The big, juicy oranges and tangerines that show up at grocery stores each winter brighten our tables while other fresh fruits and vegetables are in short supply. If you garden where the winters are mild, as in parts of Florida, California, Arizona, and Texas, or in Hawaii, you may be able to grow lemons, limes, oranges, and other citrus outdoors year-round. Those of us who live in colder regions need a different strategy. Fortunately, it’s easy to plant a citrus tree indoors. (Image: Shutterstock/Tamara Kulikova)
The key is picking a dwarf tree. Although dwarf citrus can reach 8-12′ tall in the garden, growing them in containers helps control their size. With their fragrant flowers, and colorful fruits, they make attractive houseplants, and, like many other plants, you can move them outdoors for a “summer vacation” when the temperatures are reliably warm.
dwarf citrus tree (sold in Home Depot stores; varieties vary)
large container with good drainage
tarp or drop cloth to protect the floor, if you’re planting indoors
Read on for our planting tips, or watch our video and see how easy it is to plant a dwarf tree!
1. Make sure your plant will fit in your container. Do a “test fit” by first dropping the plant, in its original pot, into the container you plan to use. You need at least 1″ of room from the top of the soil to the rim of the container.
2. Take the plant back out of the container, and tap it on the sides and bottom to loosen it from its original pot.
3. Gently pull the roots apart, especially if they’ve formed a tight root ball.
4. Put some soil in the pot, add the tree, and add more soil around it. Firm the soil gently with your fingers, leaving 1-2″ from the top of the pot, so you’ll have room to water. Make sure the graft union, which is where the dwarf rootstock was grafted onto a regular-sized citrus, stays above the soil.
5. Citrus need high nitrogen fertilizer. Mix the fertilizer according to the package directions, and water thoroughly. Fertilize again as recommended on the package.
6. Give your tree a bright, sunny spot that faces south or west, away from heating vents. Citrus need 8-12 hours of light a day. You can supplement sunshine with grow lights. Make a mobile grow light stand, if you lack space for a permanent set-up.
7. Water a dwarf citrus tree as you would most other houseplants—that is, enough to keep it consistently moist, but not soggy. Oranges need about a year to produce mature fruit, while lemons and limes are ready to harvest in 6 to 9 months after blooming. You’ll know the fruits are ready when they feel heavy and the color becomes darker.
Tips for gardeners in northern climates:
Many citrus varieties can tolerate temperatures as low as 32 degrees F for a couple of hours, but to be on safe, bring trees that spend the summer outdoors back indoors before the first frost. It’s a good idea to gradually acclimate them to the change they’ll have in temperature, light, and humidity, by first moving them onto a porch or other sheltered area for a week or two.
Tips for gardeners outside the traditional “citrus zone”:
Most commercial citrus is grown from California into Texas, Arizona, and along the Gulf Coast into Florida, but backyard gardeners sometimes have a micro-climate that lets them grow the trees successfully in their own yards. A hillside that gets a lot of sunlight, for example, or a sheltered, warm spot near a building, may give you a growing spot that you wouldn’t find on an ordinary climate map. How can you know if a citrus will grow in your area? Find a variety you like, and then read the plant tag, or research it online, to see how much cold it can take.
For More Experienced Gardeners And Cooks: Using Your Citrus Fruit
When your fruit is ready to harvest, squeeze limes, lemons, and oranges for delicious drinks, or use the juice and zest to flavor pies, desserts, baked goods and other dishes.
If you’re a cook who likes to makes jam and jellies, turn some of your fruit into homemade goodies to give as gifts next Christmas. Check out our visit with gourmet cook Nanette Davidson, from the John C. Campbell Folk School, in Brasstown, N.C., for tips.
(Image of potted fruit trees: Shutterstock/Olesia Bilkei)