At some point in every gardener’s life comes a longing for a conservatory. I’m not sure what brings this on. I’d say that it was middle age, but I think age is more a correlation than a cause. For me, the longing for a conservatory began when I spent a night in a French countryside home that had what our hostess called “a winter room”—a glassed-in room that held citrus trees, tropical plants, tender perennials that required shelter in the winter but otherwise lived outside in a courtyard, and an aviary filled with tiny, brilliantly colored birds. There were armchairs and little tables where one might set one’s glass of pastis in the afternoon.
This might have seemed pompous, or overly fussy, at one time in my life. But at that moment, I stood in the winter room and thought, “Oh, yes. I need one of these.”
And so began my tragic journey through the world of indoor citrus.
I’ll spare you the gory details. Let’s just say that mistakes were made. In spite of my best efforts, I managed to kill three of four potted citrus I purchased when I got back from France. They were beautiful in November, lush in early December, and by the cold gray dawn of the new year, they had begun their inexorable decline. Only the calamondin survived—barely. The rest withered and died while I stood helplessly by.
If only I had picked up Growing Tasty Tropical Plants first. It was in this clear, useful and beautifully illustrated book that I learned that wet, cold roots will send a potted citrus tree to the compost pile before you can say “homemade limoncello.” My trees were in the wrong kind of potting mix, they were too cold in my (mostly unheated) front room, I had made the mistake of fertilizing them in winter, which shocked the roots, and, in spite of my best efforts not to overwater, I had, in fact, overwatered them. Root rot set in and never went away.
The fact that I went out and bought two more citrus trees and attempted to rehabilitate my barely alive calamondin can be credited entirely to authors Laurelynn and Byron Martin, who also own Logee’s Tropical Plants in Danielson, Conn. They make the idea of growing exotic tropical plants indoors sound so reasonable, so attainable, so very doable. Papaya? Why not? Fig? Absolutely! Pineapple guava? Vanilla bean? Black pepper? Of course!
Because the authors are nursery owners and growers, they have seen every form of torture a neophyte gardener can inflict upon a potted tropical plants. They give solid instructions for choosing a pot and potting soil, watering, fertilizing, pollinating (yes, sometimes you need to get in there and do that yourself) and otherwise caring for these odd and exotic plants. There’s a troubleshooting guide that gives answers to the most commonly asked questions about tropical plant problems. And best of all, each plant profile includes a reassuringly honest “potential problems” to let you know what you’re in for. (Those plant profiles also include photographs and charming illustrations, along with recipes, harvesting tips and critical information such as minimum indoor temperatures, light requirements and pruning needs, which is important if you don’t want your indoor plants to devour the sofa.)
So here I go again with my citrus. I’ve got a Meyer lemon and a Bearss lime in full bloom, and last year’s calamondin is struggling mightily to catch up. They are in the right soil, getting the right amount of water and fertilizer, and best of all, they won’t have to face the cold temperatures of my living room for another eight months or so. (And when they do, I’m going to put heated seed mats under them to keep the roots warm.)
If these survive, I might go for a myrtle-leaf chinotto, a lovely little sour orange used in Italian liqueurs and sodas. And then I might try that crazy tree tomato on page 102. And the black pepper plant on page 116. Oh, and it might be interesting to grow a cinnamon tree (page 118) and a chocolate tree (page 106). I haven’t yet started construction on the conservatory, but it’s only a matter of time. Someone take my passport away—if I catch sight of one more French orangerie, I’m done for.
Growing Tasty Tropical Plants: *in any home, anywhere. (like lemons, limes, citrons, grapefruit, kumquats, sunquats, tahitian oranges, barbados cherries, figs, guavas, dragon fruit, miracle berries, olives, passion fruit, coffee, chocolate, tea, black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, and more…) By Laurelynn G. Martin and Byron E. Martin, co-owners of Logee’s Tropical Plants. (Storey Publishing, 2010)