Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Growing Citrus in a Pot

My Dwarf Imperial Mandarin
Who says you need to dig a big hole in the back garden to grow a large fruit tree?

Plant breeders have finally brought citrus into the 21st century by introducing dwarf rootstock so that even a city apartment dweller can grow beautiful fruit on the balcony!

Dwarf Imperial Mandarin Fruit
Younger dwarf trees actually bear faster and fruit just as well as a full size tree. The only difference is that they need to be watered every 2-3 weeks and re-potted approximately every 3 years.

Potted fruit trees must be grafted to dwarf rootstock to be able to survive in a pot. Standard fruit trees cannot live beyond a couple of years within a pot as their roots need room to grow. The only true dwarfing rootstock is ‘flying dragon’, however not all dwarfs are as small as you may think! They can really vary depending on the rootstock variety.

The back of my house has exceptional sun throughout most of the day, and this led me to rethink my fruit garden and harness the micro-climate in my yard to finally add more trees for food… in some more unique ways.

First on my list was to add a potted Dwarf Mandarin tree.

I headed out to McLaren Flat in South Australia to Perry’s Fruit and Nut Nursery and met with Nursery owners to find a Dwarf Imperial Mandarin.  It was not grafted onto ‘flying dragon’ rootstock, so it will be a little bigger. My tree will need a little more pruning on a regular basis but will still be a manageable size in a pot.

The advice I received at Perry’s was exceptional, so I will definitely be heading back there for more trees again. Perry’s understand how to pot fruit trees properly.  There are testimonies throughout their nursery as to how well they do it to.  Re-potting is not always necessary, but if you do, make sure you shave some of the roots down by a few centimeters all over before refilling.

How to Pot a Dwarf Citrus Tree

Sit the citrus plant in half a bucket of water with one cap full of Seasol (seaweed solution) to soak the roots to minimize shock from transplanting.

 Place 1-2 inches of pebbles at the bottom of the pot for good drainage.

 Use a high quality potting mix. I do not recommend using wetting agents until summer as the soil will become sodden during the wetter months and cause root rot.

 Fill up the pot 3/4 of the way.

 Remove the tree by holding the base and easing out. This should be easy as the roots would have had a good drink from the Seasol.

 Sit your tree in the pot to judge the height of the potting mix. Adjust accordingly.

 Sprinkle some Dynamic Lifter pellets or well-rotten dry chicken manure around the plant.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Pelletised manure like Dynamic Lifter can cause issues.
The salts can leach and cause acidity levels to rise too high.
I no longer recommend Dynamic Lifter for potted trees.

Instead use a Citrus Controled Release fertiliser such as Yates or Osmacote at the time of planting. These come in the small containers with a little spoon for measuring.

If your fruit tree looks sick no matter how much you have fertilised, test the soil pH with a cheap pH reader that you can stick into the ground near the roots. They tend to be more accurate and readable than the powder/liquid test. High acidity will interfere with the plant's health.

Citrus require 60.-7.0 soil pH.

To correct a highly acid soil to a more acceptable range gently dig through some Garden Lime, water through and test the pH over the next couple of weeks.

I also recommend a foliar spray (with a few drops of dish washing liquid to help adhere to the leaf surface) to help bolster the plant's health as the high acid levels will have prevented the regular in take of vitamins and minerals through the soil.

This was recommended to me by the good people at Perry's Fruit and Nut Nursery.

All my subsequent potted trees have been planted with control release fertiliser and have worked wonderfully well with no acidity problems at all.

Firm down and ensure that the roots are well covered.
Do not cover over the rootstock.

Water in well.
I used a full bucket of water with 2 cap fulls of Seasol liquid as the first drink.

Getting The Best From Your Citrus Tree

Get the right tree for you

Consider: non/seedless, easy to peel, taste, cooking use, fruiting season, dwarf or full size?

Right soil mix

Get it right and your tree will thank you. The drainage is as important as the nutrients. Any type of pot will do, but a 1" - 2" layer of gravel at the bottom of the pot will most readily promote drainage.

Citrus are heavy feeders

Every type of fruit tree needs to be fed, citrus are the hungriest of all the fruits.  Try Dynamic Lifter pellets, citrus fertilizer granules or well-rotted (dry) chicken manure dug around the soil twice a year. Alternatively, you can experiment with a little bit often. Yes, urine DOES make better tasting fruit, so don’t be shy. (We use to win many agricultural shows with our navel oranges that were regularly wee-ed beneath!)  I recommend that you go cautiously with urine on potted citrus so as not to overload the soil. 

Citrus trees need a minimum of 5 hours sunlight

Optimum sunlight exposure is 10 to 11 hours. Using a sunny side of the house that gets early morning sun is a great position for a fruit tree.

Water regularly

Regular watering is essential to encouraging your tree to fruit and keep their fruit to maturity. Irregular watering will make fruit abort. Watering potted fruit trees must be done every fortnight if done by hand. Alternatively, keep on a drip line.


  1. Awesome advice. I have just bought a dwarf mandarin tree. So are very excited about having some of my own home grown fruit!

    1. That's great to hear. Hope you have success. Remember not to use the first year's fruits, to encourage growth. The subsequent years will be rewarding!

  2. Hi Janine,

    Thanks for a brilliantly written article that's practical and chokeful with advice.
    What do you mean by NOT using the first year's fruits.
    Do you let it drop away by attrition?
    How do we ensure that we ensure the subsequent year's will be rewarding?

    Also, may I ask:
    I have installed a new patio at my back yard, and I am toying with the idea of planting dward fruit trees as a possible sunscreen for the summer?
    Do you think the foliage from the Dwarf Mandarin will suffice?


    David, Western Australia.

    1. Hi David,

      The first fruits are best pinch-removed so as to allow extra energy to the plant in the first year. Most fruit trees if left to go to full fruit need their harvest to fall naturally so as not to stress them in their first year. Pinching off the buds proves to be the most beneficial and is highly recommended by good fruit tree nurseries.

      As there are many different sizes of dwarf root stock you'll be surprised at just how large some of the dwarfs can get so when you purchase a tree check with the nursery about which type of root stock the tree has been grafted onto for the best summer canopy you would like. Flying Dragon root stock is usually the most compact small variety.

      My potted mandarin tree is great to sit next to on the garden seat in full morning sun. It gives me enough shade so as not to be blinded by the sun while I'm out reading the paper. I can definitely recommend a dwarf mandarin tree as great summer screening for summer.

      Stone fruit trees are also in full leafiness and fruit in summer too and lose their leaves in time for winter to allow the sun through. Just another good option for your patio area. I'm quite addicted to dwarf fruit trees now. I now have five!

  3. Fish emulsion is a very good alternative feed for citrus.....especially young plants that are sensitive to salt burn.....be careful using slow release osmocote and the like......they can burn roots and disfigure leaves.......also a combo of seasol/powerfeed is another good way to go.....liquid feed every two weeks......thats my preferred feeding regime......I prefer organics with fruit....better tasting fruit.

  4. IMHO that pot is way too big for that rootball and you are asking for water logging problems with that.....a pot 3 to 4 inches all around....bigger than the rootball is ideal.....Did you drill extra drainage holes in that pot? ....I used to use terracotta in auckland and drilled extra holes......its a bit of a hassle but its worth it....start out with a 4mm concrete bit and then gradually work up to 10mm......if you dont do that.....your pot will crack!....put on pot feet......Healthy looking tree!....something else useful to know......potted citrus absorb their nutrients of NPK in this ratio 5-1-3 .......so look for a fert as close as possible to this......urea is not an ideal source in pots either....powerfeed is spot on........cheers

  5. "Standard fruit trees cannot live beyond a couple of years within a pot as their roots need room to grow. "..............That is actually not true for citrus ......its only in recent years that dwarfing and semi dwarfing trees have become available for citrus......as long as you keep potting up and refresh your mix they will keep growing but eventually be limited by the post size......many have grown standard citrus trees in half wine barrels......i have 3 standard citrus trees in pots....they just grow more vigorously thats all.......then there is root pruning when you reach the size you want,.....I have 14 citrus trees(standard/semi dwarf/dwarf)....all in plastic pots that have been repotted every year into a pot that is 2-4 inches bigger than the last......this way you dont get water logging problems or build up of salts........a full flush of pure clean water is good once a month spring to autumn to rid waste products from digestion so to speak.......Hope this helps others....Cheers

  6. What can I ad to my Meyer lemon tree, potted to make leaves dark green & thick like when I got it in Dec.2015 & lost all. Now I have 3 branches.13" 2 no is 8" & 3rd is 3" tall but not like when I got it what can I ad? Please I've fed watered & good sun, must be more??