“You’ll never believe how I got into citrus plants,” says Darren Sheriff, a certified professional nurseryman and a Charleston County Master Gardner. “My wife convinced me to take a sad looking Calamondin tree home from a florist sale and nurse it back to life. She said it needed a home. Our second citrus plant was a key lime tree, and after that, I have no idea how it happened.”
Today Sheriff, better known by his blog, The Citrus Guy, is a citreae guru. What started as a side project to make that Calamondin grow turned into a vocation. The Sheriffs went from two citrus plants to caring for 109 different cultivars at one time at their North Charleston home. Sheriff is now down to a reasonable 60 cultivars, but you can tell this is definitely his passion.
Originally from New Jersey, Darren has been in a garden since he was knee-high. He started his own garden at the age of six with his first plant, the Wax Begonia, and has had his hands in the soil ever since. “I learned at an early age what root rot was by over-watering the poor thing,” he says with a chuckle.
But why citrus? “I’ve always had a knack for trying to do something that I’m told can’t be done. Citrus can grow here, but it can be hard in the winter,” he says. And, of course, he’s right. Charleston has a long history of attempting to make the finicky plants grow.
Christopher Columbus is responsible for introducing citrus to North America when he brought the first seeds for the sour orange, sweet orange, citron, lemon, lime, and pomello fruits on his second voyage to Haiti in 1493. According to 1565 horticultural records, these citrus trees were fruitful in the areas of St. Augustine, Fla. and coastal South Carolina.
In the botanical book, Travels, by William Bartram, it was reported that Charleston’s Henry Laurens — who served as the President of the Continental Congress — later introduced limes in addition to “olives, ginger, strawberry, red raspberries, and blue grapes” to the colonies in 1773. Other records indicate there were orange groves on Orange Street and a number of tropical gardens with citrus fruit on the peninsula in the early 1700s. Silver-smith, Alexander Petrie, who owned Petrie House at 3 Orange St., was one of the first to sub-divide the citrus garden used for concerts into building lots in 1767. Downtown’s Grove Street was also aptly named. Its plants led to orange groves that were later planted in West Ashley.
However, in the winter of 1835 the harshest freeze on record hit Charleston diving down to 8 degrees. That freeze killed all the citrus trees through to their roots, and according to the Florida Citrus Manual, “annihilate[d] entire groves across the state, killing both mature and young citrus trees, while causing a profound economic impact on the citrus industry and … prompting growers to replant farther south.” Citrus would no longer be grown as a cash crop in southern Georgia, northern Florida or southeast South Carolina after this plight.
All that said, Sheriff declares that for the most part, these plants are pretty hardy (technically some citrus grows as far north as Maine, but the fruit is barely edible). As long as you follow a few simple guidelines, you should enjoy a fruitful harvest.
Plant or place your potted plant along the western or southern side of the house as these are warmer areas and it protects them from the northern winds. If growing citrus in a container, use a well draining soil that has some water retention to it. Citrus plants need full sun for at least seven to eight hours a day but more is preferable.
The majority of citrus goes semi-dormant and can handle temperatures as low as 28 degrees. As long as they can control their own self-dormancy, they will be fine. This means allowing your outdoor plants time to harden off two months before the winter, which is controlled through feeding. Indoor plants don’t need to go dormant as the temperature is controlled.
Citrus plants need a lot of water, but they don’t like wet soil. The soil should have the consistency of a rung out dish sponge.
Plants need more than water to survive. Sheriff recommends Citrus Tone for both indoor and outdoor plants. If you protect them (bring them inside when it’s cold), feed them all year long every 6-8 weeks. If you leave them outside, Darren recommends to start feeding them Valentine’s Day. Stop on Labor Day. This helps the plant to prepare to go into the self-dormant stage to protect itself during the winter.
Pick the right plant
Lemons and limes are more cold sensitive and Valencia oranges ripen too late for the Charleston winter. The best “beginner” Citrus would be any of the Satsumas: Owari, Ponkan, Early St. Ann, or Arctic Frost. Kumquats and Calamondins come a very close second. Meiwa and Nagami Kumquats are the easiest to find. Grapefruits would probably be next, Ruby Red, Flame, or Seedless Marsh.
Then the Oranges, Cara Cara Red Navel would be a good one to start with.
A proponent of education, Darren started his gardening blog as a way to bring humor and inspiration into the field of growing citrus, as it can be a daunting task for those without the fortune of a green thumb. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to him on Facebook, visit his blog TheCitrusGuy.blogspot.com, or see him in person at his job at Hidden Ponds Nursery.
On Sat. Nov 7 at 10 a.m. Sheriff will host a two-hour course on how to identify different citrus trees at Trident Tech Continuing Education Outdoor Living Series. On Sat. Nov. 21, Sheriff will host a session on Citrus Greening quarantines at Cypress Gardens’ Southeastern Citrus Expo.
Where to buy citrus plants:
1460 Highway 17 North
Mount Pleasant, SC 29464
Lemon, Mexican lime, satsuma tangerine
Angel Oak Nursery
2484 Ashley River Rd
Charleston, SC 29414
Hidden Ponds Nursery
4863 Hwy 17 North
Awendaw, SC 29429
Lemon, lime, grapefruit, kumquat, oranges
Hyams Garden Center
870 Folly Rd
Charleston, SC 29412
Lemon, kumquat, mandarin orange, key lime
2115 Olanta Hwy
Scranton, SC 29591
Yuzu, satsuma, mandarin orange, kumquat, orangequat, citrangequat, lemon, lime, grapefruit, citrumelo