Moving Citrus outside and repotting

infomofoMarch 15, 2011

A few questions regarding my Meyer Lemon Tree:

1) I'm in Zone 6 (NYC) and I just moved my lemon tree back outside to catch some sun. It seems to be doing well and there's some new growth; I am planning to prune the dead branches soon and then re-pot. Is there a conventional wisdom about how long to wait in between changing the environment, pruning, and repotting to not cause too much stress?

2) Last time I repotted this tree I used a citrus mix from my local plant store that seemed ok- but I notice that a lot of people on this forum are not fans of premade mixes for citrus. Any suggestions for a citrus mix that a noob like me could use?

3) I bought a self-watering pot from Ikea. I was wondering if anyone has tried these pots with citrus, and any feedback on if they work well or if there are any suggestions about them? One thing I was going to do was add a drainage hole above the water reservoir, and block the hole with rocks so the soil doesn't spill out.

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Question 1) Prune dead branches (dried, brown, no leaves) any day or any time without consequence. This really isn't "pruning" in a meaningful definition.

If your tree has been outside for a couple weeks and is doing well showing new growth (that wasn't showing before you moved it outside), waiting another week is fine. However, I might suggest you wait until your growth cycle ends.

Under normal circumstances a citrus tree will experience the largest foliage growth, aka "flush", during the first warm Spring temp. Once this flush is over (it tapers off then nearly stops), it shifts toward root development. The best time to re-pot is the finish of the flush cycle, assuming little root loss during the procedure. This allows it to recover root mass and the freshest root hairs & white tips aren't exposed during a media replacement.

Question 2) If every two years you are re-potting, or at least every year removing the outside 3" of soil and replacing with fresh soil, you can use bagged mixes just fine. This is not my preference and I suggest this is OK since you have a history of doing so and your tree is still healthy (to your satisfaction, that is).

To achieve a closer position to those fans of pre-made mixes, who are looking to maximize vitality by creating a root zone without compacting and increased aeration, you can do so by amending the bagged citrus mix with bark fines (very small nuggets, non-dusty) and perlite. Find small pine or fir bark that is about the size of your thumbnail. You do need insect screen to remove the dust from the bark and perlite, this is not an optional step. The sifting screen is really the only "non-noob" option here.

STEPS: Put your bagged citrus mix in a pile. Empty about an equal amount of dust-sifted bark in a pile next to it. Spend a few minutes picking out the "woody" material and pieces that are much larger than your thumbnail. Pour "some" dust-sifted Perlite on top of the bark pile. As long as the two piles are about equal, it's fine.

This "better" mix will last at least an extra season longer than your current mix, before a re-pot required.

Note: It's not a LOT more work to prepare Al's 5-1-1 mix. More time is spent ensuring the bark is correct (type and size). You add dolomite, maybe gypsum. You mix the bark, perlite, and your bagged citrus mix at a 5-1-1 ratio. Wet it and let it sit for a week and you're good. Why not do it right?

The gritty mix requires significantly more work than the 5-1-1. But its benefits are significantly more vs 5-1-1 for long-term.

3) For question #3, someone else is better suited to answer that.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2011 at 2:11PM
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Wow! Your zone 6 must be different than mine! I won't be moving my citrus outside for several weeks. We had snow today (April 1st).

I use standard potting soil and have never had a problem, but I am very careful to make sure when I water that the pots do not sit in excess water.

For the same reason, I would not recommend using the self-watering feature: basically, the Ikea pot probably functions by allowing extra water to wick into the root-ball. I see on their website, for example, that they claim it provides "constant moisture." This is not what a citrus tree wants. Actually, few plants want that! It is only really useful in the "two-week vacation" scenario, where the water reservoir can help you avoid having to have a friend or relative drop by in your absence.

Citrus trees prefer to be watered when fairly dry, and then allowed to dry out a fair bit before being watered again. This may take a week or so in the dormant season, and a day in the summer heat.

Hope this helps (I didn't see your question till tonight).

    Bookmark   April 1, 2011 at 7:29PM
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Don..Ok...You said

You left me open to ask you a whole lot of questions...???????

You said that you use standard potting soil and never have any problems.

When you say that, are you talking about Miracle Grow? A bag of soil, not soilless mix bought at a store? Unamended? No added perlite or organics?
Do you store your plants in very cool rooms all winter?
How do prevent them from dying of root rot when it rains almost every day in some winters and add sunless days to cool to that?
How about cold nights while left outside if the mix is still wet?
How do you control salt issues over time?
How long does it take before your soil mix compacts?
Do you have problems with fungus gnats?
Are your trees in a constant state of very deep rich green color?
Pest free all year?
Do they flower profusely?
How often do you have to do repots?
How do you check for moisture?
What do you do when your soil mix pulls away from the pot, or does it?
Can you water them frequently without fear of root rot?
How much sun do they get?
How much light during winter?
What kind of water do you use?
How often do you feed and how much?
How long have you had them?

Do you have any recommendations for those that prefer soil mixes and tips other than to be careful not to over water?

I could think of more questions, but I do not want to over load you.

I ask because so many here are having such bad luck with bagged mixes, especially soil, and it might help someone that wants to stick with it.

I also hope your well my friend. Keep your chin up, 60's next week.Yahoo..


    Bookmark   April 1, 2011 at 8:06PM
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I'll try to answer them!

1. When you say that, are you talking about Miracle Grow? A bag of soil, not soilless mix bought at a store? Unamended? No added perlite or organics?

Answer: I use the typical mixes sold at Home Depot and Lowes or nurseries. I've used Miracle Grow, but I tend to pick up Pro-Mix or Peters Professional. All are used right out of the bag with no amendments at all.

2. Do you store your plants in very cool rooms all winter?

Answer: Not recently, but a couple of the oldest and biggest spent about 45 days in the unheated but attached garage before they came up to the living room around Xmas (they serve as our Xmas trees, since they come complete with organic ornaments, though we do add lights, more ornaments, and tinsel). In the house most of the plants are in rooms that get no cooler than 65 at night, but my Buddha's Hand Citron does spend the winter in a cooler bedroom (55 to 65) with almost no direct light (it gets about an hour of sun late in the day).

Long ago (as in back in the 1980s, when I was in college, the 39 year old orange spent entire winters in the garage (the garage is under the house, but otherwise unheated, and can get down into the low to mid 30s) during periods of near zero temperatures. It never had a problem with this, but one winter it did die back to its roots when my father and brother both thought the other was watering it. When it looked completely dead, my brother John didn't give up on it but watered it and it sprouted. It currently has a trunk diameter of three inches. I posted some pictures about a month ago.

3. How do prevent them from dying of root rot when it rains almost every day in some winters and add sunless days to cool to that?

Answer: They are inside from about October 15th or 20th through most of April, so the cold rains of late fall and early spring are not really an issue or at least not an issue for that long. Inside, cloudy days don't seem to cause any problems, though they obviously slow down the transport of water, so I end up watering less frequently.

4. How about cold nights while left outside if the mix is still wet?

Answer: They do experience nighttime temperatures down into the 30s in the spring and fall, but this has never been a problem. Of course, it does slow down or delay growth and flowering, but even new fruits set by the plants when inside seem to shrug this off and resume growing once the nights warm a bit. Having lived in Florida from 1990 through 1999, I can tell you that citrus trees down there live through similar weather quite nicely.

5. How do you control salt issues over time?

Answer: Our water here in West Hartford, Connecticut, is less hard than in many regions, but is not as soft as some. That said, I don't have salt issues. Possibly this is due to good thorough watering when I water during the inside months, but it is certainly helped by the fact that I water profusely during the heat of summer.

6. How long does it take before your soil mix compacts?

Answer: I'm sure it compacts to a degree within a few watering cycles of a repotting, but my experience is that is as far as it goes. The longer term development (after the plants have been in the same soil for a few years) is that much of the organic matter (peat, compost, whatever the mix uses) literally disappears due to the natural breakdown of such material. In effect, this allows more room for the roots, so it all averages out.

7. Do you have problems with fungus gnats?

Answer: Never in my citrus, since I put pine bark mulch over the top of the soil, but I do get them when I use the same soil for repotting garden plants in the early spring indoors and in some of my other houseplants that I don't have bark mulch in. I've had a few of them around all this past winter, but I consider them a non-issue.

8. Are your trees in a constant state of very deep rich green color?

Answer: No. Late in the summer/early fall, they tend to yellow a bit (partly I'm sure due to the fact that often don't fertilize them after the first week in August, since I don't want a new flush of growth so late in the season, but also, I've read, from the effect of cool temperatures, and of course some of the leaves are yellowing prior to natural leaf drop. As soon as the plants come inside into warmer temperatures, the leaves that are going to fall do that, and the others green up.

Some of my trees are clearly greener than others: my Myrtle Leaf Orange is very dark, as are the Buddha's Hand, and the Ponderosa. The Calamondin is a bit lighter, as are my Key Lime and the 39 year old sour orange I started from a seed. The Meyer Lemon varies a bit, but tends to fall in the middle of this range. I have a couple smaller trees that take after their parents in this regard.

9. Pest free all year?

Answer: Do you mean apart from the ants that live in a couple of the pots and take the occasional constitutional walk across my computer monitor? :-) I tend to have to spray some of the trees with oil spray to get rid of scale sometime each winter, and I spray with oil spray twice (separated by 10 days to 2 weeks) in the fall before they come inside. Other than that no problems with pests. I haven't had a problem with spider mites, for example, in probably over twenty years.

  1. Do they flower profusely?

Answer: Indoors they tend to flower a bit intermittently, and this seems largely to be a factor of how much light they get. Some years they've gone crazy. This year, not so much. My old orange and 25 year old Calamondin, for example, did not flower much at all this indoor season, but that is clearly because they are set back from the west-facing picture window by several feet, and other plants are in front of them blocking some of the light. Most of the others also only get about three or four hours (if that) of direct sunlight each winter day, so most of the flowering happens in May through July.

  1. How often do you have to do repots?

Answer: I went ten years before I repotted the 25 year old Meyer lemon, and probably twice that at one point before I repotted my 39 year old orange which did have that near-death experience, but other plants have been repotted every 5 years or so (or root-trimmed and potted up in the same container) once they reach a certain size.

  1. How do you check for moisture?

Answer: When they are inside I use two old and trusted methods: 1) I stick my finger down into the soil anywhere from a half inch to an inch and water if it is dry or close to dry. If one plant is dry in a room, I tend to water all the plants in that room. 2) I water when I notice the plants are starting to show leaf curl. The Calamondin is very good at showing this sign.

  1. What do you do when your soil mix pulls away from the pot, or does it?

Answer: I've never had this problem.

  1. Can you water them frequently without fear of root rot?

Answer: In the winter I water them as infrequently as every ten days or as frequently as twice a week, depending on their state of growth or dormancy and their location and the "weather conditions" meaning sun levels and temperature.

  1. How much sun do they get?

Answer: As I said above, when inside, they don't get massive amounts of sun. Those in the south-facing window in my bedroom get about five hours of direct sun when it is shining, but it only hits part of the plants, since they are too high for their tops to be in the direct line of the sun (they rest on my low dresser). The room is quite bright however, so they are happy. Most of the citrus spend the winter in the living room which has a large picture window and two smaller west-facing windows (and a north window that receives some late rays from the setting sun). They get about 4 to 5 hours of direct sun, but as I said those farther back from the windows receive less light.

During the summer months (from May through mid-October), the trees are all in my back yard. They receive direct light from about 9 a.m. till as late as 7 p.m. in June, but by mid-September the shadows from trees and the house reduce this period to about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In the past I had a couple of them in prime spots on the south side of the house, but for the last few summers they have all been on the east side and they all therefore get about the same amount of sunlight as indicated above, though last summer the Meyer Lemon and the Calamondin both disappeared under a canopy of pole beans which went wild during my absence.

  1. How much light during winter?

Answer: see above.

  1. What kind of water do you use?

Answer: I use water out of the tap. Our town has great tasting water. The plants seem to like it too.

  1. How often do you feed and how much?

Answer: In the indoor season I use Peters (now Jacks, I think) for Acid-loving plants about every 3 to 5 weeks, or even less frequently. I typically use about a third of a teaspoon per half-gallon, and give about a half gallon of this to the larger trees, and a quart to the smaller ones, and then add more water till they all drain into their trays.

  1. How long have you had them?

Answer: I've had the seed-grown orange for 39 years (while it came from a sweet orange, it produces sour fruit). The Calamondin was purchased on an Xmas visit to Disney in a Disney gift shop (the old citrus in a box) when I was 21, so that would make it 25 as of this past Xmas. I purchased the Meyer Lemon from a now defunct greenhouse and nursery (Whiting Lane) about the same time. I have a Key Lime and a Ponderosa Lemon that I purchased when living in Florida in the early 1990s, so they are about 20 years old (my father took care of the other citrus during that time). The Buddha's Hand Citron is about 8 years old, and the Myrtle Leaf Orange is just over 4. I purchased these two plants at Logee's.

  1. Do you have any recommendations for those that prefer soil mixes and tips other than to be careful not to over water?

Answer: I think I addressed these questions above, but I will add one more:

  1. How do you water the trees during the summer?

Answer: For most of the past ten years, I've spent 30 to 45 days abroad, and then the bulk of the summer on Cape Cod, and no one else has been at home, except at rare intervals, so I had to implement a drip-irrigation system. I use the Rain-Drip system, and run anywhere from two to six drip emitters (a mix of 1/2, 1, and 2 gallon-per-hour emitters), depending on the size of the tree into each container. Using more than one emitter is crucial, since a single emitter can clog. The old orange, in a large pot, probably got 4 to 6 gallons of water every day from late June through August. Obviously, on some days and during rainy periods that in the past have lasted a week or more, this can be much more water than the tree needs, (it is more than the plant needs on any day!) but I have to make sure it gets enough water to get through the hot dry days. I've had the plants and the drip system long enough (a decade) that I can definitely say that they are never at risk from over-watering during the summer months since they are all able to drain freely through the patio blocks they rest on. In the past, when I've tried to fine-tune the system to provide just the right amount of water (say two gallons per day for the large orange), I've had problems. See below for details.

Normally, I set up the system in mid-June, and leave for England in late June, having had it up and running for about a week or ten days. I typically set it to water every day for 30 minutes. Before I go, I toss a tablespoon or three of slow release fertilizer (Osmocote for Azaleas and other acid-loving plants) into the top of each container (right onto the bark mulch), and figure it will slowly work its way down and release during watering and rain events.

The only issues I've ever had with the watering system are 1) once a fitting burst (it was the antisyphon component which is closest to the water source) and the resulting deluge at the base of the foundation flooded the basement with two inches of water (luckily, it happened about two days before I came back for a brief visit). This fitting was not on the citrus line, but it was the same system, so it is not failure-proof!. 2) Over the course of the summer the water pressure can drop a bit, so it is important to check this at intervals, since if it drops too low some parts of the system will stop dripping. I almost lost the Meyer Lemon when this happened about 8 years ago. This is why I always end up giving the plants more water than they need during the summer (but this is basically similar to the situation they would face in their preferred habitat, so I think it is not really a problem).

For the record, about twelve years ago the Meyer Lemon yielded a bumper crop of 33 lemons. Since then, it has yielded 25 one year, and most typically between 10 and 20. It has 10 lemons on it now that set last summer, and I've harvested about 8 since last fall--those set last winter. This winter it has only set a couple fruit (I think in part because it was in a dormant phase for most of the winter, but the heavy crop from last winter and last summer may also have made a difference)--then ten fruit from last summer were still growing for most of the winter, though they are now starting to ripen. The lemons are used for cooking, lemon meringue and chiffon pies, and gifts.

My seed grown orange has had up to about 200 smallish (up to 2 inches in diameter fruit on in, but this year it has about 75 fruit in the 2 to 2.5 inch diameter range. The oranges are used for cooking (we freeze the extra ones by packing them twenty or so at a time into large freezer bags with no other preparation than a quick rinse). We do the same with the Calamondin fruit.

The Key Lime, a smallish tree about three feet high, had about 30 largish limes this year (larger than I've ever had before). It never sets fruit inside for me, but flowers like crazy in June/July. I made two Key Lime pies with them, and still have a few in the fridge that will be used for cooking (they tend to ripen from November through January).

The Ponderosa has a couple fruit on it, and I recently made an awesome Lemon-meringue pie with the largest fruit (the recipe called for 1/2 cup of lemon juice and one cup of water, but I reversed this since the lemon yielded a full cup of juice). The Ponderosa is in a bit of an odd situation: it is the probably unhappy host of a passion flower vine that rooted into the pot several years ago, and has grown quite robustly ever since.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 9:18AM
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The link has a few pictures of my trees.

Here is a link that might be useful: Some of Don's Citrus trees

    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 9:43AM
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NYC is zone 7--even in the older maps. I'm in zone 7 and moving mine out today.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 2:12PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Don, thanks for that thorough reply (and for the pics, too).

I think it'll help folks who attempt growing in bagged soils know what to expect from season to season.


    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 2:38PM
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Hey Josh: How are you? Been missing you around these parts lately. How are your trees doing?

Wow Don..Thank you. That is just awesome and I have yet to finish reading it but got to fly. That was very generous of you and your trees are so nice. Thanks for the pics. Make me some jam, will ya!?

If I can think of any other questions, please allow me? Thanks man.

Oh yes. How do your plants fare in periods of many days of cool rains while outdoors? Do you have to protect them from being to wet for too long?

Thanks again


    Bookmark   April 2, 2011 at 5:15PM
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Mike, in reply to your latest question: How do your plants fare in periods of many days of cool rains while outdoors? Do you have to protect them from being to wet for too long?

Answer: The summers of 2008 and 2009 here in Connecticut both had long rainy periods (for example, many garden plants suffered from various diseases--my peppers died in 2008 after about two straight weeks of rain, but that was before I had hooked the irrigation system up for the citrus. Thus, they just got rainwater during that period. Still, it was enough that the ripe Calamondin and sour oranges were bursting from too much water. When I left for England in 2008 the weather remained wet (over 6 inches in July), and it was also wet in 2009 (in July of that year the state received over 9 inches of rain), but I rigged the watering system up to water every day as described above and had no problems.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 7:57PM
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Thanks for the information on your citrus trees. I have a question about my citrus tree-lemon. How do you keep fruit from falling off. Ikept my lemon tree in garage during winter and it was fine,had about 20 little lemons on it now there is none but still flowering. My tree is 4 years old and in a big enough pot I believe. How can I keep the fruit from dropping?

    Bookmark   May 2, 2011 at 7:30AM
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