When life gives you lemons, do what one Orange County couple does: Make Meyer lemonade for the neighbors
1 of 9Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero; written by Sharon Cohoon
Meet the gardeners
When Diane Cu and Todd Porter bought their home in Costa Mesa, California, they immediately set out to do a serious makeover on the 1/4-acre backyard. The foodie couple wanted an orchard of citrus trees, where presumably the juice would flow from fruit to kitchen.
“Citrus is important in every cuisine. That bite of acidity brightens food,” Diane explains. But different cuisines use different types. “We wanted access to things like kaffir [aka kieffer] limes for Thai dishes and yuzu for Japanese ones.”
They started planting within days of moving in, eight years ago. Today, recipes and gardening tips go on their popular White on Rice Couple blog (whiteonricecouple.com), which they started in 2008. The two are certainly at zero risk for scurvy, with 21 vitamin C–bearing trees producing, Todd estimates, 600 pounds of citrus per year. But 600 pounds is a lot for two. So they started an informal citrus club—a way to connect with friends, using their copious yield.
“We invite a bunch of people, hand them all brown paper bags, and send them to ‘the farmyard’ to fill up,” Diane says. That’s where 15 types of citrus trees grow, from Eureka lemons to ‘Buddha’s Hand’. Next is a sit-down meal inspired by the citrus in season. Friends leave with recipes and, as long as they’re locals, a bag of fruit.
“Citrus is a crop that carries a certain aura of glamour,” Diane says. “And it cheers everyone up, especially in winter.”
2 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
Their citrus-growing secrets
Todd and Diane share:
1. Soil matters. With nasty clay soil in our yard, we planted a lot of our citrus in raised beds and in pots. Our garden soil is a compost mix from Larry’s Building Materials in Costa Mesa. To improve drainage, we add cactus mix.
2. Plants can get bored with the same food. We use various fertilizers, depending on when we’re buying. Often it’s Dr. Earth Fruit Tree Fertilizer but also bat guano, liquid fish fertilizer, and other stuff.
3. Leaf trimmings from a hedge have a second life. They serve as mulch for shallow-rooted citrus, which needs to be protected.
4. The assassin bugs are plant-protecting ninja. They hang out in our Algerian tangerine. When aphid infestations occur, the assassin bugs wipe them out.
5. Assemble a mostly organic arsenal. For sooty fungus, we use neem oil. And if leaf miners are really hammering new growth, a little Monterey Garden Insect Spray.
6. Exotic fruit calls for exotic wisdom. We turned to an old Japanese gardener when our yuzus didn’t flower. He told us to stress the plant by tying garden string around several of the branches to choke them. A tree often flowers as a preservation mechanism. Breaking off the ends of the branches by hand—instead of pruning them—has the same effect.
7. It cheers up the neighbors. In the winter especially, citrus works its magic.
8. Sharing is easy. A little juice goes a long way in cooking. And so do the 600 pounds grown in our yard every year.
3 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
The best squeezes
Want to know the best types of juicy citrus to grow? Diane and Todd conduct cooking classes, lead food tours, and recently took photographs for Cristina’s Big Bowl of Love, TV personality Cristina Ferrare’s forthcoming cookbook. What follow are the varieties of citrus they can’t live without. Except where noted, most are easy to grow in Sunset climate zones 8, 9, 12–24.
4 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
Tasty to eat and gorgeous, with ruby red flesh and juice; flavor has raspberry overtones.
5 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
Great to eat or drink as juice, and the fruit lasts eight to nine months on the tree.
6 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
The fragrance of the zest is amazing. Difficult to grow. It doesn’t flower or fruit reliably.
7 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
'Improved Meyer' lemon
The go-to citrus. Good for cooking, desserts, and cocktails. Ripe fruit lasts eight months or more on the tree.
8 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
Versatile in cocktails, in sauces, and for baking. Tree isn’t cold-hardy; it’s best grown in zones 21–23.
9 of 9Photo by Todd Porter and Diane Cu; written by Sharon Cohoon
Bright, floral fragrance; sweet and not too acidic. The tree needs heat for best flavor; best in the desert.