I would like to live in Spain or Sicily or even Sacramento, someplace where oranges grow on trees in tiled courtyards and mild, golden sunlight blesses the earth all winter long. Alas: New York. But citrus dreams die hard, and if you, like me, live in a cold-winter climate but still long for fragrant lemon blossoms or branches drooping gracefully with limes, I am the bearer of glad holiday tidings. You can grow citrus trees in your apartment! And now is the perfect time to plant them. Merry Citrus! Season’s Grapefruits! (That was bad, I know).
So let’s get to this. There are two big essentials for citrus happiness. Temperature is first. The reason oranges grow outdoors in Morocco but not in Manhattan is that below 55 degrees they shiver and start to bid farewell to this cold, cruel world. So that’s the first condition. Do you keep your apartment heated to above 55 degrees? I bet you do. The next condition has to do with hours of sunlight. Citrus trees like sunshine. Six to eight hours a day is ideal. Does your apartment have a window? I bet it does. Extra points if it’s south facing. (Don’t fret if not. Mine are north facing, and yet my three citrus trees are happily blossoming right now). In sum: if you heat your apartment and have a window, you can grow a citrus tree.
The next thing to know is that some types of citrus trees are better suited to indoor growing conditions than others. And, lucky us, turns out that many of the juiciest, prettiest types of citrus are on the list. Meyer Lemons, Kieffer Limes, Mexican Sweet Limes, Washington Navel Oranges, and Oroblanco Grapefruits — all indoor-compatible. Plenty of nurseries and plant stores stock citrus plants this time of year. If you can’t find one nearby, my favorite online purveyor is Four Winds Growers. (If you can spring for it, a 2-3 year old tree will bear fruit faster. With one-year olds, you can be waiting a while).
There are just a final few things you need to know. Water: citrus trees like plenty of it, but their roots hate sogginess. That means you need a fast-draining soil and plenty of drainage holes in the bottom of the plant’s pot. Rather than regular old potting soil, buy special citrus or cactus soil. Once your plant outgrows the plastic pot it came in, or if you decide to repot it to a prettier pot right away, use the citrus soil to fill in around the roots. Then water your citrus baby at least twice a week. You’ll also want to fertilize your tree for maximum leafing and blossoming and fruiting. Tomato fertilizer will do, with feedings roughly every six weeks. I have also happily used citrus spikes.
Last but not least, harvesting. Patience is the name of the game. Your lovely oranges, lemons, or limes can be hanging from the branch for a few months at what looks like full-size before they’re truly ripe. The real test is touch. If they’re rock hard, they’re not ready. If the flesh gives a little when you push, let the citrus feast begin.