Saturday, October 9, 2010

How NOT to Help a Potted Lemon Tree

A few months ago, my husband and I were doing some Yard Plant shopping together. As I strolled through aisles and aisles of perennials and annuals, my husband called across the square, “Honey! You have to come smell this!” It was a Dwarf Meyer Lemon tree, and it smelled amazing. Best part?  It was half off. So, for a meager $30 we brought the thing home.


It had a rough start at our house. First off, the stress of the move caused the tree to throw most of its fruit. Two months later, we went on vacation and left the tree to fend for itself. During the hottest week of the summer. Oops. When we got back, I gave it a good long drink. The tree threw all of its fruit, and half of its leaves for good measure.


Determined to do better, I studied the plant. The roots were beginning to show through the soil on the top. Surely, this was a sign of bad parenting, right? I dug around in the garage and came up with a bag of MiracleGrow moisture managing soil, a third full. My mother swears by this stuff, and dumps bags of it into her large garden every year, with spectacular results. I scooped out handfuls of the rich, black soil and lovingly patted it into the pot, covering up the (obviously inferior) soil the nursery had given this poor tree. It looked like a mixture of sand and sawdust, and held water like a sieve. No wonder my tree couldn’t keep its fruit! It was dying of thirst!


You know where this is going, right?


A few weeks later, as our pathetic Seattle Summer began to come to a close, I took pity in our citrus-y friend, and brought it indoors. My bathroom has a large (opaque) West-facing window next to the tub…and the tub is rarely used. I thought it would be a perfect home-away-from-home for the tree, to weather out the cold, dreary winter.


Then I noticed the bugs.


Shortly after that, it was the mold.



I think it was a mixture of fruit flies and fungus gnats. Or maybe the fruit flies were just interlopers, lured away from the kitchen (and its own infestation) by the Gnat Shindig going on in our bathroom? I did research. And then some more. And then I pondered. And then I realized what had happened.


First off, Meyer Lemon trees need sandy, well-drained soil. So that awful sandy soil the tree came with? Was perfect. Fungus gnats, on the other hand, need moist soil. Which, obviously, the MiracleGrow was. Oh, and fungus, of which we apparently had an abundance. Someone, on a forum somewhere, suggested that sprinkling cinnamon on the soil would kill the fungus, and thus starve out the fungus gnats.


Perhaps I’m not patient enough, but all I ended up with was a cinnamon scented bathroom that seemed to say Hi! I’m your consolation prize! Enjoy your gnats! It did smell lovely, though.


After much more pondering, I decided surgery was in order. I lugged the tree back down the stairs and out the back door. I pulled out my gardening gloves, and got to work scooping out all of the MiracleGrow soil, right back down to the sandy soil. Roots showing and all. (Oh, and as it turns out, the soil on a Meyer Lemon tree should just BARELY cover the roots. Otherwise your trunk will rot. Bet you didn’t know THAT, did you??!) That dirt was then put into the compost “Death Star” to aid in the decomposition endeavors, and the tree was put into the garage next to a South-facing window. In isolation, if you will. 


It has been a week now, and there is not a gnat, fruit fly or any other winged beasty in sight.


Hindsight is 20/20, right?? *sigh*


  1. Fascinating! We have a potted lemon tree that is always choked in some kind of blackish mold. Bums me out. It's outside in the San Diego sun, but it gets a lot of run-off from our roof when it rains...possibly too much?

    I giggled at that "Enjoy your gnats!" bit. :)

  2. LOL! Oh my. I guess you should know that lemon trees grow great down here in Phoenix and we have clay/sand for dirt down here. I turned my drip system on for 10 minutes of water time this winter and my trees are full of blossoms right now. Good luck on your little tree!