Small Yet Mighty Dwarf Citrus Trees

August 30, 2017
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If you like the idea of having your own fresh citrus readily at hand and you’ve got a sunny spot, you’re in luck. Dwarf citrus trees can grow in some of the smallest garden areas, including on a narrow balcony. Put them in a container that’s easy to move and you can keep them going indoors, even if the weather outside is cold and snowy.

Citrus Basics

Most citrus are grown outdoors as small trees and shrubs, but if even a 15-foot tree is too tall for your space, a dwarf citrus is a good bet. Not only do these trees stay small naturally, but also they can be kept even smaller in containers and with judicious pruning. And you’ll never have to stretch too high to get the fruit off the tree.

Citrus are known as trees for warm-weather gardens only, but dwarf citrus are small enough to thrive in pots. Those same pots can be brought inside once the weather gets colder. Given sufficient light and water, citrus will grow well indoors and provide you with plenty of fruit.

Where they’ll grow: Citrus are hardy in the landscape to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 12.2 degrees Celsius (USDA zones 8 to 11); they will need protection from extended frost.

Water requirements: Regular; less once they’re established.

Light requirements: Full sun, ideally about 8 hours per day.

Mature size: From 2 to 8 feet tall; width varies, but they can handle pruning to keep them in check.

When to plant: Trees can be planted year-round, though you should avoid extremely hot or cold weather. If you plant in the fall, wait until spring to do any pruning.

Favorite Dwarf Citrus Trees

Many favorite sweet orange varieties, including ‘Washington’ navel oranges; ‘Valencia’ oranges; ‘Shamouti’, or ‘Palestine Jaffa’ oranges; and ‘Trovita’ oranges are available on dwarf rootstocks. ‘Robertson’ navel oranges and ‘Marrs’ oranges are naturally smaller.  ‘Sanguinelli’ blood oranges and dwarf varieties of ‘Moro’ and ‘Tarocco’ blood oranges are available. ‘Bouquet de Fleurs’, a sour orange, grows to only around 8 to 10 feet, and ‘Chinotto’, another sour orange, can be kept small in a container.

Mandarin and Mandarin Hybrids
These citrus favorites are also known as clementines, satsumas, tangerines, and tangelos, among many other names. New varieties are always being introduced, and new hybrids are always emerging, so it’s difficult to have a complete list. Some favorites that can either be found as a dwarf variety or be trained in a container include Calamondin (a sour acid mandarin), ‘Dancy’, ‘Gold Nugget’, ‘Kara’, ‘Kinnow’, Satsuma group, and ‘Tango’.

Though lemon trees naturally reach about 25 feet tall, you can usually find dwarf varieties available. Among the favorite dwarf varieties are ‘Improved Meyer’, ‘Ponderosa’ and ‘Variegated Pink’, a sport of ‘Eureka’. Dwarf ‘Eureka’ lemons can reach up to 10 feet tall unless they are kept in check.

The two most popular limes, ‘Bearss’ and ‘Mexican’, are generally available on dwarf rootstocks. You can usually find ‘Kieffer’ lime varieties as well.

These fruits are known among the citrus family for their larger size, and the trees can be equally large family members. Look for dwarf varieties, such as ‘Cocktail’, ‘Oroblanco’, ‘Redblush’, ‘Rio Red’ or ‘Star Ruby’. Grow in containers to ensure it won’t get too large.

These plants are naturally smaller than other citrus trees, and dwarf varieties may reach only about 4 feet tall, making them perfect for small spaces and containers. They’re also hardier than other citrus. Favorites include ‘Fukushu’, ‘Marumi’, ‘Meiwa’ and ‘Nagami’.

How to Use Them

Plant alongside a deck or patio to have on hand when cooking outside. Use in containers throughout the garden, preferably where you can enjoy the sweet scent of the blossoms in the evening. Espalier along a fence or wall, or grow several together to form a small hedge. Because of its smaller size, a dwarf citrus can also be an effective choice for a backyard orchard.

Shopping Tips

When looking for a dwarf citrus, ask about the plant’s final size. A good way to check is to confirm that the citrus is grafted onto a ‘Flying Dragon’ rootstock, which generally produces trees between 5 and 7 feet tall. Many “dwarf” citrus are actually grated onto a semi-dwarf rootstock and can reach up to 15 feet tall. 

If you have some room but not enough for separate trees, look for a multi-fruit tree, like this Fruit Salad Tree, with lemons, limes, oranges, mandarins and other citrus. Some growers offer trees with up to six different fruits.

Planting Tips

Choose a spot that will get full sun. If you live in a cooler summer climate, look for an area where the plant will get reflected heat from walls and sidewalks. Citrus do not do well in lawns.

In the ground, choose a spot with well-draining soil. Dig a hole that is the same depth and about 2 to 3 times as wide as the container. Set the tree in place so the crown is level with the surrounding soil, and firm the soil around it. Add a stake to help support the plant if you want. Build a watering basin that extends out about 1 foot from the planting hole, and water thoroughly. Add mulch to help keep the soil moist. You can also use gravel or pebbles as mulch, especially in cooler areas, as these will reflect heat.

In containers: A 12-inch-wide container is ideal for a 1-year-old tree while a 14-inch-wide container is fine for trees that are 2 to 3 years old. For larger trees, choose one that is from 16 to 20 inches wide.  These recommendations are guidelines; if you want a smaller tree, you can stay with a smaller container. Add potting soil, and place the tree so it sits about 1 inch below the rim of the container and is level with the soil. Water thoroughly.

Care and Upkeep

Citrus are low-maintenance trees, but they do best with some easy care.

Provide regular water. Water up to twice a week while trees are getting started; after they’re established, you can water less often, up to once every couple of weeks, as long as the tree is not wilting. Less-frequent but deep waterings are best.

Feed citrus three times a year: in late winter, spring and summer. A citrus fertilizer is your best choice.

Prune as needed to remove weak branches and suckers and to keep citrus size in check. Nip back any wayward tips. You can also train citrus up walls and along fences.

If you live in an area with hot summers, protect young trees or newly exposed bark from sunburn by wrapping the trunks with commercially available paper wraps or painting the exposed trunk and branches with white latex paint mixed with water at a 1:1 ratio.

Citrus are subject to a few pests, such as aphids, mealybugs, mites and scale insects, most of which can be removed with a spray of water or horticultural oil. Diseases are also rare — usually fungal or rot. Check with your local nursery or horticultural society for complete information on keeping any problems in check.

You may want to repot or add new soil to citrus in containers every few years.

Citrus are usually fine outside in warm-winter climates, but frosty nights can cause problems. Cover plants with a cloth, keeping it away from the branches and leaves, or spray with an antitranspirant, available at nurseries. For a more attractive solution, string old-fashioned Christmas lights (the ones that get warm) through the branches and leave them on at night.

If cold weather is your norm, then fall is the time to transition your potted citrus to their winter home indoors or a sunroom or conservatory.

"Dwarf Citrus Trees Offer Miniature Size With Maximum Flavor" by Marianne Lipanovich originally appeared on, a platform with information on growing kumquats and great deals on plant stands and tables. Photo credit: Monrovia, original photo on Houzz.

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