Image by The Citrus Guy

Growing Citrus in Containers

by Darren Sheriff October 7, 2015

Growing Citrus in Containers

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This week’s gardening guest blogger is Darren Sheriff, also known as “The Citrus Guy“, who is here to inspire you to try your hand at growing Citrus in containers! Darren is a Master Gardener who works in the horticultural industry at Hidden Ponds Nursery.  He is heavily involved in the local camellia and fruit growing societies and is an often requested speaker for local garden clubs and other groups.  You can connect with Darren via his blog: http://thecitrusguy.blogspot.com/  or on Facebook as The Citrus Guy, where he keeps a list posted of his speaking engagements as well as the many other things he does in and around the horticultural world. You will also be among the first to find out when his book on the complete story of growing citrus in containers comes out!


Citrus and all of their relatives are a hot topic right now. With all of the diseases down in Florida, quarantines springing up, and the price of Orange Juice and fresh fruit continually going up, it is no wonder that many people either try or wish, they could grow their own. I appreciate this opportunity to guest write an article, to show folks that anybody can grow their own citrus fruit.

I grow most (okay, ALL) of my 55+ Citrus in containers. Even though I live in Charleston, SC (Zone 8) and they can grow in the ground here, I prefer growing them in containers.

I have a number of reasons for doing so.  I rent, so if I should move anytime soon they could all come with me.  If I don’t like where something is, OR, it doesn’t like where it is, I can move it.  I can control the soil PH, water, and fertilizers better.  If we happen to have some REALLY cold weather, like the 18 degrees we have had in previous winters, I can move them safely into the greenhouse.  It’s easier to toss something away that happens to die. I don’t have to dig and dig to get the stump out.  These reasons go for all my plants that I grow in containers, which are many, including my 190+ camellias.

In the above picture, you can see some of my Citrus to the right, A yellow Brugmansia top left and some of my Tomato plants bottom left. Yup, all of these are in containers.

Fig 013
One of the first questions I get is, Can you actually get any fruit from containerized trees?
YES! This is a picture of some immature Meyer Lemons. They were in a 30 gallon pot when this picture was taken.

Would you like to try your hand at Containerized Citrus growing? Here is a brief how to do it.

Container Citrus

Many types of Citrus can be grown successfully in containers, IF, you have a large enough pot. Don’t expect as big a tree as one grown in the ground, however. Also, it is important to find citrus trees grafted onto Poncirus trifoliata or Flying Dragon. This type of root stock dwarfs the tree (still giving you full size fruit) and gives it a few extra degrees of cold hardiness. With that being said, I have some seed grown trees that are producing fruit on their own roots.

The biggest advantage of containerized trees is that they can be protected during freezing temperatures by temporarily storing them in an enclosed area. A nursery standard 15 gallon pot would be a good one to start out with. Once the tree out grows this one, you can move it up to a 30 gallon. A piece of advice though, either build a relationship with some really big, strong men or put casters of some kind on a 30 gallon, it gets pretty heavy. If you happen to see a landscape company working in your neighborhood, stop and ask if they happen to have any and if you can have one or two of either of these sizes. Many times they are more than happy to get rid of them. They won’t have to haul it back to their shop.

Be aware that plastic containers retain moisture longer than other types of pots. As with most plants, allow the upper surface of the soil to become dry to the touch and maybe an inch down, then water thoroughly. Citrus need lots of moisture, but don’t like wet feet all the time.

The potting mix you use is really a personal choice. Any good, well draining mix will work. I have found that a Cactus soil works well. A good blend of Peat, Sand, Perlite and Vermiculite will suffice. As long as it is well draining and retains some moisture, it is good to go.

Good nutrition is essential, but over fertilization can result in excessive vegetative or leafy growth, poor fruiting and possible death due to fertilizer salt accumulation. Salt accumulation is a common problem, often indicated by a white crust on the soil surface and around the drain holes. Slow release fertilizers with a ratio of 8-8-8 are excellent, particularly if it contains trace elements such as Iron, Magnesium and Manganese. An occasional foliar spray (spraying the leaves) with Fish Emulsion will also benefit the tree. If you are planning on moving the tree indoors during very cold nights (below 32) you can fertilize every three months and foliar feed every two weeks with a liquid fertilizer or the fish emulsion all year long. If you are planning on leaving them out during the winter, start feeding around Valentine’s Day and stopping around Labor Day. I am huge proponent of Citrus Tone, produced by Espoma, using the same time frame as above.

Citrus love sunlight, 8-10 hours if possible. Even in winter, if the temps drop at night and you bring it in, bring it back out during the day after it warms up. If you forget or there is a long cold spell forecasted, don’t worry, your citrus tree will be fine for a few days in a garage or other sheltered spot.

Summer time can bring other problems with container citrus. The temperature in a black pot, outside in 8 hours of sunlight can easily reach 120 degrees. There are at least two ways to alleviate this. First, shade the pot with low growing plants in other pots. This will give you a chance to have some flowers around your tree and make a very nice display. Second, paint your pots white. There are many paints designed for plastic, get some of them and paint them white. The white surface will reflect the rays of the sun and keep your roots many degrees cooler.

Container citrus have the same pest problems as their in ground counter parts.

Happy Growing!
Darren

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4 person already talking about this.
    Jody
    Answered on October 8, 2015Reply

    I am in Zone 5. I over wintered my lemon last winter (bought it last summer). It did drop all of its leaves, but has bounced back nicely over the summer. At what point can I expect it to produce fruit? Do I need to hand-pollinate it?

    Darren Sheriff
    Answered on October 10, 2015Reply

    Do you know whether it is grafted or from a seed?
    How old is it?
    When it does start to flower, if it is outside, you should be okay with pollination. Even so, you can always hand pollinate a few flowers, just to make sure.

    Fiona
    Answered on October 7, 2015Reply

    I am in zone 5 and it's starting to get cold. I have a lemon tree outside in a pot. Obviously I will need to bring it in soon for the winter. Advice on that?

    Darren Sheriff
    Answered on October 7, 2015Reply

    Fiona, Most people panic when it starts to get "cold" Cold is relative. 40 for a human is cold, that is nothing for a citrus tree. Keep an eye on the temps, if you see 34 or lower coming, bring it on in. Zone 5 is pretty cold, so I can't recommend you leave it in an unheated garage as I sometimes tell people. Put in front of a south facing window if you can, give it as much sun as possible. A grow light will also help.
    Do not be too alarmed if it starts to drop leaves, Citrus like humidity. Most homes, especially in the winter are very dry. If your south facing window is in a bathroom, you would be golden! My e-mail is listed in the article, please feel free to drop me a line if you have more questions.

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