Orange you glad citrus thrives here?

Trax ID 00027798/ Advocate Photo by Emily Slack/ Ed Cullen's satsuma tree.
Trax ID 00027798/ Advocate Photo by Emily Slack/ Ed Cullen's satsuma tree.

It’s impossible to walk about town this time of year without seeing citrus trees in neighbors’ yards, laden with fruit: Lemon trees with fruit so big they look like grapefruits, kumquat trees with fruit beginning to color, orange trees bowed by the weight of the harvest. And the best thing about growing citrus? You don’t have to plant an orchard to reap the benefits.

Karl Becnel is a landscape architect who designs residential gardens. Some of them have a formal symmetry to them (think low boxwood hedges) and most mix herbs, perennials and annuals. But citrus is one element he likes to include whenever conditions are right.

“We are so fortunate to be able to grow citrus in our home gardens here,” he said. “The trees are beautiful, their blooms have an intoxicating scent and they reward us with fresh fruit for six to eight months a year.”

A member of the Plaquemines Parish citrus farming family, Becnel admits to being a little biased when it comes to his affinity for citrus trees. He grew up around hundreds of acres of citrus orchards, celebrating good harvests with a network of family members and soldiering on after deep freezes (1989 stands out) and hurricanes.

Most of the perils that threaten the livelihood of citrus farmers, however, can be managed more easily by home gardeners with just a few citrus trees.

“Many of the trees can stay fairly small, so they can be kept in pots if you don’t want to risk putting them in the ground,” Becnel said. “And most won’t be damaged by mild freezing temperatures, especially as long as the temperatures aren’t too low and the light freeze doesn’t last too long.”

If trees are kept in pots, they can be moved indoors or to a sheltered location outside in case of a freeze; those in the ground can be covered using the recommendations of the LSUAgCenter. Proper pruning can keep the trees at a height that makes it easier to protect them in case of a freeze, and that makes it possible to harvest the fruit without use of a tall ladder.

Becnel explained that planting several types of citrus will ensure a steady supply starting in summer and continuing through spring. First to ripen are limes and lemons, which may be the reason they make their way into the recipes for so many summer cocktails.

“My favorites are the Persian lime and Meyer lemon,” Becnel said. “The lime has nice foliage and good tree structure — the fruit are full of juice that you can use in cooking if you like.”

The Meyer lemon (a cross between a lemon and possibly an orange or a mandarin) is one you’ll see in home gardens all over town, but it’s rarely sold commercially because the fruit’s thin skin makes it difficult to ship.

“The flavor is delicious —none of the strong acid taste of common lemons. You can get several crops a year on the same tree – even with fruit set, you’ll see blossoms if the tree experiences a little stress,” Becnel said. “You don’t have to wait until your Meyer lemons turn yellow to eat them — they ripen in August and September but don’t color until we get a cold snap. If you have lemons on your tree now, start harvesting them as you need them.”

For a home gardener who wants a more acidic lemon, Becnel likes Lisbons, which are similar to the Eurekas offered in most super markets but with a more refined taste and distinctive zest. Because the Lisbon lemon tree can grow to a height of 20 feet, Becnel cautions about planting unless a home garden has adequate space.

Satsumas are the big fall crop, followed by grapefruit and oranges, such as the Louisiana Sweet and Navel.

“Satsumas, especially, are popular in south Louisiana. They are just the right size, easy to peel and have no seeds,” Becnel said. Last year’s crop was reduced because of Hurricane Isaac, which flooded many of the orchards in Plaquemines and destroyed farm equipment, but the LSUAgCenter reported that the 2013 crop seems to be doing fine.

Kumquats, though not as widely popular for eating as other citrus, nonetheless make for a dramatic seasonal display in late fall and early winter gardens.

“Depending on the kind you choose, they have either small, oval-shaped fruit or small, round fruit, and they color in late November and early December,” Becnel said.

The round ones (Meiwa) are the sweeter of the two, but the oval ones (Nagami) have a combination of sweet pulp and sour rind that makes for a refreshingly tart eating experience.

“One of my favorite citrus fruit isn’t as popular as others, and that’s the blood orange,” Becnel said. “They ripen in January and February and have a thicker skin than many oranges, with beautiful dark red to purple flesh. Sometimes the coloration appears on the skin, too, and that makes a nice display.”

Becnel is also a big fan of the Valencia orange, which ripens in March and April. The variety is popular in California and Florida, he said, and widely available.

“I love the Valencia orange, and it ripens when all of the other citrus is finished,” Becnel said. “By the time the Valencia oranges are on their way out, Creole tomatoes will be on their way in.”

If you’re considering citrus for your home landscape, consider a drive down La. 23 to Belle Chasse and beyond, where roadside stands offer a wide variety of choices and you’ll have the opportunity to speak with knowledgeable growers. For a complete guide to growing citrus in our area, visit the LSUAgCenter web site (www.lsuagcenter.com) and download the 16-page guide titled “Louisiana Home Citrus Production.”

Contact the writer at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com.