Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Citrus Month: Mexican Lime

Lime Blossom ┬ęTyler Storey

The picture to the left is of some Mexican Lime blossoms at night. The Mexican Lime tree here at the Ranch is fairly laden with flower buds; it's usually an early bloomer, and this year is no exception.

On the one hand, it's a welcome sight: harbingers of Spring and all that. On the other hand, it's not such good news: contrary to what we might think, it's still Winter here in the Desert Garden, and our harbingers are harbinging a little too early (there's no such word as "harbinging." I made it up. If you use it you have to smile a little bit while saying it so people will know you know better.).

While it varies by area, it's not unusual for the last frost in desert regions to arrive as late as the middle or end of February. As I write, the temperature is dropping in this corner of the Desert Garden, and we expect to have a freeze tonight.

I mentioned in my earlier post on frost hardiness that the Mexican Lime is the most frost-sensitive of the commonly grown citrus. That's a shame, because it's one of those fruits that is much better grown at home than purchased in the market.

The small green limes in the grocery, often called "bartender limes," are unripe Mexican Limes. They're small, predominantly acid in flavor, and sometimes a bit dry. A ripe, home-grown, Mexican Lime is yellow, full of juice, and has a rich and complex flavor; it is as different from its mass-market counterpart as a home-grown tomato is.

If you plant a Mexican Lime tree, choose your most-protected Winter location; that will likely be an area close to the house. Here at the Ranch, the Mexican Lime is on the North side of the house, planted very near a patio overhang. This has the double advantage of being both cool and warm. Being on the North, the area stays cooler than the surrounding landscape, so the tree isn't encouraged to break growth early with warm weather. Being near the covered patio, the tree derives some frost protection from the warm air trapped under the roof.

Buy your Mexican Lime tree from a local nursery to get the most adapted rootstock, and plant it in the Spring, after the last frost, but early enough that it has a chance to establish before Summer hits. As with all citrus, water deeply but infrequently, and fertilize gently; multiple small applications are better than one heavy application.

You can begin using the limes any time after they've grown large enough and have some juice in them, but for fully ripe and best-flavored fruit, wait until the limes have turned yellow and fall from the tree, then collect them from the ground.

I had an e-mail some years ago from a man who wanted to know why he wasn't getting any fruit from his Mexican Lime. Every year, he wrote, just when the limes were about ripe, they would fall off the tree and he'd pick them up and throw them away. Year after year after year. Don't let this happen to you: with any other citrus, a fallen fruit is a bad sign, but the Mexican Limes are supposed to fall off when they're ripe.

I'll let you know how the buds hold up to tonight's freeze; this may turn out to be a year without limes.

On a more cheerful note: tomorrow I'm posting a picture of purple soup.


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