In January, frigid night skies over Yakima fill our dreams with escaping the freeze, and visions of warm beaches. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, I’ve got to admit that Yakima winters shouldn’t give me all that much to complain about. After all, western New York “lake-effect” blizzards, where more than five feet of snow could fall in a single storm, howled through the city nearly every year. Buffalo winters are as bad as you’ve heard.
I stayed in Buffalo for college, where one thing I learned was that it’s possible to drive to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 22 hours if you have a decent car and a few friends to split the driving. I remember one trip down in early April. When we crossed the Florida-Georgia line, we may as well have landed in Oz. We rolled down the windows and, in an instant, the car filled with warm air infused with the most heavenly fragrance on earth, blooming citrus. I wanted to bottle that scent and bring it home with me.
Texas nurseryman Greg Gatlin recognizes that growing citrus provides gardeners with “a sense of escape,” adding “People want to bring more of that vacation feel to their homes. If you can’t take that trip to the islands, at least you can experience part of it by having the plants around.”
If you’re a gardener, January is a month when you get fidgety. An indoor project could be just the thing to satisfy an itchy green-thumb and bring a bit of the tropics into your home at the same time.
You can grow your own lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit tree from seed. You’ll need fresh seeds, straight from the fruit; potting soil, and a container with good drainage. Rinse a few of the very plumpest seeds, and plant them about one-half inch deep. Move the pot to a warm spot and keep the soil as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Within a month or two, the seeds should sprout. Pick the strongest one and pull out the rest. Move the pot to a window with bright light, and then move it outside in the spring.
There’s just one more thing. Growing citrus fruit is not for the impatient. It could take a citrus tree grown from seed 15 years to produce fruit. Now for some of us, having a plant with lustrous leaves that fill the air with a luscious citrus scent when you rub them is satisfaction enough. But if it’s fruit you’re after, purchase a more mature tree.
I learned from several Yakima Master Gardeners that Meyer lemons are a favorite container-grown citrus fruit. Oregon State University Extension’s Weston Miller agrees, calling self-pollinating Meyer lemons “a no-brainer for container gardening in the Northwest.” Other citrus is available in dwarf form and can be grown in containers, but Miller considers Meyer lemons, which grow in the three to four feet range, by far the most popular.
Grown for indoor home use, these dwarf citrus varieties are cuttings either grown or grafted on a dwarfing rootstock and tend to start flowering and fruiting after just two to three years. Widely available by mail order, you’ll also find Meyer lemon trees in the garden departments of Yakima’s Home Depot and Lowe’s stores, beginning in the late spring.
If you buy one, or start one from seed, remember that plants that have been growing indoors or in greenhouses need time to adjust to Yakima’s bright outdoor sunlight. Begin the process as soon as temperatures remain above 50-degrees. Start in a sheltered, partly shaded spot, gradually moving the plant to an out-of-the-wind, sunny site. Areas near the house, or where they can bask in reflected heat, are warmer microclimates that Meyer lemons love. When moving your tree between the indoors and outdoors, avoid sudden temperature swings of more than fifteen degrees. The shock can cause it to lose leaves, and lemons.
As fall approaches and temperatures begin to drop, plants will need preparation for moving back into lower-light indoor life. About a month before our first predicted frost, leave the plant in direct sun during the morning, but move it to shade in the afternoon. Do this for two weeks. After growing it in complete shade for another two weeks, bring it inside.
Just before you do, give the tree a blast of water with a garden hose to remove any unwanted insect pests. Before Yakima Master Gardeners bring container plants into their greenhouse for overwintering, they treat every plant with insecticidal soap to kill any bugs missed by the hose. Plants not usually prone to pests and diseases when grown outdoors can attract aphids, mites, scale, or mealy bugs when grown in an indoor environment with few natural predators.
Your coolest room, where temperatures range between 55 and 68 degrees, makes a perfect winter home for a Meyer lemon. Citrus trees don’t go dormant in winter, and although their growth will slow, they still need adequate light and humidity. Provide at least eight hours of bright light daily. A shallow saucer of pebbles, partially covered with water, and set under the lemon tree’s pot, adds some Florida humidity to dry, indoor Yakima air. Keep the bottom of the pot from sitting in the water.
Water thoroughly when the soil is dry 2 to 3 inches deep, and just enough to keep the root ball from completely drying out. Avoid soggy soil.
Fertilize once a month when the plant is indoors and twice a month when outdoors. Use a citrus fertilizer, or one for rhododendrons and blueberries. Meyer lemons also love acidic soil. Follow label instructions for mixing.
Most Meyer lemons can be kept in 10-12 inch pots for several years. Larger containers will allow the tree to grow bigger and become more productive, but are more difficult to haul in and out of the house. A deep pot will not tip over as easily as a shallow one, something to keep in mind as your tree grows and becomes top-heavy.
With good care, your Meyer lemon will eventually start blooming and bearing fruit. But it may be the flowers that thrill you the most, filling your home with the most heavenly fragrance on earth.