Mmm – the sweet, tangy smell of lemon flowers. The sharp freshness of a lime just off the tree. The festive orange of tiny kumquats over dark green foliage.
If this sounds to you more like Southern California than the Pacific Northwest, you’re not alone – many people find it hard to believe you can grow citrus plants in our cool, frosty climate. But you can, and there are dozens of South Sound folk with happy, fruitful citrus trees to prove it. You just have to know a few little secrets.
“If you can grow houseplants, you can grow citrus,” says Sam Benowitz of Raintree Nursery in Morton. The nursery stocks 21 cold-hardy citrus varieties from Meyer lemons to mandarinquats and citrons, and it has dozens of South Sounders as customers. The key is to put plants in movable containers and have a sunny place indoors and out.
Francesca Ritson is one of those who grow citrus successfully. A member of the South Sound Fruit Society, Ritson’s a keen gardener, and her Shelton home houses a Meyer lemon and a tangerine that produce up to 50 fruit at a time. In summer they live on the west side of an unheated greenhouse surrounded by lava rocks; in winter they go into the greenhouse. Ritson is also starting new kumquats from seed and a rootstock trifoliate orange and hopes to get a lime soon.
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“They’re beautiful, and they scent the greenhouse with that wonderful scent,” says Ritson, of why she takes the trouble to grow plants that really ought to be living in the semi-tropics. “And for fun – it’s interesting to grow exotic things.”
Producing your own delicious fruit or foliage is another reason South Sounders grow citrus. Ritson likes the “lovely floral taste” of Meyers, different to the usual Eureka or Lisbon lemons in stores, and appreciates the punch her tangerine peel gives to pie dough. Raintree Nursery’s grower Theresa Knutsen loves the sweet/sour taste of kumquats, and points out that kaffir lime leaves, used in many Thai dishes, just aren’t available in stores.
But you don’t have to have lava rocks or a greenhouse to try citrus. Given enough light (such as a south-facing window or grow lights) they’ll do well in the house over winter, or even the garage, where Tony Spivack of Port Orchard keeps his Washington navel and Meyer lemon under 6.5K lights for 12 hours a day. In summer, say most growers, you just need a sunny location outside, though it helps to move the plants on a cloudy day to help them acclimate. Keep citrus inside permanently and you won’t get much fruit, though; leave it unprotected through a South Sound winter and plants will lose leaves or die.
But if you don’t want to lug those half-barrels around twice a year, here’s the solution: plastic.
“The first winter we brought (our Meyer lemon) inside for protection, but it rejected the change in location and promptly dropped all its leaves,” says Bev Foster, in northeast Tacoma. “We now leave it outside all winter enclosed in a plastic bag. When it really gets cold, we string Christmas tree lights through its branches. They generate enough heat to … get through the cold snap with minimal damage.” Other approaches include wrapping heavy-duty clear plastic with a blanket on cold nights, which can even protect a tree grown in the ground if you’re lucky.
After you’ve sorted out the heat requirements, the only other factors are food, water and pest control. Indoor citrus are subject to the same kinds of pests as other houseplants, says Benowitz: scale, aphids, whitefly, spider mites. Citrus needs special fertilizer which can be difficult to buy around here; Spivack and Ritson both get theirs from California, though if you have pet fish, your citrus will love the aquarium water when it’s time to clean. Use an acidic soil mix with good drainage, and add iron to stop yellowing leaves.
Most important, says Knutsen, is the watering: not too much of it. “Most people kill their citrus by drowning the roots,” she says. “Water when the pot feels light, maybe once a week in summer and once every couple of weeks in winter.”
The bottom line for growing citrus in the South Sound seems to be that it’s hard work but worth it. Chasing pests and moving containers are extremely labor-intensive, and plants aren’t cheap: Francesca Ritson jokes that her lemons cost $5 each at first. But if you’re willing to put in the work, the reward is a sweet-smelling plant with delicious fruit.
And, of course, zestful admiration from all your neighbors.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568