It might have been when I came home with a 1 gallon Meyer Lemon tree that my S.O. started to realize we were in deep when it came to indoor gardening… but by that time it was too late. That tree was our first deviation from the common indoor houseplant and despite my repeated attempts to kill it; it survives today and is currently in bloom! There is a ton of information out there about growing citrus in pots and indoors so please don’t limit yourself to this one post. This is something that has been all the rage the past few years (helped along by a good dose of Pintrest fame) and so jumping in has never been easier. If you’ve ever considered it, now is the time!
If you’re wondering where to start, pretty much everyone recommends the Meyer Lemon. If you’re going all indoors like I am, the Dwarf Meyer Lemon. The Meyer Lemon is actually a cross between a lemon and an orange tree, which means the lemons come out juicy and sweeter than a normal lemon. It’s relatively compact in size, does well in containers, and as I’ve personally discovered, rather forgiving. I’ve had mine for three years now. It was 1 gallon in size when I got it, so approximately 2-3 years old at that point. They don’t start blooming till about that age so if you’re out looking for one and want harvests within a year look for one about that size and that has blooms on it. The first year mine gave me six lemons. The second year I killed all the blooms trying to get rid of a scale infestation. This is the third year and I am happy to report that it is again covered in tiny buds, with some already open and producing. I also now have a tangerine tree (the introduce-er of said scale) and it has not started blooming yet. Please note, while it is a fun project to grow a fruit tree from a seed that you might get out of a store bought lemon, etc. that tree will never actually fruit. Most fruit trees, more specifically the ones we’re talking about, are grafted onto a rootstock and then grown from there.
Light: Generally full sun; though be careful the leaves don’t burn.
Soil: Well draining, like a cactus or African violet mix. I have both of mine in a cactus blend. (This recommendation is specifically for indoor growth)
Food: Fertilize frequently with a citrus fertilizer. I tend to fertilize every time I water, especially when it’s in bloom and growing fruit.
Water: Don’t drown them! Indoor, in my conditions I water about once every other week, but I keep an eye on it when it’s growing fruit to make sure it doesn’t dry out too much.
Common Problems: Root rot from too much water. Scale, spider mites, fungus, etc.
To grow indoors: I have one in a plastic pot and one in a terracotta pot. I’ve heard multiple recommendations but at the end of the day it’s up to you. Because they are all indoors I have to be careful about them getting too water logged. I put one in a terracotta pot to help with this. This has resulted in a heavier pot to move around and some mold growth on the outside of the pot, but it has kept the soil much drier than the plastic pot. The plastic pot is light, and doesn’t have the mold problem, but I have to be a lot more careful about watering. To keep the mold at bay I spray with 1 part vinegar to 1 part water and that does the trick. I have both in their own window, which is south facing, however blocked by some buildings. They get a decent amount of morning light but I also offset that with grow lights placed about 1 ft. above them on 12-hour timers. (When shopping for grow lights make sure they are full spectrum, we use CFLs and they tend to last quite awhile) This has resulted in relatively happy trees that produce fruit. By the way, when they do bloom you must be the bee if you want fruit. I take a cotton swab and go from bloom to bloom, humming a happy song, to spread the pollen around. This is an easy and fun task, which has worked perfectly. Since they are inside the humidity is usually a little less than what they would prefer. To combat this I have one up on legs with water in a tray around it. I also spritz them each night (that I remember) with just plain water.
Lessons Learned: If you do get spider mites (look for webs between the leaves and other bugs on the underside of the leaf) try a regime of Neem Oil. Anything stronger or synthetic tends to kill off your blooms. (Though it did take care of the problem) If your 365 days indoors then you’ll need to take the common citrus advice with a little grain of salt. I water less than what would normally be recommended and I supplement light. I also picked my pots and soil mixture specifically to combat water log, which is also a little different than what might be normally recommended. If your going to do a half in/half out regime expect them to bring bugs when they come back in so you’ll want to make sure they don’t infest your other plants. For spider mites and fruit flies I add some beneficial bugs to the soil, which have worked awesome! (Thanks Ray!) I also keep some carnivorous plants around to eat the grownup gnats and fruit flies. Works like a dream and is cooler than having sticky paper hanging around! I have bought younger fruit trees (olive, another orange, etc.) that were in a 1-pint container but they are a lot harder to get established and take longer until you start getting fruit. I would invest in at least a 1-gallon size and start from there.
Good Book: Growing Tasty Tropical Plants
Worth it? I think so. Citrus trees can be fun and beautiful. They bloom through out the winter. The blooms make the place smell amazing and brighten it up during the gloomy months. They are quite capable of producing fruit indoors so while it won’t provide a year’s worth of lemons, it will provide some and that’s neat. With our harvest we made lemonade, lemon cookies, and then froze the rest of the juice in ice cube trays and have been using it in cooking.
Top to Bottom; Left to Right: 1. Blooms on the lemon tree, 2. Tangerine tree, 3. Baby lemons, 4. Lemon tree set-up with saucer to hold water and raise humidity on the bottom, 5. Butterwort plant eating the gnats and fruit flies.