Citrus Care for the Southwest

Citrus are easy to care for. Unlike some fruit trees who are drama queens, citrus is more of a “leave-me-alone-to-get-the-job-done kind of fruit tree. There are only three things you need to do as a citrus owner, and one of them is a don’t!

Number One Citrus Care

Don’t prune citrus. Citrus trees naturally grow into a globe shape. They NEED to shade their trunk. SHADE! So you need to let them naturally form their glossy green globe. If you prune this natural shape into a lollipop – sunlight hits the trunk of the tree, and then the trouble starts.

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Happy citrus tree is shading its trunk!

Minor problems of sun exposure on bark include fruit drop and poor fruit quality. Major problems include splitting or cracking bark, sap oozing out, gumosis, limb death, and even death of the entire tree. Therefore avoid pruning citrus if at all possible. If you must, like if it is getting in the walkway or rubbing on the house, prune in fall or early winter, never in summer.

That said, some interior pruning is good. Do this in spring as the plant begins its active growth phase. You need to eliminate crossing branches and remove sucker growth (watersprouts). If such pruning causes the trunk to be exposed to sunlight, paint the exposed area with “Go Natural Citrus Paint” a gray paint specifically created for the task. (This paint can also be used on other thin barked trees such as peaches.)

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This tree needs a tad bit of pruning but mid-fruit is not the ideal time to do it.

Number Two Citrus Care

Do fertilize. A well balanced citrus fertilizer should be used. Generally this is one high in nitrate and phosphate, such as ammonium phosphate (16-20-0). Fertilizer only needs to be applied to established trees three times per year. In Low and Middle Desert, fertilize on St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. If you live at Upper Elevations Fertilize on last frost day, mid-summer, and 60 days before first frost.

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A nice large tree-well would help this lemon tree.

Apply fertilizer correctly – at least six inches away from the trunk, and extending outward to several feet beyond the branch ends. The feeder roots that take up the fertilizer are below the branch ends and further out. If your tree has a tree well and it is not larger than the diameter of the tree – time to make the well bigger.

Water your fertilizer into the soil so it does not burn the roots. Better yet, dissolve fertilizer in water before applying. Sadly, doves are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and they can be killed by eating fertilizer pellets.

Number Two-and-a-half

Citrus requires acid soils and has a really hard time absorbing the fertilizer you just applied if the soil is overly alkaline. Since our water is alkaline too, you have to watch for this issue and treat it before the tree suffers excessively.

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Alkaline-induced-iron-chlorosis – the iron is in the soil but the tree can’t take it up because the soil is alkaline. Don’t add iron – acidify the soil.

Alkaline-induced-iron-chlorosis.

Symptom: Leaves are yellow but the veins remain green (at first anyway).

Treatment: One (1) cup white (or cider) vinegar in four (4) gallons of water and use this to water. Repeat until the leaves are no longer yellow.

Prevent: A new layer of compost on top of the roots every single year (why tree wells for citrus are good). Used coffee grounds help too.

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#1 Trunk exposed. Tree got sunburned, bark starting to crack. #2 Bigger tree well needed.

Number Three Citrus Care

Water Correctly. Citrus prefers a deep watering, then allow the soil to dry out! Soils that are kept wet can kill the tree. Water too often, and you get poor fruit quality, and even problems with flowering. In moderate, loamy soils, water once a month October through March (or not at all if more than half an inch of rain falls that month). After March, increase irrigation frequency to every three weeks, and then every two or three weeks in the summer. This guide assumes a moderate desert soil – not clay, not sand.

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This citrus was planted in the corner of the walls – where it was hoped the walls would keep it from freezing.

Winter Care

Depending on variety, you may also need to protect your citrus from frost. Note that there are a number of citrus that are hardy to 10 degrees. Well worth consideration if you want to travel in winter and not worry!

Citrus Care IS Simple.

Put away the pruning tools, fertilize only three times a year, and water only every so often. Citrus can be so easy to grow!

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More about vegetable gardening in this book: Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press).  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

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2 thoughts on “Citrus Care for the Southwest

  1. Great article! I’m amazed my lemon tree and orange tree have survived as ignorant as I was before reading that article. I love the idea of not pruning them any longer, except intros branches.
    Thanks again!!

    1. Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for the positive feedback!
      And yes, when it comes to pruning – “less is often more” in the Southwest. There are exceptions of course, and I am working with some area plant people to create a Southwest Pruning site. It’s about a year out because we want to make sure we have enough up there so you won’t be dissapointed before we open it.

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