By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
David Dowdy harvested enough tangerines from his backyard tree to give a small basketful to each of his family members. That may not impress you, except that Dowdy lives in Georgia, not Florida.
University of Georgia specialists say citrus trees can grow in coastal and extreme southern Georgia with proper attention to selection and cold hardiness.
South Georgia best
They grow best south of a Columbus-to-Macon-to-Augusta line, said Marco Fonseca, a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Fonseca strongly discourages trying to grow citrus in middle to north Georgia or in home landscapes lower than U.S. Department of Agriculture zone 9.
"The most significant limiting factor to citrus culture in these areas is the damage from severe winter temperature," he said. "Georgians along the coast have had success the past few years due to the mild winters."
Fonseca has seen citrus growing as far north as Cherokee Co., but only trifoliate-oranges. "This is a thorny tree with fruit that's so sour it's inedible," he said.
Georgia's unpredictable weather also lessens homeowners' chances of success. "It can be 75 degrees one day and below freezing the next," he said. "This will obviously kill new growth and blooms or flowers that could become fruit (and) put added stress on the plant."
Kumquats: several varieties, uses
Dowdy lives in Brunswick, Ga. There, he doesn't worry much about frost and freeze damage. "When I was a teenager, our family had a kumquat tree in our yard on Jekyll Island," he said. "So my first citrus tree was a kumquat."
Good choice. Kumquats are the most cold hardy of the commonly grown acid citrus fruits. "Kumquats have delayed growth in the spring," Fonseca said. "This helps them avoid late freeze damage."
The kumquat is widely grown in home landscapes. It becomes an attractive, shrub-like tree with orange-like fruits about 1 inch in diameter.
The fruits can be eaten fresh, peel and all, or used to make jellies, marmalade and candies. Several varieties are available. But only three are commonly propagated: Nagami, Marumi and Meiwa.
"Nagami fruits are oblong to pear-shaped and have acid pulp," Fonseca said. "The others are sweeter and rounder. Meiwa, which produces nearly round, sweet fruit, has become one of the most popular varieties for home planting."
Unfortunately, Dowdy's kumquat plant declined and died. His next citrus tree has brought much more success.
Experimenting with different citrus
"The tangerine tree just took off and produced a lot of fruit in just a year," he said. "I planted it by a huge oak tree, so I think it protects the tree from what little frost we do get."
The first year, Dowdy drove into Florida to buy citrus-fruit fertilizer.
"The second year, it started looking bad, so I bought citrus-fruit spikes from Home Depot," he said. "It perked up after that and produced so much fruit that the limbs broke."
Dowdy and his neighbors often share their harvests. "On my street alone, we have grapefruits, oranges, kumquats and tangerines growing," he said.
Not just for fruit
Citrus plants can be grown as individual plants or in groups as hedges, Fonseca said. They also make excellent container plants.
"In addition to providing fruits, citrus plants make attractive ornamental specimens," he said. "And they're self-fruitful, so they don't require cross-pollination."
Hybrid plants called citranges have been crossed to grow better in Georgia conditions, he said. "I know of two varieties that are growing in Telfair County and Thomasville," he said. "They produce blooms, but the fruit is lemon-like."
Back in Brunswick, Dowdy's already planning his next citrus experiment. "My neighbors are now growing big grapefruits that I'd put up against Florida-grown fruit," he said. "Maybe now I'll try to grow a pineapple."
Pineapple plants can be potted and easily brought indoors, too, Fonseca said.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)