By Emma Kent
There aren’t many citrus trees that can be grown in Mississippi, but according to Gary Bachman, an extension and research professor of horticulture at Mississippi State University and host of Southern Gardening Radio and Television, there are three types that do quite well in Northeast Mississippi’s climate: Satsuma oranges, kumquats and Meyer lemons. We got the details from Bachman on how to grow and care for these beautiful fruit trees.
Meyer lemons are actually a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon. That’s what gives them their slightly sweet flavor. Unlike a regular lemon, Meyer lemons have a much thinner skin. When grown indoors, it may take up to a year for Meyer lemons to ripen. In the meantime, they make beautiful and fairly low-maintenance houseplants.
Kumquats may look like tiny oranges, but unlike their citrus relatives, you can eat them whole — skin and all. Their sweet rind and tart flesh make them popular for adding a sour zing to various dishes and desserts. They’re in season from November to March, and you’ll know they’re ready to harvest when they turn completely orange and are slightly soft to the touch.
Also known as mandarin oranges, Satsumas are the most cold-tolerant of oranges you can grow at home. Plant them in the spring, after the last frost, and you can expect to have fruit ready for harvest by mid-fall, depending on conditions. They’re juicy, sweet, seedless and easy to peel.
Container vs. Ground
Bachman strongly encourages growing any of these three citrus trees in containers. “They work quite well in containers, in fact, I only grow citrus in containers,” Bachman said. In North Mississippi, Bachman said, the trees tend to do better in containers no matter the time of year. It’s also easier and more effective to simply bring the trees inside when temperatures drop too low, rather than trying to cover and protect them while planted in the ground. When planting in containers, be sure to use container or potting mix soil. Bachman suggests selecting a container size for your tree based on how large you’d like it to get. In a 25 gallon container, citrus trees can grow to be up to six feet tall. The best size to give the tree adequate room to grow is anywhere from 16 to 25 gallons, though when they’re younger they can be started in smaller containers. Just be sure to monitor their growth and repot them when necessary.
As with all plants, citrus trees require regular sun, water and fertilization. Citrus trees like bright, full sun, whether that’s light from a window or direct sunlight outdoors. According to Bachman, Meyer lemons do particularly well indoors. “A lot of people grow Meyer lemons inside,” Bachman said. “If you have a bright window to put them in, they can live there year-round.” If kept outdoors, try to select a spot that gets at least eight hours of sun per day and isn’t very windy. “They’re perfectly happy outside like that,” Bachman said. The amount of water needed for these trees depends on where they’re located, but generally Bachman said the soil needs to be kept slightly moist. Outside in the Mississippi heat, they may need to be watered every day, if not twice per day. If kept indoors, trees can often be watered just once per month. A simple soil check using your finger can help you determine whether or not the tree needs watering.
When temperatures drop into the 20s, citrus trees need to be brought inside. “Those three are the most cold-tolerant of the citrus, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to take hard freezes,” Bachman said. “If you have extended periods where it’s going to be below that, they really need to come in.” They don’t necessarily need to come into your house, though. Bachman said they’ll do fine being brought into the garage or a storage building during the winter, even if it’s unheated. When you bring them in they typically go into a dormant state, but that doesn’t mean they’ve died. They’ll resume growing once they’re placed back outside. When brought in, Bachman says there’s no need to set up lights. Just keep them watered. “Just let them be,” Bachman said. “The whole thing is just keeping them alive.” Bringing the trees in during freezing weather is a must, but there’s never any point during the summer that would be too hot that you would need to bring them indoors.