I like fruit. Mostly I like fruit that is fresh, sweet and organic, right from my own garden.
Peaches are fine, so are apricots and plums; I’ve grown all of those. Apples are good, got one of those. Grapes are tasty; got one of those too and planning to add another as soon as I can find the variety I want. Blueberries are terrific; have four of those. Avocados, nectarines, persimmons, figs, pluots and kiwis; they all grow well here.
But they all have one disadvantage; they’re fruit are seasonal. For the most part, their harvest arrives during brief times of the year and too often in overwhelming quantities. Instead, I want fruit throughout the year.
Citrus solves this problem. Collectively speaking, citrus can offer fresh fruit to a southern California gardener every day of the year. Navel oranges in the winter, valencias in the summer. Lemons and limes just about year-round. Blood oranges in the spring and mandarins in the winter.
Citrus also don’t have to take a lot of room. A few months ago I planted eight different citrus in my backyard. That’s right, eight, and I don’t have an enormous yard. How can I do this? First, they are all semi-dwarf plants. Second, I am growing each citrus flat against a wall, in a manner called an espalier ("es-PAL-yer"). Espalier, from French origins, is the art growing an otherwise shrubby plant, flat against a wall, fence, or trellis. With this method my citrus will never be more than a few inches off the wall and will take up very little space.
The eight varieties that I planted, along with their ripe fruit periods are: Page Mandarin (Nov-Jan), Oroblanco Grapefruit hybrid (Nov-March), Kishu Mandarin (Dec), Clementine Mandarin (Dec-Feb.), Yosemite Gold Mandarin (Jan-May), Gold Nugget Mandarin (March-July), Midnight Valencia Orange (Apr-Jul) and Improved Meyer Lemon (year-round, esp. winter).
As you can see, I like mandarins (“mandarin” is just another word for “tangerine). In addition to the eight above I also have a full size Washington Navel Orange (Jan-April) that produces over 500 fruit from January through April and a young Australian Finger Lime (Nov-Mar).
With this collection of citrus I will have fresh citrus just about every month of the year. Unlike most fruiting plants, most citrus have the unique ability to store their fruit on the plant in a sweet, ripe state for long periods of time, often for months. The one exception in my garden is my Kishu Mandarin, but the fruit is just too tasty to pass up.
Of course, in your own garden you might like Mexican limes, kumquats, pummelos, calamondins, tangelos or any of several other citrus varieties.
Here’s how I created my year-round citrus planting: I started by mounting four thirteen foot long, six foot high iron trellis frames against a long slumpstone wall. This was the most time consuming, and expensive, part of entire operation, but will be critical to my long term success. I didn’t bother with the cheap wood trellises so popular at every discount store and building center. Three or four years from now they will rot away or break, leaving my mature citrus espalier in a terrible predicament. Instead, I bought sturdy iron trellising with a four inch grid and a reinforced edge. Mine was custom made to exactly fit the dimensions of my wall.
Next, I selected my citrus. Mine were planted from a five-gallon size and I was sure to only purchase dwarf or semi-dwarf plants. I planted two citrus on each 13 foot trellis, six or seven feet apart from each other. Each was planted with the flattest side against the wall or trellis.
I then used a roll of natural jute twine, not the green plastic non-biodegradable tie tape that is so popular. With this twine I began pulling, spacing and tying the branches to the iron trellis. Many of the branches can be tied all the way flat, especially on young plants. Others, I can only bend about half the distance without breaking them. That’s fine; I let them adjust to this first bend for a month or two, then I can go back and pull them back the rest of the way.
That’s about all there is to it. From here on, two or three times a year I’ll do a little maintenance pruning and tying, just to keep them growing in a flat pattern against the wall. Mmmm, fresh fruit all year long.
Questions from Readers February 28
Is it too late to prune my mature plum tree? It is just barely beginning to bloom.
Barbara, Costa Mesa
Better late than not at all. Stonefruits like plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots, as well as other deciduous fruit trees including apples are pruned every winter, usually in December or January, while they are leafless and dormant. The techniques are different for each type of tree, since they each produce fruit in different manners. For instance, peaches and nectarines produce fruit on one year old branches, while plums, apples and apricots produce their fruit on little stubs called spurs, which may bear for several years. I suggest pruning your plum this weekend, if possible. For a straightforward, easy to follow guide to pruning your plum or any of these trees I suggest a small, inexpensive booklet titled How to Prune Fruit Trees, by Robert S. Martin, available at most large nurseries.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.