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 These blossoms are on an improved Meyer lemon tree. Gardeners using the trees as houseplants enjoy the edible fruit, but many buy the trees for their fragrant flowers alone. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
These blossoms are on an improved Meyer lemon tree. Gardeners using the trees as houseplants enjoy the edible fruit, but many buy the trees for their fragrant flowers alone. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Dean Fosdick / Associated Press

No offense, begonia growers. Sorry, fern fanciers. But if Adam Holland has his way, container-grown lemons and limes, oranges and grapefruit will become the next big trend in houseplants.

Holland is chief operating officer for Acorn Springs Farms in Hallsville, Texas. Ninety-five percent of his business revolves around marketing dwarf citrus trees.

What a concept: Edible fruit ripening by a sunny window in winter. Holland moves the trees year-round. They go to customers all over the nation, including many living deep within the Snow Belt.

“They’re not (as popular as) roses and impatiens, but they will be,” Holland says. “They’re a good indoor alternative for people who don’t like African violets, which to my way of thinking are a lot of trouble for little reward. If you’re looking for a few specimen plants you can keep inside your home, these are the ones.”

The Acorn Springs trees are shipped when they’re about 3 feet tall, rooted in rich soil. Many are blooming when they arrive. The entire package tree, planting medium and nursery pot weighs no more than 15 pounds.

“There’s no transplant shock and weather isn’t an issue,” Holland says. “The nursery pots can be set inside something to dress them up or the trees can be transplanted. Some, like kumquats, are slow growers. They may not need transplanting for a couple of years. Others, like grapefruit, soon may want a larger pot.”

Raising citrus indoors in containers is not groundbreaking gardening. The practice has been around awhile. But improved dwarf tree varieties make them easier to handle, a moveable feast you can stash on your patio in summer or set in a greenhouse or bright corner of your kitchen when cool weather arrives. That means temperatures lower than 50 degrees.

Look for a sunny, protected location if you intend to do some of your growing outdoors. Make any container move a gradual one. Acclimatize.

“In at night, out during the day and lasting about a month,” the National Gardening Association recommends. “Also, before moving the plant indoors, shower it completely with warm and slightly soapy water to wash off any bugs. Pests that you don’t notice outdoors can become problems once inside.”

One of the biggest challenges when growing citrus in containers is determining how much moisture they need. “You can’t have them sitting in water-filled pots inside the house in winter,” Holland says. “If you can get the drainage down and you can with good soil then you’re doing well.”

Having fresh fruit within reach is a big bonus, but Holland says he has customers who buy the evergreen trees for their fragrance alone. A Connecticut woman told him recently she has one of his Meyer lemon trees growing in a corner of her bedroom where “it bloomed and smelled good all winter.”

The Meyer lemon, by the way, is a good choice for citrus-growing neophytes. “It takes more abuse and tolerates neglect,” Holland says. “It’s an ever-bearing tree and it has more aesthetic value. The improved Meyer is a natural cross between a sweet orange and a sour lemon. The fruit is wonderful and the tree is a knockout. It’s our No. 1 seller by far.”

Citrus plants are easy to grow indoors although most commercial varieties are overlarge, says Deborah Brown, a University of Minnesota extension horticulturist based on the St. Paul campus. “Kids will start with a grapefruit seed and they’re fairly successful,” Brown says. “But because the seeds come from standard oranges and limes and grapefruit, they’re not likely to bloom or produce fruit for you. Selection is all important.”

Compact varieties that have proven their worth for long-term indoor fruit production include Calmondin oranges, Ponderosa lemons, Meyer lemons and Persian limes, says Rosie Lerner, an extension consumer horticulture specialist with Purdue University at West Lafayette, Ind. “But I don’t imagine the average home gardener will see all that much edible fruit unless they work at it,” Lerner says.

You can expect many happy returns from dwarf citrus trees. People like soaking the tree leaves in hot bathwater for a room-filling essence. Others use the fruit in East-West fusion recipes for the color, texture and exotic taste. Still others savor the just-squeezed juice.

“It’s a fun way to have a touch of the tropics in a northern climate,” Brown says. “The leaves are quite leathery and fairly glossy. They’re not pestered by a lot of insects. They’re tough plants.”

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