A fruit orchard now encompasses one-third of my backyard. You would be surprised at how many trees you can fit into an average backyard. My backyard is only 85 feet wide by about 50 feet deep but I fit 10 fruit trees, five blackberry bushes, three grapevines, 4 artichoke plants, 8 raised beds, an entertainment area with a double-dig edible garden that surrounds it, and a grass area for the grandkids to play. Herbs and herb pots are also throughout the yard. I will now have some type of fruit to harvest every month of the year. The diagram to the below shows all of the trees and their locations in my yard.
Friends also benefit from the bounty. For example, my little Meyer Lemon tree, a dwarf citrus that stands six-feet tall, is about 8 years old. It produces enormous lemons, many the size of a fist, and this year, the number totaled 900-1,000. It is sweeter than a the lemons like a Lisbon lemon that you usually buy in the stores because a Meyer is a standard lemon tree with an orange or tangerine tree grafted to it.
There’s a trick to growing healthy citrus. They take plenty of water and you should fertilize them three times a year: Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day, but the real trick to my crazy lemon tree is that I let the branches reach almost to the ground.
Citrus are really very large bushes and they need their trunks protected. They like to grow most of the fruit on low branches. In fact, to harvest about half of the fruit, which is also the largest, I have to lay on my back under the limbs. My citrus trees aren’t those pretty white-trunk trimmed trees you see lining streets, but they are healthy and produce some of the sweetest fruit. Citrus trunks get sunburn easily, so branches almost to the ground protect it. You won’t have to paint the trunk (and shouldn’t) or wrap it. One of my grandsons was so surprised by the amount of juice from one of my tangelos as it ran down his shirt that he said, “You should have warned me, Grandma!”
So let your citrus trees grow naturally near the ground. I only prune limbs that rest on the ground and suckers that grow from the root stock.
Some people who have picked from my citrus trees have wondered why their branches don’t have thorns. The thorns on most Meyer Lemons and other citrus are from the root stock, not the main tree. If you let the thorny suckers at the base of the main stem continue to grow, they will overtake your tree, and that’s why so many people think that citrus trees always have thorns. Most suckers also don’t grow fruit or they grow “different” fruit, so they suck the nutrients and water from your tree and eventually your fruit harvest will decline dramatically. My suckers generally don’t grow fruit, but once in a while, a sucker branch (if I failed to prune it soon enough) will produce one or two small lemons. So cut those suckers off as soon as you see them. You will have a much healthier tree and better tasting, large fruit.
You can also watch YouTube video on pruning suckers and water sprouts.
Plant citrus trees
Citrus trees love citrus friends. I don’t use enough lemons to warrant a tree but I love tangelos. Tangelos love a lemon or grapefruit tree next to it, so my little Meyer Lemon keeps my prized Tangelo company and my friends get to juice lemons like crazy.
The best months to plant citrus in containers is March, April and October. You will see citrus trees available now (January) and you CAN plant them year-round, but citrus don’t go dormant until late February, so it’s best to wait. The tree won’t be as shocked from the transplanting if it is dormant.
Dig a hole about twice as wide as the container. Dig the hole only as deep as the dirt in the container. You never want to push new dirt up to the trunk/root ball because it can cause disease. A 15-gallon container is about two years old and a 25-gallon is about three years old. Either will do. It just depends on how quickly you want fruit and how much you want to pay. Generally, your citrus will provide quality fruit in year five and above.
The soil in the container should be moist but not wet. If the soil is too dry or too wet, the container soil may fall away from the roots. I usually buy the tree a couple of days before I want to plant it, water it thoroughly and let it sit in a shady area for two days so it will “harden.” Hardening is simply letting it adjust to your environment without dealing with the harsh sun right away. Water the tree again about 24 hours in advance of planting. Remove the tree by slicing the sides of the container. DO NOT pull the tree out by the trunk. You may damage the tree. Once the tree is out of the container, use a small knife to cut an X about half an inch deep into the bottom of the tree soil and do the same in three places along the sides. The video linked below recommends “massaging” the soil around the tree ball. Either work.
Carefully place the tree into the hole and back-fill it with native soil mixed with organic compost. Mix it thoroughly before you put it back into the hole with the tree. Some people believe in adding a bit of organic fertilizer to the hole (as you will see in the video). I don’t do it because the soil in the container already has fertilizer in it. Use the extra soil to build two berms. One will be about 6 inches around the trunk to keep water away from the trunk and another will be about 2-3 feet around the trunk. This creates a well for the water so it is forced down to the root zone. Never place your drip line up against the trunk, again because the water directly on the trunk will may cause diseases AND the roots will quickly grow around the drip line, which means you won’t be able to move the line further out as the tree canopy widens. A landscape put the drip line of a tree up against it. Before I understood that this was a problem, the roots had grown around the drip line and now I can’t move it. It also continues to throw water up on the trunk. You can watch a YouTube video about citrus tree planting.
Once the tree is planted, remove the stake that was tied to the trunk. Unless the tree can’t stand straight on its own, don’t stake it. Trees will be stronger if they stand alone. If you need to set up braces/stakes, place them at least 3 feet from the tree and use something like a piece of hose to protect the trunk from the wire or rope you use. I’ll write a post in a few weeks on how to stake trees. Water the tree slowly and deeply then fill in areas that sink with additional soil.
New trees should be watered once every other day for a week, twice a week for a month, then once a week for six months so the roots establish themselves. After that, citrus should be watered once a week in the summer and every other week in the winter. They love deep watering to the depth of about 24 inches but they also thrive if the soil can dry out a bit in between watering. Move your drip lines and your outer berm further out yearly as your tree grows. Both should be at the edge of the tree canopy.
As mentioned earlier, fertilize citrus three times a year. An easy way to do it is to remember the holidays: Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day. More is not better, so follow instructions on the fertilizer bags or bottles. I wouldn’t use the stake fertilizer because it only reaches roots around it. The UofA Agricultural Extension offers a great guide to how to fertilize citrus, when and how much. https://cals.arizona.edu/maricopa/garden/html/pubs/MC91.pdf
So enjoy your citrus! You live in one of the best places in the world to grow it so it is a great choice as you start your own backyard orchard.