You Can Grow Citrus in North Florida

With a Cold-Hardy Cultivar and Care When it’s Freezing, a Fruit-full Tree is Possible

Q: We’d like to plant some citrus trees in our yard, but I don’t know whether they’ll do well in North Florida. What do you recommend?

In North Florida, the hard freezes of the 1980s killed many backyard citrus trees, particularly in December 1989 when a low of 12 degrees was recorded at an agricultural research center in Monticello. Luckily, agricultural colleges at universities across the South, especially the University of Florida and Louisiana State University, kept busy developing new cultivars that can handle colder temperatures. So yes, you can plant citrus here. But not all types of citrus will thrive.

Citrus experts in both the industry and academia recommend planting trees that have been grafted onto trifoliate orange, or sour orange, rootstock in areas north of Ocala. Of course, if you’re planning to grow citrus in large pots and move them into protected areas such as basements, garages or sheds when freezing temperatures are forecast, rootstock isn’t as important.

A quick citrus primer: There are three types of sweet citrus — mandarins, oranges and grapefruit. Yes, grapefruit is considered a “sweet” citrus. If you’ve ever tasted a sour orange, you understand why. Of the three types, mandarins, also known as mandarin oranges (citrus reticulata), are best suited to our Eastern Panhandle/Big Bend region. Satsumas (citrus unshiu) are the most popular mandarin grown here. If you’re not familiar with satsumas, they look and taste like small oranges and peel like tangerines.

Well-established satsuma trees can withstand temperatures into the teens, but all citrus trees, even the cold-hardy ones, must be protected the first two to three years they’re in the ground. I planted a Kimbrough satsuma — one of Louisiana’s contributions to the world of citrus — in my front yard in fall of 2007. The nursery tag said it would be cold-hardy to 17 degrees once established, so I built a frame of 2-by-2s around it, leaving what I hoped would be enough room for it to grow for three years. Every time the forecast called for temperatures below 32 degrees those first two winters, I wrapped the frame in old bedsheets and then put plastic sheeting over that, securing the whole thing with clothespins. (The fabric is needed to keep the plastic from touching the plant and creating a “frost burn” on the leaves.)

By the third winter, it had outgrown its frame. I built a bamboo teepee around it and used the bed sheets and plastic sheeting only if temperatures were supposed to drop below 25 degrees. We had a couple of nights in the teens that winter, although I don’t think it got that cold in my yard. That was the last time I covered it, and it finally rewarded me this year with a bumper crop of juicy, easy-to-peel fruit.

Kumquat is the other citrus that can take our relatively cold winters, although it is considered tart, or acidic, instead of sweet. The small round or oval fruits are eaten skin and all, with some varieties having tart skin and sweet flesh and others having the opposite characteristics. Most kumquat varieties are good to about 15 degrees, and as a result, it has been crossbred with other citrus, notably the Key lime. A limequat, also known as a Lakeland lime, has the flavor of a Key lime and the growth characteristics of a kumquat, making it a good choice for our area.

Depending on the microclimates around your home, you might also have success with cold-hardy tangerines, another type of mandarin, including Clementine, Dancy and Robinson. Page, a hybrid that looks like small oranges, is a cross between the Minneola tangelo and the Clementine. Since tangelos are a cross between tangerines and grapefruits, Page is mostly tangerine with a little grapefruit and mandarin added. It’s really tasty.

Duncan grapefruit can withstand 26-degree temperatures, and Meyer lemon can take 24 degrees, making it very popular in our area. The lemon trees tend to get a little wind- and/or cold-damaged in a normal winter, but they rebound quickly. I have one planted on the south side of a 6-foot privacy fence, and the portion that extends above the fence sometimes dies if the temperatures drop below 20, but I just cut it back in late winter and it’s fine.

You might have to do a little more to protect citrus in the winter, but that’s a matter of personal preference and commitment. Just as some people don’t mind spraying hybrid tea roses every 10 to 14 days, some don’t mind covering up their citrus trees if a hard freeze is looming. But you should decide your priorities before you plant.

To improve your tender citrus’ chances of surviving a freeze, plant it on the south side of the house or garden shed, or create a windbreak to protect it from north and northwest winds. Don’t fertilize citrus after early August, so it will go dormant and be less susceptible to cold damage. Water your citrus well if a freeze is forecast, because wet soil retains more heat than dry soil. And while mulching generally isn’t recommended for citrus, do mulch the trunk before a hard freeze, taking care to make sure the graft is well-protected.