Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clements

As discussed previously (and received with great fervor, I might add), Flea Street Café greets each season with a new set of seasonal and produce-led cocktails. We’ve looked already at the means to grow and shake a Pomegranate Gimlet; today we’ll explore the cultivation of citrus in order to ensure a lifetime of Blood Orange Margaritas and Tangerine Martinis. Flea Street has since christened their martini the Tangerine Tango, as it's made with cucumber vodka and, in the words of owner Jesse Cool, “dances between the seasons.” My dance card is open, and I am ready and willing to partner it.

Citrus is a fabulous dance partner, whether you tango in the landscape, the kitchen or the martini glass. The trees are gorgeous plants and can be espaliered, grown in containers or prized as specimens in the ground. The fragrance of the blossom is one of the most sweet, heady and evocative aromas you could hope to experience. The fruit (and sometimes even foliage) has myriad culinary uses. The variety and details of growing citrus is encyclopedic in scope, but we’ll touch on the basics over the next few posts.

Growing Citrus

The biggest deciding factor when it comes to choosing what to grow and where to grow it is your climate. The true citrus regions of the world are temperate and Mediterranean-esque in climate. Californians, Floridians and Mexicans are in luck, and southern Spain and Italy are prime citrus regions, as is Iran, though sadly The Linden Green lacks a solid cadre of Iranian readers. (But we have lots of Zambians! Very exciting indeed. Read on, Zambia.)

Should you live outside the traditional citrus regions of the world, panic not. Certain varieties are more tolerant of cold and heat extremes than their delicate cousins, and for gardeners in Russia, Canada and Northern Europe, several varieties make good container choices. These can be brought inside for the cold winter months; think of the orangery, used in Europe since the 17th century to overwinter container-grown citrus.

Whichever site you choose, be it garden or glasshouse, give your citrus plants full sun, fantastic drainage and shelter from cold winds. Mulch with plenty of organic matter when planting, and continue to top-dress each year both for protection of roots and for healthy soil biology. Citrus have widespread surface roots, and they don’t appreciate much underplanting or excessive working of the ground beneath them. They are particularly unhappy at the edge of a lawn, where greedy grass will steal their nitrogen and water.

Water your citrus deeply but not often; shallow waterings every day aren't good for any plant, particularly citrus trees. Deep watering once a week develops healthy, happy, deep roots and better-established plants.

Citrus can be fertilized with special citrus food, but I personally don’t bother (laziness rather than wisdom) unless some sort of mineral deficiency is apparent. Lack of nitrogen is often the culprit, but chlorosis can also signal a lack of iron, zinc or manganese. Chlorosis presents itself as yellowing or mottling of the leaves – patterns differ depending on which specific mineral is lacking – but always address cultural issues first. Lack of water and sunburn also cause yellow leaves. For further reading on citrus cultivation, consult the Sunset Citrus guide in the West or Martin Page’s Growing Citrus in colder climates.

And now for the citrus varieties themselves. Today we’ll look at oranges and lemons, and if you’re wondering about this article’s title, then you don’t know the dark little nursery rhyme from 17th-century London. Have just discovered it ends with the following lines ...

“Here comes a candle to light you to bed; Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chip chop chip chop – the last man’s dead.” Now let’s talk fruit.

Oranges

Sweet oranges (Citrus sinensis) are the variety you’re after, as sour oranges (Citrus aurantium) are really best for marmalade and not much else. And I don’t like marmalade. (But if you do, make it with ‘Seville’ oranges and mix in some bourbon.)

The two most widely planted categories of sweet oranges are Valencia and navel. Navels are the sweetest and accordingly need a lot of heat to ripen and create sugar. 'Washington Navel' is on sale everywhere, so I wouldn’t bother planting it at home. Try instead the pink-fleshed 'Cara Cara' or the superbly named 'Skaggs Bonanza.' Who is Skaggs, and what was his bonanza?

Valencias are slightly more frost-tolerant than navels and as they sweeten on the tree, they’re the most commonly grown commercial type of orange. Confusingly, the most ubiquitous Valencia variety is called ‘Valencia’ (Skaggs was busy with his navel), and it’s currently sloshing about in a carton in your fridge. Again, I can’t see the point of growing one you can buy everywhere, so instead plant 'Campbell' or 'Delta,' both of which are nearly seedless.

If you live in a desert – Arizona or perhaps, Iran (I remain ever-hopeful) – try ‘Diller,’ which is great for juicing, or ‘Pineapple,’ because of its rich flavor and confusingly fruity moniker.

If you live in Northern California or Sicily, then you must grow ‘Moro’ or ‘Sanguinello’ blood oranges, whose rind and fruit are dark red and whose flavor is sweet-but-tart. (And if you live in London, have dinner at Moro on Exmouth Market for a truly fantastic meal.)

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,

And the green freedom of a cockatoo

Upon a rug mingle to dissipate

The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

- Wallace Stevens (1879–1955), 'Sunday Morning'

Lemons

Could you roast a chicken or make a vodka tonic without lemons? Yes, you could. But you shouldn’t. Their rind, flesh and juice are equally useful in the kitchen, and their stature, foliage and fragrance is unsurpassable in the garden. Lemons’ heat requirements aren’t quite as high as oranges’, so the growing zones are somewhat increased, though cold tolerance is still an issue. Lemons – like all citrus trees – come in standard or dwarf varieties, so as with oranges, whether you want to garden in a pot or in the ground, there’s a lemony option for you. Keep in mind that dwarf trees range in height from 4 to 10 feet, so if you’re using a container, you’ll need a big one, at least 16” in diameter.

As for lemon varieties, you can’t go wrong with ‘Improved Meyer.’ It’s excellent in containers (if you choose a dwarf variety) or in the ground. It does indeed show up on lots of menus and in ‘artisanal’ bake goods galore, but it does not often appear in the grocery store. 'Meyer’s' peel is on the thin side, making it difficult to transport, but its juice is sweeter than most lemons and fantastic for cooking.

I planted an ‘Improved Meyer’ at home, which is heavenly, and I inherited a huge ‘Eureka’ tree, which is fine and useful, though extremely thorny. A more interesting choice, if I were starting from scratch, would have been ‘Variegated Pink Eureka.’ Striped green and white leaves with touches of purple set off the fruit, also variegated when young and pink on the inside. It’s a good-looking but fussy fruit; the drag queen of lemons, perhaps.

I leave you with two excellent lemon recipes.

First, from Bon Appetit, here's Linguine with Crab, Lemon, Chile and Mint. I'm hungry, and I want to eat it right now.

And finally, so we can finish where we started, take a look at (and sip of) Food 52's Muddled Meyer Martini. Aaaah, the delicious cycle of life.