The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Dwarf citrus tree care

Tending young dwarf citrusIf you kill your spiderplants, you probably won't want to buy a dwarf citrus tree.  Potted citrus plants are going to produce quite a bit of food for you, so they require a proportionate amount of care.

In a perfect world, your citrus tree would like to have full sun.  Most growers move their plants outside into a sunny spot for the summer, but in the winter you'll need either a south-facing window or a grow light to keep your tree happy.  Although I've read that Meyer lemons want 8 to 14 hours of direct sun per day, our tree fruits quite well for us even though it probably only gets about 6 hours of real sun in the dead of winter.  But don't think you're going to be able to grow a dwarf citrus tree in a shady living room --- allot sixteen square feet in your sunniest window.

Pots and soil
Pot for a young dwarf citrusI like to start young dwarf citrus trees in pots like the one shown here.  The wide, bowl-shape is perfect since dwarf citrus produce very shallow roots and just ignore the soil in the bottom of deeper pots.  Once the tree needs more space, I'll pot it up into a 10 gallon pot, which is about as big as Mark and I like to go.  You'll get a beautiful tree and scads of fruits if you pot your tree up yet again into a 15 gallon pot, but it's dicey maneuvering such a huge plant inside for the winter.

If you're going to buy soil, there are special citrus blends available.  I like to make my own potting soil from a mixture of stump dirt, worm castings, and composted horse manure.  No matter what you do, don't dig up dirt out of your yard, put it in a pot, and expect your citrus tree to thrive.  In such a confined space, you need light, fluffy soil with a great cation exchange capacity, which generally means lots of organic matter (or vermiculite.)

Feeding and watering
Meyer lemon in larger potOnce your dwarf citrus trees get old enough to fruit (often in the first or second year), they are hungry eaters.  My neighbor gets awesome results with storebought chemical liquid citrus fertilizer.  I don't like to buy things, so I get nearly as good results by feeding my tree with watered down urine, compost tea, or worm tea (depending on what I have on hand at the time.)  For best results, feed your tree once a week in lieu of watering it.

Speaking of watering, citrus trees are like most house plants --- they hate getting too much water.  For best results, water your tree whenever the soil feels dry an inch or two below the surface.  (Just stick your finger into the dirt.)  Only water enough that you'll need to give the tree another drink in a week or less.

Another frequent mistake is to let your plant sit in a saucer of water so that the bottom third of the soil in the pot is saturated with water and unusable by the tree.  One way to get around this is to drill a few holes in the side of your pot an inch or so from the bottom.  Now your saucer will overflow if you water too much (oops), but you won't fill the plant's growing area up with water.

Indoors and outdoors
Meyer lemon on patioDwarf citrus trees fall prey to the usual banes of houseplants --- scale, aphids, whiteflies, etc.  You can go to great lengths to delete these pest insects, but I prefer a simpler approach.  As soon as the last frost has passed in the spring, I move my houseplants outside and let my garden's army of beneficial insects eat all the bad bugs up.

Growing your dwarf citrus trees indoors in the winter and outdoors in the summer has other benefits as well as insect control.  The extra sunlight gives your trees lots of energy to put out fruits, and rains naturally cleanse the leaves.  (Since citrus trees are evergreens, their leaves can become dusty if raised solely indoors.)

Don't move your citrus plants outside prematurely, though.  They can tolerate temperatures just above freezing for short periods, but prefer 55 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lemon on the treeHow (or whether) you prune your Meyer lemon depends on the size you wish it to attain.  In addition to the tips here, you'll want to prune away branches that cross or shade other ones, just like you would with a fruit tree outdoors.  You can also decide whether to prune your Meyer lemon into an erect tree shape or to let it grow as more of a bush with lots of branches that arch up and then droop down with the weight of their fruits.  If you choose the latter route, most auhorities suggest training to the three strongest trunks.

The only reason your tree would definitely need pruning is if it sprouts below the graft union.  Even if you can't pick out the scar on the tree's trunk where the scionwood was grafted onto the rootstock, you'll know the rootstock has sprouted if you see three-part leaves instead of simple leaves on your tree.  Prune back all of the rootstock sprouts and keep an eye on the tree since they  may come back.

Want easier fruit?  My 99 cent ebook shows how to plant the easiest fruit trees outdoors.

This post is part of our Dwarf Citrus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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This was a great introduction to basic Dwarf citrus care, with plenty of links to get my started on the "beyond the basics" questions - very helpful - thank you! :)
Comment by Ikwig Wed Dec 7 21:27:11 2011
I'm glad it helped!
Comment by anna Thu Dec 8 07:16:43 2011
I just set up a calendar reminder to check back on this post in the spring when we get our trees. Thanks for the tips!
Comment by Everett Thu Dec 8 09:26:57 2011
Your trees aren't coming until the spring? I would have thought they'd ship potted plants now.
Comment by anna Thu Dec 8 18:43:49 2011
This is a great article on Dwarf citrus tree care. I had one while growing up but could not remember much about caring for it since it has been a while. I had to leave it at my grandfathers greenhouse when I headed out to college, but I have to say, seeing it bear fruit was the highlight of my High school experience.
Comment by Eric Blaise Mon Mar 23 14:35:22 2015

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