By Carol Williams, Mobile Master Gardener | CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com
Q: After eating sweet satsumas from my neighbor’s trees, I’ve decided I’d like to plant some citrus trees in my yard. What tips do you have to help me get started?
A: Although on the northern limits of climate suitable for citrus, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of productive and beautiful citrus trees in Mobile’s yards and orchards. Once established, citrus requires little care, and careful planning before you plant will give you years of pleasure, both picking the sweet fruits and enjoying the evergreen beauty in your own yard.
First, consider location, location, location! The greatest threat to citrus in our area is cold weather. An early freeze may ruin the fruit before it is picked, or a later, very hard freeze may endanger the tree itself. You can mitigate that problem by carefully selecting a protective location. Look for an available southern exposure protected from the wintry north wind. Although they prefer full sun, you may also consider planting citrus under a light canopy of mature live oaks or pines, or near a structure such as your house for best winter protection. If possible, avoid planting at the base of a hill, as freezing air sinks.
After choosing a good location, consider the available soil. Citrus does well in our sandy loam so long as it has good drainage. It does not like to have wet feet! If you have doubts, plan to build a large raised bed for your citrus tree.
In any case, clear an area at least five feet in diameter of all grasses and competing weeds before planting. As the tree matures, keeping the area under the canopy clear of all competition will provide a nicer landscape as well as a healthier tree. Mulching is always a good idea, but keep it at least 12 inches from the base of your citrus tree to reduce chances for disease.
Some citrus varieties that cannot produce well here are commercially available locally, so choose your tree carefully. Consider your personal taste preferences, your space, how you will use the fruit and weather considerations. All commercially available citrus trees are grafted, most commonly onto the trifoliate orange, which adds cold-hardiness, or the Poncirus trifoliata “Flying Dragon” orange, which also adds dwarf characteristics. The tree will be labeled as such if it is a dwarf variety.
Choose early-ripening varieties so that you will be able to harvest fruit before severe cold can freeze it. The delight of most citrus grown in our area is that it doesn’t have to be picked immediately upon ripening but will keep well on the tree for a few weeks when the weather cooperates. Meyer lemons, a cross of tangerine and lemon, begin ripening as early as late summer and can be harvested into December. Satsumas, especially the Owari and Brown’s Select varieties, begin ripening in September and can be picked into late November.
The Washington navel orange and the Cara Cara blood orange are also recommended for our area because they are early-fruiting varieties. Duncan and Triumph grapefruit are early-to-midseason grapefruit, and Marsh and Ruby varieties can be picked into late September but improve in flavor if left until November or December. Kumquats are among the most cold-hardy of the citrus and include the Nagami, tart and oval-shaped, and the Meiwa, sweet and round. Limes are the most cold-sensitive citrus fruit and are recommended only as container plants for our area.
Most citrus is self-fertilizing so you will only need one tree for fruit, but some tangerine hybrids require a partner tree for cross-pollination. Research the variety that you might want before buying to be sure.
The best time of year to plant citrus is late winter to early spring. Do not add fertilizer or other soil amendments when you plant as this may risk root damage. Your new tree will need 1-2 inches of water every 7-10 days during the first year. If rain is not sufficient, remember to water regularly.
Begin fertilizing in April, using a fertilizer formulated for citrus, if possible, or a regular balanced fertilizer with added micronutrients. Follow again in June and July.
If the branches on your new tree have not been cut back to 6-12 inch lengths, cut them as soon as the tree is planted. This brings the tree in line with its root system and allows vigorous regrowth.
If sprouts appear anywhere below the large upper or “scaffold” branches, remove them. Often citrus will bloom the first spring or may already have fruit on it when planted, but any fruit produced the first three years will likely be of inferior quality. The recent recommendation is to remove blooms and fruit for those years, allowing the tree to mature and develop a strong root system. Once the tree has sufficiently matured, the results will be more fruit of higher quality year after year.
There are few pests that trouble citrus in our area; most cause cosmetic damage without hurting the tree or the fruit. Add that low maintenance to the lovely fragrance of the blossoms and the tasty fruit harvest, and citrus is a wonderful addition to any yard or garden.
For more detailed lists of appropriate citrus varieties as well as planting and maintenance information, visit the website www.aces.edu for “Citrus” or ask our local cooperative extension for publication ANR-603 “Citrus for Southern and Coastal Alabama.”
YOU ARE INVITED TO THESE UPCOMING GARDENING EVENTS
What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Jan. 11, 10:30-11:45 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Stevia, presented by Jack Lecroy, Urban Regional Extension Agent
What: Mobile County Master Gardeners 2018 Spring Seminar
When: Saturday, Feb. 17, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
Speakers: Restoring a Historic Garden, presented by Susan Haltom (author of “One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Homeplace”) and Ordinary Plants/Extraordinary Stories, presented by Carol Reece
Door prizes, silent auction, delicious box lunch in a beautiful garden setting!
Cost: $35, non-refundable advance reservations are required.
Deadline to register: Feb. 9. Send checks payable to MCMG to 2221 Dogwood Court N., Mobile, AL 36693. Call 251-209-6425 for credit card purchase.