Growing Citrus Indoors

Did you know that citrus trees are great houseplants?  

They are beautiful, elegant, the flowers smell great, and they are easy to grow!   

Brief History of the Orangery

Humans have been growing citrus for thousands of years. We grow them for food, medicine, perfume-making, and decoration. Since the 1600s when it became possible to make clear glass big enough for large windows we have been growing them inside. Orangeries are the precursor of modern greenhouses, which came about in the 1840s. You can find orangeries in many palaces throughout Europe and some in America. George Washington had an orangery at his estate in Mount Vernon.

I got to see the orangery at Sanssouci Palace several years ago. Before that, I didn’t even realize citrus could be grown inside. I’m from Georgia, so I always just thought of oranges as something grown all over Florida in big orchards, not a houseplant. However, if Frederick the Great could have indoor oranges in the 1700s then I can now!  

Sanssouci in 2015

My Citruses

(Editor’s note: links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. You can literally buy citrus trees on Amazon, and we make a small commission if you do. How cool is that?!?)

Currently, I have two citruses living in my house. 

One is a calamondin, which is a type of very small orange. This is probably the easiest citrus to grow indoors and one of prettiest in my opinion. I would recommend this as your first plant. They aren’t hard to find, your local nursery might have them and if not you can get them online.

The other is a lime who variety I don’t remember exactly, but given the shape of the fruit currently on the tree, I’m pretty sure it’s a Persian variety.  

Right now both of my trees are blooming as I write this, filling my house with a sweet, delicate perfume similar to jasmine. Citrus are interesting in that they can have mature fruit, immature fruit, and flowers at the same time!  

There are so many types of citrus. You know about oranges, limes, lemons and grapefruit from the grocery store, however within each of those are sometimes dozens of varieties. Kumquats, Budddha’s Hand, Pepada, Tangelo, Ugli Fruit, Pomelo, Yuzu, Satsuma and Shangjuan are also all citrus, just to name a few. Your local nursery probably isn’t going to have many or any of the more exotic types, but they should have Meyer lemons which are very popular right now, as well as a nice selection on limes and oranges. 

I think it’s a good idea to start with a developed plant instead of trying to grow one from seed. You probably can’t grow them from seed and get fruit.  You are of course welcome to try, and you might have success. If you do a search online you will see plenty of people that have.

But given the amount of time that would take (at least 3 years for limes, as many as 12 for larger citrus), and the relatively small chance of getting a producing tree, I wouldn’t bother. If you don’t care about getting fruit then a tree from seed is fine, it will be just a pretty. It is likely to have lots of thorns which you will need to trim if you have pets or kids.   

Citrus Growing Tips:

1..Citrus are forgiving. They can tolerate living in pots better than many plants and can bounce back from bad care. Don’t worry if your citrus seems a little sad sometimes, you can normally fix the problem. 

2. Don’t cut your plant too low and make sure to prune anything that grows near the very bottom. Since most of the established plants you will buy have been created through grafting the branches growing from the bottom are likely to be from a different plant and might have lots of thorns and not produce fruit.  

3. Citrus love sunshine! The fruits are like little balls of stored and concentrated sunshine! Make sure you keep your plant near a window that gets several hours of sun every day. If you have a Florida room or patio that’s even better. 

4. The bigger the pot, the happier the citrus. Even dwarf varieties like having room to grow. Having more space is never a bad thing with citrus. This also saves you work, because you will have to transplant less often if you go for a bigger pot than you think you need.

5. You will need to repot, every 4 to 5 years at least no matter how big the pot is, to check the root ball and give it new soil.

6. Drainage is important. I use these drainage discs in the bottom of my pots and they make draining at lot easier than my previous method of using different sized rocks and pottery shards. It’s also much lighter, which can be important for a plant this large, especially if you want to have it be indoor/outdoor.   

7. When choosing a soil bend for a plant I like to think about where it would be found in the wild. Granted the type of citrus we eat and grow isn’t really found in the wild so I think about where I’ve seen them growing outside. I used a standard organic potting mix but add a lot of sand. About ¼ to ⅓ of my citrus potting mix is sand.       

8. Color doesn’t indicate ripeness. When my oranges first became orange and I ate one I felt so betrayed! It was as sour as a lemon and more bitter. Having mostly grown fruits like pears and berries before I thought color equaled ripe. With citrus, the only way to know if it’s ripe is to taste it.   

9. Use a citrus specific fertilizer unless you know a lot about mix fertilizer. 

10. Let your soil dry out. I was doing some research before writing this post to see what other people were saying about growing citrus in pots and most of them say you need to water them a lot. I disagree. I only water my citrus plants once a week. They are used to hot and sometimes dry environments. Like all indoor plants, they can get waterlogged, root-bound and grow mold. Having a lot of sand, good drainage and letting them dry out between waterings helps prevent that and encourages good root growth. Citrus plants seem to like a little tough love. 

Good luck with your citrus growing experiments!