By Steve Smith
We live in a horticultural paradise. There is very little we can’t grow in the Northwest, and Lord knows I have tried it all at one time or another.
Paw Paws, persimmons and apricots struggle and even figs need to be located in just the right heat-retentive area to yield a reliable harvest. Success or failure often boils down to finding the right microclimate and taking a few extra steps to foil the weather. Citrus are perfect examples of what we can pull off, if we just persevere.
While the term “citrus” can include grapefruit, tangerine, lemon, orange and kumquat – in practical terms, limes and lemon are the best choices for the adventurous gardener who wants to push the envelope. Both of these trees come in dwarf versions, which lend themselves to being grown in containers. The value of container-grown trees is twofold… First, containers can be moved in and out of the house (or garage) when the mercury drops. Second, pots can also be moved around the garden or patio to maximize sun exposure, which has the added benefit of warming the soil as well as the foliage, all of which improve the growth of the plant.
If you are interested in growing limes and lemons they must be house plants for up to six months of the year (unless you have a heated greenhouse). The key to success with citrus is to locate them where they will receive the maximum amount of light possible – which means a south to southwest facing window (the larger the better).
Citrus plants, as a whole, prefer a higher humidity level than that normally found in homes, so you will also need to mist the foliage and/or place the container in a shallow tray filled with rocks that can be filled with water. A diluted acid-loving fertilizer will keep them looking green, along with the removal of any bugs. Be sure to check for insects in the fall before you bring your babies into the house for the winter and then scout weekly for any unwanted visitors.
Once the weather starts to moderate in the spring, you can gradually reintroduce your tree back into the landscape or patio and increase the fertilizer. Don’t put it in the bright sun immediately or it could sunburn; acclimate it for a week or two. You can prune your tree almost any time; just to keep it shapely, it won’t affect fruit production. If the light is sufficient, the plants should produce flowers (which are about the sweetest smelling flowers in the world) and subsequent fruit (you may have to take an artist’s brush to spread the pollen around), which will take several months to ripen – don’t expect huge harvests. This whole exercise focuses more on the enjoyment of plant-keeping rather than vast fruit production.
As for varieties, the best lemon to grow is “Improved Meyer”, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange. The flesh is juicer and sweeter than a standard lemon, and the skin is sweet enough to eat. It will take a year or two to come into fruit production, but once started you should have fruit on the tree all year long. When it comes to limes, “Bearss” is probably the most popular (you may also find it sold as “Persian” or “Tahitian” lime). Limes will grow pretty much the
same as lemons and should be harvested when you see a little yellow in the skin.
If you want to make a lemon pie or some ceviche, buy some lemons or limes. If you want to have some fun and grow something unique, try growing some citrus. If nothing else, you will have an attractive (house) plant with some delicious smelling flowers and hopefully a few delicious fruits as well.
Steve Smith owns Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org