Get down and dirty in the garden
Have you ever cut into a shiny yellow lemon and had the slippery seeds pop out? Do you just toss them in the garbage or compost with the rinds? Think before you toss! If you like large houseplants and have a green thumb, plant the seeds from your favorite citrus fruits the next time you make lemonade or prepare a mixed fresh fruit salad. You’ll have a beautiful houseplant that grows tall in no time and will eventually produce fruit.
Dr. Curtis Smith, New Mexico State University’s extension horticulture specialist, estimates that a lemon tree grown from seed will produce fruit in about 15 years. That may seem like a long time, but while your tree is producing fruit, you’ll have a gorgeous, interesting plant to grace your home and satisfy your horticultural interests. Most citrus tree leaves are very fragrant and make attractive additions to fresh teas, potpourris, sachets and steams for room fragrance or toiletry uses. Simmer fresh citrus leaves, a cinnamon stick and your favorite spice, such as star anise, to scent your whole house. If you have a greenhouse or a Florida room, citrus trees are a wonderful long-term resident that will give you years of easy-care growth and eye appeal. If not, they look beautiful in any room of the house with enough light, warmth and space for them to grow well.
Grapefruit seedlings have a more sprawling growth habit than other citrus seeds.
Photo by Heidi Cardenas
Growing Citrus Trees
What kinds of citrus trees can you grow from seed? Well, you can plant seeds from any citrus fruits you buy at the grocery store. I have planted seeds from lemons, oranges, tangelos, grapefruit, tangerines and limes. I have a beautiful large orange tree seedling, a grapefruit tree seedling, a lime tree seedling and several lemon tree seedlings. The lemon and lime seedlings look similar, with pointy oval leaves, but the orange and grapefruit seedlings have rounder leaves. The grapefruit seedling has a slightly different growth habit than the others. It has three sections: one that grows straight up, and two that grow almost horizontally. All the leaves are fragrant when rubbed between your fingers or picked and crushed.
Planting Citrus Seeds
Citrus seeds are easy to plant. Clean off any fruit residue to avoid fungus or mold growth or attracting fruit flies, and plant them in a 5-inch diameter houseplant pot filled with rich moist potting soil. If you aren’t good at paying attention to the soil moisture of your houseplants, put your newly planted citrus in plastic bags so they don’t dry out. They need consistent moisture to germinate and start growing well, but not waterlogged or soggy soil. If you let the soil dry out too much when the seeds are trying to germinate, they may become stunted or die all together. The seeds need reasonable warmth as well. Room temperature is fine, but soil temperatures lower than 60 degrees will interfere with germination.
Citrus seedlings produce attractive houseplants at any size.
Photo by Heidi Cardenas
Caring for Citrus Seedlings
Once the seeds have sprouted, they need consistent light to grow well. A sunny windowsill or a place under grow lights helps them to grow a strong stem and healthy leaves. Fertilize the newly sprouted seedlings with weak manure or compost tea or houseplant fertilizer once when they first sprout, and then once every couple of weeks. Weekly watering keeps them growing well. If they dry out and the leaves start to curl, they may or may not recover with a good soaking in the sink. Letting them dry out multiple times will weaken and eventually kill the plants.
Caring for Citrus Trees
The first year, citrus seedlings will grow enough to need to be transplanted to a 10- or 12-inch diameter pot. Check the bottom of the pot to see if roots are growing out of drainage holes. If so, it’s time to transplant it to a larger pot. Keep your citrus seedlings healthy and growing strong with consistent water and as much light as you can provide, plus occasional fertilizing. As the seedlings get bigger, they will sprout spiky thorns on their branches, so be careful when watering and transplanting. Occasional pruning of the top central stalks keep the seedlings from growing lanky.
I put my fragrant tree outside on the patio under an arbor in the spring when the temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees through the night, and they grow outdoors all summer long. They come back indoors in the fall before freezing weather sets in, and need grow lights so they don’t have too much of a change in their light conditions. My orange tree grew to 6 feet on the patio last summer and almost didn’t fit in the house when it was time to bring it back inside. My trees are about 4 years old now and I am waiting for the day they start to set buds for flowers, although I know it will be a long time before that happens.
With a little care and attention to their few needs, you can grow citrus trees to grace your home, clean your indoor air, use for culinary and craft purposes and—eventually—provide some homegrown fruit.
Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and a gardener with an interest in herbs and natural living. She has studied horticulture and enjoys writing about gardening, natural living, and herbal and home remedies. Her favorite herbs are cilantro, garlic and rue.