Grow Some Tangy Citrus in Your Container Garden

by Fern on January 5, 2012

in Fruits & Vegetables,How To

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This post has been rumbling around in my head for quite some time. Citrus trees are among container gardeners’ favorite victims fruit trees, so I don’t know why it has taken me so long to put my thoughts down in a blog post. I have had several citrus trees, including blood oranges and tangerines. Though one of the professors that taught my master gardener class would disagree, they make great container plants. Here’s how to grow a little bit ‘o sunshine on your balcony or patio…

Suitably Small Varieties for Container Gardening

Like all trees you plan to grow in a pot, you should always, always, always select either a natural dwarf or a tree growing on dwarf rootstock. According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book of Edibles dwarf citrus trees are usually grafted on to one of two kinds of root stock. If given a large enough pot or grown in the ground, trifolate orange (Poncirus trifolate) will produce a 10 foot tree in 15 years, while ‘Flying Dragon’ trifolate orange produces an even shorter 7 foot tree in that time period. Either rootstock variety will sufficiently stunt the growth of your tree to make it happy to grow in a container.


Kumquats produce  fruit that look like tiny, oblong oranges. They are usually tart, and the fruit is eaten skin and all. You don’t need to select a variety growing on dwarf rootstock because these citrus trees are naturally short. Kumquats do best in areas with warm summers and chilly fall/winter nights. They’re hardy down to 20F if the pot is protected. Kumquats can usually be brought indoors in cold winter climates and still produce a good harvest.

  • ‘Fukushu’ produces sweeter-than-normal fruit and the tree is thornless
  • ‘Meiwa’ is the sweetest, and least-seedy variety of kumquat. Trees are nearly thornless.
  • ‘Tavares Limequat’ is a cross between a kumquat and a Mexican lime. The tree is attractive and compact (less than 6 feet tall at maturity)


Lemons are a great choice in areas with summers that aren’t hot enough for other types of citrus. They especially enjoy coastal areas, and will produce fruit year round near the beach.

  • ‘Improved Meyer’ is the best variety for container gardeners. It is a disease-free version of regular ‘Meyer’ lemons (which cannot be sold in some states, due to the virus the trees carry). The fruit is sweeter with thinner skins thanks to the fact that is actually a lemon-orange hybrid. Can be brought indoors during the winter without sacrificing fruit production.
  • ‘Sungold’ and ‘Variegated Pink’ both have green and yellow variegated leaves.
Some varieties of Citrus reticulata are called tangerines, while others are called mandarins. If you choose a variety that produces seeds, get only one citrus tree. It will produce more seeds if the tree has a friend to cross-pollinate with.
  • ‘Gold Nugget’ was one of the favorites of the citrus expert from University of California that spoke to my master gardener class. It’s fruit is seedless, very sweet, and easy to peel.
  • ‘Seedless Kishu’ was another favorite. The flavor of the fruit is very complex and delicious


Oranges need hot summers to produce sweet fruit, they do not do well in coastal areas or in northern climates with very mild summers.

  • ‘Washington’ and ‘Robertson’ are nearly identical varieties of navel oranges. ‘Robertson’ produces fruit two weeks earlier than ‘Washington.’ Growing one of each prolongs your orange harvest.
  • ‘Tarocco’ is a blood orange that has red flesh and a complex flavor with raspberry overtones. Makes an excellent espalier.
  • ‘Trovita’ has thinner skin than navel oranges and has no navel. It also requires less heat than other types of oranges.

One Tree or Two?

Because fruit is the result of plant sex (I kid you not), many kinds of fruit trees produce the best harvest (fruit are the resulting offspring of the plant sex) when they have a similar type of tree near by to cross-pollinate. Most citrus varieties, however, are self-fertile. Which means they don’t need a partner to produce offspring. I’ll leave the weird mental images to your imagination, but this is good news for small-space gardeners because it means you don’t need to waste space with a second tree if one tree will produce all the fruit you need.

Choosing the Right Pot

Citrus trees need a pot that is at least 18 inches tall and wide. I have grown a dwarf mandarin in a pot that was not 18 inches wide, but it was stunted and fruit production was not as good. This is because citrus trees have roots that spread out close to the surface. In a citrus grove you’ll often find tree roots growing in the leaf liter below the tree. Select a pot with thick walls, glazed ceramic is ideal. I learned the hard way that citrus do not like the super-heated soil found in metal pots.

You’ll need to gently root-prune and repot every 5 years or so.

Watering Your Citrus Tree

You should water your tree often enough so that the soil only briefly dries out between watering. This may be every day in the summer. Withholding water for the week or two before you harvest will help sweeten the fruit.

Harvesting Your Fruit

You must, absolutely must, allow the fruit to ripen on the tree. To tell if the fruit is ripe, pick one and taste it. You can’t tell if the fruit is ripe by rind color, as most varieties color quite some time before they are ripe.

How to Prune Your Citrus Tree

Simply put, you don’t need to prune your tree at all. Pruning will not improve your harvest. Lower branches produce the most fruit, so definitely don’t cut those off. Prune lightly for aesthetic reasons and to remove any dead or diseased branches.

The What and When of Fertilizing

Nitrogen is your citrus tree’s best friend. Fertilize monthly from February to November with a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer according to package instructions. In frost-prone climates start fertilizing later and stop earlier. If the leaves are deep green with burned tips, you’re fertilizing too much. Citrus are also very sensitive to soil that is too alkaline, a problem for those of us with hard water. If you see light green leaves with dark green veins, you most likely need to re-acidify your potting soil with some soil acidifier (sometimes marketed as a hydrangea blueing agent).

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Orchidea January 6, 2012 at 5:27 am

I am very interested in your article, last year in May I bouth a little citrus tree for my balcony here in Sweden. The tree already had 4 gigantic lemons and the plant seemed to like my balcony, the summer was warm enought (25C) but not hot. When there was no fruit on the plant I started to use the citrus fertilizer that I bought. I saw a lot of new flowers and new small lemons BUT after a while the fruit was turning black and falling down. I stopped using the fertilizer and notized that some new fruit was on the plant, this time the lemons were not turing black but they were still falling down anyway. Do you know why this happened? At the moment I have the plant inside, it is -5C here, at the window of our bedroom, I do no have heat on and the plant loves it. There is still one lemon on the plant since September, it quite big and green but it has not fallen and not turned black… I am so glad about that.



Fern January 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Orchidea–Are people able to grow lemons in Sweden? 25C is only 77F. Lemons are more tolerant of cool temperatures, but that’s virtually no warmth at all. Do you bring it inside during the winter? Did the black lemons look like they had a fungal infection? How big are the fruit when they turn black? If they are small when they turn black, it could be that they are not properly pollinated.

Juliah January 6, 2012 at 9:54 am

Thank you so much for this info!


meemsnyc January 27, 2012 at 8:03 pm

I have meyer lemon trees, a lime tree, and none of them have ever produced fruit. Do you have an article that talks about how to fertilize? I use a natural organic Growmore citrus fertilizer but maybe I am doing it incorrectly.


Mohan January 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

Citrus plants need micro nutrients aka trace elements to give fruit. Salts of Magnesium, Iron, Zinc and Manganese are essential for healthy growth. More important is Boron. A plant may look healthy, but give no fruit due to Boron deficiency, which is also the cause for ‘brown’ core. The range for deficiency and toxocity levels of Boron is narrow, namely 0.5 to 1.0 parts per million, hence care needs to be exercised not to over use Boron. Most of these micronutirents including Boron is available to the citrus plant in the pH range of 4.5 to 6, hence the need to maintain a proper pH is very important.


chichi March 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Can you grow a mulberry tree in a container?


Fern March 2, 2012 at 12:40 am

Not sure, I’ve never tried nor read about anyone trying. Since those are pretty large trees when mature, I doubt they would be happy for very long in a container.

Lisa March 22, 2012 at 7:25 am

I have a meyer lemon tree that I have grown from a very small plant I bought at my local Lowe’s. Seriously, it was a twig. Two years later it’s a little over 2 ft tall and covered in blooms now. It’s in my kitchen, and it smells incredibly sweet! I will move it outside soon. Last year it only had 4 blooms. There were tiny fruits afterward, but they fell off almost immediately. I hope I have better luck this year ;-)


Fern March 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Be sure to give your lemon lots of fertilizer, they are heavy feeders. Look for a fertilizer for citrus/avocados.

Max April 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Hey Fern – do you think I could grow a Meyer lemon in a smart pot? If so, how big do you think the pot should be?


Fern April 3, 2012 at 12:22 am

Hi Max! Sure! Smart Pots were originally developed to grow ornamental trees. Be sure your lemon is a dwarf. The 15 or 20 gallon size should be about right.

Max April 14, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Ok Fern – you’ve inspired me. However, I have a conundrum. … So I go to three nurseries before I finally get conned by a person to buy a semi-dwarf because she tells me there is no difference between a semi-dwarf and a dwarf. So I buy the semi dwarf and then I finally find a dwarf at home depot (store number five)… So should I get a dwarf instead? I have the semi in a 20 gal smart pot. Or will I be ok?


Max April 14, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Oh and I love the blog – its delightful!


onevey April 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm

i have a meyer lemon tree in a 3 gallon smart pot with foxfarm oceanforest soil and fertilizing with happyfrog acid loving plants fertilizer will my lemon tree be ok or should i use another type of pot and or fertilizer


Brenda Burke May 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm

My potted Meyer lemon tree is finally loaded with lemons! But, I too am having difficulty with my tree. We got it 3 years ago and was small with 2 large, plump lemons on it. They were great. Since then it would bloom, we’d see the tiny green lemons, the next day they turned yellow, then brown, then fell off. Now the 45-55 lemons that have finally survived, and seemed to be thriving… have stopped growing. The first ones, now the size of tennis balls, are even starting to turn brown; they have been on the tree so long. We water and fertilize but they have just stopped growing, before ever even turning yellow. The key lime tree next to it is thriving and loaded, and has been for 3 years. They get about the same water and fertilizer. What to do???


Anushka July 2, 2012 at 12:45 am

first: your Small space book is great!
And second: I have a problem with my mandarin tree (Citrus reticulata). I had a light aphid infestation, which I think I solved. However, all of the little fruits (less than a centimeter in diameter) turned pitch black and fell off recently. Was it the aphids? There is now a single new flower on the tree and I really wouldn’t like to lose this one, if it develops, to whatever caused all of the other ones to fall off. Your opinion would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!


Fern August 5, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Anushka–Are you watering and fertilizing properly?

tigerwhite August 14, 2012 at 2:29 am

I bought a kumquat tree from nursery. It was without any single thorn. I took some seed from the kumquat fruit and plant into a pot. After 6 months, it grow, but I notice there are a lot of thorn on the tree ? How come the ‘ mother ‘ tree doesn’t have any thorn but the next generation got thorn ? Please advice me. And how to plant a kumquat tree without any single thorn.


Stacy October 12, 2012 at 5:25 am

I have a flying dragon citrus plant I just purchased, I got it home replanted in a bigger pot , but now the leaves are curling and turning yellow , what can i do to save my plant?


jonathan October 7, 2013 at 10:31 am

Dont water too much….new pot should be 3-4 inches bigger than rootball(all around) and no more.

Tom October 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

I’ve been growing a dwarf blood orange in Kentucky for three years. I put it in a sunny window during the winter. I have two dozen oranges on my tree this year and in previous years the oranges have gotten ripe in December. The only problem I have is that something occasionally attacks the leaves and buds as they develope. The leaves wrinkle and deform as they grow. The buds don’t flower or fruit. On already grown leaves, spots die on the underside of the leaf. Then dead spots form on the upper surface of the leaf and it eventually dies. This seems to happen in the spring when the foliage gets wet. I try to prevent this by covering the tree with plastic when I expect rain. Any idea what this is or if any chemicals can prevent it?


Therese Gabriel November 19, 2012 at 8:06 pm

How often do we need to water our lemon tree if we bring it in during the long cold winter we get here in Missouri?


jonathan October 7, 2013 at 10:34 am

In winter its better to let the mix remain on the dry side…..it wont have a need for water…..you could end up with root rot if your not careful……..When spring comes, give it a good flush through the pot to flush out salts and begin feeding when new growth appears…….

Kerry January 4, 2013 at 3:12 pm

I’ve been considering getting a small lemon tree for some time, but was doubtful that they would actually produce fruit. Glad to hear from someone with experience, that they will actually produce. I think I’ll have to get myself a lemon tree this spring!


eric k smith January 8, 2013 at 5:04 pm

We have two orange trees and 1 lemon in containers indoors during the Illinois winter. The trees grow well and produce fruit. My question is, why was the orange I picked yesterday mushy. It was mushy and not so tasty…. Why? Did I pick to late, or to early. Should I fertilize different

EK Smith


jonathan October 7, 2013 at 10:38 am

At a guess…was it left on too long?
trees get better with age and usually fruit quality improves too….expect 3 to years before getting quality fruits…..older trees quite often produce really nice.

Lauren July 24, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Love the book! I bought a Eureka lemon tree with a half wine barrel for a pot from an Armstrong garden center. They assured me that so long as it got 6 hours of direct sun, it would be ok.
Fast forward 2 months, and it’s dropping curled leaves like crazy. I’ve treated it with Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew on the recommendation of the AG employees, but no dice. I’ve been taking the temperature of the lil guy with a moisture meter, and only watering when he’s on the dry side. I also fed him Eco Scraps Veg food (6-8 weeks) and Organic Citrus food (once this season).
I hate to see him go! Any idea what I can do to help him?


Lauren July 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Oh! I totally forgot to mention, my balcony is covered with a cloth awning, but I have the tree at the corner with branches hanging over the balcony. (The tree is about 6 feet tall)

jonathan October 7, 2013 at 10:48 am

what was the size of the original pot the plant came in?Did it go from a small pot into the wine barrel?
Did the leaves drop from the bottom to up?
Twig die back?
If the pot was too big…what can happen is the soil around the outside of the pot becomes stale from stagnant water that is never used by the roots…it causes root rot….I have killed so many trees like this…….its better to move up in pot sizes as the rootball increases in size…..yoir pot should be 3 to 4 inches max bigger all around than the current rootball or you will have “Wet feet” problems for the roots………Too much food and you will burn the roots as well……only feed a healthy tree! organic plant food is not so good for pots either as it requires soil bacteria to break it down…..you wont get that in potting mixes……….You really need to check the state of the roots…….they will tell you everything….make sure you have plenty of drainage holes in your pot too and preferably have the pot on feet to aid aeration under the pot….good luck.

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