Photo: Oxmoor House
SEASON: Fall through spring, depending on the type
CHOOSING: The refreshing power of citrus comes not only from the juice and flesh, but also, critically, from the zest, which is filled with aromatic oils that carry the flavor through time and temperature. Pristine fruit is key. Select blemish-free fruit that’s heavy for its size, which means it’s full of juice. If areas of yellow or orange skin appear green, don’t worry. The fruit is ripe.
STORING: Citrus fruit is beautiful in a bowl on the kitchen counter, but after a few days it loses moisture and softens. For best quality, place citrus in a produce bag in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator for up to a week. Some varieties will last much longer. To easily add the essence of citrus to dishes, store grated rind in the freezer.
GROWING: Who wouldn’t love a basket of homegrown lemons? Those in cold areas envy the hedges of citrus in California, but we can all enjoy beautiful plants if we protect them during winter. Whether grown in a patio pot or in the backyard, there is an option for everyone to enjoy. Typically, citrus fruit grows on trees ranging in height from 3 to 12 feet, but there are dwarf options. The trees are evergreen, fragrant in bloom, a manageable size, usually thorn-free, and wonderfully fruitful.
Those who enjoy mild winters have no excuse not to plant these fragrant evergreens. Try varieties not commonly offered in supermarkets, such as Buddha’s Hand citron, Meyer or Ponderosa lemon, Key or Mexican lime, or the colorful blood orange. Where temperatures rarely drop below the mid-20s, gardeners can succeed by choosing varieties that are especially cold-hardy and by planting on a south-facing wall for extra winter warmth. Select the most cold-hardy types, such as Mandarin oranges (tangerines, clementines, and satsumas), kumquats, calamon- dins, Meyer lemons, and Eustis limequats. Be prepared to cover plants to protect them if temperatures dip in a severe winter since fruit can be damaged at 28°.The best coverings are nonabsorbent blankets made of spun bonded polypropylene or polyethylene, which you can purchase from horticultural suppliers. These coverings, usually listed as floating row covers or frost blankets, allow rain to pass through so they don’t become heavy but they hold in heat absorbed by the soil during the day. They can stay on as long as needed. Old bed linens work, too, in an unexpected frost, but they absorb moisture and should be used for overnight protection only. For container gardeners, good choices include Ponderosa and Meyer lemons, Bearss or kaffir limes, calamondin oranges, and Nagami or Meiwa kumquats. Move them inside during extreme cold.
What’s the scoop on rootstock? Plantsmen smartly figured out that dwarf fruit varieties or cold-hardy plants can be successfully adapted when grafted upon the trunk base or “rootstock” of another tree with those ideal characteristics. Your local garden center can guide you in choosing the right fruit for your climate and size needs.
No matter where or how citrus plants are grown, they need eight hours of sunshine, well-drained soil, and fertilizer that includes micronutrients. Be sure to cut your fruit from the tree, rather than letting it fall on its own, to avoid damage and a shortened storage life.