Citrus in Virginia? You bet!

This winter, I was lamenting my lack of greenhouse, because I really wanted to be able to grow some citrus trees. My sister in California was eating oranges straight from the branch, and they sounded so juicy and luscious I was starting to feel deprived. (It was winter, after all. The freshest food we had around here was chickweed. Which does have a lot of vitamin C, but still.)

Then I read on a blog written by someone in Pennsylvania (sorry, I don’t remember who!) that they were eating fresh fruit from their dwarf Meyer lemon tree, just three years old. And they didn’t have a greenhouse. Apparently, lots of people grow dwarf citrus in containers that they bring inside for the winter but leave outside in spring, summer, and early fall. This sounded like the perfect solution for me!

Dwarf Key Lime from Gurney's

I started off with a dwarf key lime tree from Gurney’s. They were offering them for $12.99. But I paid just $6.50 with my 50% discount. (Just so you know, Gurney’s is always having these “Spend $25, get $25 free” sales. If you buy from them, always wait for one of these sales. You won’t be waiting long, at least not in the springtime.) My lime arrived on March 7, a potted plant about 7″ tall, with beautiful dark green foliage and some lighter green buds at the top. I’d heard that the key with citrus was not to water too often (they like the soil on the dry side) and to mist the leaves periodically (I guess in imitation of dew). Well, I did both of these things, and within a few weeks, the tree had grown another 6 inches! And I thought, “Well, if it’s this easy, I want some more!”

Now, to grow citrus successfully in this climate (zone 7), you don’t have to have a greenhouse, but you do need some good south-facing windows, for when the trees are inside in the winter. I have at least three such windows I can currently use, so I figured I could safely acquire two more dwarf citrus. But what to choose?

Improved Meyer Lemon from One Green World

I decided to shop around a little more for these plants. I considered getting them from Gurney’s again–they are, after all, very cheap–but I’d also recently gotten a catalog from One Green World, a Portland-based nursery that seems to sell every fruit under the sun, in more varieties than you ever thought existed! They offer several species of citrus I’d never heard of, like Buddha’s Hand Citron and Australian Finger Lime, sometimes called Citrus Caviar, because of the multitudes of tiny juicy capsules it contains. I decided, though, that I was after something a little more run-of-the-mill for my first citrus-growing experience. I was more interested in their Meyer lemon and Washington navel orange. Each of these cost $24.95. That was a lot more than the $6.50 I paid for the key lime at Gurney’s, but I thought, “Well, maybe you get what you pay for.” The One Green World catalog did say that their trees often began bearing the year of planting. The earlier harvests could quickly make up the higher purchase price. So I went for it.

The trees arrived the first week of April. And they…were…gorgeous. Already two and a half feet tall and covered with flower buds! But plants that big were not going to be able to stay in their tiny shipping pots for long. I needed to figure out their permanent homes, and quick!

After doing a little internet research (I recommend the Four Winds Growers site for more info), I decided that, for a couple of years, at least, the plants would be happy enough in 14″ pots. I bought a couple of plastic ones at Home Depot for $7 apiece. The lime tree is small enough it’s in a little blue ceramic pot for now. Apparently it’s important not to put citrus in pots that are too big for them, because it’s harder to regulate soil moisture that way.

Cedar shavings smell heavenly!

The first thing I had to do with the Home Depot pots was drill holes in the bottom. Citrus must have good drainage, and when I bought the pots, they had no holes at all! That definitely would not do! So I (well, my dad) drilled four 1/2″ holes in the bottom of each.

Into each pot went a mixture of five things. About 2/5 of the pot I filled with garden soil. Four Winds says not to use soil from your own garden, but frankly, everybody says that, and I’ve always used it for starting my garden seedlings and it works fine. So. 2/5 of the pot filled with garden soil. Then

Washington Navel Orange from One Green World

another 1/5 was compost. Into this, I mixed about a 1/3 cup of organic fertilizer and 3 tablespoons of Espoma soil acidifier. Citrus trees like it acidic! The last 2/5 of the pot I filled with cedar shavings–like the kind I used to put in my guinea pig’s cage. Mixed in with the soil, the cedar shavings help drainage. And since they’re resistant to decomposition, they’ll do their work for a long time.

So that was it! I put the trees in their new homes and watered thoroughly. Then I stationed them on the front porch, which faces south, so they’ll get plenty of sun this spring and summer. Note: There was a period of a week between when the plants arrived in the mail and when I put them outside all day, every day. I gradually got them used to outdoor temperatures (and the crazy wind we’re having!) by putting them out an hour or two more each day. They seem to be adjusting well, and now have stayed outside all night long twice without a problem. If we were expecting frost, though, I’d bring them back inside.

I can’t wait for the first flowers to open. I’m sure they’ll smell delicious! I also have my eye on One Green World’s Cocktail Grapefruit….

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. garden.poet says:

    Homegrown citris! How awesome! (so I’m not the only one who just uses garden soil…)

    1. Sharon says:

      We’ll see how they like it. I can already tell it’s taking longer to dry out than potting soil. I guess because there’s a fair amount of clay in the soil here. Maybe I’ll regret my decision, but, hey, you never know if you don’t try… On the other hand, both trees have started blooming since I potted them up!

  2. adamleone01 says:

    I saw a lemon tree in my local garden centre, they look so cool, I was so tempted to buy one! imagine a fresh lemon with a nice cool GandT :~P

    1. Sharon says:

      Mine looks like it might already be producing miniature lemons… hope so!

  3. Paul Kosmas says:

    so what happened? how are they holding up 3 years later?? 🙂 I’m also in VA (Shenandoah Valley area) and would like to plant some lemons and figs this way..

    1. They’re doing well! We’ve had lemons and oranges two years in a row now. This year will be our first year for limes, since the lime tree was a couple years younger than the other two. My only regret is that I don’t have bigger south-facing windows. I think the plants would do better with more sun in the winter, and the harvest would be bigger. (But then, again, I’d probably also have to repot them sooner!) Check out the posts “November is Lemonade Season” and “Caring for Potted Citrus Trees” for more details and pics!

  4. Hollie McTiernan says:

    I’m so excited to have found this post! I’m moving next month from California to zone 7a (Leesburg) and plan to give citrus a go. Relieved!
    Great blog – thanks!

  5. Nahedah Zayed says:

    Hello Sharon, wondering how the trees are doing? Also, a question. I live in northern va, and have a lemon tree that’s now four feet high that grew from seeds of a real lemon I used. Its leaves are lovely and green, but no flowering and thus no lemons yet.
    Wondering if you have any tips.

    Thanks.

    1. The trees are doing well! It’s been so mild lately that they’ve been outside every day soaking up the sun! And I just ate a delicious fresh orange this week. I’m not sure when your lemon tree will be big enough to flower–mine are only 30″ high and have been bearing for 3 years, but mine are grafted on dwarfing root stock. I don’t know what variety you might have in your seed. Full-size varieties likely take a few more years to mature, and will be quite big by that time!

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