Citrus is a broad family of fruits filled with all sorts of curious characters – each one valued for its special contribution to the kitchen. You’ve got to love ’em for it: lemons for marinades, cheesecakes and fish; limes for the piquant finish they give to just about any dish; oranges for juicing; grapefruits for pepping up breakfast time; and satsumas and other easy-peelers for guilt-free snacking. We need more citrus in our lives folks, so let’s grow to it!
Growing Citrus in Temperate Climates
Admittedly my part of the world, with its often cloudy skies and dull, dreary winters, falls firmly outside of the conventional citrus-growing belt. Citruses prefer to bask in warmth and the sort of strong, sunrise-to-sunset sunshine that has those of us from cooler climes scurrying for the shade.
But while Southern England is a far cry from Southern California there are some very convincing reasons to add a few citrus fruits to the home-growing schedule of those of us gardening in temperate climates.
Grow citrus in pots and you open up the possibility of enjoying most types of these sun-loving fruits. Cosset them in the warmth of a frost-free greenhouse, within a bright sunroom, or on the sunniest windowsill in the home. Then move them outside for summer to make the most of long days and fresh air. A little thoughtful care brings every chance of something special to crown the fruit bowl.
Best Citrus for Containers
So what to grow? These are my top four citrus, selected for their hardiness, performance or both. They are widely available and well suited to container growing.
Kumquat: Kumquats look similar to oranges – round and, well, orange – but are only just bigger than olives. The dainty size belies an impressive hardiness, down to as low as -10°C (14°F).
Kaffir lime: Getting citrus to fruit can sometimes prove a little hit and miss in less-than-perfect conditions. No worries with kaffir limes, which are grown for their leaves – an essential in Thai cuisine.
Meyer lemon: This compact tree yields medium-sized, flavorsome lemons that are both sweeter and less acidic than the lemons you’ll find in the supermarket. It’s reliably prolific too, making it a safer bet.
Satsuma: Another compact citrus producing exceptionally sweet, easy-peel fruits perfect for packing into lunchboxes. It is hardy down to about -5°C (23°F). Clementine is another familiar and very similar citrus hybrid.
How to Care for Citrus in Pots
Most citruses will tolerate a brief dip to a few degrees below freezing. What they won’t tolerate is cold feet, something that sodden, claggy soil at the roots is almost certain to bring about. Avoid this – please, at all costs – by mixing one part sand or grit to every four parts of a soil-based potting mix. Water plants sparingly. Use rainwater if you can, which will help to keep the root zone on the acid side of neutral, as preferred. Feed plants with a purpose-sold citrus fertilizer whenever temperatures remain consistently above 10°C (50°F).
It’s possible to overwinter citrus outside in temperate climates – with the major caveat that they must be properly sheltered from bone-chilling winds and given temporary protection from hard frosts, usually with garden fleece or row covers. Remove protection when it isn’t needed so that plants don’t go soft – you want them to harden up with winter’s progress then stay that way.
Overwintering Citrus Indoors
The safer alternative is to move plants under cover when it turns cold. Frost-free greenhouses work well, or bring them inside into a conservatory, sunroom or onto a bright windowsill. Prioritize the brightest positions for your citrus to minimize leaf drop. Growth will slow considerably either way –from the cooler temperatures, poor light levels, or both.
Let the potting soil dry out between waterings, which may be as infrequently as once every two to three weeks during the depths of winter.
While citrus can’t abide soggy soil, the air in our modern, well-insulated homes tends to be a little too dry for comfort. Keep indoor citrus well away from heat sources, which dry out the air and create a stressful environment at what should be a restful time of year. Raise the humidity around plants by standing pots on trays of pebbles, part-filled with water so pots remain out of the water. As the water evaporates it will help to create a more humid atmosphere.
Plants won’t appreciate wild swings in temperature either, so ventilate greenhouses and sunrooms on sunny days when the mercury can quickly soar to spring-like heights. Then, when spring proper arrives, acclimatize plants to the outdoors over the course of two weeks, setting them out in their sunny summer quarters once the final frosts are done.
Citrus Flowers and Fruits
Citrus usually flower in late winter. The blooms alone make citrus worth growing: delicate and seductively fragrant, they’re a heady experience concentrated still further when overwintered indoors.
Fruits take most of the year to form and are normally picked from early winter. In fact, it’s not out of the question to have both flowers and fruits on the same plant as annual cycles overlap.
Finally, a word about pots: go flamboyant, to complement the glossy leaves of these stunners. It will help to show off these natural head-turners even more. A glazed terracotta number is my preference, but anything with a bit of presence about it is surely deserved for this family of fancy fruits!