I simply adore Meyer lemons. Their tart, bright, floral flavor isn’t the least bit harsh or bitter. A cross between a true lemon and a mandarin orange, I can even detect a hint of sweetness sneaking into it’s pleasing pucker. To my mind, “rich” is a suitcase FILLED with these fragrant fruits fresh from the backyard of lucky central California gardeners. That’s exactly what my husband and I brought home last winter after a visit to friends in the Wine Country.
Meyer lemons – and citrus in general – are just coming into their peak season and will dazzle my winter-dulled senses for the next 4 months. My grocer’s shelves are laden with Satsumas, navel oranges, lemons, and pummelos from California. There are key limes from Mexico and ruby red grapefruit from the Bahamas alongside the more typical Florida grapefruits. Tangerines, vaguely tagged “USA grown” are in and I expect Clementines (the really good ones are from Spain) will make their debut in the coming week. And yes, way in the back, in a special basket all their own, my favorite seasonal citrus, California-grown Meyer lemons for $2.99 a pound (that’s $1.00 off!).
Generally, I’m pretty good about purchasing local, seasonal produce. I find I savor each season all the more for the sometimes fleeting nature of its offerings. Besides, once a tomato or strawberry or asparagus has clocked several hundred miles, it’s hardly worth eating anyway. But all these good intentions go out the double-paned, rain-spattered window when I approach the citrus counter.
Last spring, with my lemon largess depleted, and in an effort to make at least a perfunctory stab at finding my citrus locally, this usually dedicated locavore bought a Meyer Lemon plant. All summer long it’s glossy green foliage and abundant waxy white, heavenly smelling blossoms hung out on my back stoop in full sun. By midsummer tiny infant fruit – 3 of ‘em – had set. Over the next several months my portent produce swelled to mature size but remained resolutely green. Just as the weather began to turn ugly, a faint ripening golden hue began to infuse the fruits. (Poor things, I’m forever scratching their skins with my thumbnail for a whiff of their pungent perfumed oils; I think I may love this heady fragrance even more than the sweet/tart flavor. Lucky for me lemon leaves are also loaded with these aromatic oils as I know full well the chance of my cultivating ripe fruit is slim.)
This isn’t my first foray into attempting to grow my own citrus. My mantra isn’t “Grow it, Kill it, Know it” for nothing – I’ve learned a lot in the process. (Relax - remember, I’m in horticulture not medicine!)
Citrus grow best with temperatures around 75 F. during the day and 55-65 F. during the night… pretty much our typical PNW summertime temperature. However, fruit can take up to 6 months or so to ripen and by October we’re lucky if we see daytime highs of 65 F. and nights get darn chilly. Most citrus will endure our climate, but will not produce. At temperatures below 40 F. flower and fruit drop will occur and more permanent damage (read death) is likely at temps below freezing. I can personally attest to all of this.
I prefer to grow container plants in BIG pots. Not only does this allow for ample root growth and bigger plants, but it buys me some forgiveness on the watering front. Anyone who has ever spent a summer enslaved to small container maintenance will back me up on this fact. The problem is when cool temperatures arrive I can’t even lift my pots – buh-bye tender plants!
This time around I’ve selected a pot for my lemon that I can easily haul around without breaking my back and one that will actually fit into my living room, (this is called a learning curve). After a glorious autumn the weather is finally turning cold… well, at least what we weenies in the Northwest and our imported lemons think of as cold. I got my ‘lil lemon indoors just in the nick of time as frost is in the forecast.
My plant is now snug in front of our south-facing french doors in the company of my Sambac Jasmine and a peach flowering Clivia. Even drafty old houses like ours become an arid desert with the furnace running all winter. Grouping plants into little communities raises the ambient humidity and looks a little more “natural” than lonely forlorn soldiers lined up on the windowsill. (True confessions: I think growing plants indoors is downright unnatural!)
Even with my lovely safely indoors – and artificially coddled into thinking of warmer climes- ripe fruit is still a long shot. I’ll need to fend off aphids, scale and mealy bugs which often plague indoor citrus. YUCK! A Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol is an effective, although tedious way to deal with these most unwelcome pests. But I remain vigilant in my no doubt naive quest for homegrown citrus. Yesterday’s grocery tally for 3 Meyer lemons about the size of my budding babies? S*gh, $2.27!!!