Get It Growing: Citrus Trees

By Kelley Marcellus

Move to Florida and start your day with a glass of fresh-squeezed juice from your backyard citrus tree. It sounds easy, but when trying to grow citrus, many people realize it’s a lot trickier than one might think.

“Fifteen or more years ago, everyone had orange or tangerine or lemon trees in their backyard,” says Bill Etzel, president of the Collier County Fruit Growers Council. “Today, when people ask me about what citrus to plant, I tell them don’t do it.”

Canker, greening, nutrient-poor soil, dehydration, fungus and insects can practically pull the sweet scent off an orange blossom.

Still, at the Collier County Fruit Grower Council’s plant sales, citrus is the first plant to sell out, even with the “grow at your own risk” warnings that come with them.

Richard Wilson, a certified citrus grower and owner of Excalibur Fruit Trees, which grows, sells, and installs citrus across the southern half of Florida, acknowledges the challenges citrus trees face, but is confident that backyard growers can find success.

“When you decide to grow citrus, you have to set up a process to maintain your trees,” Wilson says. “It’s much easier to keep a tree healthy than it is to try to fix one that isn’t doing well.”

For starters, Wilson advises planting a tree in a hole as large as the pot you buy it in, without adding fertilizer or potting soil. The root ball should be slightly above ground level. As the soil from the pot settles, the tree will sink to the appropriate level. Then, follow this watering schedule:

  • First month, water daily
  • Second month, water six days a week
  • Third month, water five days a week

If leaves curl, it’s windy, or the temperature is over 80 degrees (which is most days in Naples), water every other day, even if you have an established tree.

Fertilization and pest control are also critical. Wilson suggests using a palm tree fertilizer monthly, which is the equivalent of giving the tree a multi-vitamin. When trees begin to bloom, apply a copper fungicide (available at home improvement stores and nurseries). Sulfur applications control powdery and downy mildew if that affects your plants, but it won’t penetrate the fruit scar (where the fruit attaches to the branch), keeping the fruit safe to eat.

If you’re a newbie making a first attempt at growing citrus, Wilson recommends starting with Valencia or Hamlin oranges, Persian limes, pummelos, or Eureka lemons.

For something to impress your neighbors, Wilson’s pick is the red lime, an easy-to-grow, petite tree that bears bright-skin fruit and burnt orange flesh—and is sweet to eat. Even the skin is edible.

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