By Jennifer Olvera, Garden Guides Contributor
Citrus is the common name for the genus of plants in the Rutaceae family, which hails from Asia's tropical and subtropical regions. The aromatic, evergreen-like large shrubs and small trees feature large thorns, white-petaled single flowers or corymbs of flowers with multiple stamens and alternating leaves. The plants produce highly fragranced fruits with leathery rinds and juicy, pulpy interiors; the rinds are prized in cooking, while the latter can be peeled, segmented and eaten fresh or squeezed for juice.
While not especially labor intensive, citrus plants prefer sunny locales and must be cultivated in a frost-free setting,such as a glass greenhouse,with moist, humid air in order to thrive. To grow citrus plants, the temperature in winter should not dip below 55 degrees for varieties such as the Calamondin orange, below 50 degrees for lemons or below 41 degrees for most other citrus plants.
Citrus plants demand a sunny, preferably sheltered spot and need to be watered regularly and fed once a week with citrus fertilizer during the summer.
Because citrus trees do not go dormant like deciduous trees, you can expect plant growth to slow significantly during the winter.
Citrus boasts medicinal benefits. For example, vitamin C pills,which are derived from oranges,are used to prevent scurvy. Lemon juice helps relieve the pain of bee stings.
While many citrus fruits,such as tangerines, oranges and grapefruits,can be eaten fresh, varieties like limes and lemons are quite tart and generally require sugar and/or the addition of other ingredients to enhance their flavors. However, a slice of most any kind of citrus fruit can brighten a glass of ice water or boost the flavor of soda and cocktails.
Depending on the variety, care, climate and age of the tree, a single plant can produce up to 1,000 pounds of fruit per season. The good news is, unlike fruits such as plums, citrus trees retain ripe fruit for months.
Choosing a Variety
Selecting citrus trees that grow well in your area is integral to success. It's best to choose plants from nurseries that grow their own product, ideally budded onto a desirable rootstock, as it better ensures that what is sold will thrive in your region.
The tree should sport healthy-looking, dark green leaves and a straight trunk that doesn't need support. It should have little, if any, fruit since a newly planted tree needs all its energy to establish itself.
It's important to remember that different citrus varieties have different growing periods, so choosing them wisely will ensure the widest window for enjoyment.
Refer to the planting zone in your area to determine when planting should take place.
Dig the hole twice as deep as the width of the plant and at least 6 inches wider than the diameter of the pot or root ball. Carefully place the tree, holding the sides of the burlap, into the hole; position your citrus plant at grade level. Remove all tarpaper and string, but leave burlap intact. Slowly add water at the base of the hole while filling it with soil.
Refill the well every 3 days for the first 2 weeks and twice daily (morning and night) afterwards. Then, water your citrus plant every 3 weeks during the winter.
Do not fertilize, with the exception of a compressed, slow release fertilizer added into the last 4 inches of backfill, until after the first year. Then, using citrus food,such as 16-8-4 or 16-8-2,fertilize the following March, June and September.
Harvesting and Storage
Citrus should be allowed to ripen on the tree. However, it's important to note that color is not a good indicator of ripeness in the case of citrus fruits. Tasting the fruit is the best indication of ripeness.
If you plan to store citrus after picking,mind you, it keeps ripe longer on the tree than when picked,take care not to bruise or break the exterior of the citrus, as damaged fruit decays quickly. Keep the fruit in the refrigerator or a cool, moist place,38 to 48 degrees with 95 percent relative humidity,for several weeks. At room temperature in dry conditions, fruit will last about 10 days.