Second in a four-part series on growing fruit.
Growing up in the west of Ireland in the 1970s, citrus fruit consisted of large, juicy oranges from Israel, labeled Jaffa. Lemons were a luxury, and more often than not we had to settle for a sad substitute called Jiffy in a plastic squeezy bottle shaped like a lemon.
From time to time I would grow an orange seed and manage to get a really small tree to grow, sitting in a ceramic pot on the windowsill, the rain pelting the glass pane. Inevitably my little glossy green-spined plant would succumb to excessive watering and the cold.
Many years later I traveled to Israel, and when visiting a friend at Kibbutz Petah Tikva it was a revelation and a joy to walk through orange, lemon and grapefruit groves. Now I live in California and enjoy the opportunity to grow a wide range of citrus in my back yard both in the ground and in pots.
Citrus (Rutaceae), a member of the rue family, requires heat, good drainage and a modicum of fertilizer twice annually to thrive. In colder climates, it’s possible to grow them in pots under glass, taking care to protect well in winter by providing a heated greenhouse. In warmer climates, citrus does well in the ground and smaller dwarf varietals really do well in large pots that have the soil correctly amended. There are lots of choices for the smaller garden space. Some are available on dwarf and semi dwarf stock. Dwarf can easily be maintained at 3 to 4 feet; semi dwarf stock can reach 6 to 10 feet.
Citrus can be used in many ways, from juicing to marmalades, or as a flavoring. Citrus fruits can be pickled, candied and dried.
A few important pointers on cultivation
Caring for citrus trees isn’t too difficult, but you need to be attentive and watch for a few key signs of trouble.
Plant in full sun in well-draining soil and feed twice a year with an organic citrus fertilizer. Kelp meal and cottonseed meal will also help with blossom and fruit set.
- Follow the directions carefully, as over application is not advisable.
- Watering should be deep and infrequent. So many homeowners grow citrus in lawns where over-watering results in yellowing (chlorosis) and, in extreme cases, the death of the tree.
Deep green glossy leaves indicate a healthy plant. Pot cultivation is simple, and the addition of a bagged cactus mix to native soil gives the good drainage required. Potted plants should also be fertilized twice a year. Citrus can also be espaliered (grown flat) against a wall. A simple wired grid can be made on the wall and the growing plant attached to the grid, making sure to keep any excessive branches pruned back.
Unique citrus varietals
Pests and diseases
A few serious diseases can affect citrus. Scale, thrips and mites are the most common pests. Many of the remedies used are chemical in nature, and I do not recommend using them. These chemicals ultimately end up in the fruit and will be ingested by the consumer. An alternative is to grow lots of beneficial insect-attracting plants in your yard, where predatory insects such as lacewings, wasps, pirate bugs and spiders will eat these pests. Mites thrive in hot dry weather on stressed plants so make sure to water deeply during excessively hot weather to help counteract these infestations.
As a beekeeper, my bees love the emergence of citrus flowers in March and April. The resulting orange blossom harvest is a delicate and complex, tasting light honey.
There is a large and ever-growing selection of citrus available in your local nurseries and even in large box stores such as Home Depot and Lowes.
If you follow a few straightforward instructions you can grow beautiful citrus year after year. Create well amended fast draining soil, fertilize twice a year and irrigate deeply and infrequently. It’s as simple as that.
John Lyons is the founder of Earthmatters, a gardening school in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, and The Woven Garden, a firm specializing in edible landscaping. He has written on gardening for the Los Angeles Times and California Gardener.