A tangy twist on your winter gardening


For many, citrus evokes bright and zesty images of flavors that awaken the palette from wintery comfort foods. Pumpkin pie, apple butter, mulled cider … all pleasantly delight the palette. But they don’t excite. Not the way lemon meringue pie, key lime bars or Sunday brunch mimosas can. Despite the association of citrus with summertime, the harvest season for many citrus plants is actually winter and early spring. So, the time to pick your citrus is nigh. Perhaps you remembered to do your planting this past March. But if not, keep reading to find out how to get ready for the next growing season.

To get started, consider your gardening space. Have a small backyard? No problem. Dwarf and semi-dwarf citrus plants can be grown in containers. Visit your local nursery to choose from a selection of plant starters, perhaps some that are already in bloom in order to get a head start. Choosing from such a diversity of citrus plants can be overwhelming, but here’s the inside squeeze on some favorite varieties, as well as how to care for them in your garden.

ORANGES Washington navels are considered to be the best peeling orange because of their thick skin. When properly tree-ripened, the skin just about peels itself! If you must have freshly-squeezed orange juice, the best variety to go for is Valencia, as it is thin-skinned and specifically grown for juicing. Blood oranges, originally cultivated in Italy, are recognized by their unusually ruby-hued pulp and juice. The Moro variety is distinct for its raspberry-like flavor and blush of red in the peel. For those who prefer the Mandarin variety, Owari Satsuma and Kinnow are two popular choices. 

LEMONS For the quintessential lemon, choose the Eureka variety for its tartness and aromatic zest. This lemon tree produces blossoms and fruit practically year-round. The Meyer lemon is thought to be a cross between a true lemon and either an orange or a mandarin. Hence, the resulting fruit is more fragrant and thinner skinned. It is also considerably less acidic than a pure lemon. These plants are favored for their ornamental qualities: fruiting year-round with blossoms, immature fruit or a fully-ripened lemon. An added advantage is that they can be grown in containers.

LIMES Bearss (or Persian) lime trees are extremely productive, bearing the highest yield. Key (or Mexican) limes are referred to as the “bartender’s lime” because they are more aromatic and usually

used for cocktails. Of course, this lime is the moniker for key lime pie. Be forewarned, key lime trees are not tolerant of the cold, so be sure to grow them in full sun.

GRAPEFRUIT Bearing resemblance to the grapefruit, but with a thick rind that is akin to pomelo, the Oroblanco grapefruit is actually a hybrid of the aforementioned pair. This variety does not have the bitterness nor astringency that are common in most grapefruits, and is well known for being the sweetest of them all.

GARDEN CARE A good rule of thumb is to plant citrus in sunlit locations. When you bring your citrus starters home from the nursery, know that they do not thrive well in potting soil. Excessive moisture in combination with the potting soil will rot the roots, so shake off the potting soil and replace it with native soil. As for pruning, citrus plants are low maintenance: the only pruning required for citrus trees is to remove deadwood or frost-damaged limbs.

San Diego has plenty of predatory insects that assist with pest control. Be sure to keep your garden pesticide-free in order to let these helpful little guys do their job. Dusty, dirty foliage encourages pests, such as aphids, to make themselves at home on the plant. Washing the leaves with a strong spray nozzle will also keep the harmful pests at bay.

Consider the tremendous potential your citrus bounty will offer: preserved lemons for Mediterranean-inspired dishes; limes for Moscow Mules; lemon curd for French toast; even freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice for a special brunch occasion. The possibilities are endless, so let the zest begin!