Vicksburg gardner raises dwarf citrus trees in containers

Published 10:59 pm Friday, October 12, 2012

Citrus fruits were grown by the Romans as early as the first century and throughout the warm Mediterranean countries and North Africa as well as in parts of China before 700 A.D.

Christopher Columbus is believed to have carried citrus seeds from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. Spanish colonists later introduced them in the coastal areas from South Texas and Mexico, along the Gulf Coast and Florida up to Charleston and Savannah where at various times they have been produced commercially, according to William Welch in his book “Heirloom Plants of the South.”

Having access to citrus and other exotic fruits became fashionable for the wealthy and particularly the royals throughout Europe from the 17th through 19th centuries. They had special glasshouses built, called orangeries, which were similar to a greenhouse or conservatory where citrus and other cold-sensitive plants could be overwintered. The largest housed 3,000 orange trees at Versailles for King Louis IV of France. From Moscow to London, the wealthy entertained in these structures around ornate fountains and statues. A tour for guests to see the fruit was usually part of the event.

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Buddy Strickland is one of several Vicksburg gardeners who successfully has grown dwarf citrus trees in containers. He keeps them outside during the warm months, then moves them inside to escape the damaging frost and cold winds of winter.

He built a 12-by-12 greenhouse near his shop where he overwinters the citrus trees plus a variety of other container plants, which his wife, Janice, enjoys growing on their deck during the summer.

“I don’t have any building expertise, but I have friends who do,” Strickland said.

He said anyone can build one similar to the one he did. It was framed up using treated two-by-fours. A screen door was purchased at one of the local home improvement stores as well as opaque sheeting panels which were used to cover all sides.

He runs an electric cord from his shop to a small heater for warmth on really cold nights and props the door open during warmer days so the plants don’t over-heat. The floor is dirt with shelves attached along the sides so smaller plants can sit above the larger ones.

It has worked well and was not terribly expensive to construct, Strickland said.

His Meyer Lemon is loaded with green fruit now, which will be turning bright yellow within the next month as they ripen. The Meyer Lemon is not a true lemon, but a hybrid of citrus limon and citrus reticulata or Mandarin orange, according to the Purdue University horticulture website.

It is slightly more tolerant to the cold than the true lemon and is very adaptable and popular for cultivation in a container.

Frank N. Meyer first found this plant growing as an ornamental potted plant in Peking, China, in 1908 and introduced it to gardeners in the United States. Strickland said the juice is delicious and they particularly enjoy using it for salads.

He also has a Mandarin orange tree. When the tree was in full bloom this spring, an unexpected cold spell unfortunately caused the blooms to fall off and no fruit was produced for this year. Last year, however, the fruit was abundant and delicious, and he said they hope to have better luck next year.

Citrus trees need well-drained soil plus vigilant pest control to thrive according to William Welch. Blooms generally occur in late winter and early spring and are quite fragrant.

Strickland said he fertilizes every six weeks with a fertilizer made specifically for citrus trees and waters when the soil is dry to the touch. He has also found that a dolly is the ideal way to move the heavy pots from his outside location into the greenhouse when the first frost is expected.

Like so many other Warren County residents, deer are frequent visitors to their property. He keeps the citrus trees, a 1-year-old olive tree, pots of tomatoes and peppers, herbs and other container plants inside a fenced area to the side of the house during the summer months.

Deer have not bothered plants inside the fence, but they are quite a problem on the back deck, which overlooks the lake behind their home. The deer like to nibble the hibiscus, begonias, gardenias, Swedish ivy, ginger and coleus but Strickland moves them and other plantings around frequently and away from the edge of the deck to confuse the deer. Sometimes it works.

Strangely, they don’t seem interested in the large Boston ferns and liriope, which grow near the front door or the foxtail and asparagus ferns on the deck, but they loved the pansies planted in pots on the deck last year. Strickland said once they find something they really like, it’s time to move it behind the fence for a while.

Many gardeners enjoy a challenge and growing citrus in our area is definitely more difficult than in areas of the state farther south, but Strickland said it’s worth the effort.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg MS 39183.