Gardening Indoors to Beat Winter Doldrums

Reader Contribution by Regina Hitchcock
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There are hundreds of memes out there on the internet about how ironic life can be sometimes. The one that springs to my mind, I made myself.

But seeing the 9″ of snow (and the -2º temperature) that my part of Arizona experienced in early January made me remember why I have been growing tropical plants inside for so many years.

It all started in early 2008 when I started the Gardeners with Altitude garden club here in St. Johns. We had a huge seed-starting class at our local library where we had over 50 people in attendance. We discussed all the things that could be started indoors and I was asked if I had ever grown citrus. Now, I realize that most companies cannot ship citrus plants to Arizona due to agricultural restrictions, but I immediately went home to see if there were any that could. What I found was that I could not find any. But lo and behold, a mere two or three weeks later, while perusing my local Home Depot in Show Low, I found kumquats, loquats, and oranges in little pots. I brought them home. 

It wasn’t long before I realized some of the trees were going to do better than others, and that first winter, I harvested 10 kumquats, one orange, and a handful of limequats, like the ones in the picture above. 

In the summer, when temperatures outdoors are much more favorable to the happy little trees, I moved them outside of the house where they could take advantage of that great sun. The problem with potted plants in Arizona sun and summer temperatures is that they can bake to death in the period of a couple hours. That first summer, after bringing the plants outside to the fresh air, I was gone most of the day to do some shopping and what-not, and I came home to an orange tree that looked very dead indeed. I drenched it with water and in a couple weeks, all but one branch had revived. 

Since then, the orange tree has died, and though the kumquat continued to put on a handful of sweet-peeled, tangy fruits for a couple years, it, too, finally kicked the bucket. But I added to my tropical fruit collection by adding a banana tree a garden club member had to be rid of. It has had several pups grow from it, and I’ve given away banana plants to several people. 

Recently, I acquired this great lemon tree. 

This picture doesn’t show just how crazy beautiful the plant is, but here are some lemons it produced this winter; the first year I have had it!

And the limequats from the tree above:

One thing I have learned the last several years about caring for plants like these inside the house include making sure to fertilize, watching the water level, making sure they have enough heat and light, and helping them pollinate. 

Tropical plants like citrus, pineapple, bananas, and kiwi benefit greatly from a little fertilizer every few weeks during the blooming and fruiting periods, specifically. I use Neptune’s Own fish fertilizer on my plants because growing as naturally as I can is important to me. Because it is a water-soluble liquid fertilizer, getting on a good fertilizing routine helps with making sure they are getting enough water, too. The soil should be fairly dry an inch or two down, but never more than that. These plants produce high-water-content fruit and they need enough water to produce blooms and fruit.

A south- or west-facing window can usually be sufficient lighting if the days are long enough. Here in northern Arizona, I like to supplement with some grow lights or even fluorescent shop lights when the days are less than 10 hours long. Keeping them warm enough indoors is as simple as making sure they are in the house rather than a garage or storage area. If its warm enough for you, it is warm enough for them.

The last thing about making sure you get decent fruit from these types of plants is to help pollinate the blossoms. Commercial growers sometimes swear that the blossoms will fertilize themselves, but I find I get a much better harvest from my baby trees if I take a paintbrush around the blossoms a couple times during the bloom period. 

Hopefully you can beat the winter doldrums by growing a few indoor plants, even fruits, for yourself. To me, nothing beats a fresh glass of lemonade in January, courtesy of your own indoor tropical garden!

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