Monday, 9 November 2009

Grow Your Own Citrus - Meyer Lemons

Posted by Thomas, from A Growing Tradition

meyer lemon blossom
Since Meyer lemon trees can bloom throughout the year, it is possible to have fruits ripening alongside clusters of new blossoms.

I've always had a fascination with citrus trees. Maybe it's because one of my earliest childhood memories revolve around wandering the streets of Chinatown during Chinese New Year and seeing miniature mandarin orange trees for sale. They were like the Christmas trees of the Orient - deep evergreen foliage with small fruit that resembled orange-colored ornaments. Years later, while visiting my sister in southern California, I was struck by all of the citrus trees lining the front lawns and backyards of many of the homes we drove by on our way to Little Saigon, one of the largest Vietnamese-American enclaves in the United States. In addition to oranges, we saw trees filled with grapefruits, kumquats, mandarins, lemons and mandarinquats. I was instantly smitten. It was early March and I decided right then that I would grow a citrus tree, regardless of the fact that our winters here in New England often feel Siberian.

lemon tree
My Charlie Brown lemon tree

When I got home, I did a bit of research and quickly placed an order for a Meyer lemon tree. The online catalog assured me that the Meyer lemon would make for an excellent houseplant and I will admit, I could not stop looking at the airbrushed photo of the tree - a perfectly shaped and compact specimen filled with bright golden-yellow orbs. What I received in the mail was a little less perfect. In fact, it was hard to imagine at the time that anything edible would develop from this twig. Nonetheless, I read as much as I could about citrus cultivation and gave my Charlie Brown lemon tree the care and devotion it deserved.

Meyer Lemon Blossom
The blossoms can be hand-pollinated using a fine and delicate brush. Some flowers contain a pistil while others do not. The scent of citrus blossoms, which can fill a room, is reminiscent of jasmine.

Meyer lemon trees (as with most citrus) undergo several flushes of growth throughout the year. Sometimes this growth is primarily leaf, while other times it is accompanied by large clusters of blossoms. Since the tree often blooms in January, it is critical to hand pollinate. (In fact, my tree had its first major flush of blossoms in the dead of winter.) I use a small fine art brush to transfer pollen from one flower to the tip of the pistil of another. If all goes well, the ovary at the base of the pistil will swell into a tiny green lemon a few days after the petals have fallen off. Now all that's left to do is to wait patiently. It can take as long as 9 to 10 months for the lemons to mature.

Young Meyer Lemon Fruits
Flowers containing a pistil, if properly pollinated, will develop into tiny lemons. It is normal for a tree to shed most lemons within a cluster in order to focus its energy on the largest few.

For anyone interested in growing citrus, the key to success is in the fertilizer and soil. I made sure to plant my lemon tree in a well-draining potting soil mix and feed it three times a year with a slow-release organic citrus fertilizer (the brand I use is Growmore). A daily misting does wonders as well, especially during the winter months indoors. I keep my Meyer lemon tree in front of a window that gets about 5 hours of direct sunlight a day. Sometime during late spring, when nighttime temperatures get above 45 degrees F, I leave my tree in a sunny spot outside for most of the summer.

lemon tree
Charlie, 19 months later. Meyer Lemons are ripe when their skins develop a golden-yellow hue. These lemons are not quite there yet.

Fast forward 19 months later, Charlie has developed into a rather attractive houseplant and is rewarding me with my first harvest of lemons - 9 total. These are good-sized lemons - each about 4 inches in length. The fruits are from flowers that bloomed last January and are destined to become marmalade. (Locavores rejoice!) Most of our house guests stare at the tree in wonder and fondle the lemons to make sure they are real. In addition to my Meyer lemon, I also have a Kaffir lime tree, the leaves of which are very fragrant and commonly used in Thai and Indian cooking. Soon, I'd like to add Seville oranges and mandarinquats to my collection.

For more information on how to grow citrus as houseplants, click here. If you have any experience or additional advice on how to grow citrus successfully, please share!