Citrus trees, once confined to locations such as California and Florida, have become viable options for gardeners just about everywhere.
The reason is twofold: new varieties and container-sized versions.
Patio citrus plants are enjoying a jump in popularity as gardeners realize their benefits — they're attractive, they yield fruit and they can overwinter fairly easily if you do it right. And there are some varieties that are almost foolproof.
Ed Laivo is the sales and marketing director for Four Winds Growers (fourwindsgrowers.com) in California, which has a large selection of patio citrus. He has been growing patio citrus plants for a quarter-century, and said the Meyer lemon and Bearss lime are two dependable citrus varieties that are great for beginners.
The Meyer lemon "absolutely does well in containers, and it's great for patios in cold climates," he said, adding that the Bearss lime is similarly perfect for cooler climate. Have them outside in the summer, then when cold weather arrives, "bring them in and put them in a sunny window."
"Both lend themselves to container growing very well and are adaptable to the indoor/outdoor culture," he said.
In general, lemons, limes and kumquats will yield better results. That's because they have lower sugar content and don't need as much heat and sun — two main factors in producing sweet fruit.
"Choosing varieties that are sweet — oranges, mandarins — that'd be a challenge," Laivo said. "Lemons, limes, kumquats are expected to be on the sour side, so expectations for high sugar are not part of their character."
Compounding the challenge is the fact that as cooler weather arrives, the citrus plants are just starting to build their sugars. So to get their sugar content up, they need to be moved indoors to a location with plenty of heat and light. (Make sure you inspect the plant carefully first for scale or any other insects that could be brought inside.)
The payoff is worth it.
"They fruit in winter," Laivo said. "It's kind of cool. It's wintertime and you're harvesting fruit."
Although these are patio plants, they can get large, depending on their age and the size of their containers. And when they are a good size, Laivo said, they'll produce.
"If you let it get to 4 feet tall, 3 feet across, nice and full, you can expect quite a few (fruits)," he said. "They like to produce. Even when young, they'll produce." He said he couldn't give specifics, "but you'll get enough to give some fruit to your neighbors."
Two fairly recent arrivals are kumquat varieties — the Fukushu and the Negami. Both are highly ornamental — almost a houseplant look, Laivo said — in addition to producing edible fruit. The Fukushu is also pretty cold-hardy, he explained. "So you get that first frost and you won't be left with a dead stick out there."
With Fukushu, he added, "the cool thing, you can let it get as tall as you want. Then just cut it off. Indoors, you want to keep them reasonable and manageable. If you're growing them indoors and you live in Chicago or Manhattan, you'll want to get some pruning shears. You'll need them."
When dealing with patio plants, fertilizing is a key. The plant is in that container, and it depends on its caretaker for nutrients.
Laivo said he prefers an organic fertilizer with a high nitrogen content.
"During the winter months, the organic fertilizer breaks down very slowly and the plant uses it as it needs it," he said. "It's not like chemical fertilizers that give you that blast right away."