Instead of heading to the grocery store to buy oranges, why not grow your own citrus tree at home? Orange trees can grow in the ground in warm, temperate climates or indoors in containers in cooler climates. The tree adds a beautiful addition to your landscape and tasty oranges to your fruit bowl when grown under ideal conditions.
Outdoor Growing Conditions
Orange trees need lots of sunlight to thrive, so choose a sunny spot that's protected from wind. You also need plenty of space for the tree to grow, so consider proximity to other trees, your home and other structures in the area. A reasonable expectation for standard orange trees is a height of 18 to 22 feet. Expect a dwarf variety to sprout 8 to 12 feet tall.
Orange Plant Soil Requirements
When considering soil requirements, the most important factor is drainage. Citrus trees can typically grow in a variety of soil types, but they don't tolerate saturated soil. If your soil doesn't drain well, you can create a raised bed or a mound to prevent the tree from getting too much water.
Even though your orange tree can grow in different types of soil, it's best to amend heavy soil to provide better growing conditions. You can work in nutrient-rich soil to improve the quality before planting.
Planting an Orange Tree
If you're growing standard-sized trees, space them between 12 and 25 feet apart. Dwarf varieties only need 6 to 10 feet between them. It's a good idea to check the requirements for your specific variety, as it may have different spacing guidelines.
If the orange plant has any dead or damaged roots, cut them off of the tree. You can also straighten roots that seem to curl around themselves to help them grow better once planted in the ground. Plant the tree so it sits at the same level as it did in the nursery container. After backfilling the hole, press the soil gently and water the tree well.
Watering and Fertilizing
Consistent watering that keeps the soil moist without being saturated is ideal for tree growth. To avoid a waterlogged tree, you may need to let the top of the soil get a little dry. A moisture meter indicating a 50 percent moisture level at about 9 inches is a good sign that you're ready to water your tree.
The tree leaves also help you understand your watering habits. If you notice the leaves wilting, water the tree and look at the leaves after 24 hours. If they perk up, it means the roots were too dry. If the leaves look yellow or cupped and don't recover after you water, you're probably giving the tree too much water.
Citrus trees need regular fertilizer, especially before they begin bearing fruit. A balanced citrus fertilizer is an ideal option. Always follow the package instructions to determine the amounts and timing of the fertilizer application.
Pruning Orange Trees
Citrus trees generally don't require a lot of pruning, but you will need to occasionally cut away some branches. Pruning broken or damaged branches helps your tree stay healthy. You may also want to prune to control the size of the tree or to open up the canopy to let in more light. Too much pruning can reduce your orange crop.
It's best to prune orange trees between February and April after you've harvested your fruit for the year. Intense sunlight can cause sun scald or bark rot on cut areas if you prune after May.
Harvesting the Fruit
Citrus fruit generally ripens in six to eight months, but that can vary based on the climate. January is often the prime harvesting time for citrus fruit. You want to leave the oranges on the tree until they're ripe, as they won't ripen once you pick them. If you think your oranges are ready to harvest, test one to check for flavor as an indicator if they're ready.
For a clean cut, use pruning shears to remove the oranges from the tree branches. You can also pull the ripe fruit from the tree, being careful not to damage the branches. Once harvested, the fruit lasts for a few months.
Growing Oranges Indoors
If you don't live in a year-round warm location suitable for growing oranges outdoors, you can still enjoy fresh citrus by growing oranges indoors. Dwarf varieties of orange trees can grow in a container indoors. You can also let the tree spend time outdoors during the warmer months.
Choosing Orange Tree Containers
Plastic or a similar nonporous, lightweight material is ideal for an orange plant container because it helps hold moisture. Plus, it's easier to lug around a lightweight pot if you plan to put the tree outdoors part of the time. Look for a container with plenty of drainage holes so the soil drains properly.
Once you have your pot, fill it with a mix designed for containers with inorganic additions to keep it from compacting. Perlite, vermiculite, coir and wood shavings are examples of particles in the soil that help with drainage and aeration while preventing the soil from getting compacted.
Indoor Orange Tree Care
Just like outdoor citrus trees, orange trees grown indoors need at least eight hours of sunlight each day. If you have a sunny spot, your orange tree may thrive without any supplemental light. However, you may need full-spectrum grow lights to give the tree the light it needs to truly thrive. It's best to keep your tree away from drafts where temperature fluctuations can happen.
Indoor potted citrus trees can go outdoors to get their sunlight on warm days. Citrus trees are typically OK outdoors once the air temperature stays above 55 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. It's a good idea to slowly acclimate your tree to the new environment, starting with a sheltered spot for several days followed by a spot with filtered light for a few more before putting it outdoors in direct sunlight.
When you bring the tree back inside for winter, you want to do the same thing, getting it slowly used to indoor conditions. You may also want to hose off the plant to get rid of outdoor debris and to make sure it doesn't have any pests hiding in the leaves.
Watering and Fertilizing Potted Trees
You'll need to increase watering and fertilizing when growing oranges indoors because of the restricted roots and smaller amount of soil to hold the water and nutrients. You don't want the roots to dry out, but you also don't want them sitting in soil that's constantly wet since orange and other citrus trees can experience root rot. Since the amount varies based on various factors, it's best to water it enough that it reaches the root zone and runs out the drainage holes. Consistent moisture leaning more toward dry than wet is ideal.
A complete fertilizer designed specifically for citrus provides your tree with needed nutrients. The prime time for feeding orange trees is beginning in late winter or early spring as you see new growth until late summer or early fall when growth slows. You'll generally want to fertilize every other month during the growing season. Follow package directions for specific fertilizer timing and amounts.