Citrus Is My Therapist

I didn't know true happiness until I started growing fruit in my very dark apartment.
By Kat Kinsman
December 15, 2020
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If you open a package of fruit I have sent or delivered, you are consenting to the conditions of Official Fruit Time (OFT), which are that any time you engage with the fruit, you may not work, listen to the news or any other programming, or scroll through social media; you must only be present with the fruit. Violation of these terms means that I will present you with no further offerings. That’ll suck for you because I give really good fruit—most recently mangosteens and lychees, chosen for their intense deliciousness, and their precious seasonality. Lest we bury the lede under a heap of legalese*: if I’m sending you fruit, it’s because I’m trying to take care of you.

But I’m trying to take care of myself, too, which is a daunting prospect in a standard winter and seems like an almost impossible task this particular annum. In times past, I’ve self-medicated with citrus, temporarily boosting my mood with a blast of Vitamin C, potassium, and what feels like liquid light, and the ritual has become increasingly elaborate over the past few seasons as I endeavored to chase down every variety under the sun. When I was growing up in Kentucky, there were essentially four kinds of citrus available to me in a calendar year: lemons, limes, grapefruit, and exceedingly average oranges that were a staple of soccer games and Christmas stockings. Once I moved to the East Coast, I developed a strange dependence on easy-peel clementines, downing half a dozen at a time—likely my body screaming out for sustenance (or maybe just sugar) to counteract the stress I was putting it through as a broke-plus-loans grad student who often neglected to eat until she fell off her bike on the dirt road home. I told myself I was taking my vitamins.

Jonathan and Hilary Krieger are siblings who lost their father Neil to COVID-19 in April, and they're on a mission to honor his legacy by getting his favorite made-up word—orbisculate—into the dictionary. In its intransitive verb form, it means:

1. To accidentally squirt juice and/or pulp into one’s eye, as from a grapefruit when using a spoon to scoop out a section for eating.

2. To accidentally squirt the inner content from fruits, vegetables and other foods onto one’s face, body or clothing, or onto that of a person nearby.

Learn more at: orbisculate.com

That was just maintenance citrus, though, cheap, pallid, forgettable and surely out of season, but until you know there’s a box of 120 Crayola colors, you’re perfectly content with your eight-pack. Moving to New York City and wandering through its markets expanded that palette of fruit possibilities far beyond my navel gaze. Over the past few winters it’s become a self- assigned mission to find as many varieties of citrus as I can to figure out what makes me happiest. And then eat all of it. From roughly October through February, there is a heady mist around my person as I claw into Sumos, kishus, pixies, mandelos, Moros, pummelos, satsumas, Murcotts, and all manner of quats. I meticulously peel, sniff, and steep Buddha’s hands in spirits, stingily zest yuzu, and squeeze oroblanco into every dish and drink I can. By New Year’s Eve I’m convinced that my digging fingernails will stay golden until summer and my guts are in a constant low level of upset from all the acid intake but I can’t stop myself—I feel like I’m swallowing the sun, and it’s so dark outside.

But this winter, I have to strategize. Taking the subway from borough to borough and hovering over fruit stalls is infinitely less appealing in this particular season, so I’ve planned ahead, buying dwarf citrus trees to grow under lights inside. My calamondin is already bearing small green fruit, the satsuma is at least a year away from producing any, but the Key lime and Meyer lemon are decked with flowers that I think may be the most joyful things I’ve ever smelled. I ration this out to myself so it remains special; finish a household task, or some writing I’ve been putting off, and I earn the chance to shut off the noise, walk over and deeply inhale until the whole world is nothing but blossom. This my time. And it rules.

*The rules of Official Fruit Time are not legally binding in most (any) states. Yet.

A few indoor citrus-growing tips

Credit: Naíma Almeida

Light It Right

The biggest fear people have shared is that their home doesn't get enough light. Bring sunshine inside (inexpensively!) with clip lamps and full-spectrum grow bulbs that bring the right kind of rays to keep your trees happy. (More on that below.)

Listen to Your Citrus

My personal citrus whisperer, Joey Hernandez of Bon Appetit, advises that leaves will tell you what your tree needs. Generally speaking, if they're drooping, they're thirsty. If they're falling off, they need more light.

The World Is Your Etrog

Depending on where you live, it can be next to impossible to find, say, sudachi, Rangpur limes, or bergamot in your local market. Seize the means of production. Some even blossom year-round.

Citron and On

Not all citrus produces copious juice, but they're just as useful. Fruits like Buddha's hand and yuzu are ultra-fragrant and flavorful when zested into drinks, dressings and spice blends. 

Size Matters

If your trees will be permanent or even part-time indoor residents, opt for varieties grafted onto dwarf rootstock. The plant will remain manageable and still bear full-sized fruit.

The Leaves Alone

Even if it doesn't bear fruit, the tree itself is a treat as a houseplant, and many—like makrut limes—are prized for their leaves that can be used for culinary or tea-making purposes.

Where to buy fruit, trees, and gear

Credit: Naíma Almeida

Fruit

Pearson Ranch

You're probably not going to spy a yuzu, bergamot, or Seville orange at your local grocery even in-season, but this is your citrus esoterica Eden. pearsonranch.com

Melissa's

There's no guarantee of which citrus varieties will arrive when you order a variety crate, but fingers crossed for endlessly poppable kumquats to eat rind and all. melissas.com

Trees

Four Winds Growers

Australian finger limes are prized by chefs as "citrus caviar," containing wee vesicles that are individual pops of bliss, and even hardcore citrus lovers probably haven't seen a cinotto, outside of the cult-favorite soda, but the spiky-leaved tree is a visual treat all on its own. fourwindsgrowers.com

Via Citrus

Trees go in and out of stock (recent highlights include red lime, finger limes, and calamondins), but they're all a treat—especially lovely Meyer lemons that bring the sunshine inside year-round. viacitrus.com

Fast Growing Trees

When I saw that my favorite orange of all time, the wee kishu, was available, I may have shrieked a little—and then also bought a Buddha's hand, a black peppercorn plant, and an ice cream banana tree. And yes, they have indeed shot up palpably in height since they arrived. fast-growing-trees.com

Citrus.com

If a tree seems as if it might take up too much floor real estate in your home, consider a hanging basket with a dwarf Key limequat or calamondin to maximize your growing space. citrus.com

One Green World

This one is for the citrus nerds (like me) who stare out the window, dreaming of a day when they may have mandelos, bergamots, and sudachis blossoming in their own home. onegreenworld.com

Gear

Lights

While individual plants have their needs—and believe me, they'll let you know—light is universal. (Plus it's great for your mood and you can read all about that here.) Even if you don't have a big, sunny window, you can craft a custom solution for anywhere in your home without going to tremendous expense. Clip lights and hanging strips bring the bright wherever you need it. Feit A19 bulb, $14.99 at acehardware.com / Ace 5.5-inch clamp light $8.99 at acehardware.com / 24-inch Stonepoint grow light strip, $34.99 at wayfair.com

Fertilizer

Are you a set-it-and-forget-it sort of person, or do you like to get granular with your projects? Via Citrus offers a slow-release fertilizer to feed your tree for six months at a time, and Citrus.com sells a more time-targeted kit to optimize for bloom time and keep leaves flush with micronutrients. 1-year slow-release citrus fertilizer; $10 at viacitrus.com / 1-year citrus tree care kit; $22.99 at citrus.com

Moisture

Moisture may be the trickiest part of indoor citrus growing, and most experts recommend infrequent but deep watering, letting the soil mostly dry out in-between and not letting the roots sit in a puddle and rot. You'll get to know the peccadillos of your own plants, but a simple tool can eliminate the guesswork. This 3-in-1 model measures moisture, pH levels and light, making it the workhorse of your indoor orchard. 3-in-1 soil tester kit; $15.98 at homedepot.com

Planters

When nighttime temperatures have moved out of the danger zone, your precious plants can be acclimated to soak up the sun's rays. Drainage is key for proper root maintenance, as is adequate room for roots to grow, so consider these attractive and durable indoor-outdoor planters, made from a clever blend of stone, plastic, and cement built to hold their shape, but without too much heft to haul. Saabira fiberstone planters; $96-$119 at crateandbarrel.com

Not that you asked, but here's what I'm currently growing in my Brooklyn apartment

Meyer lemon. Key lime, Rangpur lime, makrut lime, finger lime (two of them, actually), red lime, limequat, yuzu, calamondin, Seville orange, satsuma, kishu mandarin, etrog, bergamot, cinotto, Buddha's hand, and mandelo. For now.