When and How to Switch Citrus from In-ground to Containers?

Suzi AKA DesertDance Zone 9bJune 3, 2010

The dilemma. I have two in-ground citrus planted in the wrong place. I need that space desperately for something else. I have two container citrus that are actually doing much better than those in the ground.

I rescued these (Improved Myers Lemon and Bearss Lime) as tiny dying trees in tiny bands on sale from Walmart 1 1/2 years ago. They are semi-dwarf, which actually means they are basically standard. They are growing like weeds, and I can't have them do that where they are. I will use the Gritty Mix Al designed for desert dwellers in my containers.

When can I transplant them (time of year)?

What is the best way to get them out of the ground with the least stress?

I am going to co-post this in the container and Citrus forums also because I need advice ASAP.

Thanks for your suggestions!


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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX


This sure seems like the wrong time of year to be moving anything from the ground to a pot. I'd do it in the winter or early spring. Citrus won't grow new roots until the soil starts to warm but that time of year is so much lower stress. I'd try to move a pretty good rootball and cut the top back.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2010 at 12:43PM
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Suzi AKA DesertDance Zone 9b

I think you are right, Fruitnut. Winter!! Any suggestions about getting the rootball out? Like how far around the things to dig? How deep? They are putting on lots of new growth now. Should I prune it off now? I know I'll sacrifice fruit, but it is what it is! They are getting too big!

    Bookmark   June 3, 2010 at 1:56PM
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I researched this issue a lot because all my trees are in pots, and I need to re-pot them regularly. I had a hard time finding a definite answer, but the general consensus is January-February.
I would do nothing now, if I were you, but starting in October-November, I would dig out around the trees, cutting the side roots in your new pot shape and cutting the branches into their new shape too. Leave the bottom roots "as is". That way, two months down the road, the sides will have already begun growing new roots and only the bottom will go into shock when you do the final transplant.

Carla in Sac

    Bookmark   June 3, 2010 at 2:04PM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX


I think that's a good idea!! Would you loosely cover the sides of the rootball after cutting the roots? That would seem right to me. Gets you a head start on the roots and the top.

Citrus are pretty tough. I cut 99.9% of the roots off a 4 inch caliper tree this winter to pot it up. Cut the top way back. It dropped all it's leaves. I thought it dead. But it is growing back and looks OK now.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2010 at 3:53PM
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Suzi AKA DesertDance Zone 9b

This is all good info! Thanks so much! I will follow your advice, Carla! Do nothing until Oct/Nov.

And fruitnut, nice to know Citrus are pretty tough! I know grapevines are tough, but did not know Citrus were!


    Bookmark   June 3, 2010 at 5:30PM
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I was going to suggest the same that Carla suggested, but I would not wait until that late. I do not have supporting research behind this method, but I would surmise starting the root trimming procedure in late Summer -- IMMEDIATELY after you suspect the last "heat wave" has passed. Last year that was September. Do not even wait a few weeks after that. This target window is hard to catch perfectly, but it is one of two optimal times to plant citrus trees in ground, as it gives it time to establish roots while the ground is still warm BEFORE winter.

On another note, citrus can have four root/foliage growth periods (in our very warm CA weather). The same cycle that fruit trees follow (singularly) -- root growth proceeded by growth flush (and depending on variety the flower then fruiting period). I'm seeing all of my citrus trees on their 2nd growth period of the year so far.

My point: I'm going to attempt the same thing desertdance is doing but try to time it during the heat of summer. I have to remove an in-ground tree into container. I'm optimistic I can do it successfully, if I can time it right before the root growth period. I also have to prune carefully and not over-fertilize as well.

On another point: I'd be careful with your expectations for the gritty mix for a large citrus tree -- once it recovers and starts fruiting. The gritty mix will do great for any recovering citrus and for smaller citrus with a few fruits. But I'm struggling right now with fruiting trees in the gritty mix -- the watering requirements are now everyday and it's only in the high 80's (but really the surface temp is 100+ when in direct sunlight). I've also had trouble with keeping an adequate amount of Nitrogen for heavy feeders.

For your case, I would certainly add more Turface and not following the 1:1:1 ratio for a desert heat area. You have no worries of winter rains over-watering your tree. I might even go 1.5 or 2 turface: 1 grit: 1 bark.


    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 1:55AM
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Suzi AKA DesertDance Zone 9b

Cebury!! Nice to hear from you! You had a post in the thread on Smart Pots in the Container forum that freaked me out! I heard you loud and clear, and my heat is worse than yours, I am sure! So, I asked how to modify Al's mix for the Hot Desert, and he came through for me!

He also recommended this plan to take the plant out of the dirt, and put it into a container, but he said to do it in 2 sets of 4 cuts each, a couple months apart. He said cut like an octagon. NSEWest, straight cuts to sever the roots. The pruned roots will branch out and give the plant lots of little roots to sustain it. Then do the same on the other 4 sides and let those roots make branch roots also for a couple months. THEN dig out the main tap, prune the top, and the tree will have plenty of roots to sustain itself in the new container. I'm glad I asked this question because all you guys are so smart and helpful!!

Here is the link to the Gritty Mix for the Desert HEAT! Custom Designed by Al for we'uns!

Here is a link that might be useful: Gritty Mix for Desert Heat

    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 8:43AM
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Hi Suzi!

Wow, Jojo and your area is hotter than mine, for sure. We've hit 90s but not near 100 yet. But it's been real weird here this year with rain and cool winds in Spring.

That plan from Al is even better (takes a bit more work but the advantages are obvious). I think I'll do mine that way, too. Where's my shovel... How big is this tree you are moving?

I would suggest you purchase shade cloth -- it is so valuable for protecting young trees and for situations like this. You lose a lot of water (transpiration) naturally in your hot-dry heat, but leaves in direct light are similar to being in temps 20-40F hotter. I use it quite a bit here and there to shade from afternoon heat. Probably the same stuff you are using for the top of your containers.

In this case, if your citrus tree is in full sun I would put up shade cloth on the South/West side to block the hottest afternoon sun after you do your root and foliage prune. Maybe even more, to filter all but the first 6-8 hours of morning sun.

I'll go reply in that other thread, in case your subscribed, too.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 2:15PM
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ashleysf(9 San Jose,CA)

Well, I switched a sickly in-ground meyer lemon last year to a container because the spot it was in was getting flooded and the plant never grew - i cut a circle the width of the dripline and pulled out the plant (it was well established, so it lost almost 50% of its roots). I planted it in my own made up mix that was well draining.
As fruitnut says, these guys are hardy. I transplanted in August of last year. I cut most of the foliage off leaving 2 branches. There was no growth for 5 months. But, in late winter, it started leafing out like crazy and by spring it had a dozen tiny lemons on it. It is on its second blooming spree. If you are careful, you will have better (and faster) results than me! If not, they will survive fine, anyway. BTW/ my lemon tree has been uprooted and transplanted thrice so far and it still looks good.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 4:00PM
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Suzi AKA DesertDance Zone 9b

Ashleysf, thanks for the post telling your transplant saga! I'm glad to know Citrus are tough, because I "rescued," these babies (now pretty big) from walmart, and I wouldn't want to kill them! If mine don't leaf out right away, I'll remember what you said. Very comforting!!

Cebury, I have shade cloth, and if things look sunburned, I'll use it. Where I live, though, citrus grow almost like weeds in full sun. They seem to like it hot. Many of our streets here are lined with Citrus planted in grass. In the spring, it's a good place to be homeless, I guess. Fruit lying on the ground everywhere.


    Bookmark   June 5, 2010 at 10:45AM
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"Citrus are pretty tough. I cut 99.9% of the roots off a 4 inch caliper tree this winter to pot it up. Cut the top way back. It dropped all it's leaves. I thought it dead. But it is growing back and looks OK now."

You would be simply astounded at photos of the then-standard bareroot commercial planting stock for Florida commercial groves 50 years ago (seen in old citrus ag bulletins from the Univ. of Florida). They had virtually no feeder roots and almost no leaves. And they weren't tiny. My guess from remembering the pictures is 3/4-1 inch caliper. They had probably been a branched and bushy 4 feet tall in the nursery row before lifting and severe trimming, bottom and top.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2010 at 7:11PM
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Hi there,

I had a Kaffir lime which I grew from seed, about 10 months old, 10-12 inches high approx and decided to plant in my garden clay soil. It really is doing fine surprisingly. Now, Quebec winter is comming up and I need to uproot it and put it in a pot for overwintering. Anyone have any idea of how and when I should proceed to do so? I don't want any pest to come in so I thought i should bareroot it and then repot into citrus potting soil around mid september.
Any answers are welcome :)

    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 10:29AM
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Suzi AKA DesertDance Zone 9b

When is it winter there... like what month? What size container are you planning to use? Draw an octagon around your tree in the container size, and start 2 months prior to winter, spading down on 2 opposite sides. Let the tree rest for a couple weeks, and spade in another two spots. Let it rest again until you have circled the tree.

What you have done is root pruned. The roots will do exactly what a branch will do when you prune it. They will send out side roots. Now you have a root ball full of roots to put in your container to bring in for winter.

Easy peasy!

    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 10:51AM
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Thanks desertdance, seems like a good idea instead of trying uprooting bareroot without breaking anything...

Our winter starts December 21st, but our first frost comes at October 7th...

Based on what you are saying, I should start this process right now? right?


    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 2:15PM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

A tree that small won't have a rootball. Furthermore you can't put clay soil into a pot. It doesn't drain nearly well enough. You have no choice but to do a bare root before it freezes.

If it survives please don't plant it outside again. That's not a good plan in Quebec.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 3:09PM
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Thats what I thought about clay soil.

I will never plant this kind of tree in soil again lol. I had a brain cramp that day.


    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 3:33PM
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