If you’re trying to grow more of your own food and want to add a citrus tree to your garden, try out a lime tree. Limes add a wonderful pop of freshness to any dish or drink, and it doesn’t get any fresher than right off the tree from your garden!
They do require a bit of maintenance, but are the most cold-hardy of citrus trees, so if you’d like to grow some citrus fruits, lime trees are likely the best place to start. In fact, lime trees grow well indoors, so anyone can grow limes- regardless of how much snow is outside.
Lime trees have so much to offer you and your garden. Alongside their fresh citrus fruits, they also have fragrant flowers, which make them great ornamental trees, they provide shade, and diversity both for your garden and your kitchen!
Lime trees are actually the product of hybrid citrus trees, most of them being a cross of different types of lemons. However, because there’s so many options for cross-breeding citrus fruits, there’s a ton of different types of limes! At the end of this post, after I explain the process and tips for growing a lime tree, I’ll describe the several types of lime trees.
The different types of limes vary in taste but all limes typically have the same nutritional profile as other citrus fruits. In general, limes are very high in Vitamin C (about 20% of our daily needs!), Vitamin B6, Magnesium, Calcium and Potassium.
Uses for Limes
Limes are little fruits packed with a ton of flavor and juice, so they’ve been incorporated in many cuisines. With such a powerful freshness, they have become staples in many cultures. Limes are central in Mexican, Indian, Thai, and Moroccan cuisine, but also commonly used throughout Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia.
In cooking, lime juice can be used for marinades, salad dressings and sauces, or just squeezed on top of a dish. The rinds can be used for lime zest, similar to lemon zest, as a topping.
Limes are also often added to drinks because they’re so fresh and flavorful. Limes are ingredients in cocktails like margaritas, caipirinhas, and daiquiris and are also used in non-alcoholic drinks like limeade or iced teas.
Together with the long list of vitamins and minerals I listed above, lime juice is also great at aiding digestion and has immunity-boosting effects. In fact, there’s a long history of limes being used for medicinal purposes in Thai and Vietnamese cultures.
Lastly, limes can be used in making perfumes or essential oils! Given their flavor is extremely strong, limes also have a strong scent that is powerful when condensed into an essential oil or used as an ingredient in a perfume.
Now that you know a bit more about what limes are and how to use them, let’s talk about how to start growing!
Growing Lime Trees
Lime trees are very similar to other citrus fruit trees, so if you have any experience with growing lemons or oranges, you can use that to guide you with your lime trees. However, no experience required!
All citrus trees are best suited to tropical and subtropical climates, and lime trees are no exception. If you live in USDA zones 9-11 you’ll have no problems with lime trees, but if you live above these zones, your best option is to grow a tree indoors. (A few sections down I describe everything you need to do to grow lime trees indoors.)
Although you should take note that lime trees are the most cold resistant of citrus trees. For this and because they’re the fastest growing, lime trees are regarded as the easiest citrus tree to grow!
Planting a Lime Tree
To get started with your lime tree, you have three options: you can start with a seed, buy a baby tree, or propagate a stem.
Starting by seed, as you can imagine, takes the most dedication. You have to watch diligently to make sure the seed germinates, a process that takes about two weeks. Then it will be ready to be planted, but of course it will need consistent care to ensure that it sets in good roots and begins growing strongly.
If all goes well with the germination process, you still need to water and fertilize so the stems grow into a tree and even then, your baby tree won’t fruit for the first 4 to 5 years. I don’t mean for all this to discourage you, but just be aware of the time span for growing a tree from a seed.
If you’re not up for that kind of commitment, you can also propagate lime trees! This could be great for you if you already have a lime tree growing, or have access to one you can clip, so you don’t have to purchase anything but also don’t have to supervise the germination process needed with seeds.
For propagating lime trees, you’ll need a clipping of a young branch, about 6-8 inches long. Keep this clipping in potted soil and after about two months, the roots will be fully developed and the tree can be planted outdoors or in a larger pot.
Lastly, you can also buy a baby tree from a plant nursery. If you live in the south, there’s a good chance there’ll be lime trees at a nursery near you. However, if you live further north, you might need to look harder since they aren’t grown as frequently the further north you go.
If you buy a baby tree in a 5 gallon container, it will still take about 2 to 4 years to produce fruit, depending on how its growth goes. You can also buy larger, more mature trees, they’re just drastically more expensive.
Regardless of how you start, ideally you want to plant the tree in early spring. This will give the tree time to set roots in without having to struggle through the summer heat. You can also plant in early fall, after the temperatures have cooled down but before the chill of winter comes.
When picking a spot to plant, it’s very important that you avoid any area that might flood. As I’ll explain with the watering needs, citrus trees are super susceptible to root rot, so if water pools around the roots, your tree will suffer greatly, if not flat out die!
So avoid areas of your garden that collect water and try to find a sunny spot. Once the roots are developed, lime trees don’t transport well, so take care to pick a spot where your lime tree can thrive for the years to come.
Once you’ve got a good spot, dig a hole twice as wide as the root bundle. You want the tree to be level with the ground- again, so water doesn’t pool in- so dig a hole just deep enough to set the tree in.
With the tree settled in, refill the hole, with soil around the roots and an outer layer of mulch. Although you don’t need to push the tree in, make sure the topsoil is packed in because air pockets can cause the roots to deteriorate.
Citrus trees require a specific kind of soil, since they’re native to tropical regions, so making sure you’ve cultivated the right mixture is very important. For all citrus trees, it’s very important that you use a well-draining soil- if there’s too much moisture in the soil the root will decay.
Because you want a soil that easily drains water, soil that’s a little sandy is best. You can also go to your nearest nursery and ask if they have soil specifically for citrus trees. Especially, if you buy a baby tree from a nursery, there’s a good chance they’ll also have soil for it.
It is useful to add in mulch, like organic compost, but you don’t need much and it shouldn’t be too close to the root ball. It’s best to have compost just in the local soil so that there’s nutrients available to the tree but the roots aren’t packed in with moisture.
Otherwise, you don’t need to worry about soil temperature or pH levels.
Lime trees, with all citrus trees, love full sun. Being in a sunny spot with several hours of daylight is really best for them. They’ll also do well with partial shade, just so long as it’s not shaded all day long.
Although, if you live far south with extremely hot summers, it would be better to actually have your lime tree planted with some shade cover. The ideal situation would be where the tree receives direct sunlight in the morning and evening, but is covered a bit during the day so it doesn’t scorch in the heat
It’s especially important to protect the tree while it’s young, because too much exposure to heat could stunt the growth of the roots or cause sunburn to the leaves.
The best method for lime trees is an infrequent but deep watering. Since it doesn’t require much moisture in the soil, it’s not necessary, nor desirable, that the soil is constantly wet. Rather, the tree prefers to drink a lot at once and then is “full” for a while.
The best way to check if your tree needs watering is to feel the first few inches of soil with your fingers. If the top inches of soil are dry, then give your tree a good deep watering but if not, definitely don’t water as you risk overwatering.
Deep watering means watering slowly and thoroughly. Since lime trees need to be watered less often, it’s better to make sure that the water sinks deeply into the soil. Take some time to either slowly water with a weak faucet, or you can use a drip irrigation system for slow release.
If you notice several yellow or pale green leaves, this is a sign of underwatering. This does mean you need to increase the watering amount or frequency, but be careful not to over do it.
Citrus trees have sensitive roots that really struggle with standing water, so overwatering is one of the fastest ways to kill them. Because they’re super vulnerable to root rot, it’s really important to have well-draining soil and a moderate watering schedule.
That being said, at the very beginning of the tree’s life, it’s important to water frequently so its roots are well fed. While the tree is very young, during the first 2 years, you should water every day. As it gets older, you need to water less frequently, but still about once a week.
Make sure to pay mind to the soil moisture in the summer when it’s more likely to become too dry. As the temperatures lower and winter approaches, you can decrease watering to bimonthly.
Luckily, citrus trees, unlike orchard trees, don’t require very much pruning other than standard maintenance. As with any plant, you want to help it by removing any dead parts you see. Anytime a plant has a broken, diseased, or dead stem or branch, removing it will help the plant reallocate energy towards its still healthy parts.
Additionally, it’s best to fully prune the tree, but lime trees just need pruning once a year- in the fall or winter, while they’re dormant. You want to remove any branches that are crossing over or rubbing each other, because this creates a breeding ground for diseases and pests.
This is also your chance to shape the tree if you’d like to, but make sure not to be aggressive because trimming too much will stunt growth. The goal of pruning is just to cut dead weight- literally- to promote new and healthy growth.
Something to be aware of particularly with lime trees, is suckers. You may notice a small branch or even tiny tree sprouting from the base of your lime tree, and this is called a sucker.
This often happens with hybrid trees, because part of the roots are still programmed to produce the type of tree they originally came from. Even if you have a completely healthy tree, the roots may just get confused and start to also produce a lemon tree!
While this might sound exciting (cool, new lemon tree!), this is actually not a good thing, for the roots and whole tree alike. If you see something sprouting from the base of the tree, clip it with gardening shears.
General Lime Tree Care
One huge thing you can do to boost your lime tree’s life is using fertilizer. Lime trees are heavy feeders and will soak up all the nutrients in their area- organic compost might not be enough.
Most experienced gardeners with lime trees recommend using fertilizer, at least three times per growing season. Some more often, like once a month. Use your discretion about whether your tree might need more or if you should just be patient with it!
Although, only during the growing season- you don’t want to feed it and encourage growth while it’s dormant as this will confuse the tree. Once you see a few inches of new growth on the branches, it’s ready to eat!
It’s best to use organic, homemade fertilizer, which is also super easy to make. Lime trees specifically search for more nitrogen, so that’s the main nutrient you need to be feeding your tree. Generally, use about two tablespoons of fertilizer whenever you feed your tree.
Lasly, lime trees need to be protected from the cold. They’re quite sensitive to cold weather, so if you’re expecting a chilly winter or a cold front, here are some tips for keeping your tree warm enough.
If you’re expecting just an especially chilly night, you can wrap your tree in a tarp or blanket so it doesn’t frost. Trees need to stay cozy too!
However, if you have cold winters or are expecting an abnormally cold winter, it’ll be best to bring the tree inside. See below for the section on growing indoors.
Lastly, what this has all been adding up to, the great climax of fruit trees: let’s talk about what you can expect once your tree does start fruiting!
If you’ve followed the care instructions so far and are experiencing consistent growth with your lime tree, it will start to fruit! The last thing needed is pollination.
If your tree is outdoors, there’s a good chance you’ll naturally attract pollinators, since the beautiful white flowers of the tree are very fragrant. But in the event you’re not getting much pollination, you can also pollinate your trees by hand.
This is a last resort but, still an option:
- Using a cotton swab or a small paintbrush, rub the pollen on
- Transfer pollen to other flowers
- Repeat process for whole tree
As long as the soil nutrients are adequate, the tree will bear fruit when it’s around 5 to 6 years old. The shape and color depends on the type of lime tree, which I explain below, but generally the fruit will start as a small green fruit and turn more yellow as it ripens.
You want to harvest the limes when they are a light green. Technically, they are fully mature when they are mostly yellow, but at this point the fruit is very bitter and not the same lime taste you’ll be expecting. But, if you like that bitterness, harvest them then!
Keep in mind that limes don’t ripen once off the tree, so don’t be too hasteful in picking them, otherwise you’ll be left with lots of unripe limes!
The fruits will start to grow on the trees in early spring, but take a couple months to ripen, thus likely won’t be ready for harvesting until mid to late summer. But once they are ready, you’ll have fresh limes to throw in any dish or drink.
Growing Lime Trees Indoors
It’s important to mention that although lime trees require tropical to subtropical outdoor conditions, they can definitely be grown indoors in any climate! If you live in USDA zones 8 or geographically higher, you won’t be able to grow a lime tree outdoors, but follow this guide for growing indoors.
First off, you’ll want to look for a dwarf lime tree, as these only grow to maximum 10 feet, although most are even 6 to 8 feet. This is obviously much more manageable both in terms of height, but will also require a smaller pot or container. However, don’t think you can cram the tree into a small pot, they still need space to grow and breathe.
It would be best to use a clay or ceramic pot for growing indoors. Indoor citrus trees still require loose, well-draining soil, and will also need a pot that drains well. Make sure there’s holes on the bottom and a catch tray under.
Also, remember that lime trees don’t adjust well after being transplanted, so try to pick a pot that will allow the tree enough space as it grows older and larger. This can be hard to gauge and you may end up needing to replant, which is alright, just be very careful.
Sunlight needs are the same- full sunlight for several hours daily. However, if you have windows that let in cold air, you’ll want to keep the lime tree a few feet away from the window so it doesn’t frost.
If your home is normally pretty dry, especially due to heating or air conditioning, you might want to get a humidifier or occasionally mist your tree so it feels a bit tropical. Either way, you definitely shouldn’t keep your tree near your radiator or cooling unit.
You want to prune the tree as normal, as I described above, although through pruning you can keep the tree shorter if that’s better for your space. If you’re growing in a container garden, then you’ll definitely want to shape the tree so it fits and doesn’t become cramped.
If you have warm enough summers, it is ideal to bring the tree outdoors for the summertime. But do this gradually! If you just pick up the tree and take it outdoors, in full sunlight, it will likely go into shock.
As the weather warms up, day by day bring the tree closer to the door. Eventually you can take it outside, but you’ll want to bring it back inside at night until it becomes better acclimated and the nights aren’t as cool.
If you’re taking the tree outside, there’s a good chance it will be pollinated while out there. But if not, and especially if you keep it entirely indoors, then you need to pollinate the tree yourself. In the section about the fruits, just above, I explain how to pollinate by hand.
Different Types of Lime Trees
At this point in this article, you’ve read all the techniques and tips for caring for a lime tree, so you may be feeling ready to go! But not so fast- there’s several types of lime trees and without learning which one is right for you, you might not get the right tree or show up to a nursery confused with the various lime types.
As I said at the beginning of this article, limes are actually a hybrid of different citrus fruits. So, the following types of lime trees are all different combinations of different lemons, oranges, citruses galore!
Probably the most popular variety of lime, you likely recognize the name from Key Lime Pie. This tree is very commonly grown in the south of the U.S, so it’s likely what you’ll find at a nursery. Limes sold in grocery stores are often key limes, although not always.
The citrus aurantifolia tree grows up to 12 to 15 feet in height and is quite compact and bushy. Its branches are slender and quite thorny, so make sure to wear gardening gloves and be careful when you reach into the tree.
This tree’s leaves are oval-shaped and a dark green, similar to those of orange trees. The tree blooms with tiny white flowers with purple edges that have a strong floral fragrance. The flowers grow in clusters and bloom in the spring.
If treated well and the roots are taken care of, this tree can live up to 150 years! That’s 150 years of lime harvests. It’s fruit, the limes that you know well- smooth rind with a bright green color.
Mexican limes are actually the same species as citrus aurantifolia, just by a different name. Because lime trees are native to warmer, tropical regions, they grow very well in Mexico.
In Mexico there are countless varieties of limes, all depending on which farm you’re getting them from. Some people have bred their own specific types of limes whereas some grow the original citrus aurantifolia.
Just know that if you see Mexican Limes in the store, it’s the same kind of tree as described above, just hailing from Mexico!
West Indian Lime
These limes are also citrus aurantifolia, however these are grown, as you may guess, in India. Southern India has the perfect climate for growing limes, so it’s also home to many lime varieties.
While the castelo lime tree is technically also citrus aurantifolia, it has a very different look. These grow to a larger size than most limes and aren’t ripe until they’re completely yellow, resembling a lemon more than a lime.
Yet, the inside of these fruits is a light green color. However, the flavor profile of castelo limes is very similar to key imes.
Another interesting thing about this lime is that it ripens in the fall and even into the winter. If you can get seeds or a baby plant, planting the castelo lime tree alongside a key lime, for example, would give you limes all year around! But this type of lime is pretty rare in the U.S., so there’s a small chance you can find it easily.
Australian Finger Lime
These kinds of limes are totally bizarre and a sight if you ever find one. These limes are tubular and long, about 3-4 inches in length. These limes are known for their “lime caviar,” as you can see in the photo, the pulp comes out in tiny balls that resemble caviar.
The one pictured above has a red rind because it’s been bred with a blood lime, the next lime type I’ll introduce. The rind of finger limes can be red, green, or yellow and is generally bumpy.
The tree, microcitrus australasica, is also quite large, growing up to 20 feet. This tree also has thorny branches with green, oval-shaped leaves. Its flowers are completely white.
As the name suggests, this lime has been bred in Australia, so it’s not common in the U.S., but that’s not to say you can’t find it here!
As you can see, these limes have a dark red rind and are also a bit smaller than limes we usually see in the U.S. Their darker color gives them a slightly sweeter taste with less sourness.
The blood lime grows on citrus australasica var. sanguinea trees that grow almost exclusively in Australia. These trees have been bred for a specific region of Australia, which is why they aren’t grown much outside the country.
The persian lime is also often called the tahiti lime, both being citrus latifolia. This is a hybrid of the mexican or key lime and a lemon tree. This tree is known to be the most cold-hardy of all lime trees. Although, it will still struggle if you live in a zone 7 or below.
The tree itself is much taller, growing up to 20 feet in height. This tree is also more widespread and open, with less thorny branches, resembling more of a large tree than a small fruit tree.
This tree has long and broad leaves, also with white flowers that grow in clusters. These fruits look similar to Mexican limes, but are a bit darker and seedless.
This lime tree is also a citrus latifolia, although with more Mexican lime influence. These limes look similar to Persian limes, except a bit darker green. These are also seedless limes.
This is another common type of lime tree, although not as popular in the U.S. The citrus hystrix trees are broad, with thorny and drooping branches. This tree is even more cold averse, struggling even in USDA zone 9!
These leaves are glossy on the top side and grow in doubles. Their flowers are white with pink edges. As for the fruits, they’re a bit darker green with bumpy rinds, like many lemons.
The Makrut lime is also commonly called a Kaffir lime, but since this name is derived from English settlers who then popularized the fruit, the name has been returned to its original Makrut.
This lime is native to Indonesia but is the same genus as the citrus hystrix above. It’s interesting to know that in Indonesia they also use the leaves for flavoring since they too have the strong citrus flavor.
The citrus × limonia tree goes by many names, such as Rangpur lime, mandarin lime, or lemandarin. That’s because this tree is a hybrid between lemon and mandarin trees, producing a fruit that’s equally a hybrid between the two.
The trees are average sized, about 15 to 20 feet. They’re wide with thorny and drooping branches, which closely resemble those of a mandarin tree.
The leaves are dark green but with interesting purple edges, and the trees have little white flowers. The fruits are the same size and shape as limes, but, as you can see, with an orange rind.
Something interesting to know about these trees is that they’re slightly more tolerant with colder temperatures and can even grow well in higher elevations. Originally grown in Bangladesh.
Calamansi limes are very similar in color and shape as key limes, except much smaller. The name citrus × microcarpa implies that they’re a micro-version of key limes.
These trees, sometimes called the Calamondin lime tree, are native to the Philippines and are a staple fruit there. It’s not so easy to find these trees here in the U.S., but you may find the fruits!
They’re much more sour, but actually the rind is very sweet. As you can see, the exterior looks a lot like a lime, but the inside flesh looks like a tangerine.
Getting Ready to Grow
Well, I hope that after all that information you’re feeling ready to get growing! If you live in zones 9-11, you have no reason not to! If you live further North, you will need to make extra efforts to help it grow well indoors, but it’s completely do-able.
The main things to remember amongst all this information, are that lime trees need well-draining soil, deep waterings, and full sun. Fertilize a few times a year and prune once a year. A bit of maintenance and some good attention will go far with this fast-growing citrus tree!
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.