Growing tropical fruits in Toledo (or Toronto or Trenton) may seem like the stuff of fantasy. It’s perfectly doable, though, thanks to the numerous dwarf tropical fruit trees that take well to containers and flower and fruit at a young age. A warm sunny outdoor location in summer, an equally sunny indoor niche in winter, a suitable watering and fertilizing regime, and a well-drained growing medium (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix) will keep them happy and fruitful.
The genus Citrus is particularly well endowed with container-friendly plants. Kumquats (Citrus japonica, aka Fortunella) are a stellar example. Visit your local supermarket during the winter holiday season, and you’re likely to find the orange-yellow, tart, bite-sized fruits of the popular kumquat variety ‘Nagami’. A number of other, lesser-known kumquats are well worth eating (and growing). The cultivar ‘Meiwa’ bears round, orange, 1¼ -inch fruits that are comparatively sweet and seed-free. Large, thin-skinned, orange kumquats deck the branches of another relatively sweet-flavored variety, ‘Fukushu’. In contrast, ‘Hong Kong’ produces numerous showy, scarlet, ¾-inch fruits with large seeds and scanty pulp. They’re great for ornament but not as good for eating.
Ripening in early winter, kumquat fruits typically remain on the branches until spring, providing decoration and snack possibilities well beyond the holidays. Small, starry white flowers perfume the air in late spring and early summer, and the lustrous, verdant, evergreen leaves are handsome year-round.
Calamondin (Citrus mitis) is what happened when a kumquat hybridized with a mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). The result is a compact, repeat-blooming evergreen shrub that carries fragrant white flowers and small, chubby, tasty “oranges” throughout much of the year, with production peaking in winter. The fruits can be eaten fresh and make excellent preserves. Splashy cream-yellow markings adorn the leaves and immature fruit of the calamondin ‘Variegata’.
Meyer lemon (Citrus limon ‘Meyer’) is yet another citrus with admirable qualities. A small evergreen tree that can be easily maintained at 3 feet tall in a container, it produces several flushes of flowers and fruits throughout the year, peaking in winter and early spring. The 2- to 3-inch lemons have thin, golden-yellow rinds and relatively sweet, juicy, flavorful flesh that goes well in salads, stews, and preserves. They also make a zingy snack.
Among the other edible citrus for containers are Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia), myrtle leaf orange (Citrus myrtifolia), and Rangpur lime (Citrus limon ‘Otaheite’). The takeaway (particularly if you have lots of container-gardening space) is that you don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy a year-long harvest of lemons, oranges, and kumquats.
Citrus prefer ample sunlight, medium to high humidity, 40° to 60° F minimum temperatures, and moderate watering and feeding from spring to fall (with lower amounts in winter).
Prune off unwanted growth immediately after the fruiting season, in early spring. Common indoor pests can be a problem. Watch for mealybugs, scale, whiteflies, and other common Citrus pests, particularly on stressed or over-fertilized plants. Cleaning plants up with insecticidal soap before bringing them back indoors in fall can help ward off these pests.
Guavas are another group of tropical New World evergreens renowned for their aromatic flowers and fruits, and several can be grown beautifully indoors.
Native to uplands of central South America, pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana, aka Acca sellowiana) works wonderfully as a container plant. Lustrous, leathery, silver-backed leaves clothe the upright, gray-barked stems of this handsome small tree. Sweet-scented, pale purple flowers with starbursts of maroon stamens open in late spring and early summer, followed by waxy, blue-green, egg-shaped fruits that cast an intoxicating fragrance as they mature in fall. Their pineapple-flavored fruits (with undertones of mint and apple) are at their best for only a few days after they fully ripen.
Pineapple guava plants require cool winter conditions (40° to 50° F minimum) and at least one cross-pollenizing companion plant for maximum flowering and fruiting. As with all the guavas described here, they appreciate a monthly application of organic fertilizer in spring and summer. Plants can be kept at 4 to 6 feet by removing overgrown stems in late summer.
Common guava (Psidium guajava) also takes readily to container culture, fruiting reliably and repeatedly in warm, humid, sunny conditions (60 degrees Fahrenheit minimum). For home growing, choose the true dwarf guava (Psidium guajava var. nana). The fragrant white flowers with bottlebrush stamens recur throughout the year, giving way to pale green-skinned fruits that have delicious, musky-scented, deep pink flesh when ripe.
A vicious weed in many tropical regions outside its native Brazil, strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) is an exemplary container plant for colder latitudes, provided it’s spared from temperatures below 50° F. Small, spherical, red-skinned fruits with tangy, pale flesh appear in late summer and continue through winter in favorable locations. The fruits are preceded by fuzzy, white, sweet-scented flowers. The variety lucidum (commonly known as lemon guava) has yellow-skinned, relatively tart flavored fruits. A small tree in the wild, Psidium cattleianum grows much more compactly in containers, typically topping out at 4 or 5 feet.
Other Indoor Tropical Fruits
There’s a lot to explore in container-friendly tropical fruit trees beyond citrus and guavas, including loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), dwarf mango ( Mangifera ‘Pickering’), star fruit (Averrhoa carambola), and the ‘Tainung’ papaya (Carica papaya ‘Tainung’ ), which will begin fruiting on 2-foot plants. Many dwarf common-fig cultivars (Ficus carica), such as the super tiny ‘Petite Negra’ that starts fruiting on 12-inch plants, also grow well in a warm winter sunroom or conservatory. There are even mangoes, such as the golden mango ‘Nam Doc Mai’, that will grow well in large indoor pots.
Another favorite that’s easy to grow is the dwarf banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendish’ (Musa ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendish’). Once they reach 3-feet high, they will produce small trusses of delicious bananas year-round, if given high light, regular water, and warmth.
Then there are avocados (Persea americana). Many home growers will opt to start their own trees from pits, but this will result in large trees unfit for indoor growing. Instead, choose a dwarf tree such as the avocado ‘Day’. This compact selection and will produce small avocados from July to September. Bring them indoors in a brightly lit location through winter.
These fruits are best purchased as plants, but most are not readily available at your neighborhood nursery. To find them search for a specialty online plant source, such as Logee’s Plants for Home and Garden. Good online nurseries such as this offer a wide selection of compact tropical plants ideal for indoor container culture.
Potting Indoor Tropical Fruits
Most of these small trees sold in 4- to 6-inch pots, so plants are small at purchase time. Plant them in a slightly larger pot using Fafard Professional Potting Mix, and provide them with good light. Pots should have drainage holes and bottom saucers. Try to maintain even moisture and high humidity, and feed them with a tropical fruit tree fertilizer, as directed.
When the plants begin to outgrow their pots, upgrade them as needed for ample root growth. Those that are fruiting size, usually 4 to 5 feet, require relatively large pots.
Pot your tropical fruits now, and in a year or two, you will be harvesting your own home-grown tastes of the tropics.