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Tips for growing your own citrus trees in small spaces

Growing your own immune-boosting citrus fruit is easier than you think, even if you only have a small courtyard

29 May 2022 - 00:00 By Jane Griffiths
A delicious selection of immune-boosting citrus fruits.
A delicious selection of immune-boosting citrus fruits.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton

Hardy, evergreen and healthy, citrus trees are ideal for small city gardens. Self-fertile (you only need one), they can be grown in containers or pruned to suit any space. Though they prefer temperate climates, many varieties survive mild frosts if protected when young.


Citrus need fertile, well-drained soil, full sun and regular water — more in spring and summer and less in autumn and winter. Remove fruit in the first year so it puts its energy into getting established. They're hungry trees and benefit from plenty of nutrition. Every four months feed with a potassium-rich, organic, slow-release fertiliser. Mulch to suppress weeds and retain moisture. To prevent disease spreading or pests breeding, remove all fallen fruit. Feverfew, lemon balm, tansy and yarrow are good companion plants.


All citrus do well in containers — as long as they are fed and watered regularly.


  • Use the largest container you can find.
  • Fill with a well-draining mixture of compost, vermiculite and cocopeat.
  • Keep the soil slightly on the dry side, as citrus is  susceptible to root rot.
  • Regularly pinch off new shoots to encourage a compact bushy shape.
Lemon tree trained up a trellis to serve as a screen.
Lemon tree trained up a trellis to serve as a screen.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton
Lush Kumquat tree.
Lush Kumquat tree.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton


Prune after they have finished bearing, removing weak, broken or dead branches and spindly growth. Aim for a well-balanced framework of larger branches with an open centre for light and air flow. 

Citrus trees take well to shaping — a good option for small gardens as they can be trained to fit a custom space.

  • Follow the Italian example of training lemons to grow up over a pergola to form a shady roof for a courtyard.
  • Train citrus to grow up a trellis to create a screen in the garden.
  • Shape citrus into hedges — a good option next to a pathway in a small garden as the top can be left to fill out above the pathway. 


For aphids, use an organic insecticidal oil. For Black spot, use an organic fungicide. For Codling moth, use a sticky trap with a lure. For Citrus psylla, use an organic pyrol spray.


All parts are edible, creating a wide variety of options from marmalade, preserves  and juicing, to candied peels and zest. Citrus pips, particularly lemon, are full of pectin, which makes jam and jellies gel. And, of course, a gin and tonic is not ready to drink unless it has a slice of lemon in it.  

Rough Skin Lemon tree.
Rough Skin Lemon tree.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton


Lemon: Meyer (thin skin with juicy, dark-yellow flesh; moderate to heavy frost) and Variegated Eureka (juicy with pinkish flesh; mild frost) both grow to 3x3m. Rough Skin (easy to grow and hardy) grows to 5m but takes well to shaping.

Limes: Sweet Lime (low acid and mildly sweet flesh; very light frost), West Indian Lime (strong flavour and more acidic; frost sensitive) are compact varieties growing to 2x2m. The Asian Lime (aromatic, distinctive double leaves used in cooking; light frost) is even smaller at 2x1.5m.

Naartjies: Most varieties grow to 3x3m but can be shaped. Satsuma (sweet tangy fruit; moderate frost) is one of the easiest to grow.

Kumquat: Small oval fruit, with sweet skin and sour flesh, ideal in preserves. It tolerates moderate frost and grows to 2x2m.

Calamondin: Both normal and variegated varieties are small at 1mx75cm. Tolerant of moderate frost, they produce small juicy fruit which is lovely in preserves or liqueurs.

Orange: Cara Cara (almost thornless with pink, sweet, tangy fruit; moderate frost) grows to  3x3m.

Grapefruit: Both Star Ruby (red flesh and great flavour) and Jackson (creamy, sweet, juicy flesh) grow to 3x3m. Frost sensitive.

• Sourced from Jane's Delicious A-Z of Vegetables by Jane Griffiths. Published by Sunbird Publishers.