How to Grow Tasty Citrus Outside in Zone 7+ (Tangerines, Grapefruit, Oranges, & More)
On Friday, February 25th we left our Appalachian foothills home at 9:30am and drove to a nursery that grows tangerines, satsuma mandarins, naval oranges, kumquats, grapefruits, and other citrus in an outdoor orchard. No, not Florida! Even after touring the nursery for over an hour, stopping for lunch, driving slowly through heavy thunderstorms, and navigating rush-hour traffic, we still made it home again by 6:30pm.
(Gardeners in colder zones can try trifoliate oranges or growing citrus in pots.)
Stan McKenzie says he planted his first South Carolina citrus as a young boy. When the plants died, he gave up for a while.
As an adult, he was satisfied growing a Meyer lemon indoors until he encountered truly outdoor grapefruits in Charleston, SC.
At that point Stan began experimenting with different varieties, trying multiple growing methods, and collaborating with other gardeners. Eventually, he proved to himself that cold-hardy citrus is no myth. Yes, you really can grow citrus trees in the ground outdoors in zone 7 and up. Yes, you can grow varieties of tangerines, mandarins, oranges, grapefruits, kumquats, and more. Yes, most of it really does taste good.
I haven’t tasted them yet but I believe Stan when he says they’re as good as the fruit sold at the store. His customers swear by them, too. There was a couple browsing the nursery who assured us the fruit harvested from Stan’s orchard is so delightful that they bought bushels of it last season.
The catch is that it isn’t maintenance-free. If you want to establish some fruit in your yard and forget about it, get blueberries. But if you love citrus and don’t mind growing outside-the-box, try the proven varieties sold at the McKenzie nursery.
So what are you getting yourself into? Don’t worry, it’s not much more effort than regular garden chores and you have a few options.
The easiest is to choose a microclimate when siting your citrus. For a small number of trees, Stan recommends planting them close to a south or east facing wall. This protects the trees from cold winds and many buildings also absorb and then radiate heat during the night. Even a few degrees can make all the difference.
Still, Stan says young trees (4 years old or less) just aren’t that hardy yet. He likens citrus saplings to infants in need of extra assistance to reach adulthood. Plus, even if your trees have fully matured, you’ll probably still have to provide some protection at least part of the winter in zones 7 and 8. The good news is that there are many reliable ways to keep your citrus from suffering at the whim of Mother Nature.
Stan’s extensive orchard is proof enough, but while driving home we actually saw wild citrus trees completely unprotected along the roadside. No telling how the fruit of those renegades taste, though.
How much you have to baby your trees depends on the variety you choose. Unsurprisingly, the tastier varieties tend to demand more attention.
If you want to grow a large orchard out in the open like Stan’s, a good option is to invest in a reliable sprinkler system. Surprisingly, the hardier varieties of mandarins and tangerines can be protected by a thin coating of ice! Stan’s trees don’t mind a consistent temperature of 32 °F and ice can make that happen even if the air temperature gets much lower. The sprinklers should be turned on before temperatures reach 30 °F.
Stan says it is important to keep trees pruned if you plan to use this method. That way fewer branches break from the weight of the ice.
Some people also have luck by wrapping their trees in Christmas lights. Lighted trees stay warmer, but the protection can be improved by covering the lighted tree with a blanket or plastic sheet. Note that all forms of cover should be ventilated or removed when the weather warms up again or the tree can cook. Tree lights should be removed and reapplied once a year to keep them from girdling the trunk.
The last option takes a little more labor but offers the most security. Stan builds simple wooden frames around less hardy varieties like naval oranges and grapefruits. When cold weather arrives, he attaches light-permeable greenhouse plastic film to the sides of the frame and puts black water barrels inside to absorb and radiate passive solar heat. It must work — yesterday these trees were blooming so profusely inside their tents that I could smell the orange blossom fragrance over 100 yards away! He says he also sprays the tented trees with water or runs a small electric heater on an extension cord when temperatures hit rare, brutal extremes.
Some links on citrus care in the cold:
In addition to winter protection your citrus will thank you for well-drained, fertile soil and consistent water. Full sun, a long season (which can be obtained through covering trees), and warm summers are also required for best results.
For pollination, wild bees are likely to be attracted to your trees. Stan goes a step further and allows a beekeeper to maintain honeybees on his property. He may be the only South Carolinian currently enjoying his own orange blossom honey!
Fertilization needs will vary on your local soil but in general, citrus are considered heavy feeders. Most websites recommend high nitrogen fertilizers, though Stan says a 5-10-10 blend with micronutrients works well for him. He says to follow the package instructions and start fertilizing as soon as the danger of frost passes in the spring. He stops applying fertilizer by August 1st to slow new growth and give the trees time to harden off for winter.
Here are some links on citrus nutrient needs that may be applicable for your area:
- Citrus fertilizing chart from University of Florida Cooperative Extension (.pdf)
- Citrus fertilizing chart from University of Arizona Cooperative Extension (.pdf)
- Article and chart on citrus fertilization from Texas Agrilife Extension
- Fertilizing citrus @ Four Winds Growers
- Growmore pre-packaged organic citrus fertilizer from Logees Nursery
If hardy citrus is a dream of yours, don’t give up! Experimenting until you find a method that works for you can be very rewarding. Some of the trees at McKenzie farms are 20 years old and still cropping heavily!
McKenzie Farms is the northernmost citrus orchard on the east coast. Stan grafts from trees that have survived freak freezes in commercial citrus growing areas as well as reputedly cold hardy varieties from all over the world. A lot of the specimens he offers are rare and hard to find.
We felt much more comfortable with our home project after visiting the farm. If you’re a visual learner you can’t go wrong asking Stan for a tour, but check with him through phone or email to make sure it is a good time. You can’t find a grower more experienced with pushing the citrus envelope.
Our drive home involved excited plans to build our passive solar citrus “cave” as a dual cold frame for our spring transplants. It will be mostly inconspicuous next to the shed in our driveway, and we’ll be delighted to keep all the winter seed trays out of the kitchen.
Of course we didn’t come home empty-handed!
Our new backyard citrus orchard is comprised of a ‘Seedless Nagami’ kumquat, an ‘Owari’ satsuma, and a ‘Thomasville’ citrangequat. The unripe citrangequat fruits are supposed to work well as a lime substitute. Plus, think of all the food miles I’ll avoid by picking my own Christmas kumquats and satsumas!
I didn’t think our visit to McKenzie Farms could get any better, but then Stan recommended The Shrimper for lunch. What a bonus! Only a few miles up the road in Lake City, we’re happy to recommend it in the category of regional restaurants that do what they do well.
You won’t find them serving locally grown citrus (I think the only produce on the menu was cole slaw). What you will find is authentic fresh-catch seafood served with hush puppies and sweet tea.
For those of you who get serious about hardy citrus, you may also enjoy the following resources: