Q: Why can't I grow those little orange trees in my house? They always look so nice in the store, and the tag says they are easy to grow. Mine die.
A: The miniature orange trees commonly sold are the Calamondin orange. Originally from the Philippines, this citrus succeeds as a house plant because it is naturally dwarf. It can be happy and healthy with a small root system confined in a pot. The 'Meyer Improved' lemon is another dwarf citrus which is sold for indoor growing.
What goes wrong for an indoor citrus in Montana? Everything about the indoor climate is inappropriate. The air is too dry; days are too short; the winter sun is too low in the sky; the house temperatures are too warm. The citrus tree may hang in there, but it has a difficult life. Sooner or later it becomes an opportune target for any of the pest insects which happen to be around —aphids, scale, spider mites, or mealybugs.
Far more people in this part of the country try indoor citrus and fail than succeed. If you would like to try again, here are some helpful hints. Keep an indoor citrus where it gets a lot of sun but does not get hot. It prefers daytime temperatures about 65 degrees and nights above 50 degrees. Try using a grow light to lengthen its winter days.
Be fussy about watering. Keep the soil always on the dry side of moist but never wet enough to cause root rot. Try giving the pot a pebble tray to raise humidity in the area. Use a deep pot but never one that is too big; citrus roots like a tight fit. Fertilize regularly but lightly. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers because too much nitrogen attracts pest insects.
If you want to experiment with indoor citrus without a big money investment, try growing a citrus with seeds from the fruits you are eating. The plant will never bloom indoors but will grow leaves as attractive as any dwarf tree. Plant seeds about half an inch deep and be prepared to wait a month for them to sprout.
Q: When my amaryllis has finished blooming, can I cut off the old flower stalk?
A: By all means. Its work is done, and the old stem rapidly turns ugly. If you plant to keep the amaryllis to bloom again next winter, do not cut any of the leaves. When they grow long and floppy, tie them to a stake. Judicious use of green garden velcro or green string will hold them upright in a nice vase shape through the spring and summer.
Q: How can I know which seed catalogs or online lists are dependable?
A: It can be hard to be sure. I order mostly from companies in cool climates because they carry more varieties which grow well in our weather. Also I have the most success with seeds from employee owned companies.
Problems can arise when a seed company sells to a new owner. Usually the new owner does not advertise the change. Because garden seeds are not a high profit business, a new owner may cut corners in order to increase profits. If a seed company last year sent you dubious seeds, do not order from them again. And never buy bargain seeds or ones at remarkably low prices. They will be disappointing.
Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.