‘Tis the Season for Citrus
By Katie Nichols, The Alabama Extension Service
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. — Cranberries and cinnamon may be considered the official scents of the holiday season, but fresh citrus is ripe for the picking, just in time for merrymaking. Alabama citrus growers begin harvesting in late fall and continue through early winter. Mallory Kelley, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System home grounds agent, said it is a busy time for backyard citrus growers, too.
“Backyard citrus plants have been growing in popularity over the last few years, even though citrus has been a central and south Alabama staple for years,” Kelley said.
The United States citrus belt spans from California to along the Gulf Coast and into Florida. This belt falls into the United States Department of Agriculture’s hardiness zones eight to 10.
“With their evergreen foliage, fragrant flowers and delicious fruit, citrus can be a great addition to gardens and patios,” Kelley said. “As an added bonus — with the exception of a few tangerine varieties — all citrus is self-fruitful, meaning you only need one plant to produce fruit.”
Taking Care of Citrus
Kelley said people can grow citrus fruits successfully in the back yard with little or no control of insects and diseases. Fruits produced without pesticide sprays may be poor in external quality because of damage from mites, insects and fungal diseases. However, while they may look unattractive on the outside, external damage usually has no detrimental effect on internal fruit quality. The appearance of the tree may suffer, but most citrus pests seldom critically damage trees.
One of the only drawbacks to growing citrus is the occasional cold snap of low winter temperatures, where the trees require protection. Planting citrus in large containers makes it easier to move the plant indoors for protection during overnight cold spells.
“If you are looking for a low-maintenance conversation piece, think about adding citrus plants to your landscape or patio,” Kelley said. “Not only will you love their incredible fragrance when in bloom, but it is so much fun to watch them grow and share with your neighbors, friends and family.”
In central Alabama, Kelley recommend growing semihardy to hardy varieties.
“Semihardy refers to citrus varieties that are hardy to temperatures in the mid to upper teens and low 20s,” she said.
Satsumas or mandarins, kumquats and Meyer lemons are all considered semihardy varieties in central Alabama.
Kelley said satsumas offer the highest degree of success and satisfaction in Alabama. They withstand colder temperatures better than the other forms of edible sweet citrus do. They also produce more consistent crops over a longer period and require less protection from the cold.
The satsuma is a mandarin. It has excellent cold hardiness and ripens its fruit well ahead of most freeze problems, between September and November. Owari is the most popular variety. Brown’s Select is a recent introduction from Louisiana that is similar to Owari in tree and fruit characteristics but ripens two to three weeks earlier. Armstrong Early — also called Early Armstrong — is an old variety that has been grown for many years and is planted to a small degree. Armstrong Early fruit ripens early — beginning in September — but the quality is not as good as Owari.
Kelley said there are several hardy acid-type fruits available for homeowner use.
“These plants make attractive ornamental specimens and provide delightful fruits as well,” Kelley said. “The kumquat tree (not the fruit) is the most cold-hardy of the commonly grown acid citrus fruits. Kumquat trees can withstand temperatures as low as 15 to 17 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The kumquat is one of the most widely used citrus plants around the home. It develops into a shrub-like tree that bears small orange-like fruit, approximately 1 inch in diameter.
Kelley said people can eat the fruits fresh — peel and all — or use them in making jellies, marmalade or candies. Several varieties are available, but only three are commonly propagated: Nagami, Marumi and Meiwa. Meiwa — which produces round, sweet fruit — has become one of the most popular for home plantings.
Lime and Meyer Lemon
“Meyer is the most cold-hardy variety of lemon,” Kelley said. “The fruit-ripening period usually lasts for several months, beginning in late summer. Good crops of large, practically seedless and juicy lemons are produced.”
Limes are among the most cold-sensitive of the common acid-type citrus fruits. However, the Mexican lime — also known as Key or West Indian — is famous for the key lime pie. People can grow these limes as a container plant if they provide it with inside protection during the winter.
Learn more about caring for citrus by contacting your county Extension office or visiting www.aces.edu.