Delicious Fresh Citrus Year-Round in Your Home Garden

Nancy Garrison, Former Urban Horticulture Program Coordinator

Time of Year Variety
Dec - Feb Washington Navel
Satsuma Mandarin
Jan - Feb Most citrus
Feb - spring Minneola Tangelo
Trovita Oranges
Late spring - early fall Lane Late Navel Orange
June - Nov Valencia
Late summer - early winter Bearss limes
Year-round Lemons

My interest and, truly, my passion for home fruit gardening and citrus growing has always been focused on identifying varieties that have superior flavor, adaptability to this area and that can produce fruit for fresh eating and juicing year round. In this article I will suggest a selection of citrus that meet these criteria, along with some crucial cultural tips that should allow for more successful production of flavorful, abundant citrus fruit.

My main sources of information and knowledge about citrus come from a handful of people with whom I've had the privilege and pleasure of interacting and places I've been able to visit to see and taste the fruit as well as growing some of my own for the last 18 years at home. Early in my career with Cooperative Extension, I made a trip to the Lindcove U.C. Research and Extension Center in Exeter California, which is a hotbed for citrus research. The thrill and excitement of seeing and tasting hundreds of varieties of citrus being grown and field evaluated contributed greatly to my fascination and appreciation for this exceptional fruit that we in California are so fortunate to be able to grow.

Someone who has certainly been a most valuable source of citrus information over the years is the owner of Four Winds Citrus Growers in Fremont, Don Dillon Senior. I met Don when I first started working for U.C. Cooperative Extension 18 years ago and have had the pleasure of learning from him ever since. There was another citrus nursery in Gilroy called Menlo Growers, which was started by George Vashel, whose wife, Betsy, was a graduate of our Master Gardener Program in the early 1980s. Master Gardeners had a delightful and tasty field trip to their nursery at the time that our Master Gardener Rex Osburn was their head propagator.

Through the California Rare Fruit Growers association I've also met people like George Quesada who knows and loves citrus as well as anyone I know and met the granddaughter of the citrus breeder who developed a most delicious pummelo X grapefruit cross called Melogold. This was a fruit I liked as well or better than Oro Blanco, but was passed over commercially by the latter and is difficult to find anymore. There have been others, such as our Master Gardener Hal Baker who has since passed away and Master Gardener Rex Osborne who grows at least 25 different citrus in his Almaden Valley home, who have enriched my knowledge of citrus through their sharing their experiences with me.

I also have been growing a number of citrus at my own Settle Avenue "Farm" for the last 18 years. These include an over 30 year old standard size Washington navel, a very dwarf (over 30 years old and only 8 feet tall) Owari Satsuma Mandarin, an old standard Meyer lemon, a one year in the ground dwarf Valencia orange tree as well as a 10 year old Sanguenelli blood orange which Rex Osborne grafted to Valencia two years ago, a struggling dwarf Bearss lime, and a vibrant dwarf Trovita orange I've had in a container for just over a year. I have raised my 12 year old son (and myself) on fresh squeezed citrus juice which l use as the base for our daily fruit smoothies in the winter months and have as lemonade the rest of the year. There's always some fresh citrus any month of the year.

I also was a driving force behind the planting and establishment of the rare fruit orchard at Prusch Park in San Jose in the mid 1980s. We have nearly 100 citrus trees in the collection. Included are a number of oranges such as the Moro Blood orange, Bouquet de Fleurs (a sour orange whose blossoms are primarily used to make perfume), kumquats, lemonquats, calamondins, limes, lemons, mandarins, and a few other rarities.

So, with that long background out of the way, I'm going to suggest a sample collection of different citrus that could provide a year round supply of fresh citrus well adapted to our growing conditions in most parts of Santa Clara County and beyond. Washington navel and/or Satsuma mandarin for harvest Dec. - February, Minneola tangelo and Trovita oranges for February - Spring harvest, Lane Late Navel orange for late spring through early fall harvest, Valencia orange for June - November ripening. Lemons produce nearly year round and Bearss limes come ripe in late summer into early winter. Most citrus comes ripe in January and February but by including the ones I've mentioned you can greatly extend the harvest season.

Many people may not think they can fit 6-8 citrus in their yard without excluding everything else, but actually, dwarf citrus can be planted close together in a hedgerow and kept pruned for size control as the plants put out flushes of growth. If size control isn't an issue, the only other thing you would probably do is to cut off errant branches as they stick out past the canopy of the tree, cutting out dead and dying branches and suckers from the root stock.

Citrus is very adaptable to container growing in anything 5 gallons or larger. Don Dillon shared at a recent class I attended, that as long as you start out with a well drained potting soil, you likely can keep a citrus tree in the same pot without root pruning and repotting for many years. Four Winds Growers uses a potting mix comprised of 1/2 redwood sawdust, 1/4 part sand and 1/4 part composted yard waste and inject the fertilizer with every irrigation. I do recommend drip irrigation rather than hand watering citrus or any outdoor container stock because it's very difficult to keep the soil evenly moist during the summer months. Once potting soil dries out it becomes hydrophobic like peat moss is, and can be almost impossible to re-wet. This becomes especially critical on plants that have been in the same pot for many years and have filled the pot with their thirsty roots. I'd also highly recommend the incorporation of a slow release fertilizer for all container culture to provide a continuous feeding throughout the year. It is not recommended to withhold fertilizer, including nitrogen as the winter season approaches, as we once mistakenly believed. It does not help harden the plants up in preparation for cold weather. Citrus are better protected from frost damage through a year round feeding program to which both Don Dillon and George Vashel attest. Injecting small amounts of a 3-l-1 ratio fertilizer with each irrigation would be ideal, but most people aren't set up to "fertigate." During the winter when soil temperatures are cool, slow release fertilizers such as for container grown plants, tend to be ineffective, so it's advisable to supplement it with liquid such as Miracid or fish emulsion. Read the instructions carefully.

I was quite surprised at Don's class when he pointed out that sweetness of oranges is not as dependent on the amount of sunlight as on the air temperature. He referred to an orange he planted on the north side of a building receiving little direct sun, but having very sweet and flavorful fruit. He also suggests harvesting lemons before they turn fully yellow, which he considers to be overripe.

To help you solve the commonly occurring inquiry as to why some "tangerines" are sour, check the color of the flower buds. If they are distinctly pink, they are Rangpur limes not tangerines. These make excellent juice when sweetened as you would for lemonade. Anybody who has kumquats is in for a real treat making marmalade and can candied quats. I also love to make marmalade with my oranges, limes and lemons. Forget mandarins for marmalade since their peels are terrible in my opinion. I recently purchased a quite rare Kaffir lime tree from Don and am excited to have fresh leaves to flavor my Asian recipes. These leaves go for big bucks in Asian markets, lending the very distinctive flavor you probably associate with Thai food, but may not have known came from the leaves of this plant. Seedy fruit is best enjoyed by juicing, rather than trying to eat your way through the seeds.

Citrus get a number of pests, including whiteflies, scale, mites, and sooty mold. The impact of all these can nearly be eliminated by just controlling the ants. Ants, as I've mentioned many times, will literally stave potential natural predators and parasites of the "bad guys" so the pests can feed ravenously on the plant sap and exude their sweet sticky honeydew which is choice food for the ants.

In conclusion, we are so fortunate to be able to grow some of the most flavorful citrus in the world and I encourage you to take advantage of this fact. I like much of California's fruit better than Florida's because our fruit develops a nice sugar acid balance and colors up so beautifully due to our warm days and cool nights and because of the varieties adapted to our growing conditions. Anytime from late March on, after danger of frost, is ideal for planting citrus. Pick up one of the several paperback books on citrus from Sunset, Ortho or Ironwood Publishers to keep as a reference.