Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
June, 2009
Regional Report

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Anybody can grow citrus in a greenhouse. The California climate is ideal for growing them outdoors!

Love of Lemons!

Looking through my files I see that I haven't written a word about citrus. Hey, we live in California, the land of fruits and nuts. We put up with traffic and smog and political weirdness so that we can grow stuff nobody else can grow. How could I have omitted such a special group of plants for all these years?

I was at the Philadelphia Garden Show one year and saw that the judges had awarded "Best in Show" to a scraggly little kumquat. It was about 4 feet tall, including the pot, and had a handful of anemic looking kumquats clinging to the thin branches. I thought immediately of my 12-foot kumquat growing on the Entertainment Patio at Sunset that was robust and bursting with hundreds of tiny golden fruits. Right next to it was a Dancy tangerine that also carried an abundant annual harvest. It must be a misery to live in a place where you can't pick fruit off the trees during the winter.

Quick Fix
I did a consultation at my friend Dr. Rhonas home in San Francisco last month. She had a small Eureka lemon in her garden that was sorely in need of a pick-me-up. The leaves were yellow and the tree looked like it was starving. I recommended that she purchase and apply citrus-specific fertilizer, and follow the directions on the label. This morning she told me that the tree has doubled in size and the leaves are a deep, glossy green color.

Watering and Fertilizing
Citrus thrive in our climate zone, so there is absolutely no reason not to have fresh lemons for your kitchen or limes for your G & Ts. The main thing you need to keep in mind is that the roots need to be kept moist during the active growing season, which is February through October. This is when the plants produce new foliage and blossoms. By the way, there is nothing sweeter than the scent of citrus blossoms. To keep citrus happy during the summer months, mulch around the base of the tree, leaving a few inches clear from the trunk. Anything will work for mulch, including thick pads of newspaper or ground bark.

I watered the citrus trees in my care twice a month and fertilized every other time I watered. Yes, they are heavy feeders, but they will reward you with an abundance of fruit. Always use a citrus-specific fertilizer.

Also, citrus will produce a heavy crop every other year, taking a break between, so don't get discouraged if your tree doesn't perform consistently. I know of a few Meyer lemon trees that bloom and produce fruit all year long. They are growing in deep, sandy soil in full sun.

Common Problems
-- Citrus are especially susceptible to scale insects and whiteflies. Keep the foliage clean by washing the plants when you water, and don't forget the undersides of the leaves.

-- Rodents can also be a problem, stripping the bark off the trunk. Use copper foil tape around the base of the trunk to prevent this.

-- Fruit drop will occur if there is a sudden, dramatic change in temperature or if the soil goes dry during fruit set.

-- Some people complain that their citrus is not sweet. This is usually a problem in younger trees and will correct itself as the tree matures over time.

-- Sunburn is a problem in young trees. If you find that the bark is peeling, try wrapping the trunk in white cotton cloth until cooler weather sets in.

Prune to keep the trees low so you can reach the fruit. Some citrus will send up an abundance of "water sprouts." Cut these back to keep the tree compact. Try not to expose the trunk to the sun with heavy pruning. Also, remove any suckers growing from below the graft. Citrus are easy to train as espalier and they grow very well in containers.

Citrus are long-lived plants that can be an asset to the landscape and the table. Plant a Meyer lemon or Go Directly to Jail!

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