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

What is a dwarf citrus?

So what, exactly, is a dwarf citrus?  How big is the tree?  Does it produce tiny fruits?  Can you grow one from seed?
--- Various readers

Dwarf meyer lemon treeNearly all dwarf trees get their size from the rootstock.  For citrus trees, that's usually a flying dragon trifoliate orange, which stunts the resulting tree down to around 10 to 12 feet tall.

You can use the bonsai effect --- a small pot and occasional pruning --- to miniaturize your tree further, down to about 4 to 5 feet.  Generally, if you want your dwarf tree to grow larger, you'll pot it up into a 25% larger container annually.  If you're happy with the size of your dwarf tree, wait until the tree has finished ripening up all of its fruits, then tip it out of the pot, cut off about an inch or two around the outside of the rootball, add some fresh soil to the pot, and put your tree back in.  At the same time, cut back about a third of the tree's branches so the top growth roughly matches the root growth.

Meyer lemon in the handThe scionwood (what you graft onto the rootstock) decides what kind of fruit you get.  That's why you get huge lemons from a dwarf Meyer lemon tree that's only two feet tall --- it's the variety, not the size of the tree, that determines fruit size.  Since some citrus varieties do better grafted on dwarfing rootstock than others, there's not the same range of fruit types available as dwarfs, but you can often find dwarf lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, and grapefruits.  In some cases, the fruits are the same size as the ones you'd find in the grocery store, in come cases they're larger, and in some cases they're smaller --- it all depends on the variety.

Which brings me to the final question I often get about dwarf citrus --- can you grow one from seed?  You can probably answer that question yourself from the data I've already given you.  Remember, the rootstock determines how big the tree is and the scionwood is responsible for the fruits.  So, if I plant a seed from my dwarf Meyer lemon tree, the offspring is only going to get its DNA from the scionwood and will turn into a full-size Meyer lemon tree.

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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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Anna - have you ever grown a dwarf tangerine? We tried our first fruit today and it was terrible :-) Incredibly tart and bitter. It was small (golfball sized) but had turned orange and was squishy. Was it not ripe yet? Some other problem that you can think of? Thanks for this lunchtime series, I also have a lemon and an orange tree.
Comment by De Wed Dec 7 09:31:49 2011

We did try to grow a dwarf tangerine, but the plant we got had (I think) sprouted from the rootstock. It was all thorny and after two years of waiting with no fruit, I gave up on it.

I'll post more about variety selection on Friday, but while researching for this week's lunchtime series, I discovered that sour citrus are a lot easier to grow inside than sweet citrus. The latter need hot temperatures during ripening that it's often hard to manage in a winter house. So, the problem might not be your fault....

Comment by anna Thu Dec 8 07:22:22 2011

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