Find out how to grow citrus in pots, to open a world of new, unusual, and shockingly delicious citrus varieties you won’t find in grocery stores!
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 the 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.
Citrus greening disease: 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 Asian citrus psyllids (a tiny flying insect).
Citrus greening caused widespread damage and citrus crop failure throughout Asia, where it originated. Then it spread to 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. In 2016, it produced about 70 million boxes and in 2021 it produced 52 million boxes. This downward trend is expected to continue.
Unfortunately, citrus greening has recently spread to citrus farms on the west coast as well.
How are farmers dealing with citrus greening?
There are no known cures for citrus greening, and until recently, there were no known resistant citrus 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 — in this case psyllids — have begun developing resistance to the insecticides used, so new ones — or new pesticide combinations — have to constantly be developed.
Unfortunately, synthetic pesticides don’t tend to discriminate between good insect or bad insect (or reptile, amphibian, bird, or farm worker).
Good news: you can grow your own citrus — even in cooler climates!
We live in ag zone 7b on the outskirts of Greenville, SC. Our winters are far too cold to grow nearly all citrus varieties in-ground (there are a few exceptions like Yuzu), but we can grow citrus in pots. This allows us to move our citrus trees to protect them when the weather dips too cold.
Even if you live in a colder climate region than ours, you can still grow your own citrus — and grow it organically, like we do. Growing your own citrus allows you to grow unusual and delicious varieties and to take advantage of other edible parts of a citrus tree, such as their flower petals.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of NOT living in a warm region? No risk of citrus greening, since the Asian citrus psyllid can only live in climates where temperatures don’t stay well below freezing for long periods of time. (Even in our mild climate, we have winter nights that stay in the low 20s and teens followed by days that don’t go above freezing.)
What citrus varieties should you grow?
There are seemingly countless citrus varieties to choose from. The varieties you choose are going to likely come down to:
- What types of citrus you like best, both for fresh eating or for recipes.
- How many citrus trees you plan to go (more citrus = more variety).
Our potted “citrus grove” started off innocently enough with a single Meyer lemon tree. (If you love lemons, we highly recommend getting a Meyer above any other variety.) Over the years, our collection has grown to include the varieties listed below (with links to where we bought them):
1. Lemon, ‘Meyer’ (2x) – Hands down the best tasting lemon we know of. When fully ripe, the skin is almost orange and is so mild and sweet you can eat them whole, skin and all.
Our first Meyer lemon 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.
2. Lemon, pink variegated ‘Eureka’ – Our 3rd or 4th citrus tree, this one was a gift. Gorgeous variegated foliage and fruit skin, with light pink pulp. Perfect for truly pink lemonade!
We’d recommend Hirts if you want to buy one.
3. Blood orange, ‘Moro’ – The most delicious oranges we’ve ever eaten. Picked early in the season, they taste like really good tangerines. By the time they’ve fully ripened (their skin blushes red/purple) they have strong notes of sweet blackberries.
Our Moro came from Four Winds Growers, another great place to get citrus.
4. Satsuma Mandarin, ‘China 7’ – One of the more cold hardy varieties we grow. The perfect tangerine/satsuma flavor and incredibly prolific.
5. Makrut lime (aka Thai lime) – We got a makrut lime for the wonderfully flavorful leaves (a key spice in Southeast Asian cuisine) but were pleasantly surprised by the insanely flavorful fruit and flower petals. (Read: How to grow and use makrut limes)
6. Kumquat, ‘Nagami’– A small-fruited citrus that you eat skin and all. We LOVE kumquats, but not everyone is as crazy about them as we are.
7. Australian blood lime – An unusual variety. It’s similar to a finger lime (aka citrus caviar), from which it was bred.
Ours was a gift, but it came from logees.
8. Calamondin orange (aka calamansi) – Very cold-tolerant and produces huge quantities of small 1-2″ fruit. (Read: All about calamondins with recipe roundup)
This was our first tree from Hirts and probably one of our favorites.
9. Citron, ‘Buddha’s hand’ – All pith, no pulp? Yep. The most visually striking citrus fruit we know of, but certainly not one for fresh eating. Makes wonderful candies, teas, simple syrups, and zest though.
10. Limequat – Love key limes? Love kumquats? We sure do. And we like the hybrid child the two lovebirds produced: limequats, which you can eat skin and all. These make killer desserts.
You can buy a limequat tree from Hirt’s.
Citrus comparison chart:
How to grow citrus in pots in moderate climate zones
We live in the Upstate region of South Carolina, e.g. we 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 fairly common.
That means that all of our citrus plants are grown in pots. After 10+ years of growing citrus this way, we’ve learned quite a bit about how to keep them happy, healthy, and productive.
During that time, we’ve never used a single drop of synthetic fertilizer or synthetic pesticide, e.g. we use organic growing methods.
If you’d also like to grow citrus in pots using organic methods, here’s how
1. Pot selection:
Factors to consider:
a. Plastic or clay pots?
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 ~20″ x 20″ 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.
b. Pot shape
We learned this one the hard way… Do NOT get vase-shaped pots that get smaller at the top. When you have to remove the trees for root pruning or to be “potted up” into larger pots, a vase shaped pot (larger on the bottom, smaller on top) makes tree removal much more difficult. (We’ll discuss more about root pruning citrus below.)
Instead get pots that are either not angled at all OR larger at the top and smaller at the base.
c. Pot size
Pot sizes are notoriously difficult to determine due to different dimensions and lack of standardization. (See GrowJourney’s Garden pot sizes decoded.)
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 pot size for our citrus trees is 25 gallons (usually about 22″ in diameter), like this attractive pot. 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 pruning, watering, and fertilizing, especially as the plant gets older/larger.
d. 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 soon 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 late summer-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!
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 (FoxFarm offers an excellent potting mix) for your citrus, then add fertility as recommended below in #4.
Or if you want to make your own potting soil own, 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/Berkeley compost) and/or worm castings.
We also put a 1-2″ layer of wood chips on top of the soil surface in each pot to help with moisture retention, soil temp maintenance, and to encourage beneficial microbial activity.
The consistency of your soil in each pot should be like a 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, potted citrus will need to be watered at least twice a day.
- Cool Weather – In the cooler months when temps are in the 40s-60s, we’ll water once ever 1-2 days as needed.
If you grow multiple citrus trees in large pots like we do, we HIGHLY recommend getting drip irrigation. Our drip irrigation system is easy to set up, saves us countless time during the warm months, and keeps our citrus trees much happier.
Since your citrus is contained in a pot, its roots and fungal symbionts 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.
Citrus are heavy feeders. To fertilizer our citrus, we use a combination of:
- organic citrus fertilizer (if you only use one thing, use this!);
- liquid gold (it’s free!);
- liquid kelp and/or fish emulsion;
- *worm castings and/or compost, top-dressed about 1/2″ deep then mulched;
- *we also make sure each of our pots has worms in it, which helps keeps the soil aerated and ads some microbe-rich fertilizer as well.
Our citrus fertilization schedule:
- Spring – we apply a small amount of fertilizer once every 2-3 weeks.
- Summer – fertilize once every 3-4 weeks.
- Winter – fertilize once every 6 weeks.
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 at least once every 2 years.
Instead of going through the how-to’s of root pruning here, we’d recommend you check out our detailed article/video about how & when to root prune your potted citrus.
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.
Outdoor Citrus Pests & Diseases – 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).
Indoor Citrus Pests & Diseases – 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 citrus pests like spider mites, scales, and aphids 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 apply these solutions so they don’t make a sticky mess in your house! Once the oil dries, bring them back in.
7. When to bring citrus 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 our garage on days/nights when temps are below freezing. We have a small space heater to make sure the garage stays well above freezing.
If you live in a colder climate zone where temps are typically below freezing for days or weeks at a time, you’ll need to make sure your citrus gets enough light (the equivalent of 6+ hours direct sunlight) with:
- a sunroom or room with a sunny, south-facing window, or
- indoor LED grow lights (we use these adjustable Monios LED tripod grow lights on our indoor potted plants and highly recommend them!).
8. How to move large potted plants
Once your citrus plants are in large pots, they’re not easy to move. Hand trucks don’t work all that well and can break the branches.
We started off by using a heavy duty plant dolly with wheels, which worked pretty well. However, after we got our 20th citrus plant into a large pot (yes, we’re citrus addicts) a dolly simply wasn’t going to cut it.
Thankfully, we were able to commission as engineer friend of ours to build a customizable, heavy-duty pot moving device that works wonders. I can now move 20 large pots into or out of our garage in about 15 minutes!
Don’t worry: if you don’t have a crazy engineer friend, a good hand truck or quality plant dolly with wheels will do the trick, especially if you only have a few plants to move.
We hope this article was helpful! If you have questions about how to grow citrus in pots, let us know in the comments section.
Other articles citrus-lovers will enjoy:
- Video: take a citrus garden tour at Tyrant Farms
- How to grow citrus trees from cuttings
- How and when to root-prune your potted fruit trees (including citrus)
- Recipe: Native passion fruit & Meyer lemon sparkling cordial
- Recipe: Sugar-free persimmon, kumquat, cranberry relish
- Recipe: 10-minute broccoli mash with citrus miso sauce
- Recipe: Meyer lemon bars with rosemary brown butter shortbread crust
- Recipe: Guava & Meyer lemon ice cream
- Recipe: Calamondin marmalade with baby ginger
- Easiest way to zest a lemon or orange