). 


Over the past decade, we’ve successfully grown over a dozen varieties of citrus in pots in Greenville, SC (ag zone 7b). Years back, we also successfully grew cuttings from our Meyer lemon and Buddha’s hand citron trees.

As a result, we now have three mature and highly productive Meyer lemon trees and two Buddhas growing in large pots. We’re now pretty well maxed out on the number of citrus trees we can grow in our small space, but our friend Ryan Merck has no such limitations. 

Ryan is the owner of Blue Oak Horticulture, which offers a wide variety of edible and ornamental plants to Upstate South Carolina home owners, farmers, and businesses. While his primary passion is native plants, he also has a fondness for citrus. 

Ryan also has an incredible passive solar greenhouse he designed and built himself (perfect for citrus cultivation!), which we featured on our sister site, GrowJourney. Given his space and interest in citrus, Ryan decided to use cuttings from our citrus trees to start growing his own. 

Below, we’ll detail Ryan’s step-by-step methods of propagating citrus trees from cuttings and his tips for helping you do the same. 

Here are a few of the reasons we grow and propagate our own citrus, despite it being a lot of work.

Here are a few of the delicious reasons we grow and propagate our own citrus, despite it being a lot of work.

Citrus propagation warnings 

Before we dive in, it’s important to sound some warnings:

1. Using certified disease-free citrus cuttings may be the law in your state.

The information in this article is NOT applicable to those living in areas of the country (such as Florida and California) where diseases like citrus greening are a problem. In those areas, growing citrus from outdoor cuttings is actually illegal — and for good reason. 

Commercial citrus growers’ livelihoods depend on careful management and control of various diseases that impact their trees, so state agencies have been created to provide tested and certified disease-free citrus cuttings. (Example: CCPP in California.) Otherwise, a hobby citrus grower living near a commercial farm could cause a nightmare for the farmer if they accidentally spread a citrus disease or disease-causing insects. 

If you live in states/areas where commercial citrus operations are present, you should know the applicable laws, consult local university extension agencies’ guides for propagating citrus, and source certified, disease-free citrus cuttings.  

2. Using dwarfing rootstock 

There are at least 100 distinct varieties of citrus and lots of hybrids in between. Each type of citrus has unique growth characteristics.

Some can grow huge; others are considered dwarf varieties. Some are more disease-resistant, etc. 

What is the best way to propagate citrus? Commercial citrus operations grow grafted trees, wherein a desired, fruit-producing scion variety (example: tangerine) is grafted atop hardy rootstock (example: Trifoliata). Dwarfing rootstock is also popular because it helps keep the trees at a more manageable height for harvesting and maintenance. 

For this reason, the ideal method of citrus propagation for commercial operations is a double grafting method wherein a fruit producing scion cutting is grafted to a rootstock cutting, which then develops roots at the same time that the scion graft mends. (FruitMentor has an excellent guide detailing this method.)  

When you grow out a cutting of a citrus variety without grafting it to dwarfing rootstock, you might end up with a citrus tree that wants to grow much larger than the parent plant (assuming the parent is not a natural dwarf and/or grafted on dwarfing rootstock). You might also get a tree that’s less productive or vigorous than the grafted parent. It’s a roll of the dice. 

We rolled the dice on our Meyer lemon and Buddha’s hand cuttings and ended up with great results: new (free!) and highly productive citrus trees that are growing perfectly well in pots.  

Is the information in this article for you?

  1. Do you live in an area/state where citrus is NOT commercially grown?
  2. Are you a hobby citrus grower (not a commercial grower) trying to find out how to easily grow a few extra citrus trees from cuttings?
  3. Don’t have citrus rootstock immediately available?
  4. Don’t mind assuming the risk that you might end up with a citrus tree that wants to grow much larger than its parent?

If you answered yes to these questions, then the information in this article is for you! 

Step-by-step: how to grow un-grafted citrus trees from cuttings 

Now let’s dive into how to increase your odds of success when growing citrus from un-grafted cuttings!

Full materials list (discussed in detail with recommendations provided in article):

  • sharp, sanitized pruners 
  • plant labels and permanent marker so you can label varieties
  • damp paper towels and plastic bag if you can’t immediately transplant cuttings (or multiple bags if you’re taking cuttings from different varieties and you want to store each variety in a separate bag) 
  • plant cells
  • rooting hormone
  • soil/growth media for root development
  • plant cells or clear plastic cups
  • clear plastic tote
  • cookie sheet or tray
  • heat mat (optional)
  • hand sprayer/mister
  • organic potting soil (after roots develop)
  • larger nursery pots (for potting up after roots develop)
Many citrus varieties also have thorns, so be careful and consider wearing gloves. You can cut off the horns during cutting to make handling easier throughout the process.

Many citrus varieties also have thorns, so be careful and consider wearing gloves. You can cut off the horns during cutting to make handling easier throughout the process.

Step 1: Remove citrus cuttings from parent tree with sharp, sanitized pruners.

What’s the best time of year to take citrus cuttings?

The best time of year to obtain citrus cuttings is early-mid summer when terminal growth tips have firmed up and become more woody, and leaves have matured (the waxy coating on mature leaves helps minimize water loss). 

For reference, Ryan took cuttings from our trees on June 10.

Where on the plant should you take cuttings?

Use cuttings from the tops of a citrus tree, rather than removing cuttings from the sides. (This is done just in case plagiotropism is an issue, which would lead to odd/sideways growth formation.) 

What length should citrus cuttings be? 

Each citrus cutting should be about the length of your hand, but a more important consideration is how many nodes are on each cutting. Each of Ryan’s cuttings contained a minimum of three nodes and up to five nodes

Ryan holding up an ideal Buddha's hand cutting.

Ryan holding up an ideal Buddha’s hand cutting.

Why? Each node contains high amounts of undifferentiated cells, e.g. many of the cells haven’t yet been programmed to develop into roots, leaves, stems, or roots — and you’ll want the bottom 1-2 nodes to develop roots. 

Should you remove the leaves from your citrus cuttings or not? 

Do not remove the leaves on the top two nodes; do remove the leaves from the bottom 1-2 nodes on your citrus cuttings.

Also, if you didn’t cut through the bottom node of the cutting when removing it from the parent plant, do so now so you can expose as much of the tissue in the node to soil/growth media as possible to help spur root development.   

While Ryan left the leaves on the top nodes of his citrus cuttings, he acknowledges there’s a balance to consider:

  • More leaves equals more transpiration (water loss), which increases stress on the cutting since roots haven’t formed yet in order to draw more water into the plant.
  • Less leaves equals less transpiration but also less carbohydrate/sugar production — and carbohydrate production helps grow roots.

As we’ll discuss below, these details explain why creating a high humidity environment for your cuttings is so important!

How quickly do you need to transplant citrus cuttings?

The sooner you can transplant your cuttings the better, but you could put the wrapped, bagged cuttings in your fridge for a week or so and still have good success rates. 

If you’re not ready/able to immediately transplant citrus cuttings into their growth and recovery setup (as happens when you’re taking cuttings from a friend’s citrus trees 20 minutes away from your own home), you’ll want to immediately wrap them in a damp paper towel, get them into an airtight bag/container, and out of the sun. A cooler works great here.

Until you’re able to transplant them, do everything you can to reduce stress and water loss from the cuttings. 

Ryan rolling each cutting in a damp paper towel and then putting each cutting from the same variety in its own container. Also note the labels and pen for marking varieties - important if you're doing more than one variety!

Ryan rolling each cutting in a damp paper towel and then putting each cutting from the same variety in its own container. Also note the labels and pen for marking varieties – important if you’re doing more than one variety!

Step 2: Apply rooting hormone then transplant cuttings.

What’s the best rooting hormone for citrus cuttings? 

To have high success rates with your citrus cuttings, you’ll need to use a rooting hormone. Ryan recommends (and used) a dilution of Dip n’ Grow rooting hormone.

If you’re unfamiliar with the process of using rooting hormone, it’s quite simple: you dip the base end of a cutting into the hormone before transplanting it into the growth media/container. (If using powder rooting hormone, you’ll want to dip the base of the cutting in water first so the powder sticks to the surface.) 

Ryan likes the hormone profile of Dip n’ Grow rooting hormone for citrus:

  • 2 parts indolebutyric acid, aka IBA (which you can also obtain from willow tree bark); and
  • 1 part naphthalene acetic acid, aka NAA.

He diluted the rooting hormone in water to achieve 500 parts per million (ppm) IBA and 250 ppm NAA. (You an easily follow the instructions on the container to do the same.)  

If you want to go way down the citrus propagation rabbit hole, there’s actually quite a bit of domestic and international research available via Google Scholar on different hormone formulations/ratios for achieving highest root growth rates for different varieties of citrus.  

What’s the best growth media for propagating citrus cuttings?

When transplanting his hormone-dipped citrus cuttings, Ryan used a combination of pre-dampened Fafard Super Fine Germinating Mix (2/3 by volume) mixed with 1/3 part perlite. (Don’t overfill your cells with planting media or water will run off rather than sinking in!)  

Other growers have success using 100% pre-dampened coconut coir. We’ve also read research showing success with pure sand. When we originally propagated our cuttings, we just used organic seed starting mix. 

Takeaway: there’s no single right medium for citrus propagation – just be sure you use something with a very small particle size and excellent drainage. Also, in case you’re wondering, there’s no need to use fertilizer at this point since there aren’t any roots present to ingest it. Any fertilizer would just wash through and out of the growth medium. 

What type of pot/container should you use to propagate citrus cuttings? 

If you want to be able to visibly see root formation on your citrus cuttings, use clear plastic cups.

However, Ryan used standard nursery plant cells and trays because he’s grown out tens of thousands of plant cuttings over the years and has a well-honed intuition about when a cutting has developed roots.

If you want to be able to see root formation without pulling on your plants or removing them from their containers, use clear plastic cups instead of standard nursery cells/containers.

If you want to be able to see root formation without pulling on your plants or removing them from their containers, use clear plastic cups instead of standard nursery cells/containers.

Step 3: Properly care for cuttings until roots develop.  

As mentioned earlier, Ryan has a passive solar greenhouse and automated mister system. This setup makes it fairly easy for him to propagate citrus. 

Citrus cuttings under perfect conditions in Ryan's passive solar greenhouse. You can replicate these conditions in your home without having any fancy equipment.

Citrus cuttings under perfect conditions in Ryan’s passive solar greenhouse on June 10, shortly after he got cuttings from our plants. You can replicate these conditions in your home without having any fancy equipment.

However, you can easily replicate the conditions needed to propagate citrus at home…

The three critical factors you’ll need to optimize while you’re waiting for your citrus cuttings to root are humidity, light, and heat:

A. Moisture/humidity

Until roots are developed on your citrus cuttings, you’ll want to maintain a very high humidity environment to help minimize water loss from the stomata (leaf pores). This means you’ll need to:

  • cover your cuttings in a clear plastic or glass container (a plastic tote works great, as we’ll detail below); and
  • heavily mist them a minimum of 3-5 times per day. 

B. Light

Do NOT put your citrus cuttings in direct sunlight. Instead, you want bright but indirect light – enough for the leaves to do a bit of photosynthesizing but not enough to require the plant to have to deplete water in the cells. 

C. Heat

About 80°F (27°C) is considered the ideal temperature for propagating citrus cuttings. Ryan’s estimates that his greenhouse temperatures fluctuated from as low as 70°F at night to as high as 90°F during the day, but he still had excellent results. 

Three possible home setups for propagating citrus cuttings:

How do you create ideal conditions to propagate your citrus cuttings at home? Here are a couple of good options:

  1. Place an automated heat mat on a cookie sheet. Put citrus cuttings on top of heat mat and cover the plants in a clear tote. Place in a bright room filled with natural sunlight. Mist leaves, stems, and soil surface multiple times each day. 
  2. If you don’t want to get a heat mat, use the same tote-covered cookie sheet, but: a) cover it with a white towel and place it directly in front of a sunny south-facing window. This will allow the container to be solar heated without getting too hot and without the plants getting too much sunlight. Whenever the sun is not directly shining on the container, remove the towel to allow more indirect sunlight in. 
  3. If you want your citrus propagation station to stay outdoors, Ryan says “a clear trash bag, 1020 tray, and a wire coat hanger bent into bows works really well for a makeshift greenhouse on a small scale.”

How long does it take for roots to form on citrus cuttings?

There is some variability depending on variety, but expect root development to begin on your citrus cuttings within 3-6 weeks under optimal conditions.

July 2 (about 3 weeks after taking cuttings) and this Buddha's hand already has a nice root system developing. How long does it take citrus cuttings to form roots?

July 2 (about 3 weeks after taking cuttings) and this Buddha’s hand already has a nice root system developing.

Since Ryan doesn’t use clear plastic cups allowing him to see the roots, he says he knows his citrus and other cuttings are starting to root “when I lightly pull on them and they tug back.” You can use the same technique if you’re not using clear plastic containers. 

Success rates by citrus variety:

As mentioned earlier, there will be some variability in propagation success rates depending on the citrus variety.

Why? Ryan says: “Some plants have less undifferentiated cell tissue. Some don’t respond as well to hormone. Some need different hormone treatments. Timing makes a huge difference…” 

Time is also an important factor as some citrus varieties take longer than others to develop roots. This is true for other types of plants as well. For instance, Ryan says “Some conifers take 6-8 months to root. You actually aim to develop a mass of tissue at the cutting point, then re-wound and reapply hormone.” 

So what are the success rates of Ryan’s citrus cuttings by variety so far (~13 weeks after taking cuttings)? Here are the results, sorted from highest to lowest success rates (“alive” = no roots developed but not dead yet): 

  • Australian blood lime – 5 cuttings / 5 rooted – 100% success rate
  • Buddha’s hand citron – 5 cuttings / 5 rooted – 100% success rate
  • Meyer lemons – 5 cuttings / 5 rooted – 100% success rate
  • Variegated pink lemon – 10 cuttings / 10 rooted – 100% success rate
  • Limequat – 5 cuttings / 3 rooted, 2 dead – 60% success rate
  • Makrut lime – 5 cuttings / 1 rooted, 4 alive but unrooted – 20% success rate so far
  • ‘Moro’ blood orange – 10 cuttings / 3 alive but unrooted – 0% success rate so far
  • Kumquats – 5 cuttings / 0 rooted but 1 still alive- 0% success rate so far

*We’ll update this data with final numbers in the future, but you can already get a sense that some varieties are far easier and faster to root than others! 

Step 4: Pot up, feed, and harden off your rooted citrus cuttings. 

Now you’ve got roots – hooray! 1-2 weeks after you notice root formation, it’s time to:

  1. Pot up your seedlings into larger containers containing high quality organic potting soil, which already has fertilizer and beneficial microbes mixed in. (We’re fans of FoxFarm’s potting soil for our citrus.)
  2. Begin slowly hardening off your saplings so they can tolerate direct sunlight. 

It would be a shame to get this far only to scorch your new citrus saplings to death with too much sunlight! Instead, harden them off as follows:

  • Week 1 – 3 hours of direct early morning sunlight, then indirect sunlight for the rest of the day. 
  • Week 2 – 5 hours of direct sunlight early in the day, then indirect sunlight for the rest of the day. 
  • Week 3– Full sun, but move to indirect light if plants show stress (limp leaves) despite having adequate soil moisture.

How long do citrus cuttings take to produce fruit? 

The time from propagation to first fruit production will vary by variety. For instance, we started getting Meyer lemon fruit two years after propagation, but our Buddha’s hand citron didn’t produce until its third year after propagation.        

Picking Meyer lemons from plants we propagated ourselves is even more rewarding!

Picking Meyer lemons from plants we propagated ourselves is quite rewarding! These are late season Meyers picked in early spring when the skins are almost orange in color. At this point, they’re so flavorful and sweet, we sometimes eat them whole, skin and all, like kumquats. 

Hopefully, you get lucky and end up with a new highly productive citrus tree that thrives growing in a pot. If not, you could always use your new plant to produce budwood for grafting onto dwarf rootstock!  

We hope this article helps you better understand the concepts and techniques required for hobby growers to successfully propagate citrus from cuttings! 

KIGI,

Tyrantfarms

Other helpful citrus growing articles you’ll love:

…and sink your teeth into some of our favorite citrus recipes:

stay in touch

Like what you're seeing here? Please be sure to subscribe to Tyrant Farms so we can let you know about new articles you'll love.

No Comments

    Leave a Reply

    How to make acorn flour (hot leached or cold leached) How to identify & eat American beautyberries Lion’s mane mushroom crab cakes recipe – simple & healthy!