Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Citrus - Care and Feeding for the Homeowner

Citrus trees can be an important part of the landscape for many Florida homeowners.  They are both useful ornamental trees and can provide an abundance of delicious fruit for the grower.  Citrus, like most other plants in the landscape, requires regular maintenance such as irrigation, fertilization, weed, pest and disease control for best growth and production of fruit.

There are many different types and cultivars of citrus such as oranges, grapefruit and limes available.  There will usually not be a choice of rootstocks available to the homeowner purchasing a small number of trees.  Citrus trees should be purchased from a reputable source that has produced a budded tree on an appropriate rootstock. for your cultivar and geographic location and who will stand behind their plants if there are problems.

Selecting a cultivar is a matter of personal choice.  Most people grow what they prefer to eat but there are other factors which need to be considered before the final decision is made.  The Hendry County Extension Office can assist you in the selection process.

Citrus trees can be grown on most soil types if proper preparation and care is provided.  Well drained sands need little preparation other than removal of weeds and grass from the planting site prior to planting. Poorly drained soils will need to have drainage provided or the trees should be planted on large mounds approximately 12 feet in diameter and at least 18-24 inches high.

Spacing will vary with the cultivar and desired tree density.  Grapefruit trees are usually larger than orange trees which are larger than most specialty types.  If several trees are to be planted, they should be set at least 20-25 feet apart unless a vigorous pruning program is planned to keep the trees from crowding each other.  Be sure to consider proximity to buildings or other plants.  Full sun is most desirable.  Septic tanks and drain fields should be avoided due to possible clogging of drains by the roots.

Most dooryard citrus trees are purchased in containers and can be planted any time of the year, although the preferred  time is late winter or early spring. All grass and weeds should be removed from an area 4-6 feet in diameter where the tree is to be planted.  Remove the tree from the container and if pot-bound, make several vertical cuts in the root ball to stimulate the formation of new roots.  Set the plant in the ground slightly (1/2-1 inch) higher than it grew in the container.  Re-fill the hole around the plant about 1/3 to 1/2 full, then water and tamp the soil thoroughly to remove air pockets.  Allow the water to settle, fill the hole 2/3 full of soil, re-water and tamp again.  Finish filling the hole and pack the soil firmly around the tree.  Form a water basin around the tree at least 3-4 inches high and 30 inches in diameter.  Water three times a week for 2 weeks, then taper off gradually to once a week during periods of little or no rainfall.  The basin should stay in place until the tree is well established.  The area under the tree canopy should be kept weed free to reduce competition for water and nutrients.  A young tree should not be allowed to wilt from lack of water but too much water can damage the tree.  This is especially true on poorly drained soils.

The regular application of fertilizer is essential to proper growth and development of the young tree and the production of large crops of good quality fruit in the mature tree.  Over fertilization  may produce rampant growth at the expense of fruit production and can injure or kill trees.

Two fertilization schedules are recommended; frequent light fertilization for young, non-bearing trees to maximize growth.  As a general rule of thumb, bearing trees should be fertilized 3 times per year with the same 8-8-8 (or similar) fertilizer recommended for young trees.  The amount applied is gradually increased about one pound per year up to a maximum of 8 pounds.  This would mean that a fully grown tree would be receiving approximately 24 pounds of fertilizer in 3 separate 8 pound applications. Tree condition should be used as a guide to rates of applied material with noticeably deficient trees receiving more material and luxuriant, vegetative trees receiving less.  The recommended applications can be made in January - February, May -  June and October - November, although timing is not especially critical.

A nutritional spray may be required when minor element deficiency symptoms develop.  These problems are more likely to develop on alkaline soils.  There are many pre-packaged nutritional sprays containing  zinc, manganese, boron and copper that are satisfactory.  Iron deficiencies may occur in some areas and can be corrected by using soil applied iron chelates.

Weeds and sod should be removed from the area under the tree canopy since weeds adjacent to the trunk promotes injury from a soil borne fungus known as foot rot which can seriously weaken or kill the tree. Mulches are not recommended around citrus trees but can be used if kept at least a foot away from tree trunks.  Pruning should not be necessary except to shape the trees or remove water sprouts or suckers.

Citrus fruit can be successfully grown in most Florida dooryards without any insect or disease control sprays.  Fruit grown this way  will rarely be of top external quality.  There are several insects, mites and fungus diseases which may attack the fruit  and make  unsightly.  External fruit blemishes usually have little effect on internal fruit quality.  The appearance of the tree itself may suffer if no sprays are applied but rarely will trees be seriously damaged by most citrus pests.  Natural biological control will assist in keeping most pests to a low level.  Formulating a spray program can be complicated.  The Hendry County Extension Office can provide pest control information to homeowners.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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