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Citrus fruit is a staple that can brighten up everything from cocktails to salad dressings. It’s safe to say most of us should keep it within arm’s reach at all times. Good thing citrus quite literally grows on trees, and some of those trees can thrive in our homes. Here’s how the beginner gardener can grow their own lemons, limes, or kumquats—and eat them, too.
How to grow a citrus tree if you live outside the tropics.
All citrus trees require heat and plenty of sunshine to grow. No surprise here: Frost can damage these tropical plants, so they won’t survive left outside in chilly climes year-round. USDA Plant Hardiness zones 9 and above are ideal for most citrus.
However, those who live outside Florida, Texas, and California can still nurture a healthy citrus tree in their yard or on their patio or balcony during the warmer months. They’ll just have to carry it inside once temperatures dip below freezing.
That’s why organic gardener and author of Grow What You Love Emily Murphy suggests those who live in colder climates should invest in smaller trees, known as dwarf trees, which usually don’t get higher than 8 to 10 feet tall. For the beginner citrus grower, she also recommends buying a tree that already has fruit on it.
“If it has fruit, it means that it’s a little more mature,” Murphy tells mbg. This will make it easier to care for and reduce your wait time for some sweet-tart goodness.
Here are a few types of citrus trees that come in dwarf varieties that can survive indoors and outdoors:
- Lemon (Meyer, Ponderosa, Eureka)
- Lime (Bearss, Kieffer)
Where to put your tree so it gets enough sun.
During the warmer spring and summer months, your tree will be happy outside in an area that receives a few hours of direct sunlight a day.
Murphy explains that while some varieties of citrus trees (like grapefruit) are more tolerant of the cold, you’ll always want to bring your tree indoors once temperatures drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, you should place it right next to your sunniest window: A southern or western facing one would be ideal. If your home doesn’t get much sunlight, placing your tree under a grow light is also an option.
The next thing to consider is humidity: “I’ve found that the biggest issue with growing a citrus tree indoors is that our indoor environments tend to not be as humid as outdoor environments,” Murphy says, adding that you shouldn’t place yours next to heaters or AC units, which tend to dry out the air. Instead, pop it next to a humidifier or mist it daily to mimic the lush, tropical climate it evolved in.
Once outdoor temperatures are consistently above freezing for the year, you can move your tree back to its rightful place outdoors. If it’s been a long winter, you can reacclimate it by bringing it outside in the sun during the day and back inside at night for a few days.
This will involve a fair amount of lifting, so Murphy suggests placing your tree in as light of a container as possible. While ceramic pots may be pretty, they’re not the best option here. A galvanized metal can or fiberglass planter will prove easier to maneuver throughout the year.
Citrus trees require a fair amount of water—especially those grown in a container. As with most plants, the best way to determine if your tree needs a good soak is to stick your fingers into its soil. If it feels dry, it’s time to water.
You should also look out for visual cues that your citrus needs more or less water: “You know that a citrus tree is parched when the leaves start to curl and shrink in on themselves,” Murphy explains. “That’s a telltale sign that the soil is dry and needs supplemental water.”
On the other hand, she says that if its leaves begin to yellow, it could be a sign of overwatering or a nitrogen deficiency. In that case, cut back on watering until the soil feels really dry, or apply some more fertilizer.
Plant your tree in a well-draining potting mix, and, as always, make sure its container has a drainage hole to give water a place to escape.
Cycling through all that water and sunlight keeps citrus trees busy, so they need a fair amount of nutrients to keep going. Murphy explains that they’re one of the few plants that need to be fertilized three times a year: In spring (March/April), winter (January/February), and summer (August/September).
“One of the common issues with citrus can be aphids,” Murphy says. If you see these sap-sucking insects on your tree’s leaves, give them a good wipe-down with water and an insecticidal soap or neem oil.
Aphids produce honeydew, which Murphy explains can also make trees susceptible to a fungus that resembles soot, called sooty mold.
While this black, powdery mold looks menacing, you can usually brush it right off your plant’s leaves. “There are not a lot of issues with citrus that can’t be remedied pretty easily,” she says, but it’s important to check in with your plant regularly so you can treat any pests or growth quickly.
Depending on the type of citrus, trees typically take two to three years to bear fruit (all the more reason to buy a starter tree that already has some). However, a relatively small tree will produce a fair amount of fruit. Murphy’s small, hip-high Meyer lemon tree gives her around 50 lemons a year.
You’ll know your citrus is ready to be picked when it smells fruity and boasts a vibrant color. “Plants like most tomatoes will fall off into your hand when they’re ready, but citrus doesn’t do that,” Murphy says. “You actually have to twist them or clip them off to remove the fruit.”
Some trees can be harvested year-round, while others are seasonal. Again, it depends on the variety. But even when you’re not busy picking the fruit of your labor, you’ll still enjoy being around the citrus tree. “The fragrance is incredible,” Murphy says of her Meyer tree. “Even if you don’t get a lot of fruit from your tree, just the fragrance of the flowers alone is worth it.”
Bringing a fresh lemon or lime down off the branch is worlds more rewarding than picking it up from the produce department. And whether you squeeze your fresh, homegrown citrus in a radicchio salad, granola, or just water, it’s bound to make it taste that much sweeter.
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