Gardening

How to Grow Citrus In Pots (In Any Climate Zone)

How to Grow Citrus In Pots (In Any Climate Zone)  thumbnail

We can’t understate how much we love citrus. For years, one of our favorite experiences was going down to visit family in Tampa, FL, for Christmas. The neighborhood where our family lives was chock full of large citrus trees and winter was the season their fruit would ripen.

Thankfully, our family’s neighbors had so much citrus that they were more than happy to let us stuff our faces, otherwise we’d likely be serving time for theft and trespassing. Tangerines, oranges, kumquats, grapefruits… walking down the alleys and streets was like an all-you-can-eat citrus buffet.

The End Of Citrus As We Know It

Over the years, many of those trees began to die, including the ones in my grandmother’s yard. The culprit: citrus greening disease, a pathogen caused by a bacteria that is carried tree-to-tree by psyllids (a tiny flying insect).

Citrus greening caused widespread damage and citrus crop failure throughout Asia, where it originated, then in Africa. Now it’s wreaking havoc on Florida’s $11 billion citrus industry, with nearly 90% of the citrus trees in the state infected.

How bad is it? In 2004, Florida produced 240 million boxes of oranges; this year, it’s expected to produce about 70 million boxes.  Citrus greening has recently spread to citrus farms on the west coast as well.

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Variegated Pink Eureka Lemon

Our Variegated Pink Eureka Lemon fruit and blossoms. A secondary harvest you can get from all citrus: flower petals. After the flowers have set, the petals will drop. Gather them up, dry them, and make them into tea. Add in a bit of honey, and the tea tastes like lemon nectar.

How Are Farmers Dealing With Citrus Greening?

There are no known cures for citrus greening, and until recently, there were no known resistant cultivars. Researchers at University of Florida have recently bred a mandarin orange variety named ‘Bingo’ that is resistant, so there’s hope that conventional breeding can provide an answer. Experiments are also underway with antiobiotic treatments and genetically engineered citrus, but these methods aren’t too popular with consumers.

In the meantime, many citrus growers are engaging in all out war on the psyllids with various types of neonicotinoid, pyrethroid, and organophosphate pesticides. As always happens, the target insect (psyllids) develop resistance to one type of insecticide, so new ones, or new combinations, are used.

One of our neighbor's honeybees foraging nectar from our Buddha's hand citron flowers.

(L to R) 1. One of our neighbor’s honeybees foraging nectar from our Buddha’s hand citron flowers; 2. A ripening Buddha’s hand citron; 3. A harvest of Buddha’s hand

Buddha's hand citron candy. Alt.

Mmm, Buddha’s hand citron candy. Get our recipe here.

Growing Citrus In Upstate South Carolina

We love growing edible plants using organic/permaculture methods. Since organic citrus – especially rare and unusual varieties – is becoming increasingly hard to find, we started to develop our own “citrus collection.” Plus, there’s something indescribably awesome about being able to go outside and pick your own perfectly ripe, organic citrus.

It started off innocently enough with a single Meyer lemon tree. Then the collection grew to include all that you see below (with links for where we bought them):

  • Lemon, ‘Meyer’ (2x) – Ours came from Lowe’s, but we’ve gotten many of our citrus from Hirts and have always had a great experience – large trees & very healthy.
  • Lemon, Pink Variegated ‘Eureka’ – Our 3rd or 4th citrus tree, this one was a gift. We’d recommend Hirts if you want to buy one.
  • Blood Orange, ‘Moro’ – Ours came from Four Winds Growers, another great place to get citrus.
  • Satsuma Mandarin, ‘China 7′ – One of the more cold hardy varieties we grow. We bought her from McKenzie Farms in Johnsonville SC, but Four Winds Growers (‘Owari’ is the closest variety to ours and is really cold hardy) is another good source.
  • Kumquat, ‘Nagami’- We don’t remember where we bought our tree from, but both Brighter Blooms and Four Winds Growers carry them.
  • Red finger lime – This was a gift, but it came from logees. (Here’s a green finger lime)
  • Calamondin orange (aka Panama Orange) – This was our first tree from Hirts and probably one of our favorites. Super cold tolerant (will be ok into the 30s, maybe colder), very handsome.
  • Citron, ‘Buddha’s Hand’ – Buddha was a gift, but Sheila’s Tropicals and Four Winds Growers both carry them.
  • Makrut Lime (aka “kaffir lime, but don’t call them that because it’s actually an offensive term) – This one was on our list for a while and we had a hard time finding it reasonably priced. We finally found it at McKenzie Farms, but you can also buy them from Logees
  • Cara Cara Red Naval Orange (hopefully coming soon!) – Hirts
Satsumas. It's awesome being able to walk out our front door and stuff our faces on these and other citrus varieties.

The Meyer Lemon plant that started it all. When you have a pile of ducks eggs and a pile of fresh Meyer lemons (right), there’s only one thing to do: make lemon curd. Yum!

Probably our favorite fresh-eating citrus that we grow: blood oranges. We zest them before eating, to get a secondary product. We would not recommend consuming the zest of non-organic citrus.

Makrut limes. If you’ve ever experienced a delightful lime-like zing in Asian cuisine, there’s a good chance it was from a Makrut lime leaf. A single leaf added to soup packs an amazing punch. The fruit is intense, and we enjoy making it into limeade.

In case you’re geographically impaired, Florida is quite a bit further south than Upstate South Carolina, e.g. you can’t just plunk a citrus tree in the ground and expect it to be happy where we live. Our winters are relatively mild, but temps in the 20s, teens, and even single digits are not at all unusual.

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That means that all of our citrus plants are grown in pots, and we’ve learned quite a bit about how to keep them happy and healthy over the course of the years we’ve been growing.

And we’ve never used a single drop of synthetic fertilizer or synthetic pesticide in the process…  

Makrut limes. If you've ever experienced a delightful lime-like zing in Asian cuisine, there's a good chance it was from a Makrut lime leaf. A single leaf added to soup packs an amazing punch. The fruit is intense, and we enjoy making it into limeade.

Some of our citrus trees growing in pots. Left to Right: 1. ‘Moro’ Blood Orange; 2. ‘China 7′ Satsuma; 3. Meyer Lemon; 4. ‘Nagami’ Kumquat.

How To Grow Citrus In Pots

If you’d like to grow citrus in pots using organic methods, here’s a list of information that will be helpful:

  1. Pot Selection: Factors to consider:
    • Plastic or clay - We started with clay pots, but they weighed so much and would break far easier than plastic/resin pots. So, over time we’ve transitioned all of our large citrus plants into plastic pots. We’ve also noticed that terra cotta pots seem to cause moisture loss much faster than plastic pots, which means increased watering requirements.
    • Pot Shape – This is actually one of the most important decisions you’ll make, and we learned it the hard way. Do NOT get vase-shaped pots that get smaller at the top. When you have to remove the plants for root trimmings or to be “potted up” into larger pots, a vase shaped pot makes plant removal very, very difficult.
    • Pot Size – Pot sizes are notoriously difficult to determine due to different dimensions and lack of standardization. We prefer to give our plants a lot of room to grow, even when they’re relatively small. Minimum pot size might be a 5 gallon pot for a sapling, but within a year, we’ll pot it up into a 15+ gallon pot. The final size of our citrus plants is 25 gallons (usually about 22″ in diameter), like this one. If 25 gallons is too big or heavy for you, don’t despair – your citrus will be fine in smaller pots, but you’ll need to do more regular root trimming and fertilizing, especially as the plant gets older/larger.
    • Pot Holes – Often times, the large plastic pots do not come with holes in the bottom. They have to either be drilled or the pre-carved “knock-out” holes have to be popped out. Make sure any pot you use has holes so that the pots can drain, otherwise you’ll end up with boggy anaerobic conditions in your pot, which will eventually kill/drown your citrus plants.
    • Drainage Plates – In the cold months, if you’re going to have your citrus indoors, you’re going to need to have drainage plates under your pots. Plan accordingly.
    • When to Buy – You can get pots really affordably in the fall when nurseries and garden centers are trying to get rid of their summer inventory. Buy your pots out of season, and you’ll save a bunch of money.
    Probably our favorite fresh-eating citrus that we grow: blood oranges. These are a little early in the season before the full red color has developed. We zest them before eating, to get a secondary product. We would not recommend consuming the zest of non-organic citrus.

    Probably our favorite fresh-eating citrus that we grow: blood oranges. These are a little early in the season before the full red color has developed. We zest them before eating, to get a secondary product. We would not recommend consuming the zest of non-organic citrus.

  2. Soil Mix – Citrus needs well-draining, yet highly fertile soil. Many new gardeners don’t realize that you can’t simply put garden soil into a pot and expect plants to grow well – the soil will soon turn into an impenetrable brick.

    That’s why “garden soil” and “potting soil” are sold separately at garden centers. If you’re a beginner, simply buy organic potting mix for your citrus and add fertility as recommended below. If you want to mix your own like we do, you’ll want to do something like this: 5 parts pine bark fines; 1 part sphagnum peat OR coconut coir; 1-2 parts perlite; 1 part good compost (hot compost) and/or worm castings. We also put a 1-2″ layer of wood chips on top of the soil surface to help with moisture retention, soil temp maintenance, and to encourage beneficial microbial activity. 

  3. Watering - The consistency of your soil should be a well wrung-out sponge: damp, but not wet. Too wet, and the roots can’t get the oxygen they need to function, and anaerobic/pathogenic bacteria start to proliferate. Light, regular watering is better than infrequent heavy watering.
    • Warm Weather - In the hot sunny days of summer, we water our citrus daily.
    • Cool Weather – In the cooler months when temps are in the 40s-60s, we’ll water once ever 2-3 days as needed.
  4. Nutrition - Since your citrus is contained in a pot, its roots and fungal symbiants can’t go beyond what’s inside the pot to source additional fertility. We’re big on biological soil fertility, which establishes microbial communities that both feed and protect your plants in the same way that the human microbiome functions in people. People and plants aren’t isolated individuals, they’re communities of microbial life with stacked functions. That’s why we don’t recommend chemical or mineral fertilizers. Citrus are heavy feeders and here’s the feeding schedule we use to keep ours happy:
    • Top-dress with 1″ compost/worm castings once every 4 months or use a AACT (actively aerated compost tea) every 3 months. This helps establish and promote a good soil microbial community.
    • Every 4-6 weeks, use a 1:7 dilution of water : organic liquid fertilizer. Kelp, squid, or fish emulsion are fine, but liquid gold is free and abundant, so why buy something if you make your own fertilizer several times per day? (*Note: Don’t use liquid gold if you’re taking pharmaceuticals.) If you have large citrus plants or your leaves are looking pale/yellow, you may need to increase the frequency of feedings.
  5. Root Pruning - If you want to continue to have healthy, highly productive citrus trees grown in pots, you’ll need to do some root pruning in the late winter/early spring. Instead of going through the how-to’s here, we’d recommend you read this thread on Garden Web.
  6. Pest & Disease Control – We have yet to experience any serious pests or diseases that impact citrus where we live – when our plants are outside.
    • Outdoors – We did have a foliar fungus begin to effect a satsuma tree we had in a spot that was too damp/shady outside, so we moved it to a sunnier spot and immediately applied a 3 parts milk : 7 parts water dilution as a foliar spray, and the fungus was gone within a week (the same mixture works with powdery mildew on squash plants).
    • Indoors – Ironically, the only severe pest insect problems we’ve encountered happened indoors during the winter. Dry indoor growing conditions combined with lack of predatory/beneficial insects to help with pest control can cause spider mites and scales to proliferate. What to do? Neem oil sprays work great, as does OMRI listed horticultural oil. They coat the tiny pest insects in oil and essentially drown them. Take your plants outdoors to do this or put down an old sheet first – you don’t want sticky oil all over your floor or furniture. Once the oil dries, bring them back in.
  7. Bring Indoors or Outdoors – We’re in a warm enough climate (Zone 7B) that we very seldom have many days in a row with below freezing temperatures. As such, we put our citrus in one side of garage on days/nights when temps are below freezing. We have a small space heater to make sure it stays well above freezing for them. If it’s going to be warm for several days, we’ll bring the citrus out on our driveway or open the garage door (which is south-facing, allowing for good sunlight). If you live in a colder zone where temps are typically below freezing for days or weeks at a time, you’ll need a room with a sunny, south-facing window so the citrus can get adequate light (or use grow lights).
  8. What citrus doesn't go inside is rolled into our garage (you can see our roller on the ground) with a space heater that keeps the temps above freezing. Obviously, the garage door is kept closed to hold in the heat. One day, we dream of having a proper greenhouse!

    What citrus doesn’t go inside is rolled into our garage (you can see our roller on the ground) with a space heater that keeps the temps above freezing. Obviously, the garage door is kept closed to hold in the heat. One day, we dream of having a proper greenhouse!

  9. Transporting Large Pots - Once your citrus plants get huge, handtrucks won’t work very well for transporting them because the branches stick out far past the edge of the pots (you can break the branches). We use: 1) a single pot roller to roll our pots in and out on warm or cold days, and 2) a wheel barrow when we’re putting them out in our yard for the spring/summer.
Kumquat

All loaded up! We’re moving the kumquat tree in a wheelbarrow right before our first hard frost of Fall. At this point, it probably produces more fruit (by weight) than any other citrus tree – and it weights a ton! Every branch looks like this (right) when the fruit is ripe.

What Citrus Should You Get? A Citrus Comparison Chart…

There are thousands of cultivars of citrus and citron to choose from. All we can do is provide you with some information about the ones we’ve grown and eaten.

Here’s a handy citrus comparison chart we made that might help you decide what varieties to get as you start building your citrus collection:
citrus comparison chart

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We hope this article was helpful! If you have questions, let us know in the comments section.

KIGI,


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