Dwarf citrus is versatile garden choice

By: Gloria Young,
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They’re colorful, fragrant, green year-round and do well with a minimum of fuss. Dwarf citrus is also available in some really cool and unusual varieties, among them limequats and kumquats,
“They are small, not much bigger than a large grape,” explained Dorothy Lewis, citrus expert at Eisley Nursery in Auburn. “You eat the whole thing — skin and all. They are a sweet-tart combination taste. The skin is not bitter.”
There’s also the Australian lemon or lime.
“It’s a little-bitty thing,” Lewis said.  “I’ve sold a few of those. It is good eating.”
The variegated varieties are garden beauties, often planted more for decoration than fruit taste.
“The variegated Eureka lemon is striped and when you cut it, it looks pink. But when you juice it, it is tart like a Eureka yellow lemon,” she said. “And it is a real good producer.”
Dan Davis, co-owner of Green Man Home & Garden Nursery in North Auburn, also appreciates unusual dwarf citrus varieties. Among the ones he’s stocked are the kishu mandarin, which produces a small, sweet fruit, and the variegated calamondin — an ornamental that produces a tart fruit and is cold-resistant.
There’s also the cara cara — a navel orange with a rose-colored interior — the Dancy mandarin and Buddha’s hand, another great ornamental tree.
Selecting the right citrus tree for the climate is important in the foothills — where there’s a wide elevation range. They’re not going to do well in locations that get hard freezes.
“We don’t recommend them above Lake of the Pines, although people do it,” Lewis said. “And you’ve got to really protect them. Mine are outside. Even in the cold (we’ve had for the past few days), mine are established enough. I make sure they are well watered but haven’t done anything else to them.”
Lemons and mandarins do very well in the Auburn area, but grapefruit does not, she said.
“Oranges grow OK,” she said. “And you have your kumquats. I have a friend in Volcano (elevation 2,070 feet) who has a kaffir lime. He throws a cover over it when it gets too cold.”
Maintaining the dwarf trees in wheeled containers that can be easily moved provides some flexibility against winter’s blast.
“They give more control over watering and ensuring that the plant does not dry out,” Davis said. “But it is important to have the containers in a spot where they will drain well.”
During freeze-warning periods, Davis suggests covering the trees with burlap or plastic.
“Some people add small Christmas lights, which generate enough heat to ward off freezing,” he said.
And if the plants are on a covered patio where rain doesn’t reach, it’s important to make sure they are watered regularly.
“If the plant gets too dry, it’s more likely to freeze and have root damage,” he said.
Lewis suggests bringing the container citrus indoors on particularly cold nights, keeping them in a cooler part of the house.
“I had one in a big container,” she said. “In winter I’d roll it into the family room when it got real cold.”
Winter is a good time to purchase citrus trees because they are semi-dormant, so it is the easier for transplanting.
Dwarf trees in containers top out at six to eight feet tall and it is easy to maintain their shape through minimum pruning. In the ground they will grow to 12 to 14 feet.  
It’s a good idea to know your long-range plans for the tree at the time you purchase it.
“A 24-inch (25 gallon) container will take a dwarf citrus into adulthood without the need to transplant it,” Davis said. “Trees in smaller containers eventually will get too crowded for the pot.”
Lewis suggests a half-barrel as a good size that will contain a dwarf tree for many years.
“Usually what I recommend, if you have them in a container, is every three to five years, take them out and prune the roots like you would for bonsai and give the trees fresh soil,” Lewis said. “That keeps the tree a lot healthier.”
Lewis cautions not to feed the trees until the weather starts warming the soil.
“That’s when they’ll make the most of the food,” she said.