Beautiful and Juicy

Tips for growing oranges, lemons, limes, mandarins, and more that are delicious and resilient.

Citrus Tree Illustration
Citrus Tree illustrated by Anna Takahashi

From Orangevale to Citrus Heights, the call names of Sacramento neighborhoods are a nod to the historic glut of citrus that grows in many a backyard. “My family always had citrus trees,” says Evan Hanson, manager of Big Oak Nursery in Elk Grove. “My personal favorite is satsuma mandarins. You get such a high yield; they produce so much and early on.”

Citrus trees are among the tastiest edible ornamentals — plants that dazzle in the landscape while providing nourishment. Naturally slow growing, citrus trees offer glossy foliage year-round, sweet scented white flowers in spring, and flavorful fruit. Depending on the variety, harvest can begin in November with the earliest mandarins, lasting through April with its late lemons. “The classics are always strong sellers: Washington navel orange, Meyer lemon, Bearss (Persian) lime, Mexican lime,” Hanson says.

“The past year, people were looking for blood oranges; everybody wanted cara caras. A lot of people are asking for grapefruit — and mandarins, of course. People rave about the gold nugget mandarin.”

For citrus growing success, Hanson advises starting with strong, healthy soil. “Good drainage is the key,” he says. “Citrus needs well-drained soil and even, consistent moisture. In the foothills, groves are planted on slopes to allow for drainage.” For the best crop, feed trees citrus-specific fertilizer three times in equal amounts during the growing season; a mature orange tree needs about six pounds of fertilizer split into three equal feedings in February, early May, and once more in late June.

When is citrus ripe? This can be determined by smell and taste. Color alone isn’t enough. Lightly scratch the skin of an orange while it remains on the tree. A ripe orange smells sweet, not sharp, and feels heavy for its size. Sample fruit from the outside of the tree where it ripens fastest. If it’s dry, wait two weeks, then taste again. A few cold nights between 45 degrees F and freezing help bring out sugars in citrus and improve their sweetness. But hard frost, anywhere below 25 degrees F, can be deadly for citrus. “Hard frost is what kills them, but cold nights can still beat them up,” Hanson says. “We recommend people protect young trees when it’s under 40 degrees.”

Mexican limes have the toughest time; they suffer damage at 28 degrees F. Mature orange trees can survive at 25 degrees F, while satsuma mandarins are cold hardy down to 18 degrees F. Hanson recommends planting citrus near buildings so they benefit from reflected heat. If frost is in the forecast, deep water citrus trees; soil moisture helps protect roots and raises the temperature around the plant. Drape foliage with frost cloths or cloth (not plastic) bed sheets. Alternatively, string old fashioned (not LED) holiday lights around trunks and branches and turn on for heat.

Citrus trees require little if any annual pruning, other than for shaping. Dwarf varieties also do great in containers such as a half wine barrel, adds Hanson. Use cactus soil mix for potted trees to ensure good drainage. “If you can keep trees small, you’ll still get a good amount of fruit, but they’re easier to care for,” he says. “Citrus varieties are available as ‘true dwarfs;’ they’ll naturally stay small. That makes them easy to pick, and easier to protect.”