A Punch of Pulp

Cultivating citrus in zone 8

By Mary T. Dial, The Itinerant Gardener

Early spring can be very frustrating for avid gardeners. The skies are blue, yet the temperatures are usually too cold to begin planting spring and summer annuals. The garden borders are re-defined, the shrubbery and trees have been pruned. What is a gardener to do? Treat yourself and spend a leisurely morning at a nursery. Chances are that you will be greeted by the most amazing and pleasing fragrance. The citrus trees and shrubs have arrived and are in full bloom! 

Citrus is native to Asia and was introduced to the New World by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. It can be grown in the ground in warmer climates and in containers where there is a threat of heavy frost. I have always wanted to grow citrus trees but have been confused and convinced that I would fail. So, I took the plunge this past year, and it has been successful and easy. It is quite a thrill to pick a ripe Myer lemon from the tree and slice it for homemade lemonade or a delicious Myer lemon pie. Now is the time to jump into the wonderful hobby of growing citrus trees and shrubs. You will be so glad that you did!


What is Citrus?

The term citrus is used loosely to include citron, lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit and kumquat trees and shrubs. This genus produces fruit that has juicy flesh and a rough, pulpy rind.

Some common types of citrus include: mandarins, tangerines, oranges, grapefruit, pummelos, lemons, limes and kumquats. These types are all hardy, readily available and easy to grow if given the right conditions. 

Mandarins and tangerines are very healthy trees, and their fruit is segmented and has a wonderful tangy taste. The skin is easily peeled, making it a perfect and healthy snack. 

Oranges need no explanation. They are medium-sized trees that are grown for their delicious juice and tasty segmented flesh. Valencia oranges are specifically grown for their juice. Blood oranges are grown for their tangy-red flesh and rose-colored juice. Navel oranges are grown for their tasty, juicy and healthy bright orange segments.

Grapefruits and pummelos are large trees that produce an abundance of fruit. The fruit is thick skinned and perfect for juicing or eating as a snack. These trees require much more room than orange or lime trees.

Lemons and limes are the most popular types of citrus that we grow here in the Midlands. These smaller ornamental trees are easily accommodated in urban gardens. Meyer lemon trees can survive temperatures in the low 20s or even colder. Limes are not quite as cold-resistant but can usually survive uncovered in the garden down to a freezing temperature of 30 degrees.

Kumquats are the perfect patio or balcony citrus choice. These little trees produce a small orange fruit that ripen year-round. Kumquats’ sweet-flavored, delicate skin is used in making all types of marmalade. 


How to Grow Citrus

The first and most important decision is where to grow citrus. Decide whether you want to grow it in the ground or in a container. That decision may be made for you if you are in a rental house, an apartment or don’t have a large garden. If you decide to grow your citrus in the ground, choose a sunny spot with Southern exposure. A “sunny spot” receives at least six hours of full sun per day. You want as much sun and as much warmth to reach the plant as possible. It is also recommended to plant near a wall or near the house so that the winter warmth absorbed by the wall will keep the plant warmer during a cold winter’s night. If you decide to grow your citrus in a container, choose a frost proof container with good drainage. It is also a good idea to raise the planter on feet or risers to help with the drainage. 

High quality potting soil is a must as heavy soil will kill a citrus tree. Add a good quality fertilizer, such as Citrus-tone®, to the potting mix and to any trees planted in the ground. Water the citrus tree thoroughly once a week, and it should thrive. They need very little pruning. If there is a threat of severely cold temperatures, it is wise to protect the trees and shrubs. There are portable, mini greenhouses that can be found at many local nurseries that can be erected when temperatures are below freezing. 

Also, try stringing clear Christmas lights on the trees and letting them stay on all night when there is a threat of freezing temperatures and frost. You can also cover the tree on top of the Christmas lights. The lights generate much more heat than one would think! Of course, the new LED lights do not generate heat, so they are not beneficial to use. If the citrus is in a container, put a rolling saucer under it and bring it in the house. I have found that most citrus do not thrive in warm, dry heated homes. If you bring yours inside, put it back outside as soon as the temperatures rise. This sounds like a lot of trouble … and it is, but it is so worth the effort when you get to pick the first fruit.


How to Plant

Planting citrus shrubs and trees is just like planting any other shrub or tree. Gently remove the plant from its nursery container and place it in the hole or container filled with high quality potting soil. Avoid planting the plant too deep. Plant it at the same level it was planted in the nursery container. If planted in the ground, refill the planting hole with the remaining soil and Citrus-tone®. Massage the soil around the roots to promote growth. If the citrus is planted in a container, fill the container with potting soil and Citrus-tone®. Make sure the plant is securely planted in the container and is not leaning. Press the soil down around the roots to make it stand upright. Water it well to help the plant settle and eliminate any air pockets. Mulch with soil conditioner. I usually use a 2- to 3-inch layer of soil conditioner to dress the container or the shrub planted in the ground. This will also help keep the moisture in and will protect the tender top layer roots.



Citrus plants are heavy feeders. Citrus-tone® and 10-10-10 are good choices for fertilizing the trees. Begin fertilizing on a regular schedule in late March when the temperatures begin to rise. Fertilize again in May and July. I remember to fertilize on holidays: St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and Fourth of July. Withhold fertilizer in the fall and spring so the plant’s growth will slow down, and it will naturally go into dormancy. 


Watering the Citrus

The first year is critical in the life of your citrus. Water thoroughly once a week for the first year. If the soil is heavy, maybe cut watering frequency back to every 10 days. Soak the entire root system evenly and completely. Make sure the water is absorbed into the soil and that it does not run off. If it does run off, scratch the soil around the base of the tree to help with absorption. Also make sure that the water does not puddle and stand around the roots for too long. Again, if this happens, scratch around the trunk and top layer of roots to encourage absorption. When the temperatures are hot and dry during the summer, water more frequently. The citrus plant will drop its fruit if it does not receive adequate water. As with any other type of gardening, pay attention. The plant will tell you what it needs.


Pruning Citrus Trees

Pruning should be done in June and July to maintain height and shape. Keep the interior thinned out for good air circulation and sunlight. Remove any dead branches at any time. Remove damaged or crossed branches and suckers. Trim back any excessive growth to keep a natural even shape. Cut back to a joint or to the main truck. Do not leave any stubs. Try not to prune in winter. Pruning during the winter may promote growth that will certainly be killed by freezing temperatures.


Give Citrus a Try

Schedule a day to go to the nursery to choose your new citrus. Start small. Try a Meyer lemon in a container for your first attempt. Or, be bold and choose an orange to plant outside in the garden. All of the time and effort will pay off when you pick the first fruit and enjoy it right off the tree!

Gardening Chores for March

• Heavy pruning for plant restoration and shaping can still be done.

• Make sure all of your planting bed borders are defined. Make sure the soil has been turned and is ready for annual planting.

• Add a layer of ERTH Food® or mushroom compost to planting beds to enrich the soil.

• Add a thin layer of pine straw or hardwood mulch to dress up the beds after the winter. There is nothing like new mulch or pine straw to refresh the garden.

• Thin perennials that have gotten thick. Transplant to another part of the garden or give to gardening friends.

• There’s plenty of time to plant bare root roses in March.

• March is the perfect time to plant large trees and shrubs before it gets too hot and dry.

• Take your pruning tools to be sharpened or do it yourself. There is nothing better than sharp tools!

• Rearrange your gardening supplies and tools so you are ready to go for the spring.

• Why not build a potting bench?

• Start vegetable seeds indoors. This can be done in your kitchen window. Install a “grow” light to make sure the baby seeds get enough light. These can be found at hardware stores.

• Clean out humming bird feeders so they are ready for use after the last frost.

• Start putting houseplants outside on warm days to get them ready for the transition to the outdoors.

• Treat yourself to a new gardening book or magazine subscription for inspiration.

• Clean outdoor furniture and cushions in anticipation of spring.

• Clean outdoor light fixtures. It’s amazing how dirty they can get.

• Check low voltage garden lighting for burned out bulbs. Prune any branches that interfere with the light source. Clean the clear glass over the bulb to get the full benefit of the bulb’s light.

• Remember to update your gardening diary. Record what’s blooming and what needs to be done.

• Take pictures of blooming trees and shrubs and study the photos. This is a good way to determine what needs to be pruned.

• Flowering trees to look for in March — most of these will be in bloom toward the end of the month: Crabapple, redbud, saucer magnolia, magnolia stellata, Carolina silverbell, flowering apricot and almond.

• Enjoy the first, warm days of spring! And Happy Gardening!


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