It's that time of year again. Scented citrus blossoms fill the air with intoxicating aromas, and your neighbors' trees are bursting with lemons and grapefruit. Want to get in on the action but don't want to get in over your head? Already planted a citrus tree and are afraid you're going to kill it? We're here with an easy-care guide.
See also: 5 Ways to Cook and Bake with Citrus
Debora Moritz, a Maricopa County Master Gardener with the University of Arizona, says the most common problems in the Phoenix area with citrus trees are human-related -- mainly watering. It's best to water at the canopy edge and one foot beyond.
"This is where the roots' growing tips are absorbing water and nutrients. Use slow, deep applications of water that help leach -- or push -- salt build-up below the root zone to the bottom of the wet soil," says Moritz.
You want the water to go about two feet into the soil. Things to keep in mind: For newly planted trees, you should increase the depth of watering each year until the tree has been planted for three years. Continue to water deeply and allow the soil to dry between waterings.
Got a sad tree? Keep in mind that a new tree isn't producing fruit you want during the first few years, and you should remove any fruit from young, newly planted trees. But don't get carried away.
"Limit your pruning, which is a source of stress to the tree and fairly unnecessary in citrus," says Moritz. "Prune only to remove dead branches or to remove suckers on the lower trunk. Suckers are usually long, fast-growing shoots heading straight up. Prune suckers that are below the bud union, which will be the rootstock's variety, not the variety of fruit that you chose."
You'll want to prune when there's no chance of freezing, but don't wait until it's very warm and new growth starts. Yep -- that means now! Mid February until early March is best. Obviously, avoid cutting off excess amounts of new growth and buds and leave some "skirt" branches to help shade the trunk. Speaking of sun, sunburn can cause serious problems with citrus trees. If you have a problem with your tree, if it's not a watering issue, it could be a sun issue. If you have a young tree, you can get a can get a shade cloth to block afternoon sun.
"Protect tree trunks or any branches that will be newly exposed to the sun by painting the trunk or exposed branches with a white latex paint specifically designed for tree trunks," says Moritz.
For newly planted citrus, fertilizer is not necessary for the first few years, but you can apply small amounts of nitrogen after the tree is established and new growth has emerged. After your tree has been planted for two years you'll, need to remember to fertilize three times a year. "Trees are best fertilized in January or February, April or May, and August or September. I like to use Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Labor Day to trigger my memory," Moritz says.
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So, you have a happy tree that is producing fruit, but how do you know when to pick the fruit? The longer the fruit stays on the tree, the sweeter it will become. But weather conditions play into when the fruit is best. There it gets a little tricky. For example, here in Arizona a Minneola Tangelos will be best in January, February and March, while some orange varieties are best in the summer.