The citrus care mistakes we make (and what to do instead)

From the plant pros who know it best

By Anna Kocharian
Published July 18, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)
 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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If your love of plants and indoor gardening has allowed you to graduate from the much-loved ZZ or a mini plot of herbs, you might just be ready to take on a citrus tree. Flowering, fruit-bearing, and lusciously green, they contribute more than just a pop of color to a space. But whether you're a beginner or a pro plant parent, keeping a citrus tree alive and thriving takes a little effort.

To help you get started off on the right foot, we turned to experts for their insight on everything to do with caring for a citrus tree. Turns out, there's a bit more to it than meets the eye. Here's what we learned.

It's going to need a lot of sunlight

Before you purchase that lemon plant you've been eyeing, it's worth gauging whether or not you have the right space for it. "Citrus trees are warm-weather plants, which means that they thrive with a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of sun a day and love high, humid temperatures," says plant collector and expert Ciara Benko of The Jungle Upstairs.

You'll want to carve out a nook for the tree, preferably near a southwest-facing window. But remember to steer clear of vents or air conditioners, as constant fluctuations in temperature and drafts can harm the tree.

If your citrus tree is in direct sunlight for more than 8 hours a day, and its leaves start to wilt, it may be a sign of sunburn, which can affect some of the newer, more vulnerable parts of the plant, says Benko. Keep an eye out for leaves with a sandy-colored scorch to them, and if that's the case, relocate your plant to a less sunny spot.

If you don't have room for a tree near a window, grow lights can be a great alternative. Via Citrus co-founder Charley Todd suggests placing one at least 2 to 3 feet above the tree and having it on for 8 to 12 hours a day.

Acclimation is key

Any sort of greenery that is mailed to you will typically experience an element of "shock" during travel. Upon arrival, place the citrus tree in a sunny spot and let it rest for at least a week and up to 10 days. Resist the urge to relocate it from its original grower's pot until it's had a chance to adjust to its new surroundings.

A spacious container is best

Once that period of adjustment has passed, you'll want to find a more permanent home for it. Keep the soil the tree came with and just add citrus- or cactus-friendly soil on top. When choosing planters, go for one that's roughly 3 inches greater in diameter than the original pot or one that is approximately 2 to 3 gallons in volume. Think of it this way: The more spacious the container, the bigger and happier the citrus tree will be. If you prefer to keep the tree on the small side, just prune it regularly to maintain your preferred size.

Keep an eye out for darker discoloration around the edges of leaves, along with very heavy drooping, which can be a sign of root rot or obstructed drainage. Remove the tree to inspect it more closely and if needed, break up clogged soil and relocate it to a new (and bigger!) container.

Watering can vary by size and pot type

How often you should water a citrus tree depends on several factors, says Benko, including the size and type of pot, as well as how much sun it's getting. A smaller pot will drain faster than a larger one, requiring smaller but more frequent watering. And if your citrus tree is in a terra-cotta planter, it'll need more, as water evaporates quickly through the material.

The leaves of a plant are great indicators of how it's doing. For example, yellow, brown, and droopy leaves are a sign of overwatering, while brittle leaves with curled edges signify underwatering. That said, it's better to overwater the tree as long as it has proper drainage, says Todd. Citrus trees are used to summer storms in Florida, he notes, "so you can go ahead and douse it with water as long as it's effectively draining." This means that the bottom of the planter should be free and clear of anything that can potentially block it — be it hardened clumps of soil or even its roots.

For a gut check, stick your finger in the top 2 or 3 inches of soil, says Benko. "If it's bone dry, pour a gallon of water in a steady stream into the soil until it starts to trickle out the hole at the bottom." This could be anywhere from once a week to every other week — and will largely depend on the season. You might find that in the winter, you'll be watering your citrus trees much more sparingly.

It may take a while to fruit

Citrus trees take a while to grow, and sometimes, it may be years before one bears fruit. "The first bloom that comes through is sometimes just for the bees," says Todd, meaning that you might have to wait for them to be pollinated before they flower again and eventually fruit. Once the time has come, the petals of its blooms will fall off to reveal the fruit bud underneath.

If your tree arrives fully in bloom, don't be surprised if it ends up losing a majority of its flowers. The plant is aware of how much weight it can sustain and will drop buds if it's not strong enough to bear them all. A young tree that's only 2 years old will probably be able to hold a maximum of nine fruits, says Todd, adding that realistically, it may only be three or four.

Pests love them

Garden pests and common insects are highly attracted to citrus trees so if you plan on keeping yours outside during the warmer months, be vigilant about what's buzzing in and around it. "Aphids (sap-sucking insects) and spider mites are pretty common but only when the plants are outside," says Todd. Should you run into that problem, he recommends Neem Oil as an insecticide, since it's all-natural and super effective. And on that note, be sure to bring it in during inclement weather when wind and heavy rain can damage the tree.

All in all, abundant sunlight and a consistent watering schedule will do wonders for your citrus tree. Give it the TLC it deserves and you'll be eating fresh, ripe fruit from your very own tree in no time.

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Anna Kocharian

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