Your Comprehensive Guide to Planting and Caring for Citrus Trees
Whether used for cooking or garnishing a cocktail, citrus fruits like lemons, limes, grapefruits, and oranges are versatile kitchen staples. "They are multi-use, which is what's great about them," says Leonard Burkhart, a senior scientist at the Davey Tree Expert Company. But the grocery store or farmers' market don't have to be your only sources for these varieties. Below, Burkhart walks us through the proper conditions for growing citrus fruit trees yourself.
Eureka lemon trees are one of the most common varieties found in grocery stores and are best suited for USDA Plant Hardiness zones nine and above, like those found on the West Coast, "because citrus trees can't tolerate freezing temperatures," explains Burkhart. Eurekas require full sun, well-draining soil, and should not be planted where they are susceptible to salt spray or high wind. Depending on the size of the tree when purchased, it takes approximately three to six years to yield fruit; they can grow up to 20 feet tall. An added bonus? Its fragrant white blooms come spring.
A cross between a sweet orange and lemon, Meyer lemon trees are also suited for zones nine and up—but, unlike a Eureka, can tolerate slightly cooler temperatures, like those found on the East Coast. Plant them in well-draining soil and in an area that receives full sun. Water thoroughly once per week, allowing soil to partially drain in between; use a citrus fertilizer to help the tree produce more fruit. If your climate is too cool to plant this type outdoors, purchase a smaller, potted tree from the nursery that can be taken inside as temperatures drop. Before bringing your tree indoors for the season, however, Burkhart advises gardeners to place it in a partially shaded area for one week, followed by a fully shaded spot for the same period of time in order to help the plant adjust to the decreased light exposure. "It won't be quite as stressed," says Burkhart, noting to opt for a deep container that is only moderately larger than the one the tree came in and a soil mixture specific to palm trees or orchids.
Want to plant a lime tree on the West Coast? Burkhart recommends a Persian lime, also known as Bearss or Tahiti lime. They require eight hours of direct sunlight and should not be exposed to windy conditions or salt spray. Use a citrus-specific fertilizer to add additional nutrients and water thoroughly once per week.
Key limes are better suited to East coast climates, yet require largely the same care as Persian varieties. If growing yours indoors, on the other hand, opt for one grafted onto dwarf rootstock, so it's easier to manage. Similar to Meyer lemons, plant your key limes in a well-draining soil and a pot with large drainage holes. Due to the lower levels of humidity and dry air found indoors, place your potted tree atop a water-filled gravel tray to increase humidity.
Star Ruby Grapefruit
"West Coast-grown grapefruit are going to be sour," warns Burkhart. "They require longer periods of hot temperatures in order to produce sweet fruit." Their ideal growing environment is in Texas, he notes; they will begin yielding fruit in three to six years after planting. Don't be surprised by the length of time needed for the fruit to mature each season, as this is a result of its size. Star Rubies can also be grown further East, such as in southern Florida (where you'll find that same hot climate). Located elsewhere? Unfortunately, Burkhart doesn't recommend attempting to grow any grapefruit variety indoors, due to the amount of time it takes for the fruit to mature and heat required to produce something tasty. "It'll leave people disappointed," he says.
Valencia oranges can be grown outdoors out west and can reach anywhere from 12 to 20 feet tall. Expect your tree to begin producing fruit within two to three years, if planted in well-draining soil where it receives six to eight hours of full sun each day. Valencias produce different results when grown on the East Coast, explains Burkhart. Due the area's natural precipitation schedule, the fruit remains hydrated, making it ideal for juicing—whereas the West Coast's arid climate causes the citrus to produce a thicker skin to seal in moisture, making them less juicy, but a lot easier to peel.
If you're going to attempt any citrus tree indoors, Burkhart recommends the Mandarin orange, which produces a "lovely fragrance." Select a pot with large holes and fill it with well-draining soil; situate your tree in a sunny location, which may mean transitioning it to a brighter area as light conditions change throughout the winter.