Citrus in the Spotlight
Grow sweet, fragrant oranges, lemons and limes and reap the fruits of your labor.
The 7-foot-tall grapefruit tree had to go. Gardener Polly Keener of Akron started the tree by seed and watched as it grew into a magnificent, but thorny, fruit-bearing potted plant. Every summer Keener’s husband wrestled it to the outdoors and struggled to bring it indoors in the fall.
But this wasn’t any grapefruit tree. Keener was an acquaintance of the late Irene Seiberling Harrison, the second-oldest child of Gertrude and F.A. Seiberling, co-founder of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
“Irene sent me crates of organic grapefruits when my children were born. When I opened one box, I noticed a sprouting seed, so I planted it,” says Keener, adding that Harrison died in 1999 at age 108. “But the tree just got to be too much. So we gave it to Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens (the former Seiberling family estate) and it went to a good home.”
Keener’s appreciation for citrus plants has never wavered, however, and she grows full-size oranges, lemons and limes in front of a wall of large windows in her home. She calls her fruits “little darlings” and respects their independent ways. An orange tree branch stretches to Keener’s artist’s drawing board where it rests its leaves.
“But see? If I had pruned it, I would have cut off this sweet little bloom. And it’s kind of friendly,” Keener says.
She enjoys eating the fruit and is “happier just drinking hot water and lemon than tea.” Citrus fruits contain vitamin C, a potent antioxidant, as well as folate to prevent birth defects, and anemia, potassium and flavanones that could reduce the risk of stroke, according to the Ohio State University Extension.
Although sometimes recommended for northern climates, Keener has never had to use full-spectrum bulbs or fluorescent grow lights to give her citrus trees the recommended five to six hours of direct daily light. She gives her lime and orange plants a gallon of water a week and concocted a clever system to make sure plants are well drained. Another bonus of growing citrus in the house for the past 15 years?
“The flowers smell so wonderful,” says Keener.
Hirt’s Gardens (hirts.com) in Granger Township offers a variety of grafted citrus plants originating in Florida or homegrown in the Medina County nursery. Owner Alan Hirt believes home gardeners have a renewed interest in citrus as part of today’s “edible landscape” philosophy. Hirt and his son, Matthew, recommend novice Ohio citrus growers try calamondin (“a little too tart to eat off the plant, but good for cooking”), Key lime (“easy to take care of”) and blood oranges (“they are good for you”). Meyer lemons are also best sellers. But Matthew Hirt cautions that “they don’t really have that citrus-like flavor where you would put a slice in your glass. They are more like a lemon meringue flavor.” (Is anyone complaining?)
Another popular plant is the Cocktail Tree, which is really two plants — a Meyer lemon and a Key lime — grown together in one pot and not meant to be separated.
“I guess if you grew a potted one next to your pool you could just reach over and pick a couple fruits for your cocktails,” says Matthew Hirt.
Ed Laivo is the sales director for Four Winds Growers (fourwindsgrowers.com) in California, the company that introduced dwarf citrus trees to the United States in the 1940s. Laivo tactfully suggests “staying away from the sweeter citrus plants in areas that have less than ideal growing conditions.” For Ohio, he also likes Bearss Seedless Lime and Oroblanco grapefruit. For “a challenge and fun,” Laivo recommends the unusually shaped Buddha’s Hand, a plant that should be kept indoors in Ohio all year.
A five-gallon container is good for most potted citrus. Laivo describes citrus as “babies in a pot which must be fed” and recommends an organic fertilizer such as Citrus-tone from the Espoma Co. Seaweed extract and fish emulsion solution are also used as citrus fertilizers, but are probably best for plants that move outside in warm weather. Keener likes to treat her citrus to a drink of water with a few drops of vinegar a few times a year. Hirt recommends not fertilizing during the fruiting stage.
Some home gardeners think citrus would do well in a toasty house in winter. But Pamela Bennett, state master gardener volunteer coordinator with the OSU Extension, says there is a difference between hot and dry and hot and humid. A conservatory or greenhouse where humidity levels are high and temperatures range from 55 to 95 degrees is ideal. Otherwise, it is best to keep citrus away from registers and heating appliances. Some citrus gardeners swear by rooms with a temperature of about 65 degrees.
“When you take the plants inside for the winter, you have to check carefully,” says Bennett, who doesn’t think there is anything better than a big juicy orange. “But even if you do look, you will miss some (insect) eggs. Scale, whitefly and spider mites can be a problem.”
Matthew Hirt grows a Persian lime in his own home and “puts it in the shower and lets it drain off.” He suggests spraying with insecticide soap if there is a problem, carefully “getting the undersides of the leaves three or four times a week until the problem is gone.”
The amount of fruit a potted indoor citrus bears depends on variety, amount of bright light during the winter (the more light, the more fruit) and other factors. But generally, kumquats won’t produce as much fruit as calamondin, lemon or lime plants.
Many citrus plants can be forced to fruit in winter, according to Hirt, but “they are like orchids and do things when they are ready.” That stubbornness is one reason many home gardeners appreciate citrus, although it can be frustrating at times. It is not uncommon for Meyer lemons to fruit all year round, according to Laivo, making it popular.
Some citrus growers suggest removing small immature fruit the first year to strengthen the plant for the future.
“But how much fun is that?” asks Bennett. “You want to see that fruit develop. If you get a fruit on a tree, be happy. Don’t be concerned with any remaining fruit.”
CITRUS SUITABLE FOR OHIO
The following are recommended for growing indoors in our state.
Bearss Seedless Lime (Tahiti/Persian) — no thorns; used to accent flavors of food and beverages; lime juice used to clean inside of tea and coffee pots.
Buddha’s Hand/Fingered Citron (pictured) — wonderful, wild shape and fragrance; used in flower arrangements; usually blooms in spring and fruits in fall.
Calamondin — small, orange fruit; one of the most prolific citrus.
Improved Meyer Lemon — sweetest of all lemons; blooms spring and fall, best grown indoors; virus-free.
Keiffer lime — popular for cooking; fragrant leaf.
Mexican (Key) Lime — small fruit, but is the tropical taste we expect.
Moro Blood Orange — dark purple-red flesh; usually blooms and fruits in early spring.
Oroblanco Grapefruit — sweet, yellow fruits in winter; lovely tree with large and fragrant flowers.
Variegated Pink Lemon — grown for its pretty foliage; clear juice.
Yuzu — important fruit in Asian cuisine; slices also floated in New Year’s baths to bring good luck; long, sharp thorns; a hardy citrus and can withstand colder temps, but better to grow indoors in Ohio.
Lemony Custard Cakes
Courtesy of Jane Rogers, Home Economist | Serves 4–8
A taste of citrus brings a little sun into a winter meal.
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons flour
3 teaspoons freshly grated lemon rind
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup milk (lighter option: skim milk)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
(or lemon extract)
butter to grease custard cups
whipped cream topping (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil water in teakettle. Grease six to eight 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups with butter. Separate eggs. Whisk together egg yolks. Mix together remaining ingredients (except egg whites) and whisk in egg yolks. In a separate bowl, use electric mixer to beat egg whites to form soft peaks. Fold whites lightly but thoroughly into egg yolk mixture. Batter will be thin.
Spoon batter almost to top of ramekins. Place ramekins in large baking dish filled with 1-inch hot water. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until set in the center and just beginning to brown. Test with toothpick. Remove ramekins from water bath. Serve hot, room temperature or chilled.