Master Gardener: Trowel and error – indoor lemons
September 4, 2018
When my parents left my childhood home, with its rich, sandy loam and lovingly tended orchards and vineyards, for a postage stamp lot on a golf course, Dad planted a dwarf Meyer lemon in a large pot and placed it in an area of dappled sun and, whenever I'd visit, that darn thing was covered in fruit. I couldn't get enough of the slightly sweet tangy flavor in ice tea, water and heavenly desserts. Then I toured a friends' greenhouse in the Reno, Nevada area — elevation about 4,500 feet — and was surprised to find a mature Meyer lemon tree covered in bright yellow fruit. My friend said it was practically trouble free and produced consistently. She, too, loves the unusually sweet fruit, especially in midwinter.
That did it. The first major botanic purchase I made when we moved into our rustic solar home was — you got it — a dwarf Meyer lemon tree. The little thing came wrapped in burlap with bare roots and a couple of strong branches. We dedicated a pop-out in the south wall of windows and planted it in a good-sized pot with high quality soil. Then we waited.
Anytime you transplant a plant, it takes time for the thing to adjust. The root system needs to establish itself well enough to support above-ground growth. Sometimes they don't make it. This was late fall, and sunny winter days in our solar home resulted in a toasty indoor space; snowy days are cold with warm areas around the pellet stove and much cooler temperatures at the windows. I'm not sure my tree grew during those cold dark months, but it lived. Then, suddenly it was spring. The daylight increased and new shoots appeared so fast I spent time watching for leaves to unfold. But then it stalled. The new leaves didn't look so good, kind of dull. It never flowered.
I'm a firm believer in organic growing methods — especially anything we will eat. Citrus needs a balanced fertilizer, and since I used potting soil — not our native clay that's practically void of nitrogen but high enough in potassium and phosphorus not to need these additions — my new project needed more nutrients than those found in blood meal and my suite of organic potions.
Finally I broke down and tried the nonorganic Miracle Grow stashed in the garage. Holy hand grenades. Suddenly my little tree went crazy with life — flowers everywhere, more green growth. You would walk in the front door and think, what is that wonderful smell?
Citrus trees are usually self-pollinating, meaning that its flowers have both female and male parts. The pollen on the male part (anther) falls onto the female part (stigma) and this pollination creates fruit. Since the indoor environment doesn't, in general, host pollinators or winds strong enough to move the pollen around, and I wasn't 100 percent sure it would make fruit on its own, I decided to help things along. Armed with a small brush and buzzing like a bee — yes, really, family thought this was very amusing — I dabbed here then there, spreading pollen from flower to flower. Soon, tiny little green orbs appeared – botany is so miraculous.
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So now you are wondering, did we actually eat lemons? Well, part of being an avid gardener is what I call trowel and error. As a Master Gardener, I tell people, don't be afraid of failing. Do your research — Colorado State University Extension and other services are a fabulous place to start — keep good notes, and once you've figured out your mistakes, try not to repeat them. My tree still has lemons which are large, green and soft. I just picked one and, while it's not as sweet as Dad's, the flavor is unmistakably Meyer.
My research has given me a lot of information, some contradictory, so I focus on the “edu” or commercial grower sites. Meyer lemons may stay on the tree for months before they turn yellow. Temperature swings, which mine experiences in spades, can affect ripening, as can inconsistent watering and feeding. When we travel, my poor pet is at the mercy of whomever is caring for our garden. The tree flowers periodically, which is common and not a bad thing from the fragrance perspective, and I'm careful to keep the stress on it to a minimum by removing only a few of the new lemons. It is susceptible to, and I constantly battle, spider mites and thrips, which are the bane of my indoor gardening existence.
Consistent watering and feeding and insect wars are challenging, but what a reward those lemons are going to be … when they turn yellow. I have faith. I have lemons in Steamboat at 7,000 feet. Life is good: it's giving me lemons and I just might make lemonade.
Jackie Buratovich was raised in a central California farm family and loves making things grow in and around a solar home in Routt County. She received her Master Gardener training in Boulder County in 2003, and acknowledges that while growing conditions here are more challenging, being back in an agricultural community is like coming home and being able to grow greens outside all summer long is a bonus.