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It depends on the winter – successfully overwintering citrus plants


How you overwinter your citrus plants – contributes significantly to the successful growth of lemons, oranges, mandarin oranges and the like, and thus to a rich harvest of delicious citrus fruits. While these exotic fruit trees are easy to care for in the summer, spring and autumn months, the winter is a challenge for many citrus gardeners. But this can be mastered if you follow the centuries-old practice of overwintering citrus plants. This practice can still be experienced today in many historic orangeries north and south of the Alps.

The basics of overwintering citrus plants

In order to be able to overwinter citrus plants one should first deal with the botanical basics. Citrus plants come from the subtropical regions of the world and are cultivated today in the so-called citrus belt. In their original region of origin, Southeast Asia, they have adjusted themselves to high solar radiation at high altitudes, warm to hot daytime temperatures as well as cool night temperatures. However, frost does not occur there, which means that the citrus plants have little to no protection from low temperatures. This is the crucial reason why citrus plants in our region must be grown as potted plants and overwintered during the winter season.

More light – this is how you will find a suitable winter quarter

For centuries, exotic plants from other climatic regions have been brought to Europe. They could and can be cultivated here if the plants can be given the same or at least similar site conditions. This also applies to citrus plants, which definitely require a temperature above 0°C. But unfortunately it is not enough to turn on the heat and to properly heat lemons, oranges, mandarin oranges, etc. Plants not only depend on a location factor but on several factors and their relationship to each other. This quickly becomes apparent when we take a look at our seasons. In the winter it is cold and the sun is low. So it's not just the low temperatures that the plants are confronted with, but also low solar radiation. In the summer there are high temperatures and high solar radiation, which determine the growth of the plants.

If we want to overwinter citrus plants, then it depends on the relationship of temperature and light. It is wrong, for example, to offer the plants a summer programme when it comes to the temperature and wintry darkness for the light. But that's what happens when we put a lemon or orange tree in a heated living room. Shortage of light then quickly ensures that the tree will lose its leaves.

The winter quarters must therefore have both the right temperature and the right lighting. Both factors can be influenced by technical aids, heating, large windows and plant lighting. And now the orangeries mentioned above come into play. If you take a closer look at their construction and functionality, you quickly realise that they have large windows, but little focus on heating systems. With the large windows, the orangery gardeners tried as much as possible to capture the sparse winter light for the plants. The heating system made sure that the temperature in the orangery was constant around 5°C. This "overwintering mode" of the old orangeries is usually described as "cool and bright". It has the great advantage that the citrus plants are in hibernation, so-called dormancy, due to the low temperature. They can then deal with less light. Apply these temperature/light conditions when you overwinter your citrus plants and you will not have any problems when caring for your plants.

Suitable winter quarters "for home use" include unheated staircases or utility rooms such as a laundry room, garages with windows or garden sheds. In any case, the plants must be placed so that they receive direct sunlight. If you have a bit more space and budget, you may want to have a spacious winter garden, a greenhouse or an orangery. Unfortunately it is getting harder and harder to find rooms that are both unheated and cool. As a more expensive alternative, it might be necessary to hire an overwintering service at a plant nursery.

But if that does not work, you still have option of overwintering your citrus plants in a warm location. In this case, at temperatures higher that 12°C, you must supply the citrus plants with additional light during the winter. You can do this with a plant light. There is now a large selection to choose from for this. For citrus plants you will need a light energy of at least 1500 lux. You can do this with a fluorescent tube, an energy-saving lamp or LED that produces cold white or purple plant light with at least 100 watts per square metre.

Caring for citrus plants during the overwintering period

When the citrus plants are subject to cool overwintering, they are extremely easy to care for. At 5°C they "sleep" and need very little water and no fertiliser. Check once a month whether the soil is still slightly damp. Only then should the plants be watered a little. At the end of the winter, depending on the region from the end of February to the middle of March, you can repot the plants if necessary and prune them into shape.

Warm overwintering requires a little more care because the citrus plants are not in dormancy. They need water more often, but most of all you have to look for pests at least once a week. Pests look forward to a warm overwintering of the plants and multiply themselves magnificently in dry air. Speaking of dry air, it helps both the plants and pests to spray them with water once a week.


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