In a state known for peaches, home gardeners can grow oranges and other citrus fruits if they live in coastal or extreme southern portions of Georgia.
“Citrus grows best south of a Columbus-to-Macon-to-Augusta line,” said Marco Fonseca, a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Fonseca strongly discourages gardeners from trying to grow citrus in middle to north Georgia or in home landscapes lower than U.S. Department of Agriculture zone 9. The severe winter temperatures in this region of the state are detrimental to growing citrus fruits.
“Georgians along the coast have had success the past few years due to the mild winters,” he said.
Fonseca has seen citrus growing as far north as Cherokee County. “Trifoliate-oranges can be grown in parts of north Georgia,” he said. “But this is a thorny tree with fruit that’s so sour it’s inedible.”
Georgia’s unpredictable weather also lessens homeowners’ chances of successfully growing citrus.
“If you live in Georgia, you know firsthand,” Fonseca said. “It can be 75 degrees one day and below freezing the next.”
These conditions can kill new growth and blooms that could become fruit and put added stress on the plant.
Despite these limitations, more and more south and coastal Georgians are giving citrus a chance in their home gardens. David Dowdy of Brunswick, Ga., is one of them.
“When I was a teenager, our family had a kumquat tree in our yard on Jekyll Island,” he said. “So my first citrus tree had to be a kumquat.”
It was a good choice. Kumquats are the most cold hardy of commonly grown acid citrus fruits. “Kumquats have delayed growth in the spring,” Fonseca said. “This helps them avoid late freeze damage.”
The kumquat is an attractive, shrub-like tree with orange-like fruits about an inch in diameter. The fruits can be eaten fresh, peel and all, or used to make jellies, marmalade and candies. The three commonly propagated varieties are 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 died. His next citrus tree, a tangerine, has brought much more success.
“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 tangerine from what little frost we do get.”
The first year after he planted the tangerine tree, Dowdy had to drive 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.
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. “I know of two varieties that are growing in Telfair County and Thomasville,” Fonseca said. “They produce blooms, but the fruit is lemon-like.”
Back in Brunswick, Dowdy is already planning his next citrus experiment: “My neighbors are now growing big grapefruits that I’d put up against Florida-grown fruit. Maybe now I’ll try to grow a pineapple.”
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)