When life gives you lemons, make good use of them
Lemon trees are popular on the upper Texas coast because they’re easy to grow, produce huge crops and require only minimal maintenance. Because of mild winters here, they grow well in this area, but they need protection when it gets very cold.
Lemons and limes should be planted either in the ground or in pots on the southeast side of homes where they get daylight but not prolonged exposure to sun, said Robert Marshall, a Galveston County Master Gardener who specializes in citrus.
Lemons can be grown in large pots — 25- to 30-gallon — that can be moved if necessary, Marshall said.
“Anything larger is almost impossible to move unless the container is on a large furniture dolly,” Marshall said.
Unlike with most trees, it isn’t necessary to prune citrus.
“But keep all citrus cut to a height you can pick while standing on the ground,” Marshall said. “Citrus can have thorns and you do not want to fall off a ladder into the tree while picking.”
As a rule, citrus can get by without major pruning, but selective pruning is encouraged, he said. Dead or diseased limbs must be removed, as well as those that are damaged.
Once the fruit has set, the yellow or green lemons will populate the tree. They can hold onto the tree for an extended period.
Fruit starts appearing in October, but can stay on the tree until March, Santa Fe resident Herman Auer said.
“Pick them as you need them,” Auer said.
Most lemon trees in this area produce bumper crops and most people don’t know what to do with all the fruit.
They can be used in a variety of foods, and experimenting with lemons produces foods with subtle citrus flavors. Chefs routinely “zest” lemons — using the brightly colored top layer of the lemon peel, which has been finely scraped off. Lemons and lemon juice are healthy antioxidants high in vitamin C and fiber.
Lemon trees need to be fertilized three times: Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Marshall said. Use a fertilizer 21-0-0. (Fertilizers usually have three numbers. The first one is a percentage of nitrogen, the second one is a percentage of phosphorous, and the third one is potassium.
A wide variety of lemons can be grown along the Gulf Coast.
As far as local tree varieties, Marshall recommends:
• The Meyer lemon, a cross between a lemon and an orange, are great in cocktails or cooking. Meyer lemon trees are self-pollinating and don’t need bees to help create the fruit. They usually produce an abundant crop each year once the trees mature and weather doesn’t cause problems. They’re thick-skinned and less acidic than lemons sold in supermarkets. Additionally, it has been known to produce two crops a year.
• Ponderosa lemon is a very large lemon with a thick, pithy rind. They’re moderately juicy, but not as popular as other varieties.
• Lisbon lemon is a sour lemon and usually the type found in supermarkets.
• Eureka lemon is a sour lemon and smaller variety sold commercially in stores.
• Ujukitsu lemon is a sweet, great-tasting lemon that can be squeezed and produces a very sweet and tart lemonade without adding sugar.
• New Zealand lemonis another sweet lemon with mild acid levels and can be used to make lemonade without adding sugar.
• Iranian Lemon is sweet and used in Middle Eastern recipes as well as a condiment for tea. They’re thinned-skin and seedy.
• Variegated pink lemon is a very sour small fruit, which is deep pink when sliced open. Because it’s a variegated tree, fruit production might not be high because the pale yellow sections of the leaf don’t produce chlorophyll in sufficient quantities to support heavier crops of fruit. The tree creates a colorful front-yard specimen plant when loaded with fruit.
While good for consuming, lemons also can be useful as cleaners or deodorizers in the home. Lemons can help remove hard water deposit buildup on glass shower doors by adding juice to a sponge and rubbing it. A cut lemon covered with sea salt can clean copper, brass or aluminum surfaces. And microwave ovens can be cleaned by adding a bit of water to some lemon rinds and microwaving them — the boiling liquid will condense on the sides, loosening and dissolving food splatters. And add a cup of lemon juice to the laundry to replace chlorine bleach, giving clothes a refreshing and lemony scent.
Bumper crop bonus: How to make a lemonade for adults
Wondering what to do with that bumper crop of lemons? Instead of just making lemonade, make some limoncello for some adult enjoyment.
Limoncello can be either an aperitif or a digestif — liquor consumed before or after meals to stimulate appetite or digestion — or served in a small, rounded wine glass with dessert. It’s a liquor made from the skins of lemons, mixed and fermented with alcohol and sugars.
Sharon Zaal of Seabrook was introduced to the neon-colored liquor when someone brought her a gift from Italy, where it was first invented 400 years ago and still is very popular.
“I really enjoyed it and found with our huge crop of Meyer lemons, we could make some here,” she said.
Zaal organized a two-part workshop for the Galveston County Master Gardeners in which she instructed participants on how to make this strong, sweet, sour liquor.
It takes the skins of more than two dozen fresh lemons — try not to use grocery store produce because they frequently have a waxy coat on them — to make one 2.5-liter batch.
“We use just the peels and no juice,” Zaal said. “We cut the peels off carefully to remove the pith and soak them in a large infusing jar for a month.”
The peels are saturated in a mix of 190-proof alcohol, or Everclear, which covers the peels in the tightly closed jar. Place the jar in a cool, dark place while the infusion of the peels works. The oils in the skin seep out and into the alcohol, giving it the lemony taste. Once infusion is complete, strain off the skins, which have become crispy and white, and mix the infused alcohol with a simple sugar mixture. Pour into sterilized bottles and label them. The limoncello liquor will keep for up to two years.
Serve it chilled; Zaal keeps a bottle in the freezer.
Because the fruit isn’t used, Zaal suggests juicing the lemons and freezing the liquid in ice trays for later use.
“I’ve made lemon drop martinis and limoncello cake,” she said. “It is so popular in southern Italy, but Galveston could become the second limoncello capital of the world because of all or our lemons here.”