How to Care for Indoor Citrus Plants
Master gardener Paul James explains how to care for your citrus plants through the winter.
- By Marie Hofer
Filed under: Indoor Gardening, Winter Gardening, Fruit Plants, Winter, Trees, Container Gardening
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Sooner or later the gardener has to try growing a citrus tree inside. There's something so winter-defying about it — the notion of growing tropical fruits when outside the driveway has been iced over for days. But, as most gardeners know, success can be fleeting. Tell that to the thousands of folks who get citrus plants as holiday gifts every year or the thousands of gardeners who have brought one inside to overwinter. Chances are, a month after they've been unwrapped and lovingly placed by the window, the little orange, lemon or kumquat trees look more than worse for wear.
In fact, most of them succumb because they're not getting the conditions they need, says master gardener Paul James, host of Gardening by the Yard. "Citrus trees are not ideally suited as houseplants. They have very specific requirements, and you have to respect that."
Still, he says, overwintering citrus indoors can be done — with a great deal of the right conditions and a dose of good luck. "These recommendations are the ideal. Not everyone can provide all of them." The closer you get to ideal, however, the better the chances are you'll be able to keep your citrus alive and thriving.
Plant deep. A wide and deep container, either terra cotta or plastic. Citrus roots are fairly deep, so you'll need a fairly tall pot.
Use an all-purpose potting mix. It's nice if it's slightly acidic, and you can sometimes find potting mixes especially made for citrus.
Give your tree chilly nights. "The temperature during the day is not a big deal," says Paul. "However, at night, citrus likes to be chilly, kind of like me and you." A temperature between 50 to 55 degrees is ideal.
Provide as much light as possible. "This is a big problem for a lot of people," he says. "Place in a south or southeast-facing window. If you don't have enough light, you can always add fluorescent or spotlights with full-spectrum lights." With modern insulated windows, put the plant pretty close to the window. If the window isn't insulated, back off a foot or two.
Maintain an evenly moist soil. Don't treat citrus like other plants — that is, letting it dry out between waterings. Instead, keep it moist. "During the winter, however, don't over water, or you'll get root rot, which is fairly common. When the soil is dry an inch below the surface, add water." Don't let water sit in the saucer below the container.
Keep the humidity high. Citrus requires a humidity of 50 to 60 percent. Most households, however, measure only 20 percent during the winter. "Misting daily is very important, and few people do that. Try to get in the habit of it. Maybe if you're fixing dinner, take a break and give it a spray." Group plants together to make it easier to keep humidity elevated, and set saucers of water around the plants.
Watch for pests. The most likely are whiteflies and spider mites. "Insecticidal soap controls virtually all the pests for houseplants and it's non-toxic."
Fertilize lightly. "You have to be careful when fertilizing in winter," he says. "The citrus will have a slow growth rate anyway, so I'd suggest maybe once a month with a weak liquid fertilizer, diluted from a quarter to a third of what the manufacturer recommends." Paul uses organic products such as seaweed extract.
Prune lightly when necessary. "If it's a little straggly or misshapen, you can cut all the way back to the main branch, or you can do just a little pinching to make it bushier."
Pretend you're a bee. When Mother Nature isn't close at hand, you have to step in. To set fruit indoors, you'll have to hand pollinate these plants, says Paul. "Take a paintbrush, push it into a flower and move it onto the next flower, and so on and so on and so on."
If your tree hasn't bloomed yet, don't panic. You have to wait four to five years before your citrus blooms, unless you already have a mature plant.
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