Field Notes 13

Southeast BY JENKS FARMER / Columbia, South Carolina, Zone 8

Frostproof Citrus

LATELY, I’VE BEEN HELPING with a garden that’s way out in the backwoods of South Carolina. One muggy morning, my garden friend there had an inspiration. “Let’s flank these new benches with orange trees in terra-cotta pots,” she said. Unfortunately, we knew the local farm store wouldn’t have either the plants or the containers, never mind the fact that citrus trees aren’t even hardy in Zone 8. Usually. But things like that don’t stop this woman or her garden visions.

So I set out on a quest that led me right around the corner. On the South Carolina Market Bulletin Web page, I found this listing: “Hardy citrus for the Lower South. Stan McKenzie, Scranton, South Carolina.” McKenzie runs a truck farm that is defiantly off the beaten path. He sells common produce like okra, watermelons, and yellow squash from a tin-sided refrigerated shack, but also propagates about 40 varieties of citrus trees—more than any other nursery in the state. When I was there, looking at a mandarin tree beside his barn, several women stopped to get groceries, and testified to the hardiness of McKenzie’s trees. They’d had great luck with his citrus; one even had pictures of her tree loaded with baseball-size fruits.

The rootstock for most of this out-of-zone citrus crop is the hardy, strong-growing trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata). The fruit P. trifoliata bears—small, bitter, and packed with large seeds—is not the selling point; the hardiness is. McKenzie grafts ‘Kinkoji’ tangerines and Satsuma mandarins, as well as his favorites, ‘Juanita’ tangerines and ‘Sulcata’ sweet lemons, onto that tough trifoliate orange, and harvests tasty fruits from October through December.

So far, the trees I’ve gotten from McKenzie’s nursery have pulled through the winter just fine. In one spot where I grow Satsumas under the protection of a pine canopy, the 2003 record low of 13° F burned all the leaves, but left the stems green. In the same location, a young meiwa kumquat and a tangerine showed no damage at all. In my backwoods garden, where my friend and I used potted oranges to flank benches, we also had a record low temperature this winter (16°F in mid-January), and the trees took a similar hit—the leaves burned off, but the twigs remained green and healthy. Most of them have fully recovered now and are setting fruit.

There are a lot of things we’re doing this winter to give the plants a little more protection. We’ll huddle the plants together under the barn a bit sooner than we did last year. We also might string them with mini Christmas lights or wrap them with spun-bonded fabric (both of these maintain warmth for plants). The most reliable protection from cold is water—a cheap, easy-to-install micro-irrigation system strung through the trees can provide a protective blanket of ice. Because damaging cold lasts only a night or two in our climate, keeping tender plants warm on those days is worth the effort; the plants will look great (and survive) the rest of the winter. H

For more information about McKenzie’s nursery, visit www.agriculture.com/site/citrusman99, or e-mail Stan McKenzie at citrusman99@hotmail.com.

Worth growing

Swamp jessamine Gelsemium rankinii

Add a splash of yellow to citrus trees, hedges, or perennial borders by planting a swamp jessamine vine at the base of large shrubs and small trees. It looks just like its relative, Carolina jessamine, but flowers in the fall and sporadically on warm winter days. Hardy in USDA Zones 7–9. Sources, page 66.

To do in the garden

  • Check camellias for tea scale. Treat with dormant oil if infestation is serious.

  • Continue planting spring bulbs; in Zone 8 you can plant until mid-January.

  • Seed in chervil, coriander, and parsley for an early-spring herb supply.

  • When mums finish flowering, stick five-inch cuttings directly in the ground—they’ll root over the winter.

  • Use aspidistra leaves for decorating indoors. When you cut them, scratch around in the duff to see their waxy, purple flowers, which grow at soil level and are shaped like tiny tire planters.

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