Growing Citrus in Containers

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Growing citrus

Citrus is a broad family of fruits filled with all sorts of curious characters – each one valued for its special contribution to the kitchen. You’ve got to love ’em for it: lemons for marinades, cheesecakes and fish; limes for the piquant finish they give to just about any dish; oranges for juicing; grapefruits for pepping up breakfast time; and satsumas and other easy-peelers for guilt-free snacking. We need more citrus in our lives folks, so let’s grow to it!

Growing Citrus in Temperate Climates

Admittedly my part of the world, with its often cloudy skies and dull, dreary winters, falls firmly outside of the conventional citrus-growing belt. Citruses prefer to bask in warmth and the sort of strong, sunrise-to-sunset sunshine that has those of us from cooler climes scurrying for the shade.

But while Southern England is a far cry from Southern California there are some very convincing reasons to add a few citrus fruits to the home-growing schedule of those of us gardening in temperate climates.

Grow citrus in pots and you open up the possibility of enjoying most types of these sun-loving fruits. Cosset them in the warmth of a frost-free greenhouse, within a bright sunroom, or on the sunniest windowsill in the home. Then move them outside for summer to make the most of long days and fresh air. A little thoughtful care brings every chance of something special to crown the fruit bowl.

Citrus fruits are well suited to containers

Best Citrus for Containers

So what to grow? These are my top four citrus, selected for their hardiness, performance or both. They are widely available and well suited to container growing.

Kumquat: Kumquats look similar to oranges – round and, well, orange – but are only just bigger than olives. The dainty size belies an impressive hardiness, down to as low as -10°C (14°F).

Kaffir lime: Getting citrus to fruit can sometimes prove a little hit and miss in less-than-perfect conditions. No worries with kaffir limes, which are grown for their leaves – an essential in Thai cuisine.

Meyer lemon: This compact tree yields medium-sized, flavorsome lemons that are both sweeter and less acidic than the lemons you’ll find in the supermarket. It’s reliably prolific too, making it a safer bet.

Satsuma: Another compact citrus producing exceptionally sweet, easy-peel fruits perfect for packing into lunchboxes. It is hardy down to about -5°C (23°F). Clementine is another familiar and very similar citrus hybrid.

Citrus need a very free-draining potting mix

How to Care for Citrus in Pots

Most citruses will tolerate a brief dip to a few degrees below freezing. What they won’t tolerate is cold feet, something that sodden, claggy soil at the roots is almost certain to bring about. Avoid this – please, at all costs – by mixing one part sand or grit to every four parts of a soil-based potting mix. Water plants sparingly. Use rainwater if you can, which will help to keep the root zone on the acid side of neutral, as preferred. Feed plants with a purpose-sold citrus fertilizer whenever temperatures remain consistently above 10°C (50°F).

It’s possible to overwinter citrus outside in temperate climates – with the major caveat that they must be properly sheltered from bone-chilling winds and given temporary protection from hard frosts, usually with garden fleece or row covers. Remove protection when it isn’t needed so that plants don’t go soft – you want them to harden up with winter’s progress then stay that way.

Overwintering Citrus Indoors

The safer alternative is to move plants under cover when it turns cold. Frost-free greenhouses work well, or bring them inside into a conservatory, sunroom or onto a bright windowsill. Prioritize the brightest positions for your citrus to minimize leaf drop. Growth will slow considerably either way –from the cooler temperatures, poor light levels, or both.

Stand potted citrus on pebbles in trays of water to increase humidity

Let the potting soil dry out between waterings, which may be as infrequently as once every two to three weeks during the depths of winter.

While citrus can’t abide soggy soil, the air in our modern, well-insulated homes tends to be a little too dry for comfort. Keep indoor citrus well away from heat sources, which dry out the air and create a stressful environment at what should be a restful time of year. Raise the humidity around plants by standing pots on trays of pebbles, part-filled with water so pots remain out of the water. As the water evaporates it will help to create a more humid atmosphere.

Plants won’t appreciate wild swings in temperature either, so ventilate greenhouses and sunrooms on sunny days when the mercury can quickly soar to spring-like heights. Then, when spring proper arrives, acclimatize plants to the outdoors over the course of two weeks, setting them out in their sunny summer quarters once the final frosts are done.

Citrus flowers and fruits may appear on the same plant at the same time!

Citrus Flowers and Fruits

Citrus usually flower in late winter. The blooms alone make citrus worth growing: delicate and seductively fragrant, they’re a heady experience concentrated still further when overwintered indoors.

Fruits take most of the year to form and are normally picked from early winter. In fact, it’s not out of the question to have both flowers and fruits on the same plant as annual cycles overlap.

Finally, a word about pots: go flamboyant, to complement the glossy leaves of these stunners. It will help to show off these natural head-turners even more. A glazed terracotta number is my preference, but anything with a bit of presence about it is surely deserved for this family of fancy fruits!

Bugs, Beneficial Insects and Plant Diseases

< All Guides

Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your vegetable garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Garden Planning Apps and Software

Vegetable Garden Pest Warnings

Want to Receive Alerts When Pests are Heading Your Way?

If you've seen any pests or beneficial insects in your garden in the past few days please report them to The Big Bug Hunt and help create a warning system to alert you when bugs are heading your way.

Show Comments


"i was given a lemon plant in a pot a year ago. it is on a sunny windowsill and has produced flowers and now 4 fruits. they somehow are static, neither growing nor ripening. The leaves are yellowing too. I have fed it with citrus food through winter as per instructions but i feel it may be lacking something. what am i doing wrong?"
mary ray on Tuesday 16 April 2019
"It's hard to say for sure Mary. Hopefully with improved light levels things will now improve. It could be that the dull conditions over winter caused the plant to struggle - they do need good light. Very dry air can be a problem indoors too. I would suggest picking up watering levels if you haven't already done so, and assuming it is warming up where you are. Then move your lemon outside, after properly hardening it off, so it gets plenty of fresh air and decent light. This should help the leaves to cease yellowing and hopefully the fruits to continue ripening properly."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 22 April 2019
"Is it OK to remove the leaves from the stem when it has been grown from seed to encourage top growth"
Ken on Thursday 24 October 2019
"If you are growing your citrus tree as a standard - i.e. a straight, single trunk with a lollypop of foliage at the top, then you could remove leaves from the main central trunk to encourage and maintain that style. However, make sure that you aren't pulling off too many leaves that growth is compromised - so if your plant is young, make sure there are plenty of leaves up top to compensate."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 28 October 2019

Add a Comment

Add your own thoughts on the subject of this article:
(If you have difficulty using this form, please use our Contact Form to send us your comment, along with the title of this article.)

(We won't display this on the website or use it for marketing)


(Please enter the code above to help prevent spam on this article)

By clicking 'Add Comment' you agree to our Terms and Conditions