Growing Citrus in the Home Garden

Mar 19th, 2011 | By | Category: Grow Something, spring, summer
Citrus Photo Courtesy TAMU

Citrus Photo Courtesy TAMU

The seductive fragrance of  the blooms and the promise of aromatic, sweet and tangy fruits entice those of us who live in places not hospitable to growing citrus to try it anyway.

Citrus, including oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, and kumquats, are subtropical to tropical plants, and while they do well in places like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and in mid-south Florida–places that have the climate and temperatures to support them–they have a much harder time in any USDA Plant Hardiness Zone less than 9.

Yet, the heart wants what it wants, and it wants to grow citrus in the home garden.

For those willing to put in some extra effort to provide cold protection for the plants, it is possible to nurture citrus trees into fruiting maturity.


Citrus tree requires deep, rich, well-drained soil, with a pH of 6 to 8, that allows water and nutrients to percolate down to the roots. One way to tell if your soil drains well is to dig a hole, about the size of a gallon nursery pot, and fill it with water. The soil should absorb the water within 24 hours, 36 at the most. If it takes longer than that,  find a different location or create a raised planting bed for the tree.

Site Selection

Like most fruiting plants, citrus trees do best in full sun conditions. Planting them on the south, southeast side of the house–away from heavy tree cover–will give them the exposure they need, as well as protection from cold northern winter winds. Also plant them at least 10 feet away from your home, driveways, sidewalks, and away from septic fields, to avoid problems of root damage down the road. It’s natural for citrus tree branches to curve toward and even touch the ground when they are heavy with fruit; knowing this,  you can plan for that eventuality at planting.

Tree Selection

Many of the citrus trees  you find in nurseries today are grafted onto hardier rootstock, usually Trifoliate Orange, also called Hardy Orange. This variety is cold hardy (compared to most citrus), more adaptable to soil variations, and develops small yellowish seedy fruits that are practically inedible–although some people do make marmalade from them. Because it is very thorny it is often used as a barrier hedge. In some parts of the country it is considered invasive.

Desirable citrus plants are grafted onto trifoliate rootstock, giving gardeners the hardiness of the trifoliate and the desirability of whatever it’s been grafted onto it.  Texas A & M University has a list of common citrus and their characteristics, that you may find helpful when choosing a variety. Most citrus are self-pollinating, but ask the nursery staff where you purchased your tree to make sure.

In Central Texas, the Eureka Lemon, Meyer Lemon, Satsuma Orange, Changsha tangerine, the Kumquat, Limequat, and Thornless Mexican Lime are all good choices.  It’s possible to grow grapefruit here, too, with the right micro-climate.

Of course, any of these citrus plants will do well in a container environment, and the advantage is they can be moved indoors when inclement weather prevails.

Planting Your Citrus Tree

Consult with your local county extension agent to find out the best time to plant or pot citrus in your area. In Central Texas, spring is ideal. Plus, spring is when you find most of the citrus plants at the nurseries.

Planting depth is critical; you want to make sure the bud union (it usually looks like a lump toward the bottom of the trunk), stays above soil level or risk a fungal problem called foot rot.

Clean the grass and weeds in a three to five foot diameter circle around the spot you intend to plant your tree. Dig a hole that’s at least half again as wide as the root ball, but not quite as deep. The root ball should be just slightly higher than soil level.

Remove about an inch of soil from around the root ball and fluff the roots a little, then place in the planting hole. Back fill with soil halfway, water it in, and then finish filling the hole. Tamp lightly and water again, also giving it a shot of liquid seaweed to help mitigate transplant shock. At this time, also create a watering ring around the tree , which is a berm about two to three feet out from the trunk, that’s about six to eight inches tall and just as thick.  The ring should last about four to six months.

Care and Feeding of  Your Citrus

Depending soil type and rainfall, water your tree two to three time during the first week, and then about twice a week, then for the next several weeks. After that, water when the soil around the tree is dry to the touch to a depth of one inch below the soil’s surface. To water, fill the water ring several times and let it soak into the soil.

Apply a 6-2-4 fertilizer only after you see new growth begin to sprout. Citrus like a little kick of nitrogen, so even spreading coffee grounds around the base of the tree will give them that little boost.

Keep on top of weeds so they don’t get out of hand. Not only do they compete for water, they can harbor pests and pathogens. Pulling weeds, or lightly hoeing around it will suffice.

Unless a limb is broken or limbs are crossing and damaging one another, pruning is not necessary. The only other reason to prune would be to manage the tree’s height.

Cold Protection

One way to protect your tree from the ravages of cold weather is to cover the trunk with a soil bank. Texas A & M’s Aggie Horticulture describes soil banks thus:  A soil bank is a mound of soil piled as high as feasible around the trunk and lower scaffold limbs. Thus, the trunk and lower scaffolds will be protected from even the worst freeze, although the unprotected top may be killed completely. The tree will regrow from the trunk and scaffolds without going back to the rootstock.

Before banking the tree, A & M recommends spraying the trunk with a fungicide to ward off problems while the bank is in place. Also be cautious when applying and removing the soil bank–you don’t want to mar the tree bark.

Place the soil bank round the trunk at Thanksgiving and remove it once the threat of freeze has passed, and then add that extra soil to your watering berm, or remove it to another part of the garden.

Diagnosing Citrus Problems

Like any plant, citrus can befall some pest and pathogen problems. This table from Texas A & M should help you to diagnose what’s ailing your plants.

When to Harvest

Your citrus tree will put on blooms the first year, but it’s recommended that you remove them to allow the plant to put its energy into developing a strong, healthy root system. Most plants will produce some fruit in the first couple of years, and if cared for well, produce enough fruit to preserve or give away after about five years.

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  1. My husband has a Ponderosa Lemon tree that has only grown small lemons. They were so loaded with seeds! It’s like for the amount of seeds that were in them, they just forgot to grow to the size of it’s normal fruit! Why didn’t they grow? Should we prune it back? Can I put coffee grinds around its base?

  2. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting on the Field &Feast website.

    I don’t have a definitive an answer to your question–as there’s so little I know about the tree’s history and care.

    In what state or USDA plant hardiness zone are you growing the tree–that matters if you are growing it outdoors.
    What is the pH of the soil in which it is planted?
    How long ago did you plant it?
    Is it a dwarf variety or standard?
    Is this tree planted in the ground outdoors, or is it planted in a container and spends the cold season indoors?
    Does it get direct sunlight, and how much?
    How much water do you provide it?
    Does it get adequate drainage?
    How do you currently care for it?

    Ponderosa lemons typically grow to grapefruit size–and larger. Also, the fruit of this plant is, indeed, extremely seedy.

    As far as spreading coffee grounds around the base of the tree, you can do that, as they like a little kick of nitrogen for overall well-being, but not specifically for fruiting. For flowering and fruiting, Phosphorus fertilizer is the way to go. But be careful not to overdo it. Read label directions.

    Gardening is a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient and do your research.

  3. Thanks for responding! We live in Houston, Tx. We are in zone 9, and it is pretty cool right now. We wrap it in a doubled sheet if the temp gets in the 30’s. He has it planted in a 5 gal pot right now, soon to be repotted into a 30 gal garbage can full of compost, (homemade). The diameter of the tree is almost 4″. It is almost 4 1/2′ tall. The pot it’s in, is also in another short but wider commercial planting pot for it watering. Should we prune it back?

  4. Hi Sharon,

    I would not plant the tree in in compost only–it’s a bit too rich. Maybe make the growing medium 25% compost and also top dress with a layer of compost.

    If you want to prune your tree, do so in early spring after the threat of the last frost has passed in your area. For your area, that is generally late February. Carefully prune dead or damaged limbs before the tree begins actively growing. Also remove any growth that sprouts from the trunk below the lowest limbs throughout the year.

    Here’s a link I found that ought to be helpful to you.

    Good luck with the tee!