In the Garden:
Container citrus plants provide evergreen beauty, fragrant blooms, and tasty fruit to a patio or deck area.
Grow Citrus in a Container
Even though you may not live in south Texas or Florida, you can grow citrus at home. While the hardier types of citrus may be grown out in the landscape or garden in most Lower South areas if provided some winter protection, the best way to grow citrus is in containers.
I love growing citrus in containers for several reasons. The plants tend to stay smaller due to the restricted root system in a container. The fruit is tasty and quite a conversation piece outside of citrus' normal zone. The blooms are very fragrant, adding their unique perfume to the air near an entrance to the home or in an outdoor sitting area.
There are a few types of citrus that are best suited for container growing in the Lower South. My favorite is the Satsuma orange. The plant forms a small, bushy tree when grown in the ground, but is even smaller in a container. Satsumas are a type of mandarin orange, and therefore have a very loose, "baggy" peel that is easy to remove with your hands. The fruits ripen in October through December, depending on variety, and have excellent eating quality with very few seeds.
My favorite Satsuma cultivars are 'Miho' and 'Seto', although these may be difficult to find in all areas. 'Owari' is much more widely available and is also an outstanding choice. Established Satsuma trees can take freezes down to the low 20's with little damage.
Kumquats are the most cold hardy of our citrus choices. Established plants will endure temperatures into the low 20's to mid teens with little to no damage. They form a small bush and are very well adapted to containers. Their one-and-a-half inch fruits are quite ornamental, and the fragrant blooms appear later than most other types of citrus. The unique thing about kumquats is that their thick, aromatic peel is edible and in some varieties, better tasting than the fruit's interior. I like to eat them whole or use them in marmalades. Kumquat fruit ripens in late fall. 'Meiwa' is my favorite kumquat variety and 'Nagami' is also worth growing.
If lemons are your choice, the most cold-hardy is the 'Meyer' lemon. While not a true lemon, its fruit are used as a lemon substitute although they are much less acid than true lemons. 'Meyer' lemons mature from fall to winter. However, they may have some production practically anytime.
Another of my favorites is the Mexican lime, also known as the key lime and West Indian lime. The small bush plants are very well adapted to container growing. Most of the fruit will mature in the summer months but like lemons, the plants can produce some fruit year round. These limes are not as cold hardy as the other citrus mentioned but being small, are easy to protect or move indoors during cold weather.
Citrus can be started in smaller containers such as a 5 gallon size, but will need to be moved into larger containers as they grow. Eventually a container of least 20 gallons in size is best for the larger species such as Satsuma and 'Meyer' Lemon. A half whiskey barrel is a great size, but unless you use a plastic liner the barrel won't last very long, making for extra work repotting in a few years. Potting soil mixed with some composted bark makes a good growing medium, but I like to add about a quarter sand or expanded shale to provide some weight. This prevents plants from blowing over when the medium gets dry and improves internal drainage.
Citrus needs a lot of sun for best production. Provide them a location with a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight. Water as needed to keep the growing medium moderately moist. I usually wait to water until the surface inch of the growing medium is dry.
There are many organic options for fertilizing container citrus, such as fish meal, cottonseed meal, and blood meal; you can also use synthetic fertilizers such as the slow release coated products. Whichever you choose, fertilize from late winter through July at a moderate rated based on the product's label instructions.
Citrus grown in the ground is a little more cold hardy than container grown plants, which have their roots exposed to the above-ground temperatures. Plants that have slowed growth are better prepared for cold weather. This is why I suggest stopping fertilizer applications in midsummer.
When winter temperatures threaten the plants, you have two options -- cover the plants or move them into a protected location. A clear plastic sheeting can be put directly over the plants, although the outside foliage that touches the plastic will suffer some cold damage. You may choose instead to set up a temporary structure over the plant(s) to hold the plastic. Inside, use incandescent light bulbs or the larger size Christmas lights that give off a little heat. This will protect most citrus through a freeze down into the teens. You can hang a thermometer in the plant to see if more lights (heat) are needed.
The second option is to move the plant into a protected garage or other location. This can be done with minimal effort by using a dolly to get under the container and then using a rope or strap tied to one side of the dolly, wrapped around the container and then tied to the other side of the dolly. This holds the plant to the dolly and is a back-saver when moving such a heavy container.
This summer add some container citrus to a sunny patio or other landscape area. Make sure it is where you can enjoy the fragrant blooms!
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