Growing Citrus from Seed

Every New Year’s day I do two things: I start a batch of miso and I start germinating seeds so I have plants I can give away to friends and neighbors.  This year I decided to try something new and bought a bunch of citrus at the grocery store and germinated the seeds from the fruit.  I’ve given away almost all the seedlings now, but I’ve had enough people want to try it themselves that I decided I’d write the process up properly.  Citrus for everyone!

You don’t need much to grow your own citrus plants from fruit.  Just a piece of citrus (I’ve done this successfully with limes, key limes, sweet lemons, meyer lemons, clementines, and blood oranges), a plastic bag or small container, a paper towel or cloth, and eventually some soil and a pot. I always start with organic citrus.  I’m 90% sure most conventional citrus would work too, so if that’s what you’ve got give it a shot, but I go the organic route to avoid any chance that the citrus was sprayed with chemicals that would lower the chance of seed germination.  For this demo, I’ll be working with an organic meyer lemon.

Step one: cut the fruit in half across the middle to reveal the seeds and the pulp.

Step two: remove the seeds and dry them off a bit so they’re easier to work with.

Step three: peel off the seed coat. Ok, I know many of you just tilted your heads in confusion, so I’ve done my best to show you exactly what I mean.  You can absolutely take citrus seeds, put them in the soil, water it, and wait for the them to grow.  But it will take a couple of months.  Trust me – I’ve done it.  All the while those seeds are in that soil, the seed coat is breaking down so that the endosperm and the rest of the seed innards can break through and grow.  If you don’t want to wait months, the seed coat needs to go!  It’s really simple to do once you know what you’re doing.  You can use your fingernail or a knife to split the top of the seed and pull away that whitish hard coat. Many thanks to my spouse for hand modeling.

Once you’ve got it started, peel the seed coat all the way off so you have just the small brown endosperm remaining. Repeat with all the seeds you’ve harvested from the lemon.

You’ve now done in a few minutes what nature takes months to do!  Do you feel powerful?  You should.  We’re taming nature here, folks.

Step four: now we’re going to give those little nude seeds a warm place to germinate.  I like to save every take-out container that comes my way.  They make excellent small green houses and reusing them keeps plastic out of the waste stream for a while longer.  So I used a take out container here, but you could use a plastic bag or any other small container that is waterproof and has a tight fitting lid.  Those seeds will need moisture to trigger growing, so dampen a sheet of paper towel or other clean cloth and line the bottom of the container, and then place the seeds on top.

Fold the paper towel or cloth over the seeds, seal it up, and label it.  I’m not joking about labeling it.  I used to think I could remember what seeds I was starting in different containers and now I have three rogue citrus plants and no idea what fruit will eventually grow.  Surprise! Do your future self a favor and write it all down.

Step five: place your container in a warm place and leave it for a week before checking in on it.  I’ve had seeds take as little as a week and a long as three weeks to germinate, so if they don’t germinate after a few days, be patient. When it does germinate, you will end up with an adorable seedling and if you are anything like me, you’ll literally shout loudly enough to concern everyone in your house.  Don’t worry – they’ll get used to it.

Step six: as soon as your seedling has a visible root, it’s time to plant it. I use a soil mix that’s made for citrus, but any well draining soil mix will do.  Give them a warm, sunny spot and water once every few weeks in the winter and weekly in the summer, and it will grow like a champ! Better to underwater than over-water citrus.  This little friend is just about three months old now and is loving its life under a grow light. In the summer it will live out on my porch with the rest of my plants in what I have dubbed “house plant summer camp”.

Don’t throw away the rest of the fruit after you’ve harvested the seeds, friends.  The juice is great for everything from livening up heavy meal to making citrus curd.  The zest is aces for infusing vodka.  And I add the skins to white vinegar to make a pretty kick butt surface cleaner.

Have fun and if you try this, let me know!