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Can't grow citrus trees in Central Texas? Learn how to pick the right varieties, protect trees

By Liz Cardinal
Special to the American-Statesman
Pick the right variety of orange tree and be ready to protect it during winter freezes.

One of the most alluring types of fruit trees to grow in Central Texas is citrus. Early spring is the time to plan for and plant trees if you choose to take on the challenge.

Citrus trees have become more popular and acceptable to grow here in the past decade, possibly because of warming climate trends. They are considered a specialty crop because they are subtropical trees that push our growing zone a bit, but with extra preparation and care, you can have a productive citrus tree in your yard.

If you are lucky enough to already have a citrus tree or live near one, you will undoubtedly recognize the scent of its blossoms in late fall. The scent is reason enough to grow these trees. 

The first guiding principle when starting to grow a citrus tree is to choose the right variety for our region. Most citrus trees will show signs of distress and can even die when temperatures dip below 28 degrees. It’s important to select a cold hardy variety. Eureka and Improved Meyer lemons are great choices. For limes, choose the Thornless Mexican lime, sometimes known as a Key lime, because that variety is the most cold hardy of the limes. Satsuma is a mandarin orange type that grows well here, and Texas Rio Red grapefruit is a great option because it is cold hardy, delicious and our state fruit. Calamondin and kumquat are small, orange, tart varieties that make a beautiful container tree as well as edible fruit. 

Pick an orange tree that is designed to be cold hardy and plant it in a space that protects it from cold winter winds.

Next, place and plant your trees properly. You can plant citrus trees in large containers or in the ground. They need to be in a south-facing area with six to eight hours of sunlight a day. If there is shelter nearby, like a house wall, that will help give off residual heat in the winter and protect the trees from wind. During freezes, you can cover citrus trees with frost protection or add incandescent lights in the trees to help keep them warm. 

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Fertilizing citrus trees is crucial to helping them flower and fruit. Nitrogen is the main nutrient that citrus trees need. Hold off on fertilizing until after you see new growth appear, then add a 6-2-4 fertilizer monthly, February through October. Watering should be done deeply and consistently during the warm months but make sure to not overwater your trees. 

Citrus trees require more attention and care, but if you are ready to take on the challenge and reap the delicious rewards, talk to nursery staff to help you choose the right tree and check out the Texas A&M  AgriLife Extension Fruit Trees Resources for more in-depth information. 

Texas citrus is in-season now and you can find varieties at farmers’ markets and local grocery stores.

This month’s fresh citrus recipe comes from an Austin favorite, Stephanie McClenny of Confituras jam company. It’s a new and unexpected way to use citrus and, like all of the goodies that McClenny surprises us with, it will not disappoint. 

McClenny opened Confituras in the summer of 2010 and now also has a brick and mortar community kitchen and jam and biscuit shop in South Austin called Confituras Little Kitchen, which churns out seasonal jams and biscuits made with locally milled, heritage grains. Online ordering and curbside service is available on Friday and Saturday mornings at the shop. 

Turn the grapefruit bounty from your yard into a syrup for use in drinks and baked goods.

Backyard Grapefruit Chile Syrup

This Lone Star style syrup will quickly find a prominent place in your cocktails, homemade sodas, poke cakes, and even on pancakes and waffles.

  • 4-5 Texas Ruby Red or Rio Star Grapefruit
  • 3 1/2 cups sugar (we prefer organic cane sugar)
  • 4-6 dried chiles de arbol (more or less depending on your heat level preference) coarsely torn into large pieces
  • 1-2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • Pinch of salt

Juice grapefruit. Pour juice through a fine mesh strainer to catch the tiny seeds and any large pulp. Measure two cups of grapefruit juice and add it to a small saucepan. Add sugar, chiles, lemon juice, and salt to the juice in the pan, give it a quick stir, and bring to a lively simmer over medium-high heat. Quickly reduce heat to a low simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the sugar has fully dissolved and syrup has thickened a bit (it will thicken considerably upon cooling).

Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely in the pan. Once cooled, pour the mixture once more through a strainer into a clean container with a lid for storing.

Yields 3 cups.

The syrup will last for a few months or longer under refrigeration.

— Stephanie McClenny of Confituras