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Sick looking older indoor grapefruit tree

Mark Leblanc
January 9, 2019

Weve had this grapefruit tree a near 20 years now and has gone through a few pots till we couldnt find a bigger pot. The tree used to be moved outside in the summers, since we live in Toronto, Canada we would have to move it indoor for the winters. Since it became so heavy to move it has become an indoor tree for the last 10 years. Its always gones through alot of major drops and near death looking stages but six month ago it had its first three flowers! We managed to keep 1 fruit alive so far and figured we must be doing something better than what we were. We water once a week to every week and a half however we arent sure what we are doing wrong to have the tree look so bare and sickly ): any help?

Comments (32)

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    That's a pretty small pot for such a large plant!! When was it last repotted and what sort of potting soil do you use? Do you fertilize?

  • Jodi

    I was about to write the very exact same thing as gardengal wrote. I'll just add the tree's problem is certainly in its container. The tree's root system must be strongly root bound. I do give Mark a lot of well deserved congratulations. Very few people in deed, ever keep a containerized seed grown grapefruit tree live long enough to produce fruit.

  • Denise Becker

    I am going to assume this is a tree started from a seed because of the age and just now blooming. A grafted tree only takes 3-4 years to start blooming and setting fruit. I would thin out some of the branches and shorten the canopy so it is more pleasing to the eye. Remove the branches that are crisscrossing other others and those that grow towards the trunk. This would encourage the tree to fill in and make a nice canopy.

    I agree that the pot looks too small for the tree. I use a 20" wide pot for a 6' tree. I hope you are watering only when it needs it by checking the soil with your fingers. The top 1-2" should dry out.

    Have you considered putting the pot on wheels? I have all my trees on plant dollies and my husband made a ramp so I can move the trees by myself from my sunroom to the patio.

    The heat vent may play a part in how the tree grows.

  • myermike_1micha

    Why don't you learn how to cut the roots back and re pot into the same size container? You could also cut the canopy back to keep it well maintained. Cutting the canopy back will allow the roots to keep up with the leaves you have left with less light levels.

    I would also post this at the Container Forums. It's quite possibel root work is in order before it stangles itself to death.

    My sister had the same thing happen. The root grew too big for the conatiner and grow around themselves. 20 years later it just died like that and became infested with pests because it was so weak..

    Are you going to do an emergency re pot? Is the soil mix compacted?


  • Mark Leblanc
    Thanks for all the help so far everyone! Yes I figured the pot was definitely an issue. As stated I really cant find a bigger pot around me and thats why. Its been in that size of pot for maybe 10 -12 years. So I think I might have to build a custom sized planter myself and of course casters would be put on lol. the heat vent is not really an issue we moved the tree into the kitch area just so we could fit out christmas tree in lol it was a short distance so this spot is temporary.

    The tree has honestly looked on average like these pics most of its life. So im not super worried its going to die but Im trying to figure out how to make the trees life better and hopefully more cosmetically pleasing.

    You all think its just the pot size from these pics? Im certain I didnt mix sand in with the garden soil I used last re pot so I would re do what I can of the soil mix for its new pot. However I might have to wait till the fruit rippens id hate to lose it at this point acter so ma y years of waiting
  • Mark Leblanc
    and i suppose the only reason i havent trimmed any of the crazy branches is because it sometimes will grow new leaves from them and so ive been just trim mostly the necessary (aka the dead) or and really out of place branches
  • myermike_1micha

    You are saying that the tree does this every year? Indoors?

    If you don't have enough sunlight to keep the root sytem strong, the roots can not keep up with such a large canopy of leaves and will shed tons of leaves and branches to stay alive. I'll bet if you could put that tree in a good sized greenhouse, this would not happen.

    Root pruning is a good idea for those that like to keep their trees in pots no larger than they can lift. Their are many varying opinions on how to do this. Some say to the root ball into wedges and to cut off a third of them at the bottom to allow for more growth in the same pot.

    Some say to examine them closely and to cut away the useless main ones and leave just the finer roots behind.

    Some day to bare root them completely and clean them up.

    Some say to cut them on all sides and the bottom and then stick them into a new pot.

    Others say to cut them back and to cut the canopy back too for very good reason.

    Others just leave the tree in the pot and saw out the sides of the roots and just fill with fresh soil.

    So if I were you, I would either talk to a Bonsai specialist or a garderner who knows how to do root work and make it worth my while. The container forums has those types of people there and will teach you much))

    Also too, some who have been very successful with keeping large trees in containers like Brian, would be very helpful. He has the right touch! I am still learning the whole root pruning thing but very important to the over all health of any tree in a pot eventually.


  • Mark Leblanc

    The tree has stayed indoors for over 10 years now. It looks on average like this year round. It will go through major drops and major re grows in cycles so its state like this is a death alarm for me cause this has seemed to be normal.

    I think by this point and size its pretty safe to say the thing is seriously root bound. I definitely want it in a bigger pot because of its size and the root system would need something much bigger than what I got.

    Do you cut you trees roots often? I havent heard of something like that being a maintenance type technique that gets done frequently. Seems quite time consuming if its more than a one or a few times thing?
  • Denise Becker

    You can practically find any size pot you need online. Maybe some of our Canadian members can recommend a source.

    I have root pruned many of my trees last spring and all I did was cut 2-4" off the bottom and sides. I chose a larger pot and added fresh soil while leaving the original soil and rootball alone. Root pruning can be done as often as you need to have it done. I would assume at least after every 2 years.

  • bklyn citrus (zone 7B)

    Whether its Citrus, or its a pear/plumb/peach/ whatever you grow - wherever you grow it, If you keep shrubs or trees in pots, you will have to either up the pot size and/or root prune every so often (dependent on vigor, I usually get 3 years or more) or the tree will kill itself. That's the deal. Your WAY OVERDUE. For convenience sake, weather permitting, I'd pull it all out and take some of it back and certainly prune back the canopy to match. Since its now borne fruit, you may want to consider taking a cutting.

  • Mark Leblanc
    I suppose maybe i should should look harder online. Ive searched before but none of the pots really fit in with my house. Not to say that this crumbly clay look alike one does either though lol. but if there are any recommendations for site to search id love to check them out thank you!

    zone 7,
    Most likely will wait for the fruit to finish unless I can get a few hands to help break the pot around it and carefully re pot. But sounds like I will work on getting a bigger pot first off and then getting my new mix ready for the re pot.

    Root cutting sounds like a good idea to help re pot the tree. Kind of like when you break apart the root ball planting spring flower I guess except a bit more delicate in this case!

    Didnt realize cutting the roots around the sides was something people frequently did for their indoor trees. I will have to read up some to educate myself with that subject.

    Now, suggestions for my new pot soil mix?
    All Ive known is a 1 part sand to 1 part soil for good drainage.
  • myermike_1micha

    Root pruning is a MUST if you want a tree with good vitality just as important as feeding it and pruning the top. Imagibe if you never cut back your toe nails kept in shoes for the most part? What everyone is saying is right and very important.

    I do root prune some of my smaller trees but I have yet to root prune mine the way Bonsai experts due. I do what many do here, basically cut them back and re pot. I know there are others that literally clean all the roots off and cut out the ones gurgling the other and the ones that only support the tree, not the ones that take up nourishment. I mean a hard prune which I still fear, lol I just want to make sure I do it right so I keep reading up on it.

    I do know that if it were my tree, I would take off all the fruit, clean the tree up, cut in back a bit and give it good sunlight and make sure the soil is not working against you. Any severe cutting back of roots or pruning if it were my tree would be at the start of summer when it's been outside for a while and actively growing, healthier to take on such work.

    Potting mix?

    Anything porous that will allow good drainage, but that would mean doing almost a bare root to keep the mix equal throughout the root ball, not keeping two differentbtypes of mixes in your pot. Not good.

    If you say this tree looks like this every year, why can't you wait until a better time to do such extreme work like late spring into summer and just clean it up, watch your watering practices and keep it at least happy?

    Can you describe the mix in better detail that it's in? Is it compacted at the root ball? Loose around around the edges? Does it stay wet for days or dry right out? this will helps us a lot.

    Gotta run, but everyone here is a huge help))

    This is a start



  • Mark Leblanc

    will definitely have to read up on the root pruning woth those bonsai growers. Had no idea they did that kinda stuff too.

    The soil it is in from what i remember is an average potting soil from a garden soil. It is compacted quite well. Neither which are good I know. It get watered once a week to week and a half usually and it is dry from what I can feel when the waterings occur. However you have to water like crazy for any to come through the bottom which i never do cause thats too much water for the tree.

    Im thinking of waiting till early summer or untill the sigle fruit finishes lol and re potting. I will cut the roots once ive read up a bit more on the technique so i onow what i am doing for the re pot and probably would remove whatever soil I could to replace with a proper mix. At the end of the day the more soil that i have in there now that can be replaced with a better suited spil for the tree would be far better than the situation i have now, correct?
  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    "However you have to water like crazy for any to come through the bottom which i never do cause thats too much water for the tree. "

    ?? If you have a properly draining potting media, that's exactly what you want - to water the pot thoroughly enough so that water flows freely out of the drain hole(s). That should ensure that the entire volume of media is fully hydrated as well as flushing out any accumulated fertilizer salts.

  • Mark Leblanc
    yea as weve talked about my current situation is far from good or optimal. Moving forward to the repot i need to change out as much of current soil as possible.

    ideally i believe these citrus plants like substrate that drains very very well correct? a proper watering should easily flow through the bottom
  • Jodi

    Removing the fruit, in your case one fruit, after you have waited 20 years would take real courage. Perdue University research has stated, leaving one fruit on a small citrus tree does not have any detrimental effect on the growth of a citrus tree. Your tree is of course is not a small tree, but a very big tree. Leaving the fruit on the tree until it matures will be no problem to the tree.

  • Mark Leblanc

    Great to hear! Thats my plan so far. And yes after so long I was completely shocked to see the first flowers last year (2018) but so excited for I was nearing the end of my hopes for a fruit bearing tree. Ive been absolutely babying this last surviving fruit haha almost wanted to build a protective case to go around the tree when we hosted an annual house party in dec.. jk obviously, but you can see how excited I was and still am about the fruit!
  • myermike_1micha

    Good to know from what Silica said ! So enjoy what you worked so hard for andvyes I would have a fruit bearing party. Stick that fruit on a plate surrounded by those most impotartant to you. Stick a candle in the middle of it make a wish that it dies well and then blow the candle out and cut that thing up sharing with all. lol. I Serious. Even I’m impressed that tree fruited for you. My sister tried for all those years before it sucummed to root congestion and mites!! Enjoy.

  • ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

    Now, suggestions for my new pot soil mix?
    All Ive known is a 1 part sand to 1 part soil for good drainage.

    ==>>> no..no...no...

    here is a link to a post a few down from yours ....: https://www.houzz.com/discussions/5568250/topsoil-for-outdoor-potted-plants#n=15

  • Mark Leblanc

    Im sure it will be a happy day when I eat that fruit lol all i know is im eating a solid half and maybe my father who planted to seed way back can have the other half haha sure hope itll be tasty! and thank you maybe ive just been lucky. its too bad your sisters plant didnt make it through

    Ken, yea I was under the idea of 1 part soil 1 part sand. just wondering if people had any specifics that seem to work wonders or something. Not sure how much your link relates to citrus tree in general but maybe i overlooked it?
  • Mark Leblanc
    Thanks for all the help everyone! I wasnt expecting so many quick responses! If i remember ill post an update when i repot to let you all know the progress! Sure would be nice to have a nice full tree!
  • ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

    just to be clear ... timing is imperative ...

    i suspect.. the fruit will abort .. if you try to repot while its on the tree ..

    fwiw ... with no citrus or indoor tree growing experience ..... i would probably do it in late spring.. so i could do it outdoors, after i hardened it off to being outdoors .. if for no other reason ... because you are going to make one big mess .. lol ...

    and.. in TREE TIME ... today or in 5 months.. is no appreciable difference ...

    after repotting.. i would put it in full bright shade for a couple months because of the root surgery ....

    you will shock the heck out of it ... and the shade will help it readjust without sunshine burning all the leaves off ...


  • Mark Leblanc

    I was hoping for the fruit to rippen by late spring early or early summer so im on track to repot around that time. I know that the repot will shock the tree regardless but hopefully i can keep the stress low for the tree and itll all be for the better.

    i was probably just going to get a giant drop sheet and repot in the house. its gunna be real messy i know but i just cant see myself getting the tree in and out of the house with a even bigger pot. im not even sure the tree will fit out the front door anymore. and the rear sliding door it about 10 stairs high
  • bklyn citrus (zone 7B)

    Whatever you do, take a cutting or two from the top to root before anything significant, then you have insurance and actually get a shorter Bearing tree in 3 years tops if they take, and its overdue.....

  • Mark Leblanc
    Thanks Denise for those links i will give them a look over when i get home!

    zone 7B, the cliping fron the top is a great idea, you say those clippi g can bear fruit i as little as 3 years? woah
  • Denise Becker

    Those videos are just to help you get started. I know you are in Canada so maybe something close to what is in the links will help you with your potting mix. 5-1-1 is very popular for a lot of people. 5-1-1 can be a starting point and you can always adjust it to what fits your needs.

    Organics Best Urban Gardener has a good one on pruning citrus too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIIBD-67Ef0

  • ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

    brilliant denise ... that is the suggestion i usually make when peeps ask about great grandma's precious semi dying heritage plant ... start some new ones asap ...

    most outdoor trees grown indoors.. do not root easily ... so it never crossed my mind that it would work with citrus ... go figure ..

    if in fact you do get a couple cuttings rooted ... just get rid of this old huge headache ... as many large plants like this will be quite a challenge for an inexperienced newb at the process .... in the alternative.. after you are done .. you will agree with me.. lol ...

    also ... in the future.. you might bone up on proper pruning techniques ... historically ... you did some real interpretational pruning ... lol ... mostly it looks like you just lopped chunks off the top .... which obviously served the purpose.. but it can be done much more artistically ... so that you end up with a much better looking tree .... im sure we could google potted citrus trees to see examples ...

    finally ... once you get a smaller version .. you will be able to get it outside for summer... so it can get the light levels it really needs ... and if you do.. understand.. when you take it outside after winters indoors... it goes in full bright shade until you can harden it off to direct sunshine ... full bright shade is a lot more light than sun thru windows ... but this is a topic for another post ....

    good luck ... ken


  • joeinmo 6b-7a

    Probably need to go into the pot and trim some roots. Make sure you hit the leaves and branches with neem Oil.

    also something I found out..those curled deformed leaves could mean you have nematodes in the soil. Nematode in citrus link

  • Mark Leblanc

    lol theres no headache here, the tree has honestly been like this for a while and nothings been out of its norm here for years. It would be rewarding to spend some time and try to fix the mess i let go. and for pruning there is some people in my house who hack good chunks off when they thought it was getting to close to the ceiling. Ive tried to curve the butchery by pruning my self which i do more artistically however i am a bit reserved sometimes. and with a tree like this ive try to cut only dead and any really big problem braches in order to maintain the leaves providing the energy for the tree. I figured id tackle the process of gaining a bit more density and coverage as a priority and then trying to form the tree into a respected shape and something that is pleasing.

    Will probably use a clipping or two for insurance and to try a new method from the start but ill hold on to the original as long as i can bare it and itll let me keep it living lol
  • Jodi

    All citrus, including grapefruit, flower and fruit only on new wood. Pruning by its very nature removes new wood, therefore the tree will not bloom nor fruit on a pruned branch. At least not until the pruned portion once again produces more new growth, and that would not be for a year. This of course is especially important for a seed grown tree, due to the fact that the tree must continually grow until it finally reaches the required node count for maturity. And for a grapefruit the maturity node count is quite high. The more a seed grown tree is pruned, the longer one must wait for flowering because pruning is reducing growth by eliminating node counts.. In Mark's case 20 years. Normally a well grown seedling grapefruit should begin flowering within 10 to 12 years.

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