How about a potted lemon plant on your patio or balcony this summer? While people associate lemons with Mediterranean climates, it’s not hard to grow them in colder climates too. Lemon plants tolerate much more cold than typical houseplants do. In the following excerpt from my book Grow Lemons Where You Think You Can’t, I explain why lemons are a really fun choice for Canadian gardeners.
LEMON TREES ARE FORGIVING.
As a student, I worked at Reads Nursery in the United Kingdom, which, at the time, had the U.K. National Collection of citrus trees. I brought home a couple of small Meyer lemon trees in my suitcase at the end of that summer.
Those two poor lemon trees languished for years under my neglect. I was a student and moved around a lot, so they went from fluorescent lights to dimly lit apartment windows. It wasn’t until I moved into that first bungalow with my wife, Shelley, and became smitten with lemons that I started to pay attention to my Meyer lemon plants.
I eventually got the hang of it. And then when one of my now knee-high Meyer lemon trees bore over 50 lemons in one picking — the small tree was so laden with fruit it looked like it was doing yoga stretches — I was hooked! But until that fruitful moment, that bush had withstood a decade of me not knowing what I was doing.
LEMON TREES ARE COLD-HARDY.
When we moved from our bungalow to a house with an old sunroom that stayed just above freezing over the winter, my lemons were happier than they had ever been. The cool winter temperatures suited them. There were fewer insect pests, and when spring came, those trees flowered as they had never flowered before.
LEMON FRUITS RIPEN IN MODERATE CLIMATES.
Along with being a forgiving plant and cold-hardy, lemons ripen in climates many other citrus fruit might not.
BC nurseryman Bob Duncan lumps citrus into two broad groups: “sweet” citrus such as oranges and grapefruit, and “acid” citrus such as lemons and limes.
This delineation is very useful for cold-climate gardeners to understand because sweet citrus need a sustained high summer heat for sugars to develop in the fruit. Acid citrus, on the other hand, doesn’t need sustained heat to ripen.
Bob lives in the Pacific North-West region of North America, which has a moderate climate. To get his sweet citrus to ripen, he uses an unheated greenhouse. The greenhouse is for additional summer heat — not because of winter hardiness!
But the lemons — an acid citrus — don’t need the greenhouse to ripen, even though the summer temperatures are not hot where he is. “With lemons, they don’t need as many summer heat units,” Bob explains. (“Heat units” is a concept often used in agriculture. It considers daily maximum and minimum temperatures and the heat that a plant experiences during a growing season.)
When you consider its combination of cold-hardiness and ripening requirements, lemon makes a very practical citrus for the home gardener in a cold climate.
THERE’S A THRILL IN PUSHING BOUNDARIES.
You may be surprised to learn that there is a history of lemons being grown way beyond the boundaries of where they could survive without human help. In fact, it could be said that the lemon has a bit of a cold-climate pedigree! Time and again gardeners and farmers in areas that would normally be too cold for lemon cultivation have devised ways to grow lemons.
If you are interested in a delicious mix of history, horticulture, cooking ideas, and travel, check out The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit. Author Helena Attlee explores the history of citrus fruits in Italy, including some cool-climate adaptations. Of course, I didn’t read the book in the order it’s written. I went straight to the chapters about Amalfi and Lake Garda, which have a history of growing lemons in sub-optimal climates.
If growing a lemon tree in a cool climate sounds like a lot of bother, well, honestly … it is. But maybe you’re like me and enjoy the challenge of growing something that’s not supposed to succeed in your climate. You wouldn’t be the first.
LEMONS ARE VERSATILE IN THE KITCHEN.
Some people are surprised to hear that I think it’s worth the effort of growing lemons even though they are widely available in supermarkets. But trust me, it’s worth the effort.
Lemons are best when they are fresh. It’s no fun trying to zest or juice a shrivelled, dry lemon that has sat out too long. The easiest way to store lemons so that they stay fresh is on the tree—they last a long time on the tree!
In February I can pick a handful of Meyer lemons from the trees stowed in my greenhouse and make sorbet. The juice and rind of this lemon have a unique flavour (often described as a cross between a mandarin orange and a conventional lemon) that really can’t be beat.
I’ll also zest a Ponderosa lemon into our chicken kebab marinade. Again, a unique taste I can’t buy at the grocery store. The Ponderosa lemon zest is a bit lime-like to my taste buds. (It’s no surprise that it has a unique flavour because it is thought to have some citron, another citrus, in its ancestry.)
When you grow your own lemon trees, you can harvest more than just the fruit: Mid-winter I will grab a few lemon leaves to wrap around kebabs that I’m cooking on the grill. Lemon leaves are fragrant when bruised or torn, and impart nice flavour into a kebab while keeping it moist.
YOU GET FLOWERS AND FRUIT AT THE SAME TIME.
Some citrus plants flower once a year. Bob Duncan’s oranges, for example, bloom once, in the spring. Lemons yield fruit at different stages of maturation and flowers all at same time. Even after the main spring bloom is over, you can still enjoy the fragrance of the flowers.
With lemons, home gardeners can enjoy harvesting fruit and the fragrance of blossoms year-round. Good for the patio: good for the kitchen garden.
SIGNE LANGFORD’S GREMOLATA MUSSELS
Gremolata is a traditional Italian condiment of finely minced garlic, parsley, and lemon zest. Here, its bright, lemony, tongue-tingling flavours balance the briny richness of cultivated East Coast mussels cooked in generous amounts of butter and wine. Serve them as soon as they open — with a soup spoon — and a warm-from-the-oven loaf of crusty bread for sopping up all the broth. Seriously, the steaming liquid is as good as any soup. Figure on approximately 1 lb of mussels per person as a main course.
2 lbs mussels, scrubbed
2 tbsp butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tbsp capers, drained and coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper or more to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup fish or chicken stock
2 tbsp citrus vodka (optional)
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup finely minced fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
1. Place the fresh, live mussels into a colander in the sink and run cold water over them. Pick through and remove any bits of ocean debris, beards (the little hairy tags that can be attached to some mussels), or dead ones. If a mussel is open and does not shut when tapped, toss it. Leave in the sink to drain while starting the steaming liquid.
2. In a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, over medium heat, combine the butter, shallots, capers, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the shallots have softened, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the mussels, wine, stock, and vodka (if using). Cover and cook, giving the pot a shake once or twice to move the mussels around, for about 5 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Do not over-cook or mussels will become rubbery.
4. Add the lemon zest and juice, and parsley, stirring a couple of time to incorporate. Tumble the mussels and broth into a large serving bowl or bring to the table in the cooking pot. Discard any mussels that did not open fully.
Recipe courtesy Signe Langford. For more recipes, visit www.signelangford.com