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Citrus Growing Indoors: Oranges, Lemons, Limes and more

Citrus plants offer zestful gardening, even indoors in a cool climate. Plant your favorites in containers for fresh flavor all year.

| August/September 2003

  • Photo courtesy of

Imagine: A hot summer’s day, a well-deserved break and you with a frosty glass of homemade lemonade from fruit you grew on your own patio! For the Northern gardener with tropical aspirations, this refreshing pipe dream can come true, courtesy of citrus plants grown in containers. These zesty little trees may start their lives as decorative houseplants in the winter and later as a focal point outside on the veranda. But with some attention and not an enormous amount of work, they soon will pay off in delicious fruit with a decidedly un-Northern sound to it: orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangerine, sour orange and even more exotic treats like kumquat, limequat and tangelo. As a veteran container citrus grower, I can offer this advice: Decide what flavor you like, determine the fruit best suited to your own gardening style, then start digging. Once you succeed with one, plant another. But beware of the possibilities of a mini citrus plantation.

My collection of citrus plants began innocently enough with the adoption of my mother-in-law’s Meyer lemon (Citrus meyeri) plant. It wasn’t doing well indoors so I offered a spot in my greenhouse. Soon, with the added light and warmer temperatures, it began to flourish and put on new growth. When it suddenly produced intoxicatingly fragrant flowers, I was hooked. As fate would have it, not long afterward I had the opportunity to visit Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, New Jersey. The owner, Cyrus Hyde, was most gracious and gave me a personal tour of his nursery.

As we entered his greenhouse, I was immediately struck with the impressive yet bizarre fruit of the citrus plant ‘Buddha’s Hand’ (C. medica). Imagine a fruit that is a bright canary yellow, in the shape of a hand with four fingers pointing downward. I had to have one. I was so excited by this citrus that I promptly collected more: Key or West Indian lime (C. aurantiifolia), Persian lime (C. aurantiifolia ‘Tahiti’) and Kaffir lime (C. hystrix). I figured if these could all be grown successfully in New Jersey, I would certainly have no trouble growing them when I returned to Oregon. I was right.

Genetic Connections

The genus Citrus comprises some 16 species and more than 100 varieties. It belongs to the Rutaceae, a family that includes the pungent rue plant. The genus consists of large evergreen shrubs or small trees (20 to 30 feet), often having stiff spines along the trunk and branches. Their attractive smooth, dark-green glossy leaves are simple and ovate. Both leaves and fruit are fragrant when bruised.

The true citrus have exceedingly popular edible fruit — called hesperidia — characterized by an outer rind copiously dotted with oil glands and inner segments filled with juicy pulp vesicles (tiny separate bags filled with juice). The large star-shaped, white flowers (either solitary or in small clusters of five) are usually exceedingly fragrant and are characterized by five fleshy petals with prominent stamens. Native to Southeast Asia and Eastern Pacific Islands, citrus is domesticated worldwide where climate permits.

Cultural Considerations

Citrus require ample light, sufficient heat and fast drainage. It is important to realize that citrus plants have two major growth periods: one in early spring and another in mid-summer. During these two periods of growth, adequate water practices are essential and timely fertilization is important for the general health of the plant and for proper fruit development. I water thoroughly and allow the soil to dry just a little (no more than 3 inches deep in a container) before watering again. To avoid plant stress as much as possible, I avoid a “feast and famine” fertilizer approach by using a 9-month, slow-release fertilizer, which provides a constant feeding over the growth period. I try to use a high-nitrogen fertilizer, as equal or larger ratios of phosphorus and potash are not needed. (Osmocote fertilizer has the advantage of being temperature-released rather than water-released. This means as the temperature rises, the fertilizer is released when the plant needs it the most, when it is actively growing.) In winter, the plants require a dry dormancy to produce flowers. I water less and avoid fertilizing at this time.

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