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edible houseplants: growing citrus, with logees’ byron martin

ARE ANY OF YOUR houseplants edible? A new book by the owners of the beloved rare-plant nursery called Logee’s Greenhouses suggests that we make room for some delicious candidates among our potted indoor plants—including some of the many choices of citrus that are well-adapted to growing in containers.

Their book is called “Edible Houseplants: Grow Your Own Citrus, Coffee, Vanilla, and 43 Other Tasty Tropical Plants” (affiliate link). The authors Byron Martin and Laurelynn Martin co-own and operate Logee’s in Danielson, Connecticut, a family business since 1892 that specializes in distinctive plants.

Byron and I talked about the best citrus for indoor growers (perhaps treated to a summer vacation outside), and how to care for them.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 30, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). (Photo of Byron and Laurelynn Martin, below, by Dan Kennedy via Storey Publishing.)

citrus in containers, with byron martin



Margaret Roach:  I’ve been enjoying the book. I had no idea about some of these… I mean, I knew vanilla was an orchid, but I didn’t think about sugarcane being in the grass family, and cinnamon related to laurels, and, oh my goodness, there’s a lot of possibilities, huh?

Byron Martin: There are, and we keep discovering more. So the book has been a while since it’s been written and published, and there’s actually chapters that could be added to it.

Margaret: Uh-oh: Part two [laughter].

Byron: Right.

Margaret: The sequel. I think with readers and listeners over the years, that among the edible plants that they can live with indoors either part or all of the year, that citrus are the most common that I hear about. I don’t know if that’s the most popular category in your edible part of your business, but I… yeah.

Byron: Yeah, so citrus definitely have a place in the indoor culture, and there’s a couple of reasons for it. One is that they fruit relatively young and are quite prolific. And the other is that they do tolerate indoor growing conditions very well. And there’s just a couple of things in terms of the culture that once you get it down, you pretty much can grow any citrus and still keep it small enough. So we always think of citrus as large trees, but small enough in a container for many, many years.

In our book we have a picture of a Calamondin orange, a variegated one, that’s got to be over 35 years old now, and it’s stayed in that same pot for at least 30 years.

Margaret: Wow.

Byron: So they’re long-lasting, they go on for a long time. They’re very productive. Some of these citrus plants put out tremendous amounts of fruit on a yearly basis. And the other thing about citrus are is they’re pretty forgiving to erratic watering [laughter]. And yeah, right—we as gardeners, it’s a hard thing; I mean, your dog will tell you when it’s thirsty, but the plant probably doesn’t tell you as loudly.

Margaret: Right.

Byron: Yeah. So you may forget, and then a lot of plants collapse, particularly if they’re soft-growing or transpire very easy.

Margaret: Yes, but these are tougher than that.

Byron: Yes.

Margaret: So I wanted to talk about recommended varieties for those of us who want the best chance of success if we’re getting started with citrus and want to adopt something.

But first just—and you’ve alluded to some of it—are there some basic citrus-growing pointers and kinds of conditions that we need if we’re thinking about delving into the world of citrus? Is it a lot of light, or is it certain temperatures or humidity, or what are the basics, if there are basics?

Byron: So basically there is going to be a need for good light. And this is the limiting factor, of course, with growing anything in your home, whether you have the quality of light that’s needed for whatever plant you’re trying to grow.

And citrus, really, I mean, you look at citrus groves and they’re out in the open, they’re getting full sun, so they really need a south window if you have it, or an east, west, or a combination southeast, southwest window to grow them with direct light coming on them. And many people, of course, grow them, put them outside for the summertime, where they grow very vigorously—that’s obviously their growing season—and then bring them in to lower light conditions in the fall and hold them.

And the downside to doing that too late, and under too low a light, is you’re going to get leaf drop, and you usually get some leaf drop, anyway.

We have a lot of questions about this. Not only houseplants but many plants: You put them out and then it’s really about that reduced light. And I always say that for humans to sense light is entirely different than a plant. I mean, we have a window, and light comes in, and we see everything in the room, but for a plant it’s a whole different ballgame.

They really need that higher light level, the high-light plants. And that’s why there are low-light houseplants, and there even are some that will grow and do quite well in shadier conditions in the home and that can yield fruit, or something like cinnamon that can yield a spice for you.

Margaret: So I watched a video of you, a basic overview of growing citrus. And you recommend growing, especially if people are having trouble, transferring the plants to clay pots. Why is that helpful, a terracotta clay pot?

Byron: So clay transpires, or lets out water, and if you’re growing in clay as opposed to plastic you’re going to get a quicker dry-down.

Margaret: O.K.

Byron: So one of the great limitations in growing citrus is root disease, and these are pathogens that get into the root system. Generally, the stress on them is during the wintertime. So whenever somebody sends us a picture of a sad citrus plant and wants to know what it is, the answer is, first tap it out of the pot and look for live, healthy roots and/or brown, dead roots.

And those roots didn’t die from old age, they died from a pathogen. And so the pathogens that generally affect them are Pythium and Rhizoctonia, or there’s a couple other organisms that affect them, and they generally thrive under damp conditions. So when the soil remains wet or moist for too long, that’s when these problems start to arise.

Now, it’s also a relationship between the disease and fertilizer, which… Yeah, that’s excessive amounts of fertilizer tend to make bigger cells in the plant. We don’t ever see them of course, you have to use magnification. And those larger cells are not as tough and hard and resilient. And so the pathogens have a way to get into them when the tissue is softer. However, if you grow a plant—and it’s not only citrus, this is the other plants that you might struggle with that have these susceptibilities—if you grow them under stress it tends to eliminate that problem. And a clay pot is definitely going to give the plant a quicker dry-down, more drought stress than a plastic pot.

Margaret: Interesting. So we want good light. There’s this advantage of avoiding the potential for root disease by letting them drain well and so forth. You just mentioned fertilizer. I’ve always backed off on feeding once we get into the lower light. I’m a Northern grower like you are, and once we get into the lower-light season… Yet, I know some people who fertilize year-round with their indoor plants. I don’t. Would you back off in this time of year, into the late winter?

Byron: It depends upon the light level that they have.

Margaret: O.K.

Byron: Now, most every plant, not all plants, but most every plant that we have that we grow has a very slow period or stops growing in the winter. Because here, we’re in Connecticut, and when you get down to the depth of winter, which is the 21st of December, and that period going in and coming out into January, there is just enough light outside to grow a plant. When you go inside, or you get into a greenhouse with all the structure over the top of you, it’s gone. And so everything slows down to a crawl, or stops.

And that’s actually an important time for citrus, because it’s that flush that happens, usually in February, when we see things starting to wake up, that all your buds appear. So citrus, if you go into citrus-growing areas in late winter or very early spring, they’re all in bloom and you can smell the orange blossoms and flowers.

Margaret: Yes.

Byron: Yep. And so, generally, we don’t want to fertilize at that time of year. However, you can do that; you just have to make sure that you’re not putting so much on that you damage the plant. And there’s no real good reason to force growth at that time of year because whatever’s forced is still going to be struggling under that low light level.

Margaret: Right. So I want to talk about some of the… I mean, in the book there are so many other kinds of plants, but we’re just talking mostly about citrus today. But the range of diversity even within the citrus! A lot of people have probably heard or had recommended to them or seen at the nursery in the indoor-plant area, ‘Meyer’ lemons [below]. That’s one of the most popular ones, but there’s so much more.

Byron: Right. Well, ‘Meyer’ is a very good one, and of all the lemons, if you line all the lemons up and you try ‘Meyer,’ it has the greatest flavor. But there are other ones. So the limes and lemons tend to not have a set flowering time. They do flower, like most citrus, at the end of winter or early spring, but they also can flower offseason. But also the finger limes will do that. And so there’s a long period where these plants can have more fruit on them than what we normally would see on just, say, a tangerine or a grapefruit or a navel orange.

They also grow faster. So the edibles like the Citrus sinensis, which is our juice orange or edible orange, or tangelos and such things as that, they have a specific growth cycle that they go through—grapefruit, too—where they grow in that first spring flush, they may put another flush out and then it’s over. So you get two flushes, maybe three flushes a year. However, lemons and limes don’t ever stop.

And we have this old ‘Ponderosa’ lemon in our greenhouses, for any of your listeners that want to come to the greenhouses, you can see it. Actually the fruit is ripening right now. It’s been in our greenhouses since 1900, and it’s been planted in the ground, so it happily lives in this old greenhouse. It’s one of the original greenhouses that the business started in. And we harvest off of that thousands of cuttings a year. That just keeps it from going up through the glass.

Margaret: Wow [laughter].

Byron: So we prune off everything from the glass, and we root them, and we sell them. And this flowering set, you can almost, almost, all year round have fruit on the tree. And that’s because it’ll do its spring flush, and then there’s some stragglers that come along. And then in the summertime you’ll get some blooms. And so there’s fruit on it almost… There’s a period when usually it’s pretty thin, and that’s because it’s a lemon or a lime. And so the Key lime, the Persian lime, that would be our commerce lime that you find in the grocery store, and then lemons, ‘Eureka’ lemon, the ‘Ponderosa’ lemon. And there’s lots of others, but those are some of the more popular ones.

They’re really great houseplants, but if you’ve done that or you want to get out to someplace where you can eat something that’s really sweet, then you need to move into the oranges and all those subtypes: tangelos, Temples, tangerines, Citrus reticulata, and even grapefruit do very well.

Probably one of my most favorite of all the citrus, at least for us in the North here, is the ‘Ujukitsu’ lemon, and it’s really not a lemon. It’s a tangelo with yellow skin.

Margaret: Oh, is that the “sweet lemon”?

Byron: It is. Well, I mean, we have a lot of fruit here over the season, and it has got to be the sweetest thing you can ever taste. And I’m sure that it has something to do with holding its sweetness in a greenhouse in Connecticut as opposed to growing in Florida or Southern California or Texas, where probably sweetness is in everything.

But that’s a very good one, and it really looks like a tangelo, but it has a yellow skin to it. And yet those, I go back to that growth, those have that cycle of growth that’s much slower for the gardeners to bring them into fruit.

Margaret: Yeah. So for a lot of us, space is the thing. And I have friends who have lemons and limes, and they’re growing them in really, really, really big containers and they’re decent sized small trees, but you know what I mean, they’re big. It’s not a little, small thing.

I was fascinated to see, again in that video I watched of you talking about citrus, a sweet orange, I think it was called maybe ‘Cipo’ [above] that’s pendulous or weeping and can be grown in a hanging basket. And then also a miniature tree, the very heavy-fruiting and bushy-looking, the Calamondin orange with the variegated leaves, and I think even the fruit was variegated. Some of these that are a little bit special in their habit, and, in the case of that Calamondin, even extra-showy because of the variegation. So are those some that are good for us to try, to start with?

Byron: No, I mean, the question is, how much room do you have?

Margaret: Right.

Byron: So my house has just normal windows in it, so it’s going to be hard to put a 6-foot tree in there and have it do anything. However, there are the pruning shears, and they work very well at maintaining plants at any size. I always say, always whenever you have a question about it, think about a bonsai and how they’re cut back.

However, there are citrus that are relatively small. The finger limes, actually, are pretty small plants. We have one that is a hybrid. It’s called the Australian blood lime or Australian red lime that’s a hybrid between Citrus australasica sanguinea, that’s the red finger lime, and a ‘Rangpur’ lime. And it’s a weeper. It doesn’t ever go up. It only goes down and it’s this kind of bush. I think maybe on our website we have some mature pictures of the mature specimens of that plant.

I have one that’s been in a pot, it produces maybe 50 or 60 little round red limes a year, and it’s no more than a foot and a half, 2 feet tall and it never gets any bigger. It just weeps and we trim it. You have to always use pruning shears whenever you’re managing it.

Margaret: Yeah, the finger limes, I was going to say, the finger lime are so… A friend of mine, Ken Druse, grows… I don’t know which one it is, but it’s a little more upright and the fruits are long. Small, but long and dark green on the outside. And inside are those, I think they’re called vesicles. He calls it “lime caviar.” Inside are these little beads of flavor, incredible flavor. It’s really wonderful. And it’s not too big a plant and yet he gets a lot, like you’re saying, a lot of fruits.

Byron: I mean, any of the finger limes [above]… This is a hybrid. So the juice vesicles are a little bit more elongated than the round ones that you find, but they work just the same. And finger limes actually work very well as a container plant. We grow the regular green one, and we also have one called ‘Red Champagne’ that has red fruit and darker pink flesh inside, or the beads or vesicles, are darker pink. They’re great indoor plants. I mean, they come from Australia so, first of all, they’ve got a tolerance to drought stress, and they’re very bushy, but erratically bushy. So they do need, just to make them look nice, you need to cut them back. And they also will flower on and off all year-round, similar to what a regular lemon or lime would do.

Margaret: Great. It’s a great plant, yeah.

Byron: But, that said, we have an old employee, a friend that had worked for us for quite a few years and took a lime home, and that was about 20 years ago or so. And they contacted me and said they had to give it away and did we want it? And they sent me a picture of it, and it was a good size, probably something you couldn’t fit in your window, and she just didn’t know what to do with this thing. It produced dozens and dozens of… And I said, just take a pair of pruning shears and cut it really hard.

Margaret: Oh!

Byron: So you can prune citrus really, really hard. And you do that right as they begin to flush in the springtime, just head that thing back down until it fit in the house. And the only downside… And they respond great to it, as long as the root system’s healthy, obviously.

The only downside to it is they’ve got to make that first growth before they’ll start to produce fruit again.

So coming off of some bud way down low on a stem, there isn’t that whole organization of, “I want to fruit,” type thing going on and to flush out. So it’ll be two growths beyond that that they’ll start to flower and fruit again. And it worked for her. And now that plant, which is, I don’t know, 30 years old or so, stays in the home and produces limes in its place.

Margaret: Wow. One group, one kind of citrus that includes a lot of oddballs, if people like eccentric things, I think, is Citron; there’s giant fruits and oddball shapes. Is that where the ‘Buddha’s Hand’ [below] fits in, I think?

Byron: Yes. That’s a Citron. Those are relatively tall growers. There’s no way you’re going to keep that at 2 feet high in a pot. You can initially, but they are relatively tall growers. And by tall I mean you probably can max out at 4 feet and then do some pruning on it. And we have the ‘Turunji’ variety, which is this massive fruit. It’s huge. And then the ‘Buddha’s Hand’ that we grow, and then a standard Citron, which would be a medium-sized fruit on that. They’re great. And the interesting thing is the rind that is good to eat, it’s sweet and you can just bite into it. And of course they candy it and it has a connection to the Jewish faith also.

Margaret: I wanted to ask about pests. A friend of mine who grows a number of lemon and lime trees and puts them out and then brings them back in in the winter, or fall, he said he had just been trying to clean up scale insects on one of them before he brought it back in and so forth. Is scale a thing that happens? Are there any other pests that we should be on the lookout for, and how do we tackle those?

Byron: Right, so there’s three insects that can affect them. The mites, and there’s several mites that can get on citrus, and they’re fairly easy to control. Then there’s scale, which actually is fairly easy to control if you’re persistent. And then there’s mealy bug, which can be problematic.

Margaret: Oh, yeah.

Byron: The good news is citrus have shiny leaves so they are very tolerant to sprays. And what we recommend doing is, before you bring them in, maybe a week or two before you bring them in, and just as you bring them in, make sure that they’ve been sprayed thoroughly with either a ultra-fine horticultural oil or Neem oil. The Neem oil will be just a straight oil that you’re going to dilute with dishwashing detergent.

The problem with the last two, scale and mealy bug, is they have a very long life cycle to them, and they can hide under the scales or in the cracks and crevices of the tree and under leaves. And so the first thing is to have really good coverage, which isn’t going to happen with a little hand spritzer. You need to get a pump spray that puts pressure on it and really blast the entire plant with it.

For the scale you need to hit them, preferably you need to keep your eye even on the summertime when the soft shell is present. That’s not that hard little brown bump, but it’s a thin light scale on the surface and you get the crawlers along with that, and that is pretty effective. We’ve cleaned plants up of scale and never seen it again so it’s something that you can eliminate, but you have to be persistent. One shot on any of those, even the mites, one shot is not going to do it. It has to be repeated.

As far as mealy bug goes, you need to do that probably on a weekly basis for three, four, or five weeks. Just continue to spray it, because what you’re trying to do is really get things you can’t see, which are the crawlers, as they emerge from that cotton mass.

Margaret: Yeah, mealy bug; ugh.

Byron: I mean, if you’re persistent and you spray… Oh, there’s one other thing. Once you’ve sprayed an oil on a citrus plant, make sure that a day or two later you go and you wash it off with clear water before you put more oil on the leaf. It’ll build up and cause damage.

Margaret: You mentioned this tree, one of your citrus trees, that’s been there forever, for since, what, 1900 or something, growing in the in-ground part of one of the older greenhouses. I mean, it really is a destination nursery. It’s also a mail-order business. You ship plants, I assume, all around the country. I mean, people order from all…

Byron: We’ve been shipping since the 1930s, so coming to 100 years.

Margaret: Some of my oldest houseplants that live here with me are from… They got their start at Logee’s. So my Bowiea which now has, I don’t know, a billion [laughter] of those green, onion-y looking things at its base, a lot of them started their lives there with you, so I know I’m grateful. But it’s really a great destination, almost like a tour, because the collection is so like a museum of unusual plants, yes? I mean, people come just to look around and shop, but to have fun, I think.

Byron: Yeah, it’s a great place to visit, particularly in the wintertime when everything’s drab and gray outside.

Margaret: Yeah. So you’re in Danielson, Connecticut. I’m so glad to talk to you again, and congratulations to you and Laurelynn again on the new book, “Edible Houseplants.” And I hope I’ll talk to you again soon. And I think I might be ordering some citrus [laughter] so thanks, Byron; you got me in trouble again.

enter to win ‘edible housplants’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Edible Houseplants” by Laurelynn and Byron Martin for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Do you grow any edible houseplants?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, November 7, 2023. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 30, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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