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Citrus Sense
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Citrus Sense



For years, I refused to eat tangerines and oranges because I hated the seeds.

It was too much work to peel off the rind and then sift through the sections and pull out the seeds before finally getting to the juicy, delicious part of the fruit. I opted instead to get my Vitamin C from other sources.

One winter several years ago, my attitude changed after I was handed a Satsuma tangerine. Surprised at how easy it was to peel and even more stunned by the absence of seeds, I savored the fruit’s sweetness and enjoyed a more natural form of vitamin intake. In fact, I found myself devouring

more than a dozen of the delectable jewels in one sitting!

That experience resulted in an awakening for me with respect to my own garden and, in turn, to my design practice. On a personal level, instead of continuing to buy cases of these tangerines, I decided to try my hand at growing my own crop. On a professional level, I found myself wanting to insert them into some of my designs.

Not knowing how successful I’d be in my own yard and not wanting to commit my clients to this course without some practical experience, I set out to determine how easy or difficult these fruits might be to grow – and if there were other Citrus varieties with which I might experiment.


Here in southern California and throughout much of the Sunbelt, we are truly blessed in our ability to grow Citrus. In this wide swath, these fruit trees grow abundantly – with slight (but realistic) concern about freezing temperatures that can claim both tender perennials and the crops of winter fruit trees.

We’ve all heard about Florida’s orange juice, of course – but we’ve also heard about the occasional frosts that wipe it out from time to time. Such frosts are infrequent, thank goodness, and incidences of tree death are even less common, but these were the sorts of issues I needed to research and resolve on my way to deciding to include Citrus in my backyard.

Before long, I recognized that I could generate bumper crops on my own and could basically cross Citrus off my shopping lists (and those of lucky friends) for much of the year if I selected a well-balanced palette of trees to grow. Not only do they offer great fruit, but I’ve also found in my design business that Citrus trees also serve a great purpose as evergreens that come in many different sizes.

Finding trees that don’t drop their leaves or too much other debris is a big deal for landscape designers, especially when planting around watershapes: In these spaces, it’s always critical to be aware of the potential for things falling into the water and clogging pumps and plumbing lines – an issue I’ve discussed in this column many times through the years.

Fruit trees are generally poor choices in these environments, but my experience with Citrus has shown the opposite to be true: Most often, in fact, Citrus fruits do not drop off the tree unless they are significantly overripe or have been pillaged by pesky critters – signs of neglect and poor maintenance. Around their watershapes, by contrast, I’ve always found clients to be diligent in maintaining overall appearances and as a result have never hesitated to suggest one or more of these trees when the opportunity arises.

Typically, Citrus trees take on a rounded shape and therefore need some room to spread out and achieve their mature height and width. They come in all sizes, including some types that reach 30 feet in height as well as dwarf varieties that stay below eight feet, and just about the only drawback I can think of – and then only in a few cases – is that some varieties have thorns or spikes on the branches and should be kept away from high-traffic areas.

As far as maintenance is concerned, regular feeding of the sort commonly administered by maintenance crews will go a long way toward preserving the health of these trees and their fruit production. I’ve also been advised by a number of tree experts that the soil inside the driplines of these trees should not be cultivated or disturbed, as their feeder roots are very near the surface and may suffer damage – counsel I always heed for the benefit of the trees’ health and fruit production.


Obviously, watershapers and landscape professionals working in colder climates will have difficulty planting these trees and having them thrive, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility with an extra bit of effort: When I visited the Palace at Versailles, for example, I marveled at the way the French gardeners grew their Citrus trees in containers and simply moved them to shelter when the winter months set in.

In all cases and in any climate, of course, it’s a good idea to check with your local nurseries to see which varieties and sizes are available in your area, including both standard and dwarf varieties. Specifying a tree that doesn’t typically grow in your area may only set you and your client up for failure. (Although I always support experimentation, these trees can be a bit expensive for that type of exercise.)

For those of you who don’t face real obstacles and are persuasive enough to talk your clients into trying Citrus in their gardens, here are a few selections with which I’ve a good bit of luck:

[ ] Eureka Lemon: My lemon tree typically produces more fruit than my friends and I can handle. These trees are tough, too: Mine is currently suffering with Oak Root Fungus, but it shows every sign of pulling through and has consistently provided me with abundant crops of big, juicy lemons good for all types of food preparation despite its ailment. Eureka is the larger of the two common varieties of lemon tree; for those who have more limited space, I suggest planting a Meyer Lemon – a dwarf variety that also produces abundant crops.

[ ] Kumquat: I’ve never been a big fan of kumquats, but when I planted a garden for my parents some years back, my mother specifically requested trees that bore these tiny, tart gems. Its brilliantly orange fruit adds great color to any landscape, even if you don’t like the flavor the way my mother did. And because I used it at her request, it will always hold a special place in my heart!

1 -- Mexican Lime[ ] Mexican Lime: The warning above about thorns and spikes primarily refers to this tree, which has some nasty ones. For all that, my Mexican Lime yields bumper crops every year – so large, in fact, that I end up letting much of it fall to the ground or begging my gardeners to strip the fruit and take it with them. These limes (at left) are amazingly juicy (considering their relatively small size) and have assisted me more than once in making incredible key lime pies. (For a slightly larger fruit, you can try the Bearss’ Lime.)

2 -- Ruby Red Grapefruit[ ] Ruby Red Grapefruit: I have found that this tree thrives even in shady locations but that planting it in full sun results in maximum sweetness (right). I love the way grapefruits taste, but I end up giving most of them away because I see them as the most labor intensive of the Citrus fruits: You need to cut the juicy flesh away from the rind before eating it and go through a good bit of effort in the process.

3 -- Satsuma Tangerine[ ] Satsuma Tangerine: As I’m writing this column, I’ve enjoyed five Satsumas I just picked off my two trees. One stands in a shady spot, and the other is in full sun at the top of my hill. I harvest huge crops of these thin-skinned, seedless fruits (at left) every fall and winter, with the full-sun tree producing sweeter fruit earlier in the season, while the shaded one supplies me through the winter months. On my trips to the east coast, I’ve learned that the Clementine variety of tangerines is quite similar in character and flavor, but an enduring advantage for Satsumas in my design work is that they are weeping dwarfs, making them versatile additions in many settings. After about 12 years in the ground, the taller of my two trees is still only about eight feet in height and not quite that wide.

[ ] Valencia Orange: This counterpart to the Washington Navel is the most common juicing orange and is used extensively for store-bought juices. If you have a client who’s an avid juicer, I highly recommend one of these trees.

[ ] Washington Navel Orange: I must admit that I’ve never liked peeling and eating these oranges – too much work – but this variety is perhaps the most common of the available eating oranges. Unfortunately in my case, my tree succumbed to Oak Root Fungus a few years back (along with many other trees in my yard). While it was alive, however, it produced abundant fruit that I happily gave away to friends. Blood Oranges are another favorite “eating” variety and are commonly used in salads and cooking. Their flavor is a bit sweeter than typical Navel oranges, but it’s the red flesh that makes them an interesting visual choice. Orange trees are available in a wide variety of sizes, including standard trees that grow to 25 feet tall as well as dwarf varieties.


No matter which mix of trees or individuals you select, I recommend looking for those that bear fruit year ’round simply to spread your clients’ pleasure out through a longer period. I also recommending advising them to keep their Citrus trees pruned to a reasonable, manageable height: The more difficult it is to reach the fruit, the less likely they will be to pick it and the more likely it is that the tree will make a mess when overripe fruit splats on the ground far below. As I rule, I advise keeping them to no more than 15 feet tall.

It’s also smart to buy your clients fruit pickers: They make nice end-of-project gifts, but they’re also a great way to encourage clients to take advantage of their new at-home fruit stands. Many nice fruit pickers are available at garden centers, and you can purchase them from catalog services such as Smith & Hawken – tools designed to satisfy even the most discerning of clients.

Yes, the fruit is wonderful and can save your clients some cash at the grocery store, but as a designer I keep coming back to the fact that Citrus trees stay a beautiful green all year long. And now that I’m finished writing this column and have eaten all five of the tangerines I had sitting in front of me, I think I’ll head outside to pick a few more!

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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