GROWING VEGETABLES, BERRIES & FRUIT TREES IN NORTH FLORIDA

   
 

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GROWING CITRUS IN NORTH FLORIDA
POSTED DECEMBER 30
, 2009

I love the colors that show themselves as the year comes to a close: the vivid oranges, bright yellows and deep greens of healthy, vigorous citrus trees heavy with holiday fruit.  When the citrus growing in my front-yard garden ripens, the most festive time of the year has arrived.

A Hamlin orange tree growing in Niceville, Nov. 2009.
Hamlin oranges growing in Niceville

For the past several years, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s have marked the time of the year when we begin enjoying yummy homegrown tangerines, juicy oranges, tangy kumquats and fancy bright yellow lemons.

North Florida is not the ideal place to grow citrus because, without some sort of protection, most varieties are not cold hardy enough to withstand our sometimes freezing winter temperatures, especially when the trees are young and small.  Still, it is not unusual for local home gardeners in north Florida to have great success with citrus, especially those living closer to the coast.

Of the three types of sweet citrus (mandarins, oranges and grapefruits), only mandarins have sufficient cold hardiness to be recommended for north Florida. Satsuma is a very popular mandarin in north Florida and has cold-hardiness down to about 20 degrees. Satsuma fruit ripens in October when temperatures are still above freezing. It is considered the best choice for sweet citrus in north Florida.

True Tangerines such as Clementine, Dancy and Robinson have trouble standing up to temperatures that dip below about 25 degrees for very long, so they are not generally a good choice for our area. I have a Dancy or “Christmas” tangerine growing next to the house that stands at least 15 feet tall (it needs a good pruning!). While the tree has tolerated some fairly cold weather, it does not bear much fruit the season following our colder winters. This year, following last year’s mild winter, we have an abundant harvest of this richly flavored Christmas fruit.

While there are no recommended varieties of sweet oranges or grapefruit for north Florida, there are many orange and grapefruit trees in dooryard gardens throughout our part of the state. I have two orange trees in my front-yard garden. I really love the fragrant, showy flowers and the delicious sun-drenched fruit. I don’t have a grapefruit tree because we could never eat that much grapefruit on top of the other citrus we already grow.

Hamlin orange blossom, Spring 2009
Hamlin orange blossom

The oranges that we began harvesting shortly before Christmas come from a Hamlin orange tree. Hamlin oranges are grown for their juice but we find them to be great sliced and eaten, too. Because the fruit ripens early it is unaffected by our usual winter freezes.

My other orange tree is a Valencia, Florida’s juice orange. These oranges are a late ripening variety. In Niceville, they ripen in February. Our Valencia oranges are every bit as rich, juicy and tasty as a fresh orange should be. When we cut into a freshly picked Valencia orange, the sweet citrus aroma fills the house – a real pleasure in the cold of winter!

Because the Valencia is a late ripening orange, the fruit is often damaged by freezing temperatures in January or early February. I planted my Valencia tree next to the house to help protect it from the cold and wind, and that seems to help some. We find the oranges to be delicious even when they are slightly freeze damaged.

True lemons are not well suited for north Florida but Meyer lemons, a lemon hybrid, are commonly grown with success in our part of the state. These big, thin-skinned, juicy lemons produce juice with a higher sugar content than the lemons we find at the supermarket. While they are still tart, Meyer lemons have a sort of flowery flavor and bright yellow juice. Meyer lemons are terrific for lemonade and perfect to serve with seafood. If you are looking for citrus to grow in a container, it’s the ideal choice because the trees naturally grow to only about 10 feet.

Meyer lemons growing in Niceville, Fla.
Meyer lemons growing in Niceville

Kumquats are the only acid type of citrus that is considered cold hardy enough for our winter weather. Meiwa and Nagami kumquats are most commonly grown here. We have three large Nagami kumquat trees in our yard that produce heavy yields year in and year out. The harvest generally begins somewhere near Thanksgiving. Like Meyer lemons, kumquats also make nice container trees.

In addition to the tasty fruit, kumquats and Meyer lemons make attractive hedges and screens.

Unlike other types of fruit trees which grow more slowly and may take several years to bear fruit, citrus trees are vigorous growers and are eager to bear fruit, often doing so the first year they are put in the ground.

How fast do citrus trees grow in north Florida?  Not quite NASCAR fast but pretty darn quick. The chart below details the growth of my Hamlin orange tree and its annual yield over its first 8 years.
 

HAMLIN ORANGE 8-YEAR GROWTH CHART

YEAR

HEIGHT

TRUNK SIZE

HARVEST

1

51

3.5

9

2

103

7

12

3

121

7.25

85

4

130+

9.75

45

5

150+

12

300+

6

150+

13.5

400+

7

150+

15

400+

8

150+

17

500+

NOTE: Purchased in 7-gallon pot and planted in March, 2001. Tree height and trunk circumference measured in inches. All measurements made annually on Jan. 1.

Citrus trees are quite a bit easier to care for than other types of fruit trees in north Florida. They are not bothered by as many types of pests and disease. What’s more, the birds and squirrels don’t eat the fruit, leaving it all for you and your friends and family!

Look for citrus trees this spring at your local garden center.

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