Think of it as a zesty bonus to surviving a very dry year.
Throughout the Sacramento area, citrus trees, particularly lemons and oranges, are bearing heavy harvests this month. This unexpected bounty can be a challenge to home cooks to keep up with all those backyard Meyers and juicy Valencias.
Local food banks and organizations such as Senior Gleaners welcome any extra fruit pulled from these productive trees.
But one look around town is enough to convince even those without a tree of their own: Citrus grows very well here.
Even if you don’t have space (or ground), you can still have your own little lemon tree or lime bush. Most dwarf citrus will grow well in pots and still bear fruit.
Author Claire Splan (“California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” Cool Springs Press) is an advocate for backyard citrus. She will present a citrus workshop at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show in March.
Besides offering fruit, citrus trees boast handsome evergreen foliage and sweet-smelling flowers, both assets to your landscapes.
“Citrus is a great addition to the California garden,” Splan said. “My favorite is probably the Improved Meyer lemon. It’s incredibly productive for a dwarf tree; it’s actually more like a low shrub. It will adapt to growing in containers and take some shade, too.”
Slightly sweet and smooth-skinned, the Meyer has become a chef’s favorite. Discovered in China, it’s actually a cross between a true lemon and likely a mandarin or other Chinese orange.
Satsuma mandarins are another popular choice for local gardeners, Splan said. This fruit can tolerate colder nights than most other citrus, surviving temperatures down to 24 degrees.
That’s the challenging need with citrus; a combination of hot days (usually no problem during Sacramento summers) and chilly winter nights to develop good flavor and abundant juice. But each variety has a limit to how much cold it can withstand.
Limes are the most sensitive to freezing temperatures; Mexican limes won’t survive anything below 30 degrees. Persian or “Bearss” limes are a little more tolerant; they can withstand 28 degrees without damage.
Growing citrus in containers allows gardeners to move their sensitive trees to warmer spots on particularly cold nights. For trees planted in the ground, chose a location that has some protection and added warmth, such as along a south-facing wall or near the house (which tends to radiate a little heat at night).
Splan recommends dwarf citrus for most gardens. Full-size citrus trees reach 20 to 30 feet, while dwarf varieties stay within 5 to 10 feet tall. That makes dwarf trees easier to harvest, too.
Citrus ripens only on the tree, a process that takes many months. The only way to tell if citrus is ripe? Pick one and taste it. If it’s really sour or lacks juice, it likely needs more hang time.
The best place to “store” your backyard bonanza is on the tree. Pick your fruit as you need it.
When harvesting, don’t pull off the fruit; it will rip the skin. Instead, gently twist until the fruit comes free, or snip the stem with scissors or garden shears.
Local food expert and cookbook author Elaine Corn has seen an avalanche of citrus, particularly lemons – and not just from her own backyard.
“One woman came into ceramics (class) with a huge bag of Meyers and said the amount didn’t make a dent on her tree,” Corn said. “I’m up to my ears with my own Meyers and lemons from neighbors and other friends.”
Corn plans to preserve many of her lemons, using salt, spices and lemon juice according to a simple method that dates back to ancient Morocco, when cooks had plenty of lemons but no other way to keep them for later. Wednesday’s Food & Wine section included a recipe for preserved lemons.
New California landscape
Undoubtedly, plenty of citrus will be on display at Cal Expo during this weekend’s Northern California Home & Landscape Expo, the state’s largest three-day event of its kind.
As a centerpiece of this giant home show, EcoLandscape California created a special set of educational gardens dubbed “The New California Landscape.”
This exhibit contrasts the traditional “landscapes of yesterday” (think lots of lawn and foundation shrubs) with modern, water-wise and river-friendly alternatives.
“These gardens demonstrate how much more appealing and eco-friendly our landscapes can be today and in the future,” said Stefani Norville, the expo’s producer.
Visitors can learn about ways to convert their own landscapes and get free eco-friendly landscape designs.
Several of the expo’s free workshops also have an eye toward saving water. For example, Folsom water-efficiency expert Don Smith will present “Watering Well Without Water Waste” at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Author and water-wise landscape expert Roberta Walker will offer two presentations: “Creating the New Drought Tolerant Landscape” at noon Saturday and “Life After Lawns” at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Find the full schedule of speakers and workshops at www.homeandlandscapeexpo.com.