Dear Citrus Trees: We Have to Talk.



Now, don't say anything.  Just let me get through this.

You knew going into this what kind of person I was.  You knew all about my history with houseplants.  Full disclosure, that's what I believe in. I told you I expected a plant to be able to take care of itself, to find its damn own water, out there, in the ground, falling from the sky, whatever.  And I expect a plant to fight off its own pests.  Or not.  Get eaten by bugs if that's what you like to do, I said.  Makes no difference to me.  Just don't expect me to fight your battles or come to your rescue.  I'm not a rescuer.  I'm not a nurturer.  I've got problems of my own, I can't get involved with yours.

That's what I said.

And yet I let you move in. People told me not to–people who knew me, people who knew what I was capable of and what I was not capable of. I didn't listen to them, and neither did you. We both knew full well what we were getting into, is my point.

I tried, at first.  You can't say I didn't try.  I made a place for you, right there, in my sunniest, south-facing window.   I spent a whole afternoon outside with you, turning over every leaf, checking every branch, crushing scale and flicking away aphids. I read the directions–me!  reading directions!–and repotted you according to a set of very strange and, let's admit, not particulary clear instructions about your precise potting soil needs. 

I bought a moisture meter.  God help me, I bought a moisture meter.

All of this I did for you.  I did more for you, honestly, in this last month than I've ever done for all my other houseplants combined.  And still you're not happy. 

I just don't know how much longer this can go on.  I've written to the nursery you came from–now, don't be mad, I don't like to involve other people in my private affairs either, but something had to be done–and they have said to repot you in a smaller pot and take away your fertilizer.  That's all that can be done at this point.  Even then, our future is uncertain.

Or should I say–your future is uncertain.  Because like I told you in the beginning: if it comes down to a choice between me or you–well.  You know how that's going to turn out.  I was fine before you came along, I'll be fine again without you.

I don't expect you to understand.  You're a plant, after all, and well–let's face it–you're half-dead. This may be the end of you.  I'm going to do this one last thing for you, and if it doesn't work out, we're done.  I mean it this time.


  1. I’m so with you, Amy. All of my houseplants, including my citrus trees, barely limp through the winter.

    Then they have a happy six months outside in the real sunshine and I forget how much I dislike them and move them inside in November rather than letting them freeze.

  2. my best year with citrus was when I had a classroom with a north wndow, and no heat after 3 o’clock. The grew like crazy, and one Monday I came in to 4 plants in full bloom. Heavenly. Now my classroom has no windows, and my little lemons limp along at home.

  3. Tough Love… That is the tactic in regard to house plants. My orchids and african violets know not to mess around with me. If they start looking sickly out they go.

    I am in the same boat – picked a lemon plant at the nursery – half price… now it is showing definite signs of giving up the ghost.

    We could compare autopsy results!

  4. My mother attempts to grow lemons and limes in Michigan. They sit in tiny pots in a south facing window. Every winter they go down hill. Mom forgets to water them and they always get scale. By spring, they are just twigs with no leaves. Then they recover and look great during the summer when they’re outside and nature does her thing. They come inside in September and the whole thing repeats.

    Don’t throw out the trees–they might make it through but just look crappy. At least give them away to someone who is willing to baby them.

  5. If it was my tree I would stop watering completely. If you recently repotted it and didn’t notice rotting roots then you are safe for now. The media needs to be bone dry and full of air – they want lots of air around their roots.

    You can pick off all the leaves and it will resprout new “indoor houseplant” leaves in a month or so. It will most likely bloom at that time also (regrowing leaves signals its time to bloom). It will flush with outdoor plant leaves when you move it back outdoors this spring.

    If the stems stay green then the plant is still alive.

    If the roots were ever exposed to temps below 50 they’ll shut down for a while, which means they can’t pump enough water up to the leaves which is why they curl up and fall off. The plant may look dead but it isn’t.

    Don’t give up. Don’t baby it.

    If it was in my house, in that window, in that pot I would only be giving it one cup of water each month and I would be cracking that window open to cool down the area as much as I could stand.

  6. As far as I’m concerned, plants belong OUTSIDE, in the DIRT! They hate the house …or at least my house.

  7. Just as I was dreaming of moving to a colder clime – one with all four seasons – you remind me why I love living here. I mean, sure, all my citrus are covered in those energy-sucking old-fashioned Christmas lights to keep them above freezing … but they are outdoors and alive. My houseplants, however, have been whittled down to only the strong – zygocacti, which I can’t seem to kill no matter what I do.

    Mother-in-law has been swearing since I first met her that orchids are easy-care, no fuss plants. But my most recent victim (a Mother’s Day gift, no less) is currently moldering in its pot & I have no idea how to save it. Is this me growing up and realizing some plant-people relationships just don’t work ? Or am I becoming calloused ?

  8. Did I miss it when they passed a law saying we couldn’t put mulch on plants in pots ?

    I’m pretty hard-core with my indoor plants as well, but they all get mulched–river rock, gravel, wine corks–so they’re not always bugging me for water.

    Also–scrape the skin off a branch with your thumbnail and if it’s greenish under there, the plant is still alive. Just mulch it instead of repotting it, dump some water on it and I bet it leafs out.

  9. I am enjoying learning from all these comments, as the Logee’s catalog has been tempting me with all kinds of tropicals…

  10. Certainly agree that house plant culture is a pain in the ass compared to the ease of outdoor growing. It does require another level of paying attention to consistent care and watering, and also prompt attention to catching insects before they become an explosion. Citrus may be reacting to an overheated location, and if you are intent on repotting them before you drag them inside, the caveat about not over-potting is intended to minimize the tendency to rot out roots in wet soil that hasn’t enough roots to absorb it all, and stays too wet as a result, killing the existing roots. Smaller pot sizes minimize this tendency, and the same benefit accrues for outdoor pots that are way too large for the initial size of the plants put into them.

    Those citrus growing next to north facing windows illustrate the fact that they prefer moderate/cooler temps as an indoor plant, and not being overheated, but with consistent bright light.

    If you struggle with indoor plants in general, stick with the easiest to grow types. I can’t seem to grow African violets well, so stopped trying years ago. But I do well enough with their relatives such as Streptocarpus, Episcia and Kohleria, so I don’t really know why the failures with African violets; maybe I just don’t like them enough to pay attention to their needs?

    On the other hand, I do extremely well with bromeliads, palms,(Chamaedorea elegans is amongst the most carefree), moth orchids, Rhipsalis, Christmas cactus, etc, all plants that adapt to my once a week watering regimen, and have the ability to handle going a bit dry in between waterings.

    For those plants that don’t like drying out, double potting them into a vase that will hold water at the roots can be great for those plants that can take waterlogged soils. Spathiphyllum, Rhoeo, and Aglaonema are some that come to mind.

    If you can match the plant to your watering style, and find the ones that prefer your conditions in the house(hot versus cold, too hot or too drafty), you may actually find that it isn’t as mysterious as it seems. It also really helps to know yourself, ie, do you tend to overwater or underwater indoor plants? Choose accordingly, and life is much easier.

    I don’t envy my friends with the green thumbs for indoor house plants that are veritable jungles, because I would hate to have to do all that watering. I’d be the first to admit that I can grow virtually anything well outdoors, but it is survival of the fittest indoors.

    I have special sympathy for people who try to bring plants inside each winter after summering outdoors, it isn’t easy making sure you aren’t bringing pests into the house, and my only solution for my worst nemesis, scale on Kentia palms, has always been to move them back outside, where it never becomes a problem.

    I’ll second that praise for a California zone 9 garden, as most of my plants do well enough outdoors year round, or they get treated as an “annual” rather than a tropical perennial. Diplandenia splendens ‘Red Riding Hood’ and Mandevillea ‘Alice DuPont’ used to fit into this category, until the newer Japanese hybrids of each came onto the market, and I’ve accidentally discovered that they actually survive the winter here without rotting out! Hurray for the “Giant Crimson Parasol” cultivars, even if they still don’t look very happy this time of year with the wet and cold.

    Plus, one of the perks of SF Bay Area living is being able to eat Meyer lemons, tangerines and mandarins right off the tree this time of year, or enjoying them as decoration on the tree. At least there are minor compensations for the high cost of gardening real estate around here…

  11. P. S. I agree with John. I have a citrus that came back from what appeared to be a near-death experience. I know it’s not citrus, but my fig tree’s leaves fall off every fall when I bring it in, and new ones emerge. I water my plants once a week & no special love. Makes ’em tough.

  12. Thanks everybody. As far as the comments on overheating–these particular plants have the opposite problem. This room doesn’t get heated much, so nighttime temps can get down to 45 degrees and daytime temps rarely reach 65 this time of year.

    I’d kind of like to keep them indoors all year long. The difference between summer and winter is only 10 degrees here in Humboldt–it rarely gets warmer than about 70. 80 would be a heat wave. So moving them outdoors won’t get them significantly warmer, and I do like having them around when they behave…

  13. This is why I now only have snake plant and christmas cactus. Cannot be killed by cats or watering style or amount of light.

  14. I killed a christmas cactus once… don’t ask.

    glad to see that i’m not in the minority I though I was – I hate houseplants!

  15. I am trying so hard not to kill a Christmas cactus…have one little part left from a lovely plant that belonged to my Mother-in-law. I have tried to keep it going for five years now. Have a tiny little piece left. Agh…..

  16. That looks better than the Duranta I brought in for the winter. I keep forgetting to water it, and it’s not very forgiving. It rallied after its first near-death experience, but looks like it needs life support now. I’m stubbornly refusing to pitch it until I’m certain it’s completely dead.

  17. Amy, strongly suggest that you spend some time reading Darren Sheriff’s excellent, well written blog titled “The Citrus Guy”. He will answer many of your questions re growing citrus indoors and outside. Plus, his detailed words of wisdom for the southern gardener should be more widely known about. May I encourage you to add Darin’s blog to your ‘chosen list” of Friends of Rant. His expertise needs wider distribution.

  18. A SMALLER pot?

    Have moved Meyor lemon and Keifir (sp.?) lime indoors and out for well over a decade and they drop leaves, look sad, must wipe that sticky white gunk pest off with dampened paper towels but – – it is all worth the sweet fruit and full beautiful plant all summer!

  19. Ah Amy, now that you remind me that you are in Humboldt, not really prime citrus growing territory, even outdoors! I have clients with the same problems trying to get a Meyer lemon to fruit in the Sunset District of San Francisco. I keep telling her she doesn’t have a south facing wall to capture as much heat as possible, and the spot out in the garden where she has it doesn’t get full sun even when the fog permits…

    Citrus outdoors do prefer a minimum amount of heat to ripen fruit, and if you don’t have it, why frustrate yourself? It does sound like growing a lemon or tangerine indoors is a better solution, but without sufficient light, they still won’t ripen fruit. Maybe it just isn’t meant to be for you…

  20. I have pots of meyer lemon and key lime in my south facing windows and they limp along all winter. But I take them to the kitchen sink and give them a deep soaking every 3 weeks or so when the soil has fully dried out and lovingly wash off the scale and rinse leaves while I’m at it. They seem to love that attention and I love giving it.

    Once spring comes all I want to do is kick them out so I can get on with the real business of gardening outside. Consequently they suffer most in spring when frost keeps them in but they no longer hold an exaulted place in my life.

    I don’t use chemical fertilizers and potted citrus need a lot of nitrogen once the days lengthen. This was a problem for me until a friend told me that she puts whole lumps of chicken poop into the citrus pots. Duck poop seems to work well too. Worm compost is also greatly appreciated by citrus plants and all indoor plants.

  21. Too funny. I am taking the master gardener course through OSU, and my first assignment is to talk very specifically about a plant you know little about. I chose my little lemon tree, who I struggle with. This year, my goats ate it down to the stubs. It’s making a comeback though.

  22. I treat house plants just like I treat a fresh cut flowers. Find a spot for them and keep them until they turn brown., Then throw them in the compost.

  23. Funny Amy- your article is hilarious.

    Otherwise- about orchids if you have a bathroom with a window where every daily shower gives humidity, they can sustain.

    Houseplants- this varies so much but right– less water is more- hate to use commercial fertilizers- do any of you know a good homemade one for acid loving plants- something with minerals?

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