Home & Garden

Dwarf citrus trees bring Florida to your Kentucky door

Clifton Smith's orange, lemon and lime trees — almost 30 of them — have thrived in Lexington for 27 years. In summer, their containers line the walls of an inner courtyard patio at his home, and in winter they are moved to his greenhouse with other tropical plants.  Photo by Susan Smith-Durisek
Clifton Smith's orange, lemon and lime trees — almost 30 of them — have thrived in Lexington for 27 years. In summer, their containers line the walls of an inner courtyard patio at his home, and in winter they are moved to his greenhouse with other tropical plants. Photo by Susan Smith-Durisek Lexington Herald-Leader

The flavor, fragrance and bright color of zesty lemon, tangy lime and sunshine-sweetened orange can lift mid-winter doldrums. Mix in the common grapefruit and tangerine and the exotic pomelo, clementine and kumquat and you have a balm for the impatience of home-bound gardeners waiting for spring to arrive.

If your first reaction is that we cannot grow citrus fruit in Kentucky, think again.

Follow the tradition of post-Renaissance orangeries — heated, glass-walled overwintering rooms where citrus trees were kept. Contemporary gardeners can house their plants indoors near a well-lit window that faces southeast to catch the morning sun in winter, and then move them outside to bask in the summer sun.

"It isn't hard to have a couple dwarf fruit trees," Lexington gardener Clifton Smith says, "and the smell is heavenly."

Smith maintains what might be Lexington's premiere citrus grove. During the warmer months, there are about 30 citrus trees growing in large planters that line the walls of an interior courtyard of his home.

The trees, trucked here from California by his brother Joe Terry Smith about 27 years ago, include dwarf Meyer lemons, navel oranges and a Mexican lime.

In winter, the trees are kept in a greenhouse, alongside other tender patio plants.

It takes some climate-enhancing maneuvers to keep warmth-loving citrus trees and shrubs healthy and blooming in temperate Central Kentucky: using containers that can be moved between indoors and outdoors easily, regularly watering well-drained soil, employing humidity control for dry indoor spaces, and making them available to lots of light.

Many types of citrus trees are now available grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, which along with pruning to establish a strong support structure, allows for manageable-sized plants that bear full-size fruit.

Local garden centers tend to have a good supply of plants available, and staff can guide gardeners with cultivation tips.

At Pemberton's Greenhouses in Lexington, the scent of citrus flowers and fruit is delicious as it wafts through the air.

"There has been a recent upswing in people's desire to have citrus fruit plants," said Ashley Pemberton Herndon of Pemberton's. "Demand for the last couple of years has been very large."

Janna Pemberton Schmidt adds that changes on the supply side — including changing USDA regulations and improved ease and reduced expenses of shipping — have afforded access to a greater diversity in types of trees and regular, reliable delivery.

The Pembertons' greenhouse is stocked with about 150 citrus plants, including kaffir, Bearrs, sweet and Mexican limes; Meyer, Ponderosa and Eureka lemons; and calamondin and Washington oranges. Some citrus varieties produce buds and fruit throughout the year, but others are more seasonal.

Wes King, general manager of King's Gardens in Lexington, says that when the center reopens in mid-February after a winter break, citrus selections including dwarf Meyer lemons, limes, grapefruit and blood oranges will be ordered for spring sales.

If you decide to buy a citrus plant, it can be an investment that will last decades.

In the 1960s, Lexingtonian Ruth Lawton bought a pair of small orange tree seedlings for less than a dollar at a roadside souvenir stand near Ocala, Fla., as a gift for her mother, Ruth Gaitskill. The plants turned out to be calamondin oranges, which are mainly ornamental, bloom year-round and produce dozens of very tart, bright orange fruit the size of a golf ball.

Gaitskill was a great gardener; she clipped the roots to keep the plants small, and planted them in containers that were moved indoors to a sunny east-facing window in winter and then placed outside on the patio in the summer.

More than 50 years later, they are still vigorous producers and have become family heirlooms.

Lawton's husband, Clyde, says the oranges taste "as bitter as gall," but has discovered that their juice can be substituted with delicious results for the lime in the classic Key lime pie recipe.

Trees bearing Meyer lemons, sought after by cooks because of their sweet taste and floral fragrance, are also in stock now at Michler's Florist and Greenhouses in Lexington. Meyer lemon and lime trees are perfect for a gift or for beginning gardeners who would like to start with a modestly sized plant.

Another citrusy culinary delight is the kaffir lime.

From her childhood in Iran, Lexington resident Zahra "Zary" Tavakoli remembers the summer homes people kept, which generally had orchards filled with all sorts of fruit trees.

One of her favorites is the kaffir lime, whose pleasantly aromatic leaves are used as part of the spice mixes in southeastern Asian cuisines.

"Kaffir lime is like a Thai bay leaf with a ton of citrus aroma," says Tavakoli, who works as a physician.

She doesn't grow kaffir limes at home, but she does grow citrus. She and her husband, Transposagen Biopharmaceuticals CEO Eric Ostertag, have a grafted plant that is half Meyer lemon and half Persian lime. They received it as a wedding present several years ago to mark marrying their European and Persian backgrounds.


Lexington garden centers have these tips for growing citrus in Central Kentucky.

■ Plant container citrus trees and shrubs in a light soil mix that drains easily, says Wes King of King's Gardens.

■ Locate plants indoors in a sunny area that allows for six to eight hours of sunlight each day, King advises.

■ Use a humidifier among a group of pots, says Ashley Pemberton Herndon of Pemberton's Greenhouses. That will help prevent fruit dropping early because of uneven humidity encountered in homes during winter.

■ Keep pots on rolling coasters for ease in moving them in and out of heated areas, King advises.

■ Be sure that in summer, plants sitting on patios in the hot sun are well-watered when temperatures rise, Herndon says.

■ Be vigilant in checking for insect infestations of pests like whitefly, Herndon advises, and treat them before they multiply into a larger problem.


For descriptions of citrus types and discussions about care, visit Mycitrustree.com, a joint project of Record Buck Farms citrus growers in Florida and a plant-nutrient company called Keyplex, and Fourwindsgrowers.com, home of the Four Winds Growers citrus growers in California.

Keep in mind that Kentucky is mostly in USDA hardiness zone 6b with pockets in 6a. Far Western Kentucky is in zone 7a. Adjust the advice you find online accordingly.

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