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Planting Citrus for Backyard Fruit

(Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Dr. Larry Stein)

Many homeowners would love to have fresh fruit growing in their back yards. In southeast Georgia planting some citrus trees could be a way to do just that. Now keep in mind that not just any kind of citrus tree will live in this area. Proper variety selection plays in important role in having a successful fruit crop for any fruit. Tree growers must do their homework ahead of time. For example, certain citrus trees like most tangerines require a pollinator tree to produce fruit while others like satsumas are self-fruitful and can make fruit all by themselves. Most fruit trees grown today are actually two different trees grafted together. The scion is the upper portion of the tree that produces the fruit, branches, and the leaves. The rootstock is the bottom portion of the tree that provides the roots. The rootstock is selected for natural resistance to drought, cold, and disease. The rootsock can also help determine the overall size of the tree. Dwarfing rootstock can help make smaller trees that are easier to manage harvesting, spraying, and pruning. Purchasing trees with cold hardy rootstocks such as ‘Rubidoux’, ‘Rich 16-6’, and ‘Flying Dragon’ will provide the best chances of long-term survival in southeast Georgia.  

 Kumquats, Changsha mandarins, Ichang lemons, and satsumas are the most cold hardy edible citrus. The satsumas are the best option for beginners that want to try growing citrus. They will withstand cooler temperatures, produce more consistent crops over a longer period of time, and require less cold protection than other types of sweet citrus. The satsuma fits well with this area because its cold hardiness and the fruit ripens from September to November before freezing becomes a big issue. Owari is the most popular variety and is available for purchase at many retail stores. Silverhill and Brown Select are also two more popular satsuma varieties.

Trees should be planted after the peak of cold weather has passed this is normally around the middle of April. Avoid planting trees after July if possible as the tree will not have enough time to establish before winter. Avoid low sites due to frost pockets that could damage trees. If possible, locate citrus plants in a well-drained, protected area, such as near a home or some other structure, preferably on the south side. This type of location provides maximum protection from severe freezes. Usually the wind associated with South Georgia cold weather comes from the north to northwest. For large plantings, evergreen trees can be planted as wind breaks for protection.

Take soil samples from the planting site to check for ph and fertility. Adjust the ph of the planting site to a ph of 6.0-6.5. Citrus trees produce fruit best when grown in full sun. Citrus trees planted under live oaks or pines produce only light fruit crops, but often survive freezes since warmer air may be trapped under the sheltering trees.

Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball. Remove the plant from the container and place it in the hole, keeping the top of the root ball level with the soil surface. If the tree is pot-bound, make vertical cuts at several locations around the ball to stimulate new root development. Fill the hole about one-half full with soil, add water and tramp firmly to settle soil and remove air pockets. Allow the water to settle, finish filling the hole with soil and apply water again. Pack the soil firmly around the trunk, adding additional soil if needed. Do not apply any fertilizer in the planting hole, as root damage may result. Around the tree, construct a water basin 30 to 36 inches in diameter and four inches high. Water twice weekly for the first two weeks unless rainfall is adequate. Gradually reduce the number of waterings to once weekly during periods of little or no rainfall. The first growing season is critical in the life of a citrus plant. Water is essential. Keep an area at least four feet in diameter beneath the tree free of weeds and lawn grass to minimize competition for nutrients and water. If dense lawn grass is allowed to re-establish close to the tree trunk, the small tree will grow rather slowly because of intense competition. At the time of planting, the branches should be cut back to six- to 12-inch stubs (this pruning is sometimes already completed when plants are purchased). This practice helps balance the top of the tree with the functional root system and stimulates vigorous regrowth. Very little pruning should be required during the first growing season except to remove sprouts that arise below the scaffold limbs (the primary structural branches originating from the tree trunk).

The new trees should not be allowed to produce fruit for the first three years of growth. This will encourage the tree to put all its energy into growing a strong healthy tree that can support a full crop on the fourth growing season. If not removed the fruit will greatly slow the tree growth and result in poor fruit quality, especially with satsumas.

For more information about planting citrus contact the Evans/Candler County Extension Office at 912-739-1292