Thinking about cultivating citrus? Their glossy evergreen leaves and fragrant blossoms are a beautiful addition in the garden or as part of a collection of potted plants on the patio. And the fruit! Citrus is delicious, healthful, and a delightful ornament in the winter landscape. Aaron Dillon of Fours Winds Growers, California’s premier producer of citrus plants, offers expert advice for home gardeners.
Find a hot spot
Citrus plants need heat in order to develop sweet tasting fruit; so finding a warm, sunny location is crucial. My great grandfather [Floyd Dillon, Four Winds founder] always said to place a citrus tree where the cat takes its nap. Light and heat reflected off the southern side of a house, a fence, or other structure can really make a big difference. Where getting enough heat to ripen sweet fruit remains a problem, gardeners should focus on growing lemons and limes as the tart fruits do not require warm temperatures to develop the sugars that make other citrus sweet.
Provide well-drained soil.
Citrus plants are susceptible to root problems if they have wet feet. Where drainage is an issue, growing plants in a container is a better way to go and offers the option of moving the tree around to find the optimal sunny location. It also makes it easy to provide cold protection when necessary and helps limit the size of a mature tree for those with small spaces.
Select the right size container.
When growing citrus in containers it’s important to place a small plant in a too-big pot. Waterlogged soil surrounding a small root ball contributes to root issues. Its far better to bump the trees up gradually, potting the plants up in small increments every three to five years. For instance, if you start with a tree in a 10-inch diameter pot bring it home and plant it into a 14- to16-inch container, using a soil mix labeled as being well-drained; even cactus mix is a good choice. For a well-drained mix that readily rehydrates when watered, at Four Winds Growers we mix traditional potting mix with chunky coconut coir in a 2:1 ratio. Chunky coconut coir can be purchased in compressed bricks in nurseries and garden centers and should be rehydrated before being added to the potting soil.
Citrus care and feeding.
Provide consistent water to keep soil evenly moist but not soggy; don’t let containers dry out completely. In the garden, deep watering on a less frequent basis promotes deep rooting. Citrus trees are heavy nitrogen feeders; look for an analysis of 2-1-1 and fertilizers specifically labeled for feeding citrus. Regular granular feeds may be supplemented with foliar sprays of fish emulsion and kelp.
Don’t plant ground covers beneath citrus trees. Citrus have shallow feeder roots and can struggle to compete for nutrients with bedding plants and other ground covers.