It isn’t hard to grow a lifetime supply of free organic citrus. Citrus trees don’t have lots of pest issues and they are highly resistant to disease. Even if you live in a climate with very cold winters, you can still enjoy fresh, organic citrus grown at home.
Your first step is to determine if you live in a location where your citrus trees can be planted outside in your yard. For most of the country, your new citrus plants will best be grown in a container. If you live above zone 8b, or if frost is even a remote possibility, you will want to grow your citrus trees in a container and bring them indoors during the winter. Your young tree will need excellent drainage and lots of sunshine no matter where you plant it. So, only select pots that have drainage holes in the bottom for colder regional growing success.
Choosing the Right Outdoor Planting Site
Unless you live on a large piece of land, most homeowners will have limited planting choices. For homeowners in zone 8, be safe and plant your citrus trees along the southern or southeast side of your home. This offers extra protection from northwestern winter cold fronts. Plant your new citrus tree 6-8 feet away from the walls of your house, so the heat from your home will work to add warmth during those surprise cold snaps. Maintain the same distance from garages, driveways, walks and fences, as well as spacing citrus trees away from each other. You’ll have an easier time picking your tree’s sweet fruit and caring for your new citrus orchard this way.
Don’t get the idea that you’re protecting your citrus plants from cold by planting them under big trees. You won’t have an abundant harvest without full sun. Also, be sure you don’t plant the trees over or close to sewer lines or a septic field.
Getting the Soil Right for Outdoor Citrus Trees
The best soil for citrus trees is deeply draining with good top runoff. This allows water to drain away from the deep root system. If you are not sure how well your subsoil drains, the other trees in your yard bear clues. Are your shade and spring flowering trees all very healthy and producing vigorous growth? If so, you most likely have the level of drainage already in place to succeed in growing citrus plants. If other trees in your yard aren’t looking healthy, you will want to grow your citrus trees in raised beds.
As with any other plant, the level of pH in the soil will present you with problems if it is too low or too high. For citrus trees, you need 6-8 pH for them to grow well. Citrus also is not tolerant of high soil salinity, which can be present near saltwater shores. Discovering the pH is easily accomplished with a soil tester purchased from local stores.
Planting Citrus Trees in Your Yard
Start your planting process by digging a hole 3 feet wide in your yard. Save all soil and get rid of the grass and its roots on the top layer. Dig your hole twice as wide as the root ball. Loosen the soil beneath where your tree will sit, which will help your roots grow easier.
Coaxing your new citrus tree to spread its roots out into the soil is easily done. Rinse the soilless medium away from the roots, about ½ inch deep on all sides of the root ball. This is not done until the moment you are going to place your new fruit tree in the planting hole. Do not remove more than ½ inch of soil medium from your tree’s roots, because this could damage your tree. What this does is allow the roots to be surrounded with your ground soil. Do this by simply washing it off with the hose immediately before planting your tree.
There isn’t any need to add compost to the existing soil. It will not improve drainage because your tree’s roots will grow deeply into the ground. Check the depth of your hole before rinsing away potting soil with the hose. Then, place your tree in the hole. Fill the hole halfway up with dirt, and evenly around the roots. Add some water, and then finish filling the hole with soil. Pat the surface of your finished planting area to lightly compact the soil.
During the first few months your tree is in the ground, it needs deep root watering. This is easily accomplished by building a water reservoir, with soil walls, around the perimeter or your tree circle. Form the dirt walls 6 inches high and 6 inches thick. Your finished deep water reservoir should be solid. At this point, your new citrus tree needs a big drink quickly. With reservoir walls properly in place, fill the watering resevoir with water. Any areas that sank when the water has drained need additional soil. Maintaining surface runoff is not possible with depressions in the soil surface.
Caring for Newly Planted Citrus Trees
No matter what kind of shrubs, trees or plants are in your landscaping – never put down mulch that exceeds 3 inches deep. Mulching around your new citrus tree is not a good idea, since it can sometimes cause fungus problems. If you simply must have that aesthetic appeal, keep all mulch two feet away from the trunk.
Following the initial deep root watering at planting time, new citrus trees need a deep watering 2 – 3 times during the first week in the ground. For the next few weeks, fill the watering reservoir 1 – 2 times a week. Watering will vary according to your type of soil, how much rain you’ve had that week, and what time of year you planted the new tree. This watering schedule is an establishment practice. After the first month to six weeks, you will only need to provide deep watering when your ground soil dries to a depth of an inch.
By the end of six months or less, the soil walls of your water reservoir will have eroded away. You don’t need to replace them, since they only help your tree get established.
At planting time, don’t fertilize citrus trees. Instead, wait until new growth appears. Then you should begin a feeding schedule of once a month from February through October. For excellent fruit and growth production, you’ll want to use quality organic citrus fertilizer. Look for organic fertilizers formulated perfectly for citrus trees, such as Citrus-tone from Espoma and Dr. Earth Organic 9 Fruit Tree Fertilizer. If you cannot find either of those, you can use palm fertilizer, as they have almost identical requirements.
Scatter the measured organic fertilizer on the ground at least a foot away from the trunk – thoroughly water the fertilizer. Young citrus trees have an annual increased need of fertilization because their root system is increasing over this time span. Bear in mind that if you are growing your trees in containers, they will need fertilizing more often than a tree planted in the ground.
Citrus Tree Fertilizing Chart
1st Year 1 cup per month
2nd Year 2 cups per month
3rd Year 3 cups per month
4th Year 4 cups per month
Growing Citrus Trees in Containers
Selecting the Right Pot
To succeed at growing live plants, it doesn’t matter if the container is made of plastic, clay, metal or wood – it must have adequate bottom drainage holes. Don’t worry about potted soil escaping. Just buy a water tray and place a fine meshed screen or weed barrier cloth on the bottom before planting. The layer of porous material allows water to leave while keeping the potting soil in your container.
Consider the mobility you will need when selecting your citrus tree’s container. Whatever you choose will weigh far more filled with your tree, potting soil and drainage gravel. Clay and ceramic containers are a lot heavier than plastic. Resin and wood containers will be far easier to move around in the house and into the outdoors during summer.
Don’t start off with a small tree in a huge pot, thinking it will be economical. Too much soilless medium surrounding the citrus plant’s roots will bring you high moisture health issues.
Correct Citrus Tree Potting Method
With your weed barrier or screen in place at the bottom of your pot, lay in an inch or two of pea gravel for proper drainage. Next, you will need to get your potting medium right. Not all commercial mixes found at your store will be okay. Most of these products are predominantly sphagnum peat, which is highly acidic and inappropriate for the longevity of many plants… especially citrus. Do not use ordinary top soil in any container planting; it will quickly kill the contents of your pot.
Select an easy to obtain soilless potting medium that contains either vermiculite or perlite. Blend in some cedar shavings with your potting medium for even distribution. Fill the planter partially and you are ready to inspect the citrus tree’s root system. Any plant grown in a container will become somewhat root bound, a condition that should be dealt with whenever you transfer them to a larger container. You can easily correct the situation by carefully spreading the larger roots, allowing them to grow outward instead of continuing to grow in the same tight circle. Be sure to loosen the remaining outer roots to help them escape from their previously cramped condition.
Situate the tree in your partially filled container. Maintain the same surface level of potting soil as it was growing in the original nursery pot. Complete the process of filling around your root ball. Be sure to leave watering depth, from the rim of the pot to the soil surface, of ¼ to ½ inch. Don’t fertilize until you see new growth appearing, just as is done in outdoor growing of citrus trees. After watering your newly potted tree thoroughly, you have finished your planting.
Most fruit crops do best in full sun, but some will do well in partial shade. As with anything that flowers, the more hours of sun each day, the heavier the blooming will be. Without flowers, fruit cannot form. This controls how big your harvest will be at the end of your citrus tree’s cycle. Over the winter, you will want to house your tree in front of the sunniest window you have. Once all threat of frost is over, you can move your citrus tree outdoors into a spot where it will get at least 8 hours of direct sun every day.
Any plant kept indoors over the cold season must be slowly adjusted to the intense light. Consider how you experience the instant introduction to brilliant light after being in the dark for a long time. Prepare citrus trees for full sun placement by alternating shade and sun exposure, adding an hour every few days. Begin with an hour on day one. To prevent shock, start the process 2 weeks before the full time move. The same is true of preparing citrus trees for being moved back indoors for winter. Whichever direction you are headed with light acclimation, you’ll want to slowly change from direct sun exposure or part shade exposure.
Tropical and subtropical fruit trees cannot tolerate freezing temperatures. Some will suffer “die back” only on the youngest twigs, while others will die back to the ground. Being without insulation, and completely exposed to frigid temperatures, is something only very cold hardy plants can endure.
Just moving them inside is not total protection from icy drafts. Always place your potted citrus tree where cold blasts from opening exterior doors and the heating system vent cannot hit them.
You must pay attention to the cooling night temperatures. It would be best to start the process when nighttime temperatures begin dipping into the high 40s. Also keep watch for unexpected frost. You can always move the tree inside for the night, and go back to light acclimation, after the frost has melted. The time this will happen is all dependent on how far north you live.
Water Right for Best Results
The most common reason people fail at growing plants in containers is either not enough or too much water, whether caused by a lack of drainage or watering too often. You should only water as needed, especially with citrus trees. Clay and wood containers will dry faster than plastic, metal and ceramic because air can enter the walls of these pots. This is why you should never use real soil with a tree in a container.
Always check your potting soil for dryness watering; you want the surface to be very dry to the touch. The light consistency of soilless medium makes it float away when a rush of heavy water presents itself, so be sure to slowly add the water to your pot, and avoid exposing the citrus tree’s roots to the air. Empty the pot’s water tray if it starts filling up. Good drainage isn’t happening if the bottom drainage holes are submerged in deep water. Cooler temperatures always slow the growth and water needs of citrus trees.
Fertilizing Container Grown Citrus Trees
An excellent, balanced fertilizer schedule is highly important to your success in receiving an abundant harvest from vigorous container-grown citrus trees. Over fertilization can result in too much foliage growth, poor fruit production and dieback. Use organic fertilizer blended for the needs of citrus trees, like Citrus-tone or Dr. Earth’s Organic 9, and follow the directions on the label for container-grown plants. When the mature foliage on your citrus trees is deep, rich green, you know you have the correct fertilizer application.
Citrus trees don’t do well in saline soils. If a white crust forms on the potting soil surface, it is likely due to excess fertilizing and/or your water has large amounts of soluble salts. This situation should be corrected by washing the trapped salts out of the container by slowly running water through the container for several minutes. This will carry the excess salts down through the potting medium to exit via the drainage holes.
Citrus trees grown outdoors are always naturally dense with a lovely full shape. When growing citrus plants indoors, the weaker light in winter can cause them to become leggy. Pruning back the tree’s canopy partially will induce more branching to assist you in producing a fuller tree and more fruit. You can also control the amount of space the citrus tree starts to take up in the house as it matures by pruning. When the top of your citrus tree have outgrown the available root space in the container, it is normal to see falling leaves and young twig die-back.