Good to Grow: How to keep citrus plants thriving year-round

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The beginning of the holiday season is here, and the first fall frost is in our rear-view mirror.

It’s safe to say most outdoor gardening has ended and now we turn our attention to shopping, cooking and seasonal get-togethers. If you’re like myself, you have already jostled your potted plants inside before the winter freeze starts. I always call this “bring the garden indoors.”

It seems that each fall I have more potted plants to overwinter from the last. I cherish all my potted plants, but my citrus collection is by far the favorite.

They live on my the back deck from April until the middle of October. Once the nighttime temperatures start to get too low for the trees’ health, I bring them in.

Some people drag their pots in and out each day until the daytime temperatures stay below 45 degrees. I find that to be taxing on my body and the trees as well. So once I have them inside and in place, that is where they stay until April.

Citrus trees make a marvelous and unique Christmas gift for someone to give. Since most citrus fruit is in season during the holidays, I always consider anything citrus to be part of the holiday festivities, so move on over poinsettias!

Maybe you have a citrus tree already or are thinking about asking for one on your Christmas list. Here are a few tips for keeping them happy inside and out:

The Persian lime and Meyer lemon are the most forgiving potted citrus to grow. Meyer lemons are bred to be smaller than other lemons, making them ideal for container culture. The Persian lime’s growth habit is very similar to that of the Meyer lemon, with the added benefit that it will bear fruit all year round if it’s happy!

Oranges are a little harder to grow this far North. It’s not that they do badly in containers. It’s that our summers are not hot enough for the tree to set fruit. If you have your heart’s desire set on an orange tree, I would recommend the myrtle leaf or trovita orange tree. These are both a good potted specimen to grow in West Virginia.

Mandarin or clementine oranges will thrive potted, just like lemons and limes do. They can tolerate modest temperature swings, produce very sweet fruit and, best of all, most varieties are seedless. Most mandarin-type fruit bought at the supermarket have been grown in a greenhouse. These trees were bred with indoor growing conditions in mind.

Citrus trees all require around the same care and environmental conditions to thrive. Citrus trees should always be planted in a terracotta clay pot. New pots should be two inches bigger than what you received your tree in. Repot every two to three years, going up two inches in pot size, until you reach a twelve- or fourteen-inch clay pot.

The soil your tree is planted in should be a loose mix. Like Cactus soil, or Fox Farm’s Light Warrior soil, ProMix is also a good choice. Whatever soil you use, make sure it doesn’t have any fertilizer added to it. Anything Miracle-Gro makes, don’t use!

Instead, put your own fertilizer on the trees. I like to use Dyna-Gro 7-9-5 at half label strength every two weeks during March to November. You can also use Alaska Fish Emulsion Fertilizer at full label strength.

Water your tree when the soil is dry to the touch, one inch deep or to your first knuckle. On average, the tree will need two waterings a week inside and every day outside, if it doesn’t rain.

Citrus trees love sunshine, give them full sun outside and a south/southwest window inside. Make sure to watch your tree after moving it inside and make sure the leaves don’t turn yellow and fall off. If the tree was healthy when you brought it inside, chances are you have a low-light situation.

I grow all my citrus and other house plants under LED grow lights. Amazon sells some for under $80 that work wonderfully at keeping plants happy.

If you want to continue tree growth and some fruit set inside, then you will need a light with more wattage for brighter output. A commercial LED light will do the job and provide more wattage. These guys start at $350 but are worth it for the serious gardener who wants to produce year-round food. Citrus trees only need eight hours of supplemental light each day, December through March, to be very productive inside.

Prune the tips back on the tops and sides to maintain desirable tree size. Fruit likes to ripen on the bottom limbs, so be careful and don’t cut them off. You should give your tree chelated iron once a month, to defend off any nutrient deficiencies.

Growing citrus trees can be very rewarding but takes an attentive approach to be successful.

Chris Postalwait is the Agricultural Career Development educator at the WV Military Authority, and the former owner of Orange Vine LLC., a wholesale commercial pumpkin and vegetable farm in Mason County. Contact Chris at

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