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How to Plant Citrus Trees: the Soil, Spacing, Light, & Food

Having grown up in Arizona, I thought everyone had an orange or grapefruit tree with giant fruit in their backyard. Now that I live in Utah, though, I know that citrus doesn’t naturally grow everywhere – and that most citrus fruit is painfully small. So I’ve been researching the feasibility of planting a citrus tree.

Planting a citrus tree requires planning, preparation, and placement in-ground or in a planting pot. Citrus trees need well-draining but well-irrigated soil; require full sun (8+ hours daily); need yearly mulching and winter protection; and need to be 15 feet away from other trees or structures.

Translation: citrus trees aren’t as easy or maintenance-free as I remember them being when I was 8 years old. However, they can still be grown almost anywhere with the right preparation and planning. Let’s dig into how to plant and grow citrus trees!

How to Plant Citrus Trees

If you want to strip away all of the nuances, planting a tree is simple. You dig a hole, put the tree in the hole, and then you cover the roots with soil. However, a nuance-free set of instructions is a surefire route to disaster for a citrus tree.

You see, citrus trees are kind of picky. They’re the kind of picky trees that prefer a lot of sunshine, need good soil with great drainage, and hate cold. Which means that, depending on where you live, you’re going to need to do a good bit of preparation.

So the actual steps for planting a citrus tree are a little bit more complicated than planting a fruit tree. Although even those can be finicky – make sure you read my article on 40+ reasons why your fruit trees are dying.

Here are the nuanced steps to planting a citrus tree – of any variety.

  1. Figure out what type of citrus tree you want to get (variety, sizing, etc.).
  2. Determine where you want to plant your citrus tree – whether in a pot or the ground.
  3. Make sure that the tree and location are appropriate for each other. For potted plants, make sure you’ve got an indoor (winter) and outdoor (summer) location planned for it of appropriate size.
  4. Buy your citrus tree and give it time to adjust before planting.
  5. Dig and prepare the hole (or the pot) and plant the tree.
  6. Cover the roots and mulch.
  7. Take care of your plant, and enjoy the fruits of your labors.
  8. Know how to take care of it and troubleshoot common issues (including pests).
  9. Take special care of your citrus tree (especially during the winter) so that you don’t have to plant a new one again next year. Unless you want another citrus tree, of course!

Now, that might get some of you through the whole process. If so, that’s awesome. You’re ahead of me. But if you’re like me – and you want more information to make the best decision possible – then keep reading. We’ll go into this all in more detail. And with more research so that you can get it all done here.

Picking the Variety of Citrus Trees

This is the fun part. You get to decide which varieties of citrus you want to buy. Keep in mind that there are a ton more varieties than just the usual ones you’d think off off-hand.

CitrusUsual ZoneNotes
Calamondin (Calamansi)8-11This is a cross between a kumquat and mandarin.
Citron10-11Citron is best for candying and desserts, so you may not want this if you’re expecting juice.
Grapefruit9-11Grapefruit comes in white (yellow), pink, or red. Usually white/yellow means sour, while pink and red grapefruits are sweeter.
Kaffir or Makrut Lime9This lime tree is grown for the leaves and rind – not the fruit.
Kumquat8-11Some kumquats can do okay down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit if you protect them.
Lemon9-11This tree is sensitive to cold but can be drought tolerant as long as it gets enough water when fruiting.
Lime9-11Be careful picking the variety; some varieties (key lime) are less tolerant of temperature extremes than are others.
Limequat9-11This “sweeter lime” is a cross between a lime and a kumquat.
Mandarin8Mandarin orange trees can do okay in temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit with protection.
Orange9-11Varieties come in sweet or sour.
Tangerine8-11Mandarins and tangerines can be grown in zone 7 with adequate protection.
Tangelo9-11This cross between a tangerine and grapefruit is delicious. It can be grown in zones 7-8 with some extra protection.
Pummelo9-11Also called pomelo or shaddock. This Southeast Asian citrus is a precursor to grapefruit.
Satsuma Mandarin9-10This orange tree does well in the Southern USA and is one of the more cold-hardy citrus types.

The zone of hardiness is important to know, because trees do best within certain environmental parameters. If you live outside of those parameters, then the tree won’t do as well – unless it’s in a greenhouse or a pot that can be moved indoors when the weather is bad.

  • If you don’t know your zone and you don’t want to look it up, you can skip some of the research by checking with your local nursery. They’ll usually carry or special order you any trees that do well in your zone.
  • Or if you want to know your zone, I like to use the USDA’s free grow zone tool. You can go there now in a new window by clicking here.

My area of Utah is in zone 7a. However, my local nurseries don’t carry citrus. If you’re in the same boat I am, then buying local won’t work.

We’ll have to do some special ordering – either online or at the nursery if they’ll do special orders. And this will (hint: foreshadowing for later in the article) affect where we plant our citrus trees.

What Size Citrus Trees You Should Buy and Plant

Typically, there are three sizes of trees.

  • Standard trees usually grow 15 feet tall and wide – or more.
  • Semi-dwarf trees are usually about 12-15 feet tall and wide.
  • Dwarf trees are usually no more than 8-10 feet wide and tall.

Why “tall and wide”? Well, trees grow up and out. And they need space in both directions. So if you plan for the space up and around, then you won’t be putting too many trees in one spot. You can still plant other things (shrubs or smaller plants) under some trees. But we don’t want the trees fighting for resources (mainly sunlight).

The size you buy will depend on how much space you’ve got available and where you want to plant it.

If space is an issue, then some smaller citrus trees can be grown in containers. There is a huge possibility for some types, such as some lemon and grapefruit trees, though, to outgrow their containers so fast that they struggle later.

If you are specifically looking for keeping plants in containers, then you should consider a smaller size citrus tree – and be really careful about which varieties you pick.

We suggest these types as the best choice for someone with not much space in the garden. These can work in the ground or in pots:

  • Meyer lemon
  • Bearss lime
  • Kumquat

These citrus trees aren’t just small and space-efficient – they’re also likely to suffer less through their first week and recovery period.

Buying and Prepping Citrus Trees for Planting

Once you’ve picked out your citrus tree, it’s time to buy it (from whatever source) and get things ready for planting.

The first rule after buying any citrus tree is to not take it out of the pot immediately. Your tree will need some time to adjust to its new conditions.

The best way to adapt your plant is to leave it in a shady spot outside (if it’s not too cold) and to wait two to three days before repotting or planting. If the weather is too hot, you will have to water your tree every day/second day, depending on the temperatures. 

If you are going to plant the tree in your garden, you’ll need to choose the right location for it. A sunny, safe, and sheltered place will be the best for your tree to grow. But we’ll go into that in more detail later in the article.

The size of the tree usually is written in the given description, so you have to read carefully. Make sure you plan on and allow for the room suggested for best results.

Where to Plant Citrus Trees

Where you plant your trees will not only depend upon your space available but also your growth zone.

  • If you want to plant a tree that’s not rated for your zone, then you’ll need to plant it in a pot so that it can be brought inside and/or protected during inclement weather (any time that the weather is too extreme for the tree). And for the record, a shed doesn’t qualify as indoors, but a temperature-controlled greenhouse does.
  • If you want to plant a tree that is rated for your zone, then you can plant it in a pot or in the ground. You get to choose, based on your space and gardening goals.

So – let’s talk about when and how to plant in-ground versus when and how you’ll use pots to keep your citrus trees.

When and How to Plant Citrus Trees In-Ground

Now that you know that you want to plant your citrus tree in the ground, let’s make it happen.

Start by measuring what space you have available. Here’s a good measuring rule of thumb: each tree needs as much space side to side as it is tall. We’ll go more into the specifics of spacing later on in this article.

Once you’ve got enough space, clear the planned planting area. Make sure you remove all weeds and unwanted plants from the area.

Citrus trees do not like to compete for plant resources (think light, water, and root space), so be sure that there is room for the tree to grow and to be able to get all the nutrients it needs. 

Dig a hole deep enough to cover at least 1 inch of the root head. Test the surrounding soil for proper water absorption and drainage. You want it to be able to absorb about an inch of water per hour for citrus trees.

If your soil is mostly clay or can’t absorb that much water, you’ll need to dig the hole wider and deeper – as much as 12 inches in either direction. That way, you can add in soil-improving organics to improve drainage. Be sure to retest the surrounding soil for water absorption and drainage.

Once the soil can handle a citrus tree’s water drainage needs, it’s time to plant the tree. Lower the tree into the hole and cover the root head with soil.

When you cover the root head with soil, you have to water the tree base. This is so that the surrounding soil becomes deeply saturated. For additional moisture, you can finish things by mulching around the tree. We like to add wood chips to the top to help with mulching, moisture, and keeping the chickens away from the tree roots.

Congratulations – the tree is planted! Staking trees isn’t always needed nor recommended, so we won’t discuss that here.

How and When to Pot Citrus Trees

Citrus trees will still grow substantially – even when potted. So you’re going to want a large enough pot for the whatever-sized tree you bought. Select the pot that you think will be big enough. Then, put that one back and get the next bigger one. 😉

Or if you want an actual numerical guideline, my research shows that small trees do great starting with a pot that’s 12 inches in diameter. Expect the tree to outgrow it, though. So you’ll probably want to grab a pot that’s 24 inches in diameter while you’re there. And hopefully, you can get them on sale.

You’ll use all of the same preparation steps as for planting in-ground, with the difference being that the pot is the “hole” you’re putting the tree into.

However, we get to pick where we put our hole. So go ahead and put your pot into its desired location now – it’s a lot harder to move a planted pot than an empty one!

Next, our “hole” doesn’t already have soil in it, so let’s fix that. Put in a layer of prepared potting soil into the bottom of the pot. Then, instead of lowering the tree into the hole, you’ll put it into the pot.

Make sure your potted soil mix can still handle the same absorption and drainage needs of a citrus tree: an inch of water per hour. You’ll want to top the potted tree with mulch to help alleviate water evaporation.

Oh, and you’ll need to keep on top of watering these trees. Potted plants need more frequent watering than do planted trees.

How to Prepare the Soil for Citrus Trees

Citrus trees need soil that drains quickly but has enough moisture to get on-demand. However, the soil should never be soggy. The best soil mixture for citrus trees should be composed of a mix of sand, rocks, pumice, and organic soil. Citrus trees like a similar soil composition as cacti and succulents do.

Here are some other facts about citrus tree’s preferred soil conditions.

  • The soil pH range should be between 5.5-7.5. If it’s not, or the calcium carbonate level is above optimal, then your plant can still get the water and other nutrients it needs.
  • If the soil needs more air, add pumice, perlite, or a similar component to the mix.
  • High salt concentration in the soil may lead to problems in the growth of your citrus tree.

If you want to start with some commercially-bought soil (especially if you’re potting your citrus tree), look for the soils labeled for cacti or succulents. That can get you a great head start on soil that your citrus tree will love.

Buying the soil labeled for cacti and succulents can also be a great way to augment your in-ground soil without having to do tons of soil calculations.

How Deep to Plant Citrus Trees

Never plant a citrus tree (or any other tree, for that matter) so that the dirt around the root ball gets covered. The tree’s root ball (the dirt it came packaged in) is the upper limit. That should be exposed to the air.

If you cover the tree more than this, it can cause all sorts of problems with offshoots, pests, premature trunk decay, and more.

Even so, you’ll be digging the whole for the citrus tree as much as a foot deeper and wider than the root ball.

Now, if your tree came “bare root” – meaning there’s not a root ball of dirt – then you’ll need to find the base of the tree. This is easier if the tree is a semi-dwarf or a dwarf tree, as you’ll be able to see where the tree was grafted into place.

Don’t bury above the grafting line, as you’ll cause the roots to grow shoots that are totally different from the top of the tree.

If you bought a bare root full-sized tree, then look for the tops of the roots. That’s a good general guideline for how deep to plant your citrus tree.

How Far Apart Should You Plant Citrus Trees?

Generally speaking, plant your citrus trees as far apart as they are tall.

  • Standard trees: can grow 15 feet tall or more. Count on 15-20 feet between any other trees or structures.
  • Semi-Dwarf: can grow 12 to 15 ft tall. These trees need 12-15 feet between other trees or structures. We usually just say 15 feet for consistency’s sake.
  • Dwarf: usually 8 to 10 ft tall. So these trees need 8-10 feet (I usually go with a standard 10 feet) between trees and other structures.

Given that we are talking about citrus types of trees, let’s look at some common varieties. Let’s put them together by usual tree type (standard, semi-dwarf, and dwarf) to make it easier to calculate proper planting apart distance.

  1. Standard trees: Calamondin (Calamansi), Citron, Grapefruit, Lemon, Mexican lime, Sweet lime, Mandarin, Tangerine, Satsuma, Orange (sweet and sour), Pummelo.
  2. Semi – Dwarf: Kumquat, Limequat.
  3. Dwarf: Lime, Limequat, Kaffir, Makrut.

For full-sized trees (especially orange trees), optimal tree spacing should be 10-20 feet, but never more than 15-25 feet. Otherwise, the research shows that you’ll get excessive vegetative growth around it. And that will cause nutrition problems for your citrus trees.

Light and Temperature Needs of Citrus Trees

Citrus trees need full sun and do best in growth zones 9-11. These trees normally and naturally love tropical and subtropical conditions.

Remember that full sun means at least 8 hours of sunlight. These trees depend on a lot of light throughout the whole year to activate and maintain their metabolism.

What that means is this: Light and temperature are reciprocal bonded. Light triggers photosynthesis, but citrus trees depend on warm temperatures to provoke a sufficient metabolic rate. Temperatures affect growth as much as lighting, that is why you need them both together, at the same time for best results.

If you don’t live in a tropical or subtropical location, then you’ll need to do what you can to replicate those conditions within reason. Greenhouses are a great way to give citrus trees the climate they want, provided they still get enough sunlight.

In Arizona, the general temperature was pretty good for citrus trees. However, even the Arizona winters were sometimes too cold for our citrus trees. In that case, we’d wrap the trees to insulate them from the winter. We also painted the trunks of the trees with a tree-safe, white paint to keep them safe all year-round.

Another option is to pot the tree and bring it indoors during the winter. That way, you can take advantage of the warm summers without risking damaging the tree during too-cold-for-the-tree winters.

As I’ve mentioned before, a shed or a garage doesn’t count as “inside” for a citrus tree. Our garage and shed aren’t much warmer than the outside temperature during the winter – and it’s often far too cold for a citrus tree.

So be sure to test your shed or garage for their temperature if you’re going to use them. And pick a variety of citrus that can do okay with a temperature as close to yours as possible. That way, you’ll have some wiggle room just in case.

Pest Control for Citrus Trees (Potted or Planted)

Based on my research, the most common pest to worry about for citrus trees is called a mealybug. They tend to show immediately after bringing your plant inside for overwintering. This is when all conditions are optimal for their life cycle.

To avoid problems, always be sure that your plant is safe and clear of any bugs before moving it inside. While your plant is outside, you might detect aphids, but there are a lot of ways to get rid of them efficiently.

You’ll also want to be familiar with local pests that could develop a taste for citrus trees. Your local university’s agricultural extension would be a resource to check.

However, if they don’t have any advice other than “citrus doesn’t grow here so don’t try it,” then you’ll want to check agricultural extensions of universities in Arizona, Florida, and California.

How to Feed and Mulch Citrus Trees

Citrus trees need their nutrients. Of all of the nutrients it needs, water is the most important. Citrus trees need a lot of water during their growth cycle. They need to have enough to keep their easy-to-drain soil damp enough to sustain their growth. After all, that juicy citrus needs water – or it isn’t going to be juicy.

As much water as citrus trees need, though, be careful of overwatering. It’s the most common reason for tree death.

Fun water fact for citrus trees: they don’t need as much water during the winter. More on that factoid in the section of this article on winter protection for citrus trees, though. Back to the regular watering info!

I learned another, cool watering tip in my research: always use soft water, or let the water sit out overnight first to settle. This is because hard water can lead to iron deficiency in citrus trees.

What about feeding and mulching trees? I’m glad you asked.

The best time to mulch and feed them is in late summer or mid-autumn. Spring can be good, too. This is due to the temperature more than the time of year.

In any case, you’ll also want to make sure that your citrus trees have sufficient nutrients during the growing season. That way, your tree will give better fruit.

Of the many growing elements involved in citrus tree development, nitrogen and potassium tend to be the most common issues.

  • Nitrogen deficiency lowers absorption of other essential nutrients, which creates a cascade effect of nutrient deficiencies. So make sure your citrus tree gets enough nitrogen.
  • Potassium deficiency impacts fruit size.

Based on my research then, you may want to check and manage soil nutrient levels and pH in spring and fall. That way, you can adjust mulching as needed to make sure your citrus tree is getting the right balance of nutrition to produce delicious citrus to eat.

However, depending on which nutrients your tree lacks access to, you’ll need to adjust the amount and manner of application based on the deficient nutrient. I’m still researching what all that means, exactly. But there are some very helpful folks at your local nursery who may be able to help you figure out your local soil’s usual composition.

Or, if you don’t want to be bothered with that, remember the trick I mentioned earlier. Augment your soil with a commercially-available soil mix for cacti or succulents. That won’t entirely fix the nutrient imbalance, but it should help get you started down the right road.

Do You Need to Prune Citrus Trees?

Based on my research, pruning a citrus tree isn’t usually recommended for the first three years. If there are any dried or dead branches, then you can remove those. And you can also remove the suckers growing from your tree within the first few years.

In fact, removing the suckers is an acceptable mini-pruning of new citrus trees. Removing the suckers will help your tree preserve energy for further growth and fruit production.

When you do start pruning your tree, keep in mind the three factors of successful pruning:

  • Light – make sure that all of the branches (and leaves) will have access to light.
  • Space – prune branches that cross. That way, your tree will have enough space to grow and fruit.
  • Airflow – Make sure that your tree has enough space to get air. It’s not supposed to be a dense jungle – it’s a citrus tree. And good fruit needs airflow.

For a fourth factor, remember to water your plant sufficiently before and after pruning. That way, it’ll have the reserves it needs to recover after being pruned.

When the tree is mature, pruning is not usually necessary anymore.

How Do You Protect Citrus Trees in Winter?

During the cold season, there are several ways you can protect your citrus tree. The method you pick will depend on how severe your winters are, where your tree is planted, and if it’s potted or planted.

Citrus trees don’t do well in freezing weather, though. There’s only a few varieties that can do well in sub-freezing weather – and even then, they don’t do well below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

So if the weather gets colder than that, you may have to use several protective measures to save your tree. Or you could just bring it indoors, provided you’ve got a spot indoors for a citrus tree.

In any case, here are some ways to protect your citrus tree during the cold season.

  • Keep your tree in a controlled environment where it thrives. This could be in a greenhouse – potted or planted. Or you could haul the potted tree indoors during the cold season and take it back outdoors once things have warmed back up again.
  • Wrap the tree trunk in an insulating material, like burlap. This trick works really well in parts of Arizona for my family. It may not work anywhere where it gets much colder, though. Just be sure that your insulating material also breathes – that’s why they recommend burlap.
  • Put the citrus tree into a controlled hibernation. A cool room or a cold frame with enough light could put your tree into a safe stasis for the winter. By cool, it needs to be between 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit (5-10 degrees Celsius), so it’s possible that your garage may be an option. However, my research shows that the tree would still need the equivalent of “full sun” during its hibernation. Citrus loves the sun!

If these options aren’t viable, that’s okay. It may mean that you can’t do a citrus tree yet. Or perhaps it means you need to rethink getting the full-sized grapefruit tree – and get a dwarf one instead. Potted dwarf trees are much easier to move than even a semi-dwarf tree – trust me!

Two more important things to know for winter preparation and protection of citrus trees.

  • Water. While citrus trees soak up water like crazy while growing, overwatering is an especially serious issue during winter. The easiest way to kill a citrus tree is to overwater it during the winter. Many experts suggest skipping watering them altogether during the cold season.
  • Light. If your plant is in a warm place but does not get enough light, it can start consuming itself. This is because of the dual and linked nature of their metabolism (due to temperature or warmth) and light requirements (photosynthesis). While “fall” is normal for other trees, it’s an abnormal condition for citrus trees. Once the leaves start to fade and fall, the tree needs winter protection immediately.

Granted, there isn’t a ton you can do to prevent leaves from falling if you’re keeping citrus trees outside their ideal growth zone. But you can minimize the damage by making sure that they’re protected for winter, have enough light, and aren’t being overwatered.

Taking that into account, if temperatures are freezing, then the best way to save your plant is to keep it covered outside or plant it in a pot. That way, you can bring it to a warm place.

Bonus: Citrus Tree Blooming Season and Fruiting Information 

Citrus trees are on a different timetable than most fruits. Growing up in Arizona, I remember that the best citrus season was usually in February or March – which is way off than our current harvest seasons of summer and fall.

In any case, your actual citrus harvest will depend on where you live, the temperatures, and what water conditions are like. We haven’t grown any citrus yet, so I can’t comment much on it yet – although I will share a few thoughts in the next section of this article.

In any case, don’t worry if you only have space for one dwarf-sized citrus tree. Citrus trees pollinate themselves though a process called geitonogamy, which is helped by wind or insects. So one tree can be enough, even if you don’t have a ton of space.

Beyond that, here are some other facts I’ve learned from research, talking to biologists, and talking to family members.

  • You may lose as many as 80% of blooms – before or after pollination. That’s okay – this gives the citrus fruit enough space to grow.
  • Once the blooms fruit, you may need to thin the fruit a good bit to help promote bigger citrus sizes.
  • Citrus trees are self-pollinating (as we mentioned).
  • Smaller citrus fruits will ripen sooner than bigger fruits do.
  • Bigger fruit can stay on the tree for as long as 12-18 months, depending on the season, growth factors, and where you live.

I know this section isn’t 100% related to planting citrus trees – but it’s good information to have once they are planted. So I wanted you to have it anyway. You’re welcome. 🙂

Final Thoughts

Growing citrus can be an amazing addition to your backyard homestead. But if you live somewhere that’s usually seen as “too cold” for citrus, then you do have a lot of extra planning and work ahead of you before you even dig the first hole.

For us, we still have to figure out a few important details. It regularly gets below 20 degrees Fahrenheit in our area – and we get winter winds that are hurricane strength. So for us, we’d need to bring the tree indoors.

Which would limit us to a dwarf-sized tree – if I could find a safe spot for it indoors. The garage might work – but then we couldn’t park one of our vehicles in the garage for the whole of winter. And since that’s a deal-breaker for my husband, I’m back to thinking up creative places to store a citrus tree indoors.

So until I figure that out, we’ll have to wait on any citrus trees. But that’s okay – I can still dream about it, research best practices, and keep learning and growing as a backyard homesteader.

Resources

It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to also learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders.

  • Wheaton, Tucker & Whitney, JD & Castle, William & Muraro, RP & Browning, Harold & Tucker, DPH. (1995). Tree Vigor Important in Citrus Tree Spacing and Topping. Proceedings Florida State Horticultural Society. 108. 63.
  • Lots and lots of interviews with my family back in Arizona.

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