Lend a bright splash of natural color and a refreshing fragrance to winter rooms with compact fruiting trees
Growing citrus indoors is an age-old tradition — King Louis XIV so adored the fragrance of orange blossoms that he had his gardeners build him an orangery (a greenhouse for citrus) on the grounds of Versailles. By the 18th century, wealthy landowners all over Europe had taken to the idea and built their own greenhouses.
The love of citrus spread to the New World, especially in French-influenced Louisiana. “It’s our custom to use a citrus tree as a Christmas tree because until the 20th century, we didn’t have scented pine trees here,” says citrus lover Patrick Dunne, owner of the antiques shops Lucullus in New Orleans and Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. He decorates his sparingly: lightweight tin candleholders, elegant silver ornaments, and, of course, the fruit itself, which functions as natural ornaments. “I like the simpler approach to Christmas,” he says. “The modern eye craves the relaxation; it is so overwhelmed by artificiality that it loves to rest on totally natural things.” When the holiday season is over and the weather warms, he plants the tree.
For residents of year-round warm spots, there’s really no need to bring citrus inside, except to enjoy it after it’s picked. “I am mad for citrus,” says designer Suzanne Rheinstein, who grows many different kinds around her swimming pool in Los Angeles: satsumas, kumquats, limes, Meyer lemons, calamondins. “I don’t need to bring in the plants in the winter, but I use the fruit a lot in my house.”
You’d be hard-pressed to visit Rheinstein’s house and not see at least a few piles of limes or kumquats on mantels or tables. “I do it like they did in the 18th century in those wonderful Italian paintings,” she explains. “I often load miniature Versailles boxes with satsumas when they’re still green, and then put them on the mantel. Or I’ll do a big bowl of kumquats.” Rheinstein likes to use just one kind of citrus in each vessel, and sometimes erects a citrus pyramid for a clean, structured look. “I don’t think there’s anything fresher than citrus. I like it better than flowers,” she says. “The style is unpretentious and relaxed.”
Before getting your own indoor citrus tree, you’ll need to know a few important details. First, opt for a dwarf type (see Best Bets section below); the plant stays small, but the fruit is normal size. Place your plant in a clay pot for best air circulation and drainage. For most citrus, you’ll need a 15-gallon container.
When relocating your plant outdoors (when the temperature warms to about 65 degrees), place it in incrementally more sun so it doesn’t go into shock; do the opposite when moving it inside. Before it comes indoors, shower it with warm, slightly soapy water (using a mild soap) to help eliminate bugs.
For growing indoors, “acid” citrus (lemons, limes, kumquats, calamondins) is better than “sweet” citrus (oranges and grapefruits) because it fruits and blooms much more frequently. Here are some types to look for.
Lemons: ‘Improved Meyer,’ ‘Ponderosa,’ ‘Variegated Pink.’ Meyer lemons are slightly sweeter than regular lemons and take on an orange hue when ripe. ‘Variegated Pink’ lemons have variegated foliage and pinkish fruit.
Limes: ‘Kieffer,’ ‘Bearss’ seedless. The leaves (and fruit) of ‘Kieffer’ limes are used in many Asian cuisines, especially Thai.
Calamondin: x Citrofortunella mitis. This small, tart, orange-colored fruit likely originated in Asia and is supereasy to care for. “It’s probably the easiest citrus to grow,” says Tom McClendon, contributing author of Landscaping Indoors. It’s also great in lieu of lemons in lemonade.
Kumquats: ‘Nagami’ and Fortunella hindsii. Kumquats are tart-sweet and can be eaten whole (skin and all).
CARING FOR CITRUS
Under the proper conditions, citrus plants will thrive indoors. Here are some care guidelines. (Keep in mind that different plants have different requirements, so ask your nursery for specific instructions.)
Light: Citrus does best with 6 to 12 hours of sunlight a day. If you don’t have a sunny room, supplement with a full-spectrum fluorescent grow light or solar tubes (tubular skylights that bring in natural light; see http://www.solatube.com). When you bring the plant outside for the summer, keep it in indirect sunlight to avoid leaf scorch and overdrying; half-day sun or filtered sun should be sufficient.
Temperature: Citrus grows best at about 65°F or above. They can survive lower temperatures, but will become quiescent below about 55°F.
Soil: Don’t use ordinary garden soil for container citrus because it’s too dense and doesn’t allow water to drain properly. “I like to buy a cactus mix that’s extremely well-draining,” says citrus expert Tom McClendon. “Or I make my own with ground-up pine bark and perlite [volcanic material that both aerates the soil and makes moisture and nutrients available to the plant], which keeps it light.”
Water: Keep soil moist but not soggy: Allow the top 2 to 3 inches of soil to dry before watering, and then water until it drains out of the bottom. Keep the plant out of standing water because it will get root rot, and make sure there is at least one drainage hole in the pot.
Fertilizer: Fertilize once a month with a water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer at half strength. An occasional spoonful of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) will prevent yellowing leaves.
Humidity: This is especially crucial in winter months, when most homes are extremely dry. To increase moisture, spray the foliage with water, bring the plant into the bathroom (not the tub) when you shower, use a humidifier, or place the pot atop a tray of pebbles that you keep wet.
MAXIMIZING THE BLOOM
Citrus blooms are almost always white, and are hypnotically fragrant. That means, the more blooms, the better your house smells and the more fruit you wind up with (limes and lemons are particularly frequent bloomers). To make your plant flower more — as Louis XIV ordered his gardeners to do — show it a little neglect. “One time I was out of town and I had some citrus in pots outside,” McClendon says. “When I got back, they were really dry and wilted. I started watering them again, and they just burst into bloom. They were responding as a reproductive strategy: ‘Maybe I better reproduce because this guy is trying to kill me.'”
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