How to Plant and Grow Citrus Fruits
San Diego and much of Southern California are ideal locations for growing citrus trees in a family orchard or as part of your backyard landscaping. The mild climate, abundance of predators for natural pest control, ideal setting between the ocean and the desert, and a long, dry growing season make coastal California good growing grounds for a variety of fruits. This area is particularly well suited for growing citrus fruits, since they generally do not have chill-hour requirements and thrive in locations with short, warm winters with few freezes or frosts.
This makes citrus varieties an easy choice if you are interested in including fruit trees in your garden or backyard.
How to Plant and Grow Citrus Fruits: Getting Started
One of the first steps you will take when growing citrus trees is tree selection. Once established and producing at full capacity, a single tree will easily provide enough fruit for an average-sized family. So, unless you really love a particular type of fruit, you likely only need one of each variety in your family orchard. Most citrus trees are self-pollinating, so having only one does not affect fruit production.
If you are growing standard (full-size) trees, keep in mind that the average backyard can only accommodate about two fruit trees of this size. If you prefer a larger variety of citrus fruits, you may want to consider planting dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. This will allow you to include more trees in your garden and will make the fruits easier to harvest, since the trees will be shorter.
You will want to select a sunny spot that is protected from wind. Once you have determined a spot where your trees will get full sun, you will need to measure the area to see how many trees will fit. Standard-size trees will need to be planted a minimum of 12 feet apart but may require even more distance, depending on the variety. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees can usually be planted between six and 10 feet apart.
Once you have determined how many trees will fit in your backyard orchard, the next step is determining the varieties you will plant. Orange, lemon and lime trees are the citrus trees most often found growing in Southern California backyards, but you can also grow grapefruits, kumquats, tangerines, tangelos, pomelos, Buddha’s hand, and more. If you are not sure which citrus trees will do best where you live, visit a local nursery close to your home for advice and trees that thrive in the local climate.
Growing citrus trees requires patience. You are going to put in at least a few years of care and maintenance before your trees will begin to produce larger harvests with better fruit. You will, of course, get some fruits along the way, but do not expect to see significant crops until the tree is about seven years old and, in some cases, you may have to wait until the tree is 10 to 15 years old. If growing from seeds, you can expect to wait a full seven years (at least). If you are transplanting trees purchased at a local nursery, you will probably only have to wait three to five years. In the meantime, enjoy the smaller crops your tree starts to bear when it is between three and five years old while you work on creating a healthy, happy family orchard.
How to Plant Citrus Trees
You can grow citrus trees in the ground or in containers, but the containers have to be rather large for your trees to thrive. While you can start your young trees in smaller containers, you will ultimately need pots that are at least 20 gallons in size to accommodate your trees as they mature.
If you are planting a lemon tree or other citrus varieties in the San Diego area or other parts of Southern California, you can technically plant them any time of the year. However, it is best to plant them in spring or fall with spring being the better choice of the two. Planting in spring allows your tree to begin to take root before the heat of summer and allows it to become more established and acclimated before the colder winter weather.
When you transplant a tree in summer, the air is too hot. When you transplant a tree in winter, the soil is too cold. So, it is better to avoid both of these situations and stick with spring or fall planting when there is a better balance of warm soil and cooler air.
Amending the soil before planting citrus trees is generally not recommended. However, citrus trees prefer well-draining soil, and if you are working with the heavy, clay soil common in and around San Diego, you may not have a choice. Mixing compost into clay soil before planting citrus trees can improve the soil quality for better drainage and looser soil that allows for easier root growth.
Growing Citrus Trees from Seed
As mentioned above, fruit trees grown from seed will take at least seven years to begin really producing fruit. This is why most home gardeners purchase trees from a nearby nursery to transplant into their gardens. But, just in case you do want to know to plant orange seeds to start your orchard, we will cover that here.
Citrus trees can be started indoors, much like you might with other food plants for your garden. You can purchase citrus seeds, but there is no need to, since you can simply harvest seeds from a fruit you purchase at a farmers market or that grew on your friend’s tree. To acquire the seeds, simply cut the fruit and remove the desired number of seeds.
There are two common ways you can start the seeds to later transfer to your garden.
The first way to start seeds is to place the harvested seeds in a bowl of water overnight. After soaking them, push each seed about ½ inch into the soil in seed-starting pots. Cover the pots with plastic and place them on or near a window where it is warm and sunny. After a few weeks, you will begin to see growth but they will not yet be ready for the garden. At this time, take off the plastic covering and keep the pots in the same sunny, warm spot in your house. You will know it is time to move your seedlings to larger pots when you begin to see roots growing through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot or when you pop one of out the container and see that the root system has filled the pot.
If you prefer an even simpler method and do not mind waiting a few extra weeks for germination, you can also place seeds in soil right after you rinse them and can leave them uncovered (no plastic covering the pots).
The second, common way to start citrus trees from seeds is to remove seeds from the fruit, rinse the seeds, wrap them in a damp paper towel, place them in a plastic bag, and place that plastic bag inside a plastic or glass food container that can act as a greenhouse to foster germination. You will need to check the paper towel regularly to make sure it stays damp and to look for signs of growth. Once you see a root and seedling developing, gently place each seedling into a pot with soil.
Either way you start your seeds, you will need to water them daily for the first few weeks once they are in soil. You will also need to continue transplanting them to larger containers each time their root systems outgrow the pots they are in. When it is time to transplant your new trees into your garden, remember that it is best to do so in spring or fall.
Planting Citrus Trees
While some folks do want to know how to plant orange seeds, most home gardeners purchase one-year-old to three-year-old trees from local nurseries to transplant into their gardens. This is generally considered much easier and will give you a jumpstart on your orchard, which means you will enjoy fruit from your trees years earlier than if you had started them from seed.
When planting a lemon tree, orange tree or other type of citrus, the first step is digging a hole that is as deep as the container it is in and about twice as wide. Next, you will gently remove the tree from the pot it came in and remove any packaging from the tree. Place the tree in the hole and begin to backfill the hole around the tree. When the hole around the tree is about three-quarters filled, soak the soil. Allow the water to drain a bit before filling the rest of the hole with soil, and then watering thoroughly once again.
How to Grow Citrus Fruits: Care and Maintenance
Protecting Young Trees from the Sun
Citrus trees thrive in locations that receive full sun, but their trunks may need protection from the sun for the first few years. To protect the trunks, you can paint them with white latex paint diluted with water or wrap them in newspaper. You will only need to do this until the canopies of the trees have developed enough to provide shade to the trunk.
Watering Citrus Trees
Younger trees will need to be watered at least once per week and may need more frequent irrigation in times of drought or in the hotter months of summer. Irrigation should be slow and deep, so if you are watering by hand, set the hose to produce a trickle of water a foot or two away from the trunk and leave it on each tree for at least about an hour. Both the shallow feeder roots and the deeper root system need water, so this slow, deep watering is necessary for citrus tree health.
If you are installing automatic irrigation, you can run a drip line in concentric circles starting about a foot away from the trunk and expanding almost to the edge of the canopy for each tree. This will allow more of the root system to access the water. If you are using automatic irrigation, install a rain sensor, which will shut off the system after rain and will help you conserve water.
Fertilizing Citrus Trees
Fertilizing your citrus trees will help keep your trees healthy and generally leads to larger harvests. If you plan on fertilizing just once each year, then do so in late winter or early spring during the growing season. This is when the trees are preparing to bloom and could use the extra boost in nutrients. If you have a bit more time to dedicate to citrus tree care throughout the year, you can divide the recommended amount of fertilizer to distribute it three times a year: late winter/early spring, early summer and late summer.
Your best option for citrus tree fertilizer is to purchase bags of organic citrus and avocado food from your local nursery. Follow the instructions on the package to determine how much fertilizer to give each tree. This is generally based on the diameter of the truck of your citrus trees. Citrus trees grown in pots require less fertilizer than those planted in the ground. Therefore, if the fertilizer package only lists amounts for trees grown in the ground, cut that amount in half for any citrus trees growing in pots.
To continually add nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure, you will also want to add a layer of compost around your citrus trees about four times per year. Spread a two-inch layer of compost around each tree while making sure to keep the compost a several inches away from the trunk to avoid damage.
Pruning Citrus Trees
It is best to prune citrus trees in late winter or spring after harvest and before you see buds begin to form. Focus on removing damaged or unhealthy branches, cutting back branches that are close to structures, and removing new growth in undesirable places, such as suckers low on the trunk. Minimize the removal of healthy branches and foliage and never remove more than one-third of a tree per year.
There are some cases where older citrus trees can benefit from heavy pruning. If you have older trees that are producing less than they used to, it might be worth having a professional tree trimmer assess the tree and perform heavy pruning. Keep in mind that this type of pruning will reduce fruit production for at least a couple of years while your tree recovers.
How to Grow Citrus Fruits: Pest Control
There are all sorts of critters that might try to get in the way of successfully growing citrus trees. Fortunately, most of them are relatively easy to deal with and can even be managed with home remedies.
If you are growing citrus in California, you need to be particularly wary of Asian citrus psyllid. You may not notice these tiny insects on your trees, but they can cause big problems and are currently threatening orchards across the state. Asian citrus psyllids bring with them the devasting Huanglongbing disease, which will kill your tree once infected. If you have a tree with Huanglongbing, it must be removed to protect other citrus trees in the area. Visit the California Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program to learn more about detecting Asian citrus psyllids on your tree, and call the California pest hotline at (800) 491-1899 if you suspect an infestation in your backyard garden.
Some of the other pests that may affect your trees are leafminers, aphids, citrus rust mites, thrips, scales, and snails. Many citrus tree pests can be thwarted with natural horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps. You can purchase these products at your local nursery or you can make your own. A simple insecticidal soap you can make at home to control thrips, mites and aphids consists of just two ingredients you already have: dish soap and water. Mix about two tablespoons per gallon of water, pour the mixture into a spray bottle or garden sprayer, and spray on the leaves of your trees.
For snails, one natural option is to wrap copper tape around the trunk of each tree. The chemical reaction that occurs between their slime and the copper causes them discomfort, so most snails and slugs will stay away.
You may also have issues with rats nesting in your trees or eating your fruit. The best way to avoid this naturally is to make sure branches are trimmed away from fences and structures to limit access and to wrap metal sheeting around the trunks of the trees so they cannot climb them.
How to Harvest Citrus Fruits
Different varieties of citrus fruits have different tips for when it is best to harvest them. So, if you are growing citrus fruits that are not mentioned here, do a little research to determine when they are ready for harvest. Since lemons, limes and oranges are the most common citrus fruits grown in backyard gardens in Southern California, we will cover those here.
Limes are harvested before they ripen but should be kept on the tree until needed, since they will stop ripening once picked. When limes are fully ripened, they are yellow, but, by this time, they will have developed a bitter taste and are best discarded or added to the compost pile. The best time to pick limes is when they are light green or just starting to turn yellow in spots. You want to look for smooth skin and squeeze them very gently to see if they feel hard or just a little soft. The soft ones are ready to harvest and will give the most juice.
To harvest your limes, gently twist the fruit to remove it without damaging the tree. For taller trees, you can either use a ladder or a long-handled fruit picker to harvest limes.
Lemons should also be gently removed by twisting the fruit off of the stem or with a fruit picker, if you have taller trees. In San Diego and throughout Southern California, your lemon trees should produce fruit throughout the year, but when you see a lemon begin to develop on the tree, know that it will be several months before it will be ready to harvest. You will know it is the best time to pick lemons when they are greenish-yellow or yellow and the skin looks a little glossy.
What time of year you will be harvesting your oranges depends on the variety. For example, you might be picking your Valencias from late spring into fall, while your Navels are more likely to be ready to harvest from mid-winter to early summer. Your oranges may be fully orange when it is time to harvest, or they may be greenish-orange. Either one is fine. The important thing to note with oranges is that they get their color before they get their sweetness, so you will want to leave them on the tree as long as possible. This is also a good way to have fresh oranges available for a longer period of time, since you can just pick what you need and leave the rest on the tree to harvest later.
You will likely also find that ripe oranges fall from the tree when they are ready, so you can easily harvest your crop by simply gathering them off the ground. When gathering ripe oranges that have fallen from the tree, be sure to look for damage. Any oranges that have split skin or look like they have been partially eaten by bugs or critters should not be eaten.
When picking oranges from the tree, twist the fruit to detach the stem from the tree. For taller trees, use a ladder or a fruit picker to gently remove the fruit.
How to Store Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruits can be stored in the refrigerator or at room temperature. They will last longer if stored in a drawer in your refrigerator, but they will taste better and be juicier when eaten at room temperature. Therefore, if you plan on eating your fruit within a few days, you can store it on the counter. If you want it to stay fresh longer, store it in the refrigerator, and then remove it and set it out to come to room temperature before eating it.