How to Take Care of Your Citrus Plants
Growing houseplants and watching them flourish is one thing, but growing houseplants, watching them flourish, and also watching them produce edible fruit in your care that you can enjoy is a whole other level of satisfaction. This must be why the demand for growing your own Citrus plants indoors is as high as it is, and we completely understand! Not only do they produce fruit at different points of the year, but they are also stunning, stand-alone indoor plants, creating a truly commanding presence in any room. This is especially true for any larger specimens.
△ 10" Lemon Tree
Most Citrus trees are originally native to tropical Asia and Australia, but after some cultivation, they have also spread to Micronesia, Polynesia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Essentially, Citrus trees thrive in tropical and subtropical climates, but some species have also adapted to cope with Mediterranean climates, which can be cool in the winter. This means the following when it comes to their care: they need a lot of light all the time, in both summer and winter, just as they would get in their natural habitats.
Of all the Citrus trees available on the market today, most are dwarf, hybrid varieties around a year old, which have been grafted in order to be a more manageable size indoors. The process of grafting also allows for quicker fruit production, where they are identical to the parent tree but fruit within two to three years, compared to the five, or more, years it takes for a tree grown from seed to produce fruit. That being said, the bearing of fruit depends on many environmental factors and maturity, but we discuss fruiting a little later on in this article. The most important question to ask yourself before buying a Citrus tree is, do you have enough light in your home?
Grafting: a horticultural technique used to join parts from two or more plants so that they appear to grow as a single plant.
With over 100 varieties of citrus fruits around the world, including lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges, and more, the most popular of which are actually hybrids, it's no wonder why people would want to grow them in their homes. There's a citrus plant out there for everyone! Speaking of which, here are the varieties we offer:
Calamondin, aka Citrus mitis or Calamansi, is a sour citrus fruit originating in China and is a cross between a mandarin orange and a kumquat. Its glossy leaves give off a delightful citrus aroma. Being one of the best indoor fruiting trees, it produces small, sour oranges, about 1 inch in diameter, which resemble tangerines. If you want an abundance of fruit, keep it in a very bright and warm location.
Lime trees, or Key Limes to be more specific in this case, have glossy leaves and fragrant flowers, when the light is right, which will turn into those delightful, tart, green fruits that we all know and love. They are a part of the Rutaceae family, which is home to all the citrus plants.
Eureka Lemon Trees, aka Citrus limon 'Eureka', is a species of a small evergreen tree in the flowering plant Rutaceae family. They have glossy, green, citrus-scented leaves, white flowers, and produce yellow fruits. Do you know the lemons that you see in the grocery store? Well, they are most likely Eureka lemons.
This variety, aka Citrus limon or Eureka Pink Lemon Tree, is an eye-catching citrus that will be unique in your collection. This variety boasts variegated leaves as well as variegated fruit, not to mention the flesh of the fruit is pink, rather than the common yellow! With the correct care, your plant will produce gorgeous green and cream leaves with yellow fruit lined with green stripes. The fruit of these beauties is also a much more mild flavour.
When bringing a citrus plant home, after it has gone through the transportation process from where it was grown until your home, it is common that they drop their buds and some foliage, since any change in environmental conditions has a strong effect on them. That being said, once they have adjusted to your home and are receiving a consistent care regime, they should flush out their foliage again. It is most common that they flower and then fruit during the spring/summer, when the days are longer and brighter, especially if they are kept outside in the beautiful heat and humidity.
Now, as beautiful as citrus trees can be, we also want to be realistic and let you know that they are not the easiest houseplant out there, and they definitely aren't for the faint of heart plant parent. This is because they are fairly high maintenance in their needs, where they need a care routine tailored to them and won't put up with too many inconsistencies in this routine - leaf loss is a very common occurrence. They're mostly challenging here in the cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere, where we have warm summers and cold winters when they prefer being outside in the warm, summer months but need to overwinter indoors and put up with dry conditions, centralized heating, lower light and more.
One thing to remember is that each plant is a unique living being and will have varying needs, especially in their individual conditions - no two homes are the same. Pay attention to the needs of your plant throughout the year and you will grow a healthy houseplant. Stressed plants attract unwanted pests and diseases, as well as stress out their owners, so we want to make the relationship as seamless as possible! The best way to think of growing citrus indoors is to consider them a lovely houseplant that may, with luck and effort, produce fruit.
Despite their sensitive, finicky nature, if you are willing to put in the extra time, care and effort, providing a stable environment by following our guidelines below, then your plant should live a long and happy life. Keep on reading to learn everything you need to know about how to care for your new Citrus.
Lighting is the key element for healthy citrus fruits - you need very bright light to keep these houseplants happy. There really aren't any lower light locations since they need as much direct sunlight as possible, especially if you want them to fruit! High light plants require sunlight to assume their full potential, which means they need to be right next to a sunny window with at least 6 - 8 hours of direct, bright sunlight a day.
We want to mimic a plant's natural conditions as much as possible, which means warm, sunny days, and dark, cool nights. You want the foliage of your plant to "see" as much of the sun and sky as possible, so the plant can soak up as much energy as possible to produce new growth. Remember that plants will grow based on how much light they receive.
If you must keep citrus in a less-than-bright room, boost the tree with grow lights, this is where full spectrum grow lights come in handy. However, although grow lights can partially supplement the sun, the growth may just be a little sparse and the plant most likely won't bear fruit.
The high amount of light that they require is why they generally don't fare as well indoors year-round, because they truly need those 6-8 hours of sun a day. While it is ok that you keep your Citrus inside the home, they adapt much better to the outdoors during the warmer months and often perform better as well. Raising them indoors means that you might have to be a more watchful caregiver, moving your plant around the house to accommodate its need for sun.
If you choose to keep your Lemon Tree, Lime Tree, or any other citrus tree outdoors during the Summer, which we definitely recommend, please refer to our When & How to Transition Your Plants Outdoors for the Summer blog post. It is important to give your plant time to transition because, just like moving to your home can be a shock, moving a plant from indoors, where the sun is slightly filtered, to the outdoors in direct sun can also shock your plant, causing leaf burn or loss. Even if there are some leaves that drop, once the plant adjusts to the new location that it loves, receiving 6-8 hours of sun, it should begin to grow more leaves on the stalks that are left behind.
Lighting Tip: Avoid letting dust accumulate on the leaves of your tree, as this can block light from reaching the plant as well as attract pests! Occasionally wipe the leaves gently with a micro-fibre cloth.
Another reason that citrus trees should go outside in the warmer months is that they actually need the natural day/night temperature fluctuations in order to encourage blooms, so leaving your tree indoors year-round likely won’t cut it. Keeping the plant outdoors will also allow insects to pollinate the flowers, which is necessary for fruit production, otherwise, you may need to pollinate the flowers yourself. Toward the end of the season, transition the tree back inside before it gets too cold.
Even though they do grow in tropical climates naturally, citrus trees actually don't like constantly moist soil - they prefer it more on the dry side! Just as we mentioned above, they love consistency, which translates over to their watering needs as well, where we want to avoid letting the soil dry out completely but we also want to avoid overly saturated soil. They need to be watered when most of the soil is dry to the touch. It's always safer to give the soil a check before you water again.
Watering Tip: Use distilled water, rainwater, or tap water that has sat out overnight to let any harmful chemicals that may burn the foliage, and cause brown edges, evaporate out.
This is why it is recommended to keep them in soil with good drainage, which are usually chunkier soils that have a lot of aggregates, such as orchid bark, perlite, peat moss, and lava rock. With this type of soil, it won't stay as wet as long as soils that are on the denser side, meaning that there will be a lot more airflow for the roots. Regular indoor potting soil can be used, but you will have to keep an eye on your watering, making sure to check if the plant actually needs to be watered or not. Too much moisture in the soil can slow down the growth of the plant, including foliage and fruit production. On the flip side, too little moisture will also affect the plant.
If you are placing your plant outdoors for the warmer months, keep in mind that the frequency of waterings may increase or decrease, depending on how sunny, dry, and warm the summer is.
Now that we know what NOT to do, let's figure out what TO do. The frequency of watering, or how often to water, will all depend on the light your plant is receiving, the warmth and humidity of your home, the size of the pot, as well as the pot that the plant is planted in. Generally, no two plants will be on the exact same watering frequency, as everyone's home is different! You should expect to water your plant more often in the spring/summer months though when the plant is actively growing and the days are longer, warmer, and brighter, and less often in the dormant winter months when the days are shorter, cooler, and darker.
Watering Tip: What we recommend is that if the leaves are looking dry, crispy and falling off, increase your watering, and if the leaves are turning yellow, soft and dropping, decrease your watering.
When it comes time to water, water the potting mix thoroughly, until all of the soil is evenly moist, allowing any excess water to drain out and dump this excess. Always make sure your plant is not sitting in too much water. Due to this common issue with Citrus', it is often recommended to plant them in a terracotta pot, and this is for a few reasons:
Almost all terracotta pots have a drainage hole at their base, which is imperative for Citrus trees because it is necessary to ensure that water does not stagnate around the bottom of the pot - this occurs when a pot with holes is placed inside a decorative pot without holes, so be careful of this.
These pots show their moisture levels on the outside of their walls - if the outside is dark and damp at the base, this is a sign that the soil in the bottom of the pot is too wet, even if the top is dry, so hold off on watering. In terms of touch and feel, once the top couple inches of soil transition from dark and moist to light and dry, it should be time to water.
Due to the earth-based medium they are made of, terracotta pots are very porous, allowing air and moisture to pass through their walls fairly easily. This promotes healthier plants and roots by avoiding potential root rot or overwatering issues since the soil will dry out quicker. This also means that your frequency of watering will most likely increase, so keep an eye on the soil.
To maintain a happy, healthy plant, citrus' that are under 6 ft. in height should typically be repotted once every year or two into a larger pot. A good rule of thumb is if your plant is more than 2.5x the height of the pot, it is ready to be repotted. Repotting should ideally take place in the spring or early summer when the plant begins to show signs of growth, but avoid repotting in fall or winter as that would shock the plant. For more information on repotting, please see our Step-by-Step Guide.
Although watering care can be a little tricky to get the hang of at the beginning, you will learn your plant's needs over time. Observe how fast or slow the potting medium dries out, and always check your plant before watering again, especially indoors during the winter months. They are slightly more forgiving outside during the summer months when the humidity in the air makes up for any other lack of moisture, but keeping a watchful eye on your plant is best. Plants will always communicate to us if something is wrong, so please refer to the common issues that Citrus owners can run into in the final section of this care guide if you have run into complications.
Humidity is crucial for all Citrus trees to thrive. As we mentioned above, they love moisture but not soggy soil, so the humidity around the plant is key to increase those moisture levels, especially indoors and in the wintertime. The wear and tear of any dry air will begin to show on the leaves, through crispy tips, yellow edges, or, in extreme cases, leaf loss. Be sure to keep them away from any drafts, such as cold window panes in the winter, open windows or doors in the winter, cold rooms, radiators, or any heating/air conditioning vents blowing air though. They are still tropical plants!
Plant Care Tip: Stressed plants are more susceptible to disease and pests, so try to keep the conditions of your Lemon, Lime, or Calamondin tree as ideal as possible.
Overwintering these plants inside during the winter can be a little difficult, as indoor conditions are challenging, with centralized heating eliminating any sort of humidity in a room and more difficult watering protocols. Keep the plant in a sunny location and increase the humidity as much as possible, this can be done by:
- Mist your plant's leaves every day (or multiple times a day) to increase the ambient humidity for a short period of time around the plant
- Place the nursery pot on top of a bed of rocks that are covered in water (this increases the humidity in the air around the plant as well as creating a humid microclimate surrounding the plant)
- Invest in a humidifier to increase the overall humidity in the room (this will benefit any other plants you have as well)
On another note, keep them in a warm room, with as much bright light as possible. Winter weather means there is a lot less sunlight, shorter days, and cooler homes, so it is important to mimic their natural conditions throughout the year as much as possible, not just during the warmer months. During this time of year, showering off your plant whenever you water it, either in your actual shower or a sink, would prove very beneficial, as this will wash off any accumulated dust, it is a preventative action for washing off any potential pests that could have set up shop, and, it will increase the humidity around your plant as the moisture evaporates.
Then, once the warmer days reach us again, transition your plant outdoors!
Since Citrus plants produce fruit, they certainly need fertilizer! If you are a casual houseplant grower, there is a good chance that you have maybe never fertilized plants before, but that will have to change if you want fruit. To fertilize your plant, use a Citrus-focused fertilizer or a slow-release fertilizer for acid-loving plants, only during the growing season of April to September, feeding once a month. Look for a fertilizer specifically formulated for citrus as it will likely include supplemental zinc, iron, and manganese—nutrients the plant also needs. Citrus plants remain hungry and love nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, making sure to follow the recommended dosage on the label.
During the winter, most plants go dormant indoors, with the cooler, darker days, so fertilizer is generally not necessary at this time. If you do have some leaf loss or yellowing throughout the future winters, that is nothing to be worried about, as long as all the other care factors (light, watering, no pests) are correct. Foliage should flush out when the growing season begins again.
To help induce blooms, which will then, hopefully, produce fruit, the following steps should be taken:
Keep your tree in a very sunny location, without this sunlight, the plant most likely will not bloom.
Water your plant sparingly in the wintertime to encourage blooms - severe drought prevents blooming, but a small amount of water stress helps the blooms develop in the spring. Begin watering a little more often as it gets closer to spring. Make sure to keep your plant snug in its pot, if there is too much room for the roots, it will not focus on flowering.
Citrus trees fare quite well after pruning - it helps them focus blooming energy on existing branches and also encourages outward growth. Here are some pruning methods:
- Clip any root suckers that grow up from the ground below the graft union. Make the cut as far down below soil level as possible. These suckers can be removed at any time throughout the growing season.
- Prune any diseased, broken, pest-infected or dead branches off the tree as they develop throughout the year.
- Clip any water shoots (vigorous growers that shoot straight up from stronger branches) back to the parent branch. These occur throughout the year and can be pruned at any time.
- In late winter, when the plant is done fruiting, trim any rubbing or crossing branches to encourage an outward growing habit with an open center, so sunlight reaches all the branches.
- Prune your plant back in the spring when new growth starts to avoid it becoming "leggy", or stretched out, this will also encourage new branches to grow from just below the cut.
4. Temperature Changes:
Keep your plant in a sunny location during the winter months, somewhere where the evenings are slightly cooler than the days. The lower nighttime temperatures help release the bud dormancy when the days begin to warm up again. Citrus trees need natural day/night temperature fluctuations in order to bloom, so leaving your tree indoors year-round likely won’t cut it.
Feeding your plant is essential for fruit development!
6. Pollination Assistance:
If all of this work results in flowers, they may not fully develop into fruit - this is most likely due to a lack of pollination. Regardless of if your plant is indoors or outdoors during the warmer months (we always recommend outdoors), shake, flick, or brush the pollen with a cotton swab or paintbrush from flower to flower.
This is probably the most frustrating step of all. If your citrus tree is not blooming up to your expectations, it may be too immature still. Many fruit trees must be at least 3 to 4 years old before they begin to bloom in earnest and produce fruit.
With this tender love and care, your plant should produce beautiful blooms for you to enjoy, which should turn into fruits, as long as the above steps are followed. If there is a lack of pollination, the fruit may never fully develop. Also, it is fairly common for smaller, younger fruit to drop off shortly after formation due to ineffective pollination, less than desirous conditions, or major changes in the environment, which is why Citrus plants are known to be fairly tricky!
Since the skin of the fruits and the plant material are toxic to pets, due to the essential oils and psoralens, Citrus are best kept out of reach of our inquisitive loved ones. If ingested, and depending on how much, they can cause vomiting and diarrhea. The juices from the plant can also irritate your skin, causing potential dermatitis, so make sure to use gloves when working with them or wash your hands right after handling them.
Common Pests & Problems
Since Citrus plants are more high maintenance than the average houseplant, this theme continues into the fact that they also have quite a few common problems. However, those problems can be managed, just follow the recommended steps:
If you see fine webbing, stick, honeydew sap, or lumps and bumps on the leaves or branches, there is a chance pests have set up shop. Citrus' are especially prone to spider mites, but any pest will happily take up residence. A thorough wipe-down of leaves and stems with soapy water or insecticidal soap can be effective at stopping them, though repeated applications will be necessary. You can see all of our guides to getting rid of pests here. A weakened or stressed plant is more susceptible to infestations so make sure to keep it happy!
This could be due to a few reasons (aside from pest issues):
- Abrupt changes in light and temperature will cause leaf drop so change environmental conditions gradually.
- If the green leaves are dropping from your plant, the plant is most likely not receiving enough light and new growth is poor.
- If the leaves have brittle edges and are dropping, this could be a sign of low humidity.
- If leaf tips are browning and leaves, blossoms, and fruit are dropping, this could be a sign of air stress, make sure the plant is not near any drafts and humidity is high.
Giving a plant too much water can be detrimental to their health, even if it is the growing season. Citrus plants that receive too much water will slow down their growth. Otherwise, if the soil is constantly moist, there are fungus gnats present, leaves are yellowing and drooping (not dry and crisp), or leaves are dropping, this could be a sign of too much moisture in the soil. Make sure to water as we recommend above - letting the soil go mostly dry in between waterings.
Although drier soil is better, soil that is kept too dry is not ideal. If the soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot, the water sits on top of the soil for a while before absorbing, water runs quickly through the pot and out, or the leaves droop and turn crispy, this is often a sign of the plant not receiving enough water.
Not bearing fruit:
In this case, follow our recommendations above to encourage your plant to bloom!
These are very common with Citrus plants, which is why Citrus-focused fertilizers are important. Otherwise, your plant may have a magnesium or zinc deficiency, but it may be best to do some sort of soil test before confirming. Epsom salts can be used as a corrective measure if magnesium deficiency is the case or ferrous feed can be used to treat a lack of iron.
Too much light:
If you are supplementing your plant with grow lights, and those are on for over 12 hours a day, it could be possible that your tree has gone into a vegetative state. By exposing the tree to too much light it can interfere with its normal production cycle and limit its ability to produce fruit.
As long as their care stays relatively consistent, your Citrus plant, whether that may be a Lemon Tree, Lime Tree, or Calamondin Tree, should live a long and happy life.
Try not to fret too much over your plant when it starts to throw a tantrum, such as producing yellow leaves, our seasons change throughout the year and the plants need time to adjust. Pick a warm, sunny window and keep your plant there all winter, then, when the days and nights start to warm up again, transition your plant outdoors and watch it go to work. Most of the time, Citrus' will recover, you will just have to be patient and follow the regimen that they need.
Does all of this sound like a lot of work? Well, it can be, but tending to your Citrus plant has tangible results and it can be incredibly gratifying to grow and care for a plant that then produces fruit. The smell of the blossoms and enjoying the fruit, at some point, will allow you to enjoy the fruits of your labour. This is a hands-on hobby that is definitely worth it!