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Good Cooks Know Sweet Rewards of a Lemon Tree

April 22, 1999|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

There's always a lemon or two sitting in the kitchen of a good cook, as a substitute for salt, for the acid content and for general flavoring.

And there is no reason a lemon tree shouldn't be in every Southern California backyard, handy to the cook.

The size of your garden--be it balcony or backyard--is no excuse. Lemons will produce in a pot for years and they can be pruned to almost any size.

Lemons tend to bear throughout the year and the fruit can hold on the tree for months even when fully ripe, as if they were in cold storage. Even though ripe, they will continue to grow while waiting on the tree, which sometimes results in a few extra-huge lemons.

If you have a lemon tree, you will never be without, at least in milder areas. Trees flower and fruit throughout the year. There will be no need to go begging next door or rush off to the grocery. (In hotter climates, such as the desert, they flower mostly in the spring and the harvest comes in fall.)

The only question then is which lemon should you plant? There are more than a few.

The standard supermarket lemon is either the Lisbon or Eureka variety, the two most lemony, with thickish skins that can't be peeled.

The other common garden lemon, Meyer, is a cross between a true lemon and a mandarin orange. It has a thinner skin on a slightly rounder fruit.

During the Central Valley frosts this year, it was observed that Lisbon was a little hardier than Eureka or Meyer.

Meyer is considerably sweeter in taste (you need less for lemonade), although just as acid, and the tree is neat and compact like a mandarin orange tree.

In backyards or on balconies, Meyer or Improved Meyer are a good bet because they only grow to 8 or 10 feet in the ground and even less in a pot. But there is also a Dwarf Lisbon that stays at about 8 to 12 feet and would do well in a container.

Be aware that many citrus are labeled "dwarf" at the nursery but only those grafted to a Flying Dragon rootstock truly are. That information should be on the label.

The standard Eureka and Lisbon are anything but tidy trees, growing big and fast and rangy. They need lots of pruning if you want them to stay put and, more important, if you want the fruit to be in reach. Their fruit is big, there's lots of it and it's tasty.

The biggest fruit comes on a lemon-citron hybrid named Ponderosa, but an extremely thick skin accounts for much of the size. It's a novelty at best.

Eureka and Lisbon can be kept quite small, under 10 feet, although they tend to grow to as much as 30 feet tall by 24 feet wide. In Ventura County, it's not uncommon to see entire lemon groves that have been given a flat-top haircut to trim them down to size.

If you keep your trees pruned low, they'll produce nearly as much fruit, just lower down. Of the two, Eureka is probably best in backyards because it has smaller thorns and is often the smaller tree.

The list of lemons doesn't stop here, however.

There is a variegated lemon named Sungold with green-striped fruit and green and yellow leaves. This would be a fun one in a pot and reputedly gets to only 8 or 10 feet (half that size in a pot), because it grows more like a Meyer.

Eureka Variegated Pink grows to about 12 to 15 feet and can be kept smaller in a pot. It has green and creamy white leaves, and new growth is tinged pink, as is the flesh.

There is even a lemon sold as Pink Lemonade that has variegated leaves and pinkish flesh. It may be the same variety as Eureka Variegated Pink. And, although seeds are not a problem in lemons, there is a Seedless Lisbon, which in other ways is like a regular Lisbon. With so many kinds and heights to choose from, there is no reason not to have a lemon tree, or a lemon when you need it, and now--at the beginning of spring--is the perfect time to plant any citrus.

In the Garden is published Thursdays. Write to Robert Smaus, SoCal Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; fax to (213) 237-4712; or e-mail to robert.smaus@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Zesty Beverage

Lemon trees can produce so much fruit that you may want to use it up in lemonade, so here's the basic recipe (from "Citrus," by Lance Walheim, Ironwood Press, 1996):

3 cups lemon juice, 3 cups water, 1 cup sugar, ice. Add a teaspoon of lemon zest (grated peel) for extra flavor.

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