Growing Lemon Trees In Containers

By: Heather Rhoades

If you live in a cooler climate or simply have limited space, but still want to grow a lemon tree, container lemon trees may be your best option. Growing lemon trees in containers allows you to provide an appropriate environment in a limited space. Let’s look at how to grow a lemon tree in a pot.

How to Plant a Lemon Tree in a Container

When you grow a lemon tree in a pot, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First of all, container lemon trees will not get as large as lemon trees grown in the ground. Still, it is best to seek out dwarf varieties of lemon trees. Some lemon tree varieties that do best in containers are:

  • Meyer Improved dwarf
  • Lisbon
  • Ponderosa dwarf

When growing lemon trees in containers, the needs are very similar to lemon trees growing in the ground. The lemon trees will need good drainage, so make sure the pot has drainage holes.

They will also need consistent and regular watering. If the container where the lemon tree is growing is allowed to dry out, the leaves of the lemon tree will fall off.

Fertilizer is also key to growing a healthy lemon tree in a pot. Use a slow release fertilizer to make sure that your lemon tree gets consistent nutrients.

Container lemon trees also need high humidity. Place your lemon tree over a pebble tray or mist it daily.

Common Problems with Growing Lemon Trees in Containers

Regardless of how well you take care of your container lemon tree, growing in a pot will be more stressful on the plant. You will need to keep an eye out for unique problems that container grown lemon trees can have.

Lemon trees growing in containers are more susceptible to sucker branches. These are branches that grow from the scion or root stock of the plant. Many times, in order to grow a hardier tree, nurseries will grow the desired tree on a hardy root. Under stress, the root stock will try to take over the tree. If you see a sucker branch grow from the bottom of the lemon tree, prune it immediately.

Another issue with lemon trees in containers is that they are more vulnerable to the cold and drought.

While a lemon tree in the ground can take mild frost and cold, a lemon tree in a container cannot. A lemon tree in a container has a hardiness zone that is one zone higher than the USDA recommended zone. So for example, if the variety of lemon you are growing normally has a hardiness zone of 7, in a container the lemon tree will have a hardiness zone of 8.

As already mentioned, allowing your lemon tree to dry out will cause more damage to it if it is grown in a container than if it was grown in the ground.

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Read more about Lemon Trees

The biggest mistake folks make when growing citrus in pots indoors is not giving it enough light during the winter months. Choose a very bright room and keep the plant away from doors that open frequently, or use a grow light like this one. You’ll also want to keep it away from heat registers.

Citrus like consistent moisture. Prolonged dryness can lead to bud, flower, and fruit drop. However, don’t go over-board on the water. Too much can cause the leaves to wilt and turn yellow. Water your citrus plant in the sink if possible. Let the water flush through the pot, and then allow the soil to fully drain. Be sure the base of the pot is never sitting in water.

During the growing season only (from late March thru early August), fertilize your citrus plant with a liquid, organic fertilizer – such as liquid kelp, seaweed, or fish emulsion – or an organic granular fertilizer every two to three weeks. Do not fertilize in the winter when new growth should not be encouraged. You may also want to use a small amount of organic granular fertilizer in late March to encourage new growth at the start of the season.

Edible Landscaping - How to: Grow Citrus in a Container

Select citrus tree varieties that naturally stay dwarf in containers. It will be easier to care for them and move them in and outdoors in cold climates.

'Improved Meyer' lemon is an excellent container citrus selection. The plants stay small and the fruits will grow and mature even indoors in a cold climate.

There's nothing like the taste of fresh citrus fruits picked from your own trees. However, unless you live in citrus country (California, Florida, Texas, Arizona), then you're probably going to have to get creative about growing it. The best way to grow citrus in colder climates is in a container. Even if you live in citrus country, container growing makes sense. It keeps the trees dwarf and compact, and makes the plants easier to manage. Newer varieties are better adapted to container culture, and many varieties are self-fruitful, so you don't need to worry about pollination.

Even if you live in a climate where it will be difficult to get ripe fruit from your citrus tree, there are always the sweet scented flowers that bloom year round and make citrus a favored houseplant as well.

Here are the basics on how to grow citrus in containers.

1. Select the Right Plants. Although any citrus tree can grow in a container, full sized grapefruit or orange trees may be hard pressed to survive many years even in a large container. Look for dwarf varieties of citrus, such as 'Improved Meyer' lemon, 'Bearss' lime, 'Kaffir' lime, kumquats, 'Trovita' orange, 'Calamondin' orange, and ' Buddha's Hand ' orange for container growing. These tend to stay between 6 and 12 feet tall at maturity outdoors and can be kept even at a smaller height in a container. In cold areas the 'Improved Meyer' lemon, 'Calamondin' orange, and kumquats are good choices since they're most likely to fruit indoors.

2. Select a Good Container. Start with a small container when planting a young citrus tree since it will be easier to maintain proper soil moisture than in a big container. If the soil stays too wet in a large container, the young tree with a small root system may rot and die. A new citrus tree will grow fine in an 8-inch diameter container to start. Two to three year old trees will need a 10 to 12 inch diameter container. Eventually, you'll need a 16 to 20 gallon container or one-half whiskey barrel-sized container for long term growth.

Select plastic, terra cotta, or wooden containers. Be sure they have adequate drainage holes. Plastic containers are the lightest weight and easiest to move in and outdoors with the seasons. However, the glazed terra cotta containers look more attractive when the plants are being grown indoors as houseplants.

3. Select the Right Soil Mix. Citrus need well drained soil, so selecting the right potting mix is important. Commercial potting mixes with peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and compost are fine to use as long as the soil is light enough to drain water well. If your soil is still too heavy, try adding hardwood bark chips to the mix to increase the amount of air spaces.

Even if you can't get your citrus to fruit, the sweetly scented flowers leave a perfume that will fill a room.

Kumquats offer many small, tangy and sweet tasting fruits on rounded trees that are adapted to container growing.

4. Potting Up the Tree. Place bare root trees in the container, gently packing in soil around the roots to remove air spaces. Plant so the citrus roots are just below the soil surface, but the crown is just above it. If transplanting an existing citrus tree into a larger container, remove the old tree and examine the roots. Cut off any dead, broken, and circling root and repot. Water well.

5. Watering. Citrus prefer infrequent, deep watering as opposed to frequent shallow watering. Water when the soil is dry to 6 inches deep. If the leaves are wilting and perk up after watering, then you waited too long to water. If the leaves are yellowing and cup-shaped, and don't perk up after watering, then you have been overwatering. Usually once or twice a week is a good frequency to water, but adjust it based on the time of year and weather. Cool cloudy conditions in winter will necessitate less frequent watering than hot, sunny summer conditions.

6. Fertilizing and Pruning. Fertilize in spring with a citrus plant food. Citrus need extra nitrogen, so look for formulations with double the nitrogen compared to phosphorous and potassium. If you can't find citrus plant food in your area, timed-released or organic fruit tree foods with micronutrients are good alternatives. These slow release products will feed the plant over time. If the leaves yellow and the watering is correct, supplement the granular fertilizers with occasional foliar sprays of fish emulsion.

Prune off any new shoots that arise from below the graft union. These are rootstock shoots and won't grow into the desired citrus variety. You can also remove thorns if you wish to make handling the tree easier. These will gradually diminish as the citrus tree ages. Prune for shape and balance in spring, removing errant or leggy branches.

7. Pests. Control aphids, scale, and mealybug pests by hand picking them, dabbing mealybugs with cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol, spraying insecticidal soap on aphids, and horticultural oil on scale.

8. Winter Care. In cold winter areas, bring citrus indoors when temperatures dip into the 30Fs. Slowly transition the trees to the indoor/outdoor environment in spring and fall by bringing them in and out for one week. Place potted plants in a sunny south-facing window, reduce watering and consider placing a humidifier or other houseplants around to keep the humidity high during the dry months. In warm winter climates, protect trees left outdoors from the occasional frost with Christmas lights, blankets or burlap.

More information on growing citrus in containers:

Charlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He's the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.

Citrus plant Care

  • The citrus plant likes a well-drained soil, which allows moisture well. But there is more air space around the root.
  • Like other citrus fruits, it requires high nitrogen fertilizer. Use in proportion to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium 2: 1: 1. Give your tree nutrients for 6 to 8 weeks. If yellow leaves appear in the plant, then it is a sign of a lack of fertilizer.
  • You give water to your Citrus plant constantly. If the soil above 1 inch dries up, give it water again.
  • To maintain the shape of the Citrus tree requires pruning. it encourages the development of new branches and the production of fruits, this tree is also strengthened. Read more.

Ginkgo Biloba Jade Butterfly Tree

Above is a mature specimen of the Ginkgo Biloba Jade Butterfly tree. Mine isn’t that mature and filled out.

It is a deciduous conifer with a canopy of fan-shaped, beautifully variegated green, cream and butter-yellow leaves. In the fall the leaves turn bright yellow.

It is the only surviving member of a group of ancient plants believed to have inhabited the earth up to 150 million years ago.

Nurseries typically sell only male trees because female trees produce seeds encased in fleshy, fruit-like cone which, at maturity in autumn, are messy. The also emit a noxious, foul odor upon falling to the ground and splitting open.

Ginkgo biloba will grow best in part to full sun and is a splendid tree for the urban landscape. It is highly tolerant of many soils, pH, salt, and pollution. However, do make sure it is well drained.

You can find this tree for sale here.

If you are undecided about growing a tree in a container, I’d suggest going to a reputable nursery and talking to a tree expert.

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Common potted lemon tree diseases

European brown rot – lemons rot while still on the tree.

Scale insects – whitish masses colonize leaves.

Aphids – leaves curl up and fall off.

Thrips – leaves and fruits are marked with silver-white blotches. Note: fruits are still perfectly edible, even though they don’t look so appealing.

Learn more about citrus plants:


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