CITRUS: YOUR FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Fruits are a privilege and a pleasure to have ready access to in this world. We are lucky to live in a time where all year long fruits both commonplace and exotic are a short drive away, at worst. Even deep in the most food-deserted quadrants of this and just about any city, apples, oranges, and bananas lay ready for imbibing on the cheap at corner stores and gas stations. This paradisiacal wonderland wherein ready access to fruit exists nationwide has only been a reality for a little over 100 years; and times being what they are, counting on this ever-ready bounty to remain at finger’s length for another century seems a bit idealistic.
I am idealistic. I thrive on idealism; it is an idealism tempered with the scorching heat of a nihilistic pessimism, but it is an idealism all the same, cooled in the humid night air to be wielded high above the head as if the planeteers summoned Captain Planet not with stubby rings, but with unyielding broadswords. We live in an idyllic place in New Orleans, a place where we can grow fruits, and plenty of them. If you have a yard or access to large pots, you can grow your own fruit. There are all manner of fruits that you can grow here, but most especially, you can grow citrus. Arguably (perhaps even inarguably) citrus is the most significant fruit in the American diet, and we are lucky to live in a part of the world where we can grow it. And therefore we should.
Off the bat, I must warn you overly idealistic dreamers of hardcore DIY fruit farming that you cannot grow citrus from seed. If life gives you lemons, do not plant those lemons; you will receive no more lemons, you will receive disappointment only. Every type of citrus that you have ever eaten is grown from a clone of a single citrus tree; that is to say, for example, every Meyer lemon is the exact same tree with the exact same genes as the first-ever-produced Meyer lemon. As such, unless you are a citrus breeder looking to bring the next big thing in the citrus universe to life, every fruit tree you ever grow will be made from a cutting of another tree from the same family. What’s more, the varieties of citrus fruits that we have bred and come to love and adore are very tender creatures with weak root systems prone to disease, and powerless against the mildest of frosts. As such, cuttings must be grafted onto rootstock: plant root systems belonging to hardier varieties of citrus (usually of the sort that don’t produce fruit that you’d want to eat, and don’t even produce that dependably). If you are interested in grafting your own fruit trees, I highly encourage it, but explaining the intricacies of that would take more space than I am willing to give right now. If you don’t have any citrus yet, well, you’ve got nothing to graft onto anything anyway, so by and large, the best way to get a citrus tree is simply to buy one from a local plant vendor.
These days you’re going to be lucky to find a citrus tree on sale for less than $40, but you’re going to be lucky to find a Christmas tree for less than $60 and that thing is already half dead by the time you’ve paid for it; whereas a citrus tree is generally only about three years old, fresh and ready to bestow unto you gifts from the nether regions of its boughs for decades to come. Variety-wise, most garden centers will have plenty on offer at any given time, so really, just buy what you think you’ll actually eat. Of note, however, is this general rule: the larger the fruit the larger the tree. So if you’re trying to grow fruit in a pot on a patio, you’d be better off with a key lime tree than a grapefruit.
The best time to plant a citrus tree is pretty much right now. It is best to get them in the ground during the cool season, but before the cold season. Basically, you want to get your new, big baby planted when it is concentrating on growing its roots out, as opposed to when it is trying to grow new leaves and set new fruit. This way, it will have more roots to collect more nutrients to make more leaves and set new fruit when the time is right to do so. Also, it’s best to get the plant established before any frost hits, so it can handle those weatherly hurdles with relative ease. As such, plant in November or December, not January or February. To plant, just dig a hole that’s big enough, fill it in with the same dirt you started with, sprinkle a handful of organic fertilizer on top if you’ve got it, then water the hell out of it. Water the tree daily-ish for two or three weeks, and with a little luck, thereafter you’ll rarely have to water it again.
We tend to associate citrus flavors with summertime and tropical vibes and the like, but most citrus fruit actually ripens between October and December. It just has a fairly potent shelf life, being acidic and all; and between this and through the problematic wonders of modern agriculture we are able to have fruit all year long. There is no particular urgency to harvest fruit from your tree as it ripens; by and large the longer you leave fruit on a tree the tastier it gets, especially as weather gets colder. However, if a freeze comes through, all that full-bodied flavor can disappear in an instant, turning your fruits into mealy balls of minimal flavor overnight.
Homegrown fruits often tend to get moldy on the skin while still on the vine, especially oranges and grapefruits. Don’t worry about this. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a moldy looking fruit at a grocery store, but that’s just our fault for becoming picky consumers and not letting the world do its work on its own terms, ever, at all. Citrus fruits have thick skins that save their delightful inner fruit from all sorts of worldly slings and arrows. Similarly, if fruit falls from the tree, pick it up and eat it! It is ready and ripe and still far from rotten, and fallen for just that reason.
While citrus fruit matures in the fall and winter, it sets fruit in early spring. If you have a young tree, that is to say in its first year of planting, you should chop off all the young fruits as soon as they begin to bud on the tree. If you buy a tree that already has maturing fruit on it, similarly, you should cut it off. I know it hurts; you wanted a fruit tree in your life so that you could have fruit. But by removing that early fruit—which takes the tree a lot of energy to produce—you are giving the tree a chance to establish its roots and leaves over the coming season, so that next year, it will be able to provide you with an exponentially more fruitful bounty.
Pruning citrus trees is extremely helpful to maintaining the plants in general and in ensuring you get plentiful fruit from them year after year. Prune after all the fruit is gone from the tree but before it has started putting out new growth for the new season, and prune with vigor and might. Show that tree no mercy. It will thank you later, so long as you respect its safe words. Essentially, you want to cut out all the dead and sad limbs, any limbs growing downwards, any intersecting limbs, any limbs less than 2 feet from the ground, any limbs growing from the rootstock, and any limbs that are generally close to each other.
Citrus needs plenty of food to grow, and you ought to fertilize it liberally as soon as it starts to bloom in the spring. If you fertilize it too soon, before blooming, it may decide to just leaf out and not produce fruit for the year; and if you fertilize too late, it can affect the flavor and texture of your fruits in an undesirable manner. Fertilize a second time after you’ve picked all the fruit off of it for the year.
Treat your trees mildly well and you will be well-positioned for the agrarian economy of the future, wherein grapefruits are worth their weight in non-fungible tokens and a cool glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade pays the rent like Dogecoin never could. Invest in your future. Grow citrus today.
illustrations Rachel Speck