When life doesn’t give you lemons

Growing citrus trees here is a challenge

Many talents are passed along by grandmothers. When I planted a lemon seed in a little plastic pot years ago, it was just to see what would happen. Still, a part of me wondered if my grandmother’s lemon-tree mojo had been transmitted to me. Though Grandma lived in Detroit, she had a small potted lemon tree she moved outside every summer. Whether it produced lemons or not has been lost to history, but that little lemon tree thrived.

So I planted the seed from a grocery-store lemon, and soon I had a little plant. Then it was a bigger plant, and then it was a tree 3 or 4 feet tall. It outgrew several pots. Like Grandma’s little tree, it was hauled outside and back inside. It saw many a summer rain and withstood winter’s dry indoor heat. It even survived having a rawhide bone buried in its soil by a type-A dog who Just. Could. Not. find a more suitable and secure spot.

The leaves had a pleasant lemon scent, but the tree never set fruit. Lemon trees started from seed take years to flower or fruit, if they ever do. For fruit, you have to get a grafted tree, but I loved my little seed-started tree anyway.

One winter day I saw that many of its green leaves had fallen to the floor. Finding no evidence of canine or feline interference, I looked closer and discovered the insidious webbing of spider mites – the same pest that had munched on the pepper seedlings I started indoors a few winters before. Spider mites love the warm, dry conditions of our homes in winter. Having something attack your plants during that dark time just adds insult to injury.

I swabbed the affected parts with rubbing alcohol and sprayed the tree with an organic, neem-based product. The leaves continued to drop. The 10-degree outside temps contraindicated a good hosing down in the backyard, so a thorough spritzing with rubbing alcohol, followed in a couple of days by a rinse in the shower, would have to do. Fortunately, it did, and new growth emerged.

Still curious about growing actual lemons, I ordered a grafted Meyer lemon tree from California. Freeing it from its packaging upon arrival was something in between performing delicate surgery and opening a really cool Christmas present.

It produced fruits but dropped them when they were no bigger than marbles. Some leaves dropped as well. I called and emailed the nursery it came from, adjusted the watering schedule and tried misting and fertilizing. When summer came, I hoped being outside would help it thrive. However, it and the other lemon tree I’d been growing for 10 or 12 years both died by autumn.

I suspect a virus or fungal disease took its toll on the already-struggling grafted tree and spread to the other one. Like other master gardeners who feel crappy when stuff like this happens, I channeled my sadness into further research. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but if I were to try growing another lemon tree here, I would most likely:

•    Buy it through a local, reputable vendor instead of ordering directly from citrusy places like California and Florida.

•    Supplement the light it receives indoors with a grow light. Being next to a sunny window probably isn’t enough.

•    Add a humidifier to the room or somehow pet-proof a humidity tray. Misting daily doesn’t cut it.

All of these would, I think, make for a stronger, happier and more disease-resistant tree. If whatever lemon-tree mojo runs in my family manifests later in life, I’ve at least “planted the seed” with more information.

First appeared in the March 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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