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Growing Citrus Trees


A lot of people worry that citrus trees will not be easy to grow or will take forever to bear fruit. Put that thought behind you because neither of those assumptions is necessarily true. Even if you live where winter can toss a frost or two your way you can still enjoy fresh, organic citrus grown at home. For those who live in frigid climates, you too can succeed at growing citrus quite easily.

One of the biggest problems anyone has with homegrown citrus, such as lemons, oranges and clementine trees, is that they don’t purchase super vigorous, healthy young trees to begin with. No matter what type of plants you try to grow, it will be much harder to do so easily if you purchase weak, immature or sickly plants in the first place. Start with a plant that has a well developed root system and not a twig in a dixie cup.

The next step to success is to decide if you live in a location that the citrus trees can be planted outside in your garden soil or is best grown in a pot. If frost and below freezing temperatures is a possibility, you will want to container grow your chemical free citrus so you can winter it indoors. No matter where you will be growing your new lifetime supply of delicious Vitamin C, your young tree will need very good drainage and lots of sunshine. So, if container growing for wintering indoors, it is necessary to plant these types of fruit trees only in pots that have drainage holes in the bottom.

Selecting Your Outdoor Planting Site

Obviously, most homeowners don’t have lots of choices as to where you will plant your citrus trees. Except for some very southern regions, if you live north of zone 8, you should be prepared to container grow your citrus. In zone 8, it is best to plant citrus trees on the south or southeast side of your home. This provides added protection from northwestern cold fronts. Planting your new citrus tree close to your home’s walls is also advisable as the heat the structure gives off will work to give it added warmth during such bouts of chillier than normal temperatures.

Do be sure and place the trunk of the citrus plants a minimum of 6-8 feet away from walls, fences and paved surfaces like drives and sidewalks. Also, space your citrus trees 6-8 feet apart for ease of picking and maintenance. Naturally, should you have a septic system, choose your planting location away from it and your drain field. In the city, you won’t want to place such a deep rooted plant near or over sewer lines as they can cause you a nightmare of clogged sewer lines as your new trees mature.

You should never plant citrus trees beneath other trees, as they need full sunlight for ultimate growth and fruiting.

The Right Soil Requirements for Citrus Trees

All citrus trees require deeply draining soil. This means runoff water leaves the area and the drainage beneath the surface is excellent and will not saturate the root system. Finding out what kind of soil you have to a depth that your new citrus will grow can be as simple as taking stock of what the other trees in your yard look like. Healthy shade and ornamental trees in your landscaping is a good sign that your soil should be great for growing citrus trees.

You can also plant your new citrus orchard in raised beds to create better drainage below the surface. Your soil pH should be in the range of 6-8 and not be high in salt, as citrus won’t be happy about dwelling in the wrong conditions. You can get your soil pH tested easily with pH test kits from your local garden center.

Planting Your New Citrus Trees in the Yard

Unlike many types of nursery container grown plants, citrus trees will take a long time to root past the potting medium and into your ground soil. To help them spread their roots faster and improve initial new growth rates, remove the exterior of the potting soil just as you are ready to slip the tree in its installation hole. Don’t take all of it off, that would be harmful – just the outer half inch or so to allow the roots to be surrounded with your ground soil. This is very simple to do by washing it off with the hose immediately before sinking your young citrus tree in its new real soil home.

You want to cut a 4 ft. circle out of your lawn as the start of your planting hole. Discard the grassy top layer and dig your hole half again wider than each citrus tree’s root ball. When planting citrus you will want to ‘plant it high’, meaning you want the top of the finished planting surface to be crowned 1 inch higher than the lawn. This creates your surface run-off of water, and will be a great assistance to your tree in wet weather.

You won’t need to do a lot of amending with good soil, so don’t worry about adding compost and peat unless your soil is not good quality for drainage. With your tree set in the planting hole, fill around it half way to the top and thoroughly saturate the back fill soil. This helps it to settle around the roots of your new citrus tree’s ball. Finish filling the hole and tamp your loose soil into place lightly. Cover the roots with no more than 1 inch of ground soil to seal the potting soil from direct air contact. Soilless medium used in production nurseries is design to air dry too rapidly for home growing, blocking the air with a layer of soil stops you from having rapid drying problems.

To let your citrus tree be able to have deep root watering, build a water retention ring around the perimeter of your planting circle that is 5 – 6 inches tall and 6 – 8 inches thick. When completed, your watering ring should be slightly wider than the removed circle of lawn for your planting hole. Don’t skimp, should you be short on soil left from the planting, buy some from your local garden center or borrow it from your garden. Fill your new citrus tree’s watering basin with water, touching up any sinking spots in the planting hole that may settle after this first deep root watering.

Establishing Citrus Trees in Your Yard

Mulching

Do not mulch over 3 inches deep and never put mulch any closer to the trunk of citrus trees than 12-24”. Nature didn’t create mulch, man did. Mulch can cause fungus issues with citrus plants.

Watering

When freshly planted, citrus trees need a deep, thorough watering two to three times the first week and one to two times per week for the next few weeks, depending upon soil type, rainfall and the time of year. Once this adjustment and establishment period is over, water them deeply whenever the soil begins to get dry an inch or so below the surface. Simply fill the water ring each time. Within about four, perhaps six months, your watering reservoir will erode away. Don’t worry about rebuilding it, by this time your new citrus trees will be established enough that you can use a soaker hose to supply that deep root moisture as the water in your soil level drops.

Nutrition

Don’t worry about fertilizing your new citrus trees when planting. Once your plants begin putting on new growth you will want to begin your fertilization schedule of once a month from February through October. Citrus trees are hungry plants and excellent performance will come from applying citrus fertilizer on a timely basis. You will also have good results with palm fertilizer, as they have almost identical requirements. Organic products to look for are Citrus-tone from Espoma and Dr. Earth Organic 9 Fruit Tree Fertilizer.

Scatter the prescribed amount of organic fertilizer on the ground at least a foot away from the trunk and promptly water it in thoroughly. Notice in the chart below that young citrus will need an increasing amount of fertilizer applied in the first few years you have it in your yard.

Citrus Tree Fertilizing: February – October
Year 1 monthly application 1 cup
Year 2 monthly application 2 cups
Year 3 monthly application 3 cups
Year 3 monthly application 4 cups

Container grown citrus needs to be feed more frequently than trees planted in outdoor ground soil.

Growing Citrus Trees in Cold Climates

Selecting the Right Container

You can use just about any type of container that has adequate drainage holes cut in the bottom. Don’t worry about potting soil escaping, buy a drainage pan and add a piece of landscape fabric to the bottom before planting to keep the soil from leaching out with your watering. Plastic, resin and wood containers will be far more mobile than heavier clay and ceramic pots. As your tree grows, it is always a good idea to add container wheels for easy moving.

Container size selected should never be out of balance with your citrus tree’s size. Newly purchased citrus trees with a vigorous root system will normally be in a 6-8” pot upon arrival. Your initial potting should use a 12” container for a 1 gallon or 6” potted tree, and a 16” container for an 8” nursery potted tree. You most likely will never pot your indoor citrus tree in anything larger than a 20” container, but let it grow to need this much root space over time. Too much potting soil around a very young tree’s roots will cause you moisture problems.

Proper Potting Prevents Problems

Start out by installing 1-2 inches of pea gravel over the bottom of your citrus tree’s pot to improve drainage.

The majority of pre-bagged potting soils have far too much sphagnum peat for good results with citrus. You cannot use garden soil in indoor containers. The easiest way to solve this is to buy a potting soil product that contains perlite or vermiculite and add 1/3 volume of redwood or cedar shavings, blending your two potting mediums well. DO NOT use pine or spruce shavings. Cedar shavings are readily available in the pet section of every big box store. Partially fill your container with the citrus tree potting blend and you are ready to inspect the new tree’s root system.

Container grown plants with well developed root systems will most likely be a bit root bound. This is normal and easily corrected at repotting with some careful pruning of some larger roots. Also loosen the rest of the outer roots for better root growth in the tree’s new container.

Place your citrus tree in the partially filled pot so the depth the plant was previously growing in the original container. Your final soil level should be at least ¼” lower than the rim of your pot to allow for watering. Finish filling the container and lightly firm up the potting soil surrounding the root ball. Do not fertilize, just as outdoor growing of citrus, you want to wait for new growth to appear before beginning the fertilizer regimen. Water your plant in thoroughly.

Sunlight Exposure

Fruit crops tend to be in favor of full sunlight exposure. Obviously, the more hours of sun each day, the heavier your flowering, and ultimately your citrus fruit harvest will be. Most fruit crops grow best in full sunlight, but some will do well in partial shade. So during the cold months of the year your container grown citrus trees should be kept in a spot that they will get the most sunlight possible in your home. When all threat of frost is over, do move your citrus tree outdoors where it will get at least 8 hours of sun a day. However, you will want to allow it to adjust to this vast difference in lighting first.

After spending months indoors with rather indirect sunshine, you need to help your citrus plants acclimate to the radical change in lighting. The same is true of preparing your new fruit trees for being moved indoors for the winter. Whichever direction you are headed with light acclimation, you’ll want to slowly change from direct sun exposure or part shade exposure in the opposite direction, beginning about 2 weeks prior to the full time move. This will help them to avoid going into shock upon relocation.

Temperature

Tropical and subtropical fruit trees cannot tolerate freezing temperatures for very long. Some will be killed back to the soil by mild freezes while only small twigs will be killed on others. Some root damage can occur because the root system is not as well insulated from cold in a container as it would be in the ground.

With any type of container grown plant, the roots are much more exposed to cold than those grown in the ground. Since citrus are tropical or subtropical climate plants, exposure of roots in containers to cold can cause root damage. Take care when moving them indoors for cold snaps to keep them away from door drafts and heating vents. You should begin preparing indoor citrus trees for moving indoors once night time temperatures dip into the upper 40’s. Don’t take a chance with the fickle nature of the weather, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Water Right for Best Results

The biggest issue most people have in not succeeding with container grown plants is water – either too much of it or not enough. You should only water as needed, most especially with citrus trees. Plastic, metal and ceramic containers will retain moisture longer than porous clay and wood containers. Unlike growing in ground soil, today’s more popular indoor pots of plastic and ceramic don’t breathe. This is why you should never use real soil in a container growing situation.

To check the soil is best before applying more water. The top surface of your potting medium should be very dry to the touch. Also slowly add the water to your pot to avoid exposure of roots to the air. Do empty the pot’s water tray, as with the drainage holes submerged beneath water level will stop the pot’s ability to drain well. Cool temperatures slow down the need for water as well as your citrus tree’s growth.

Indoor Citrus Fertilization

An excellent diet is highly important to your success in container growing of fruit trees. Over fertilization can result in too much foliage growth, poor fruit production and tell tale salt accumulation can also cause foliage to dieback. Either Citrus-tone or Dr. Earth’s Organic 9 fertilizers should be used according to label directions. It is easy to see that you are applying adequate fertilizer when the mature foliage on your citrus trees is deep, rich green.

Should a white crust form on the surface of your potting mix this is likely due to excess fertilization and/or water containing considerable soluble salts. Citrus trees don’t do well in saline soils and you should correct this situation by slowly running water through the container for several minutes. This will carry the excess salts down through the potting medium and out the drainage holes.

Pruning

Grown in outdoor soil, these fruit trees will have a naturally full and pleasant shape. Citrus trees grown indoors can become leggy and getting them to be fuller is done by partially cutting back the growth to increase branching and density. Should the canopy of your indoor citrus get way too big for the containerized roots, some falling leaves and fine twig dieback can happen. This is corrected by pruning your citrus plant’s canopy back heavily.

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