Growing dwarf citrus year-round in the Pacific Northwest
Story and Photos by Nancy Chennault
Growing their own food is a “dream come true” for many home gardeners. However, no one would have thought to include heat-loving citrus trees until a few years ago. The development of fruiting trees on “dwarf” root stock reduced the potential for unrestrained growth and brought the citrus grove to your doorstep.
Yes, you still need to protect from severe Pacific Northwest winter temperature, but the containerized trees, easily maintained and productive in a pot, are a joy to grow. By following basic cultural practices, your trees will produce an abundant supply of fruit.
Select the right trees
We are currently evaluating 20 varieties of dwarf citrus. The following favorites have produced fruit consistently for us the past four years and are easy to grow.
Meyer Lemon is the standard to which all home grown lemons aspire. Recognized as one of the hardiest, this sweetly-tart lemon is a favorite for lemonade, cooking and to serve with seafood dishes. It will blossom and set an abundance of fruit almost year-rolimeund.
Washington navel oranges are vigorous growers with generous, dark green leaves. Enjoy the beautiful plant on your deck or patio in the summer and bring it indoors as a houseplant in the winter months. The fragrance of the flowers is exceptional and the seedless fruit is juicy and sweet. They ripen over winter, so care must be taken to keep developing fruit from freezing. The fruit may suffer freeze damage before the foliage shows any sign of frost.
Bearss (pronounced “beers”) Lime (pictured above) is also known as the Bartender’s Persian. This seedless fruit is the lime used to make Margaritas and other cocktails. Imagine picking your own limes to complement a cool Corona beer.
Kaffir (pronounced “key-fur”) Lime is used exclusively for cooking. Its aromatic leaf is often the essential ingredient in Thai cuisine.
Use the whole leaf for a subtle citrus flavor or cut it into minute strips for a spark of fire. The zest of this strange knobby fruit is also used extensively. Kaffir are more sensitive to cold, and the fruit may freeze. We’ve had them completely defoliate during the winter but leaf out heartily the next spring.
Kumquats are fun to eat right from the tree. However, they need consistently high summer temperatures to set fruit. We harvested one Oro Blanco Grapefruit this winter, which was quite good and as the plant matures we are hoping for more than one a season. The Pink Variegated Lemon has beautiful cream and green variegated foliage, funky green and yellow striped fruits and pink flesh. This must be where pink lemonade comes from! Check out the Four Winds Growers website: www. fourwindsgrowers.com for additional varieties. Keep Pacific Northwest weather conditions in mind as you read excellent cultural guidelines. Their information includes the entire West Coast.
Care and feeding
Citrus should be transplanted to a container no larger than twice as wide as the original containkaffirlimeer. Give it room to grow, but not be overwhelmed by the increased size. Use a soil mix rich in organic matter mixed half and half with pea-sized pumice. Good drainage is a must! Apply a balanced organic fertilizer once a month from May first through September first. There are commercial organic “citrus fertilizers” available at local nurseries. Citrus trees need sufficient water in the summer months to grow, blossom and set fruit. Avoid standing water, and be sure to water the plants thoroughly when you notice the top 2 inches of soil is dry.
The varieties mentioned above have survived temperatures to 25 degrees F. Your dwarf citrus can be left on the front porch for all but the coldest of winter nights. If you choose to bring the trees indoors, select a spot that has strong light through the bleak months of December and January. A sunroom or atrium is ideal, but an east facing sliding glass door with minimal overhang will be sufficient to maintain citrus for the few months it must remain inside. Growth will be reduced in the winter, so water accordingly.
Pests are limited to a couple of sap sucking insects that can become a nuisance on citrus, particularly those kept inside in the winter. Citrus Scale, Black Citrus Aphid and spidermites like the warmth of your home and will multiply wildly if not detected early in their colonization. When you first see the brown oval juvenile scale or the black sooty mold growing on the aphid “honey dew,” you can wash the tree with mild soapy water. Then spray as needed to control with “Safe & Easy Aphid Spray” (Combine 1 cup rubbing alcohol, 1/2 tsp vegetable oil, 1 tsp liquid dish soap and 4 cups water; use in spray bottle. Rinse foliage before consuming).
Whether you simply enjoy the fragrance of the blossoms or use the fruits regularly in preparing your favorite recipes, homegrown citrus are a pleasure to grow. Now, pardon me as I step out the back door to pick a few limes for our favorite shrimp fajitas. Excelente!
Nancy Chennault has written for Columbia River Reader since 2006. She and her husband, Jim Chennault, operated a local nursery for some 25 years. She lives in Castle Rock, Wash. Read "Ask Northwest Gardener" online at CRReader.com for her answers to gardening questions and to ask your own.