People living in the colder climates don’t know the joy of plucking vitamin C off a tree in their backyards. “Spend a little more money on water and you get a return on the fruit,” says John P. Babiarz, owner of Greenfield Citrus Nursery in Mesa.
East Valley residents have enjoyed this perk of desert living since the 1920s, when citrus trees first took root in the region’s clay soil. Drive around and you will see the branches of orange, grapefruit and lemon trees peeking out over backyard fences and walls.
“Mesa was ideal because of access to water in the Salt River,” says Babiarz. “The ground you’re standing on used to be farmed by the Hohokam. Some of their canals were still here (when orange groves were first planted).”
Citrus trees (technically they’re shrubs) thrive in the heat. Some will live up to 100 years and bear fruit for at least 15 of them. With a little planning and care, your trees will be bearing in a few years:
Knowing what roots to look for will ensure your trees thrive. Most people will buy a potted tree (most sit in orchards for four to five years before being harvested). Babiarz recommends Seville or sour orange roots, which do well with the high levels of alkaline in Valley soil. If the tree looks as though it’s been through a lot (wilted leaves, scratches on the bark), don’t buy it.
“Look at the overall appearance,” says Babiarz. “You wouldn’t buy a car all beat up and scratched.”
Citrus trees don’t like to sit in containers for a long time. They may develop bench root, a condition that causes the roots to grow into each other. A good rule of thumb is to prune the roots once the tree comes out of the container. Spread the roots before planting, says Babiarz.
Plant the citrus trees and then plan the rest of your landscape. The southeast corner of your yard is the ideal spot. Here the tree will bask in the sun during the morning and enjoy the afternoon shade. You can plant citrus yearround, but most gardeners prefer spring or fall.
Don’t plant grass around the trees — grass tends to smother citrus trees by taking more water, oxygen and nitrogen out of the soil. If you must have grass, give the tree 3 feet of breathing space.
“Get rid of the lawn, and you will eliminate 50 percent of your problems,” says Babiarz.
Resist putting gravel around the tree for aesthetics, says Babiarz. Rocks containing quartz will reflect UV rays up into the tree (leaves are UV resistant on top, but the bottoms are unprotected). If you must decorate the bottom of the tree, use mulch or bark, says Babiarz.
Overwatering your citrus tree will damage it. Allowing the tree sufficient time to dry between waterings is essential.
“The inability to control wrist action is No. 1,” says Babiarz. “They don’t know how to turn the water off. You have to have air transferring in the soil.” Otherwise the soil becomes a hotbed of bacteria.
“The tree starts to decline slowly,” says Babiarz. “Pretty soon you’re seeing smaller leaves and the sun starts to penetrate and burn the branches. By then it’s too late.”
Water your trees every seven to 10 days in the summer months and every three to four weeks in the winter. Double the amount of water in the summer.
If you’re uncertain about drainage, Jon Cochran, manager at Harper’s Nursery in Mesa, suggests digging a hole 3 feet deep and filling it with water. If it drains an inch per hour, the spot is OK. If not, dig a bigger hole or find another spot to plant.
Think of your tree as what it is — a shrub — and you’ll take better care of it. If you choose to trim the bottom (and forfeit the UV protection of the lower branches), be sure to paint the trunk white (any water-based paint will do). Cover every spot and be sure the paint reaches the ground. Arbor guards will help protect the tree, but Babiarz says they’re a poor substitute to the cover of branches.
Also, fertilize your trees two to three times a year. The amount of fertilizer needed will depend upon the age and size of the tree and how much nitrogen is in the soil. Visit www.greenfieldcitrus.com for a fertilizing guide. Patience is a virtue with some citrus trees. It can take anywhere from two to 15 years for some trees to bear fruit.
Master gardener citrus clinic
What: Experts from the University of Arizona teach everything you need to know about citrus.
When: 8:30 a.m. to noon Feb. 3
Where: Greenfield Citrus Nursery, 2558 E. Lehi Road, Mesa
Cost: $8 in advance, $10 at the door Information: (480) 830-8000 or www.greenfieldcitrus.com
Greenfield Citrus Nursery: 2558 E. Lehi Road, Mesa, (480) 830-8000 or www.greenfieldcitrus.com
Harper’s Nursery: 1830 E. McKellips Road, Mesa, (480) 964-4909 or www.harpersnursery.com
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension: 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix (602) 470-8086 or http://cals.arizona.edu/maricopa/garden