Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

GARDENING: Forget the snow

Add some ZEST to winter gardening

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The glossy green leaves of healthy, indoor potted plants brighten up any living space, especially in the dry, dim days of winter. Potted citrus trees, with fragrant blooms and brightly coloured fruit suspended from their branches, have a fascinating allure.

But are they just attractive novelties, or do they really offer the chance to grow your own fruit indoors?

Laura Rawluk, who gardens in the West Broadway area, fell in love with all of the containerized citrus trees in residents' backyards when she and her husband visited Tasmania, Australia, last year.

So, she purchased several citrus plants online last February from Green Barn Nursery in Quebec. They arrived in May and spent their first Winnipeg summer outdoors.

Wanting larger lemons of various age and size, Rawluk paid $75 for a Eureka lemon that arrived about two feet tall, balled and burlapped and nestled in a box with its leaves and stems wrapped in Kraft paper. Her other citrus purchases included the Meyer lemon and Key Lime lemon, which have a more sprawling growth habit and are much smaller, about eight or 10 inches.

"They are adorable, and had lots of little fruits on them," Rawluk said.

Although they went into transplant shock and dropped their fruit when she transplanted them into larger containers, beautifully scented flowers appeared almost immediately by early June. The plants are everbearing, so will continue to bloom and bear fruit all through the year.

"This is my first winter overwintering them," she said, adding that she's hoping they will provide a semi-constant supply of citrus fruits once they mature.

The plants will spend the winter indoors in a semi-dormant state in front of a west-facing window in Rawluk's 112-year-old house. She plans to make some pebble trays for added moisture and to regularly mist the leaves.

Steve Leroux, owner of Green Barn Nursery (www.greenbarnnursery.ca), said citrus plants are very easy to care for.

"Winter lasts for several months, so why not grow plants that produce inside? Lemons, kumquats and pomegranates are great ornamentals. The pomegranate produces the nicest flower of any citrus plants. What I like about citrus fruits is that they don't need any interference -- they are low maintenance."

Leroux added that the plants will thrive without the need for fluorescent lights. Fertilizing with 2-2-2 seaweed fertilizer every three to four months is recommended. "I use water-soluble liquid seaweed fertilizer every few months and mist the leaves regularly."

Green Barn Nursery is a family-run operation in Quebec that ships about 2,500 citrus plants a year to gardeners across the country. Plants range in size from $15 for a four-inch pot all the way up to $1,000 for a full-size tree (large specimens must be purchased in person).

Leroux says that overwatering is really the only enemy of indoor citrus plants.

"They like to be dry almost all of the time -- they don't like wet feet," he said. "The most important thing is to mist the leaves, especially if you have baseboard heating."

While Rawluk was concerned that her home's radiant heating might make the indoor environment too dry, Leroux said all of Green Barn's citrus stock is stored in a warehouse with radiant heat. "It's the best heat for the plants -- gives them the heat at the root level," he said.

Mites, of course, can always pose an issue with indoor plants.

"In the case of an infestation, I use Safer Insecticidal soap, washing each leaf independently," Leroux said. "Then I mist the leaves with 30-per-cent vodka and 70-per-cent water, and have a little shot myself."

Rawluk's Eureka lemon plant currently has a fruit on it that weighs about two pounds. "It starts out dark green, turns light green, and then yellow", she said.

The aromatic Key Lime is almost completely spherical and should be harvested when it is under-ripe or it will begin to turn yellow and become more sweet than acidic.

The Ponderosa lemon can produce an intensely-flavoured, rather acidic fruit weighing up to five pounds each.

"The fruit is too big for the branches on a four-foot specimen -- the branches snap and you have to give them some support," Leroux said. "I recommend removing the fruit when it is green, especially on the Ponderosa.

According to Green Barn Nursery's website, Meyer lemons have a thin, smooth peel. They are thought to be a cross between a lemon and a sour orange and are much juicier than a typical lemon. The site recommends pruning the upright branches to maintain a dense plant.

"The Meyer lemon is the best of them all," Leroux said. "It produces the most fruit, and doesn't need a lot of light or water."

He added that the trees will adapt to your indoor environment. If, for example, a tree produces fruit in March, it will ripen by June because it receives the extra heat units that it needs.

"If it fruits later in the year, say fall, then the fruit will be persistent for much longer because the necessary heat units won't be available indoors. Try using a grow light to speed up the process."

Rawluk is also growing Bay Laurel trees and Chicago Hardy Figs which she purchased from Richter Herbs in Ontario.

In the Mediterranean, its natural habitat, the Bay Laurel can grow to a height of 40 feet. Kept in pot culture, it will reach a maximum height of eight to 10 feet.

"They were approximately eight inches tall when I ordered them and only six or seven dollars apiece," Rawluk said. The plants arrived in small containers with some peaty loam, and transferred them into larger, individual containers.

The Chicago Hardy Fig, about six inches tall, arrived fully in leaf and even had a tiny fruit. The plants thrived in the outdoors all summer long.

"My backyard faces west with some south exposure, so I was keeping them initially in the shade of my apple trees while acclimatizing them and then I moved them into full sun,"

The Bay Laurels are now indoors in the same sunny spot alongside the citrus plants. Rawluk plans to water sparingly and looks forward to when they are large enough to shape into puffy ball standards, which will take about six years. In the meantime, their miniature shape is delightful and the shiny, mossy-green evergreen leaves enhance the indoors.

The Chicago Hardy Fig requires more specialized care. Some advise keeping it in a sunny indoor location and watering sparingly. Others recommend the plant be allowed to drop its leaves, go dormant, and then be stored in a windowless, cold room with temperatures no higher than the low teens.

"I'm going to try putting mine in a closed cardboard box, which I will place in the window-well indoors until spring, because that's about as close as I'm going to get to the kind of cool temperatures that are recommended," Rawluk said.

As the Chicago Hardy Fig grows bigger, it can be cut down for easy storing. This won't interfere with fruit production as it does not need to produce only on old wood. As it matures, it will produce several pounds of delicious fruit each year.

The fig is an ancient plant, dating back at least 5,000 years. Many local garden centres are carrying ornamental figs which can make for attractive, containerized patio plants in summer. Their large deeply lobed leaves are reminiscent of oak leaves and the fruit are brown-purple with strawberry-coloured flesh. Rawluk's goal is to enjoy them year-round.

Citrus trees should be brought indoors before fall temperatures dip below 10C. Acclimatize them slowly to the lower indoor light levels by easing them inside gradually. Some leaves may drop or turn yellow, but the plants will soon adjust.

-- -- --

The St. James Horticultural Society will hold its Christmas Program and Annual General Meeting on Tuesday, November 20th, 7:30 p.m. at Linwood Public School. Everyone is welcome to attend. Light refreshments. Please use the Winchester Street entrance.

gardenfundamentals@g mail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 F13

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