Repotting Kaffir Lime

The only way to grow Kaffir lime in a cold climate is in a pot, either forever staying inside the house or moving it in and out when the weather permits. In a warmer climate, when Kaffir lime is grown in the ground, it’s a mid-size tree that can grow to 25 feet high and 6 feet wide. But it can adapt to live in a pot. One of mine, over 20 years old, has to be pruned twice each year to a manageable size (around 6′ tall) that I can put it back in our basement.

This is what the two older kaffir looked like a year ago in June, after a month outside the basement. The right one is around ten years older than the left.

Annual pruning is an easy task. Getting poked here and there with very sharp thorns is expected. Feeding it well after a good annual haircut will keep it healthy. But, what’s more important than pruning is repotting.

Kaffir lime can be root-bound pretty fast since it’s a small tree being kept in a pot. It will not be happy having its feet bound for years… imagine Chinese foot binding. I repot mine every couple of years. The smaller ones is easy to do but the larger ones give me a back ache for a few days.

How to repot:

First, do not water the Kaffir lime for a couple of days. The potting soil should be on the dry side so it will be much easier to loosen the roots. Grab the main trunk and pull the whole plant out.

Kaffir lime, root bound at the bottom

I just pull my smaller one, picture on top, out of its pot. This is only two years in this pot but the roots are already packed at the bottom. Though the soil is pretty dry, the roots still hold it in a pot shape.

Next, shake the soil off the roots. You can do it with your hands or use a trowel. Make sure not to damage the main root-the larger ones. Use a clean, sharp clipper to trim off the finer roots.

After the fine roots were trimmed, the larger roots closer to the trunk are still intact

If you want it to grow bigger, you can put it in a larger pot with new soil. I keep my smaller ones in the same pot for five years then give them a little more room with a slightly larger pot. The twenty-plus year old, I put back in the same pot since that is the largest size I can manage without hurting myself. Both of the larger ones are still happy in their pots.

My oldest Kaffir lime lost a lot of its leaves last winter from infestation of scales and mites. Cleaned up, it’s fine now and sprouting new leaves on every branches.
New deep purplish colored leaves on every branch. I was forgiven for my negligence

I put a couple of inches of new soil at the bottom, mixed with organic fertilizer, placed the Kaffir lime in, then added soil mixed with fertilizer around and on top. Use a small trowel to probe the area between the plant and the pot to make sure that new soil fills any air pockets. Water deeply. I water it and let it sit on a tray so the soil can absorb excess water back later on.

Use a clean clipper to trim damaged and dry branches. I prune it down to a desirable size and cut branches that rub against one another only after it starts to bud new leaves. I think root pruning is traumatizing enough so I wait for it to settle and get used to a new space first. But that’s just me.

That’s it. The Kaffir lime should be very happy for a few years before the leaves start to get smaller and take longer to sprout new leaves. That’s when it’s telling you that it needs to stretch it feet.

3 thoughts on “Repotting Kaffir Lime”

  1. I had this exact problem, last year I purchased a kaffir lime tree, it appeared to be grafted but well developed and bearing some fruits. Due to overwatering, improper potting soil (purchased citrus soil which holds moist too much) and armoured scale infestation, it barely survived the winter, it lost all of its leafs and many branches.
    It started to grow again in spring after I finally succeeded in eliminating all pests, I repotted it in a 50/50 potting soil mix of white sand and compost + healthy bacteria (BioNova MicroLife). it is watering off better but still not ideal.
    I put it ina large pot of 45 cm diameter and 40 cm high, now in full heat of the summer I give it 2L of water + nutrients (sunplant for citrus: ) + Ph- to make the soil more acidic as our rain water is too alkaline and the soil hence is too.

    It is located in my greenhouse where temperatures rise sometimes to 42°C (107.6°F) when the heatwave reaches its maximum.(I live in Belgium, Zone 8 from what i read)

    It started to grow new leafs but today it lost more than 6 of them, all o fthem which had spots from overwatering but it was still a frightening thing, when I look on the net it seems after one year the tree must regrow plentyfull, yet i feel mine is not. Hence I was the one trying to germinate those 20 seeds (ordered via amazon) that failed, since I wanted to try with a second tree, one that is not grafted.
    I am now also trying cuttings, it seems to form minor roots, but it’s the 3rd cutting already so I’ll have to wait and see.

    Here is a picture of how my tree looks like atm:

    I was wondering if I am doing anything wrong in order to save this tree and give it a more prosperous future, because each time it grows new leafs, it drops a bunch of old ones and I end up with many empty branches.

    1. Your Kaffir lime looks ok in the photo. I think, from what you describe, you water it too much. The leaves will start getting spots then drop. I leave mine on the dry side, except when I just repotted them. I don’t feed them with special food, just an organic fertilizer once a month.

      As for the cutting as a way to propagate it, I can’t really say much about. I prefer ‘air layering’, has a better success rate.

      1. Is it normal they have brief periods of growth and then do nothing for a while? It only grew leafs and branches on 2 moments this year and now it’s doing nothing again, the sun has also been causing a heatwave and it got a minor sunburn on the leafs (50°C in the greenhouse) but the stem is undamaged. but now temperatures have cooled down to 22 °C and clouded.
        I reduced watering a lot and it seems happier from that, just not growing 😦
        At this rate it will take 3 – 4 years before it is restored to its former glory and maybe bearing fruit on the condition it overwinters properly. My Key lime also just got hit hard by scale, I can’t keep up with these pests

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