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Growing & Caring for a Kaffir Lime Tree


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The first photo I uploaded to ImageGullet was of my beloved baby kaffir lime tree:

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Within a year or so, the thing was dead. I can't remember why or how, and probably didn't know either when it happened anyway.

I was bemoaning the loss of that tree to a Khmer friend of mine, and a few weeks later she stunned me with the generous gift of this tree, from a cutting taken off a wild tree in Cambodia. It's now in the south window soaking up the rays and sending off little light green shoots:

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I'd like not to kill this one. Tips? NB: I live in Rhode Island USA, so this little bugger isn't likely to see the outdoors much at all.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I know they're notoriously tricky to take care of Chris, but I've always had good luck with keeping it warm, and giving a good watering only once the soil is starting to dry out under the surface (if it looks dry on the surface, poke your finger in the soil, and see how far down it goes before hitting moist soil). The worst thing you can do to any citrus is over-watering.

"...which usually means underflavored, undersalted modern French cooking hidden under edible flowers and Mexican fruits."

- Jeffrey Steingarten, in reference to "California Cuisine".

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I had no idea they're notoriously tricky! Mine is about 6 foot tall, and produces more leaves than I could ever use!!

I do suspect that Rhode Island has slightly different weather to Western Australia though, which may explain the difference.

Mine likes full sun (and I mean FULL), and I tend to water it every 2-3 days in summer. It's in a large pot with good drainage.

They also seem to like being pruned. I regularly massacre mine and it comes right back with growth spurts.

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I don't know that I should be giving any advice, as I've had a tree that has gotten about an inch larger in the three years I've owned it, but it is not dead, so I have that going for me. I'm hoping to do better this year since I came upon Kasma's advice for growing a tree http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/kaflime.html . Her cooking advice is great so I imagine her tree advice is similarly wise. It is somewhat Bay Area, outdoor specific but provides a lot of background knowledge along with specific advice for sites. Basically, remember it is a tropical tree used to moisture and warmth. I'm jealous of your cutting--it will probably be more sensitive to cold that commercial trees, as they are usually grafted on to a heartier citrus. Another good tip from Kasma is to prune a branch for leaves rather than just pluck them off willy-nilly. Good luck!!

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I'm hoping to do better this year since I came upon Kasma's advice for growing a tree http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/kaflime.html.'>http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/kaflime.html.

I had a problem with the previously posted link, but this link seems to work.

http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/kaflime.html

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I've been successfully growing a dwarf Bearss seedless lime tree in my NYC apartment for a few years... here are a few things I've learned... First - citrus HATE wet feet... they need really good drainage and like their roots to be kept on the dry side of moist... so that usually means for us indoor container growers is that we have to get a moisture meter ($10 at the home depot) which you stick in the soil down to the root level to measure moisture... you'll probably wind up watering about once a week with 1/4 to 1/2 gallon of water... Second - citrus are heavy nitrogen feeders - so they need a fertilizer with a formula of at least 2:1:1... I used the Miracid soil acidifier every time I watered... Also, most potting soils have peat or something else to retain water, so it's usually recommended to add a bunch of cedar or redwood shavings to the soil to lighten it up and increase the airflow. I don't know if this is a problem with Kaffir lime trees, but my Bearss would constantly get pest problems, like scales, which are easily treatable with a spray of horticultural oil mixed in water... then respray in 10 days to get the eggs which have hatched... finally, especially in winter, it's good to mist the tree once or twice a day with water to increase the humidity - or get a humidifier...

With all that said, I STILL ran into problems every once in a while... I'd get wet spots in my dirt which would wind up killing the roots in the area... so I've switched my tree to a flood/drain hydroponic system and the tree is LOVING it!!! The roots sit in a mesh pot filled with "hydroton" which are expanded clay pellets, and a nutrient liquid is flooded into the pot every 2.5 hours or so... most hydroponics flood every half hour, but the citrus likes to dry out a bit in between waterings, and with a bit of tinkering, I've found that every 2.5 hours works pretty well... I may try to go every 3 hours, but haven't done it yet... they usually say to let it dry about an inch or so below the surface before reflooding. Now my roots are doing great (and are easily inspectable), and I have a lot less pest problems than before...

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As someone who managed to keep a kaffir lime tree alive for several years, I have this advice to offer: keep a vigilant eye out for mites. Although most experts claim this is mostly an indoor problem, my tree would get infestations even while out on my deck during the hot Ohio summers. You have to eradicate the critters quickly, too, or else they'll overwhelm the leaves and cause them to drop off like crazy. I used Safer insect-killing soap; you gotta drench the leaves, both the top surfaces and underneath, for a few days.

In the winter, the tree needs *lots* of light. My tree started doing much better once I set up growing lights that were on 12 hours a day.

I speak of my tree in the past tense, because when I moved cross-country I had to give it away. But I plan to get another one sometime in the future--those fresh leaves beat the cryovac'd packages from the ethnic market any day! Good luck with yours, Chris.

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My kaffir lime grows outside, in the ground. It's about 10' high, three years after planting (it was in a 5 gallon pot and 4' high at planting). I do have a varigated lemon outside in a pot, and I learned from it that citrus need quite a bit of room in the pot. My varigated lemon grew fine for a few years, then limped along & didn't produce fruit for a year or two. I repotted it in a huge pot, and it's happy again. So watch out for your KL--you don't want it to get root-bound. Grow lights are essential, too, in a NE winter.

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This bugger is pretty hardy: it was in the basement with almost no light for a year. I've no hope of installing a dedicated growing light for the tree, either, since it's sitting in the dining room (the only viable window with full southern sun exposure).

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I've been considering the purchase of a kaffir lime tree, but what I'm after is the fruit (well, specifically, the rind of the fruit). Does anyone have a tree that's borne fruit? Would I be crazy to expect that?

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I have a small young lime plant (not a kaffir) that has given us several small limes in the 6 months or so that we've owned it. I expect the limes to get bigger as the tree does, if only because they will be out of reach of the cat.

It's in our living room (about 40 miles north of Chris's) right now, by a big south-facing window. It spent the summer on my deck and came inside when nighttime temps got near freezing. My mom (in RI) has done the same with a Meyer lemon tree for about 10 years now and gets 15-20 gorgeous lemons every year. It's definitely possible to grow citrus in a small way in northern climates.

John Rosevear

"Brown food tastes better." - Chris Schlesinger

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RE: fruit, my in-ground tree produces a dozen or so fruits each year. If you're growing one indoors, you may get a few fruit, and you can increase your yield a little if you hand pollinate, but you'll get more if you cross-pollinate with another citrus. (No insects indoors to do the work for you!)

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  • 1 month later...

My poor tree didn't much like our prolonged bout of 22-degree weather. All the leaves have fallen off, and probably 50% of the branches are turning brown. I don't think the whole thing is dead, but it definitely took a hard hit. I'm waiting until March to do any pruning. (My key lime also dropped its leaves, but the branches look healthier). This was our coldest weather in 15 years....

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A lot of citrus are grafted onto dwarfing root-stock for growing in pots. Since this isn't the case with yours, you may end up with underground issues. Maybe you could re-pot frequently and clip roots back. I'm not much of a gardiner - I killed off dwarf Meyers lemon, lime, orange and calamondin trees but I mainly attribute that to them coming in with scale. I'm going to give lime and maybe lemon another go, but may try a full-size lemon since I have the climate for it now. So watch for pests. I did get rid of the scale with a systemic but it was pretty much too late.

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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Chris, good luck with your lime tree. We keep ours in a cold sun room and treat it with benign neglect, letting the soil get quite dry before waterings. The tree even tolerated being covered in drywall and tile dust during our renovation this summer. During the growing season, we occasionally add some liquid fertilizer when we water the plant. We have not yet seen fruits on the lime tree, but a Meyer lemon (treated similarly) fruited for us.

Friends have a lime tree that thrives in a south-facing corner window. Lots of light and not too much water seem to be the keys to a happy lime plant.

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I think I might be a bit leery of systemic anything with food crops except maybe a good drink of organic compost tea.

Agreed, that's why I spent months wiping scale off with cue-tips soaked in rubbing alcohol. But the systemic I used was basically the same stuff you put on dogs and cats for fleas and ticks (and was designed for agricultural use - unfortunately I don't know the exact product because it was a "gift" from an Ag research station). I would have waited a long time to eat fruit just in case but that was a moot point. It did get rid of the scale.

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I bought a dwarf kaffir lime tree a few years ago. The tree didn't grow a bit for the entire first year in a soutwest facing window in the Chicago area. Two years ago we relocated to the southeastern CT coast and placed the tree in a large window directly facing south. In the past two years the tree has tripled in size and now has at least 20 flower buds on it. It is planted it in a 12" terra cotta pot to wick away extra moisture and watered once a week.

"Beer is proof God loves us, and wants us to be happy."

-Ben Franklin-

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