The navel orange is one of California's precious resources; it's a superb dessert orange that's not grown commercially anywhere else in the United States. Large and colored a beautiful deep hue, it has a rich flavor and is seedless and easily peeled and broken into segments.
The navel orange was brought to California in 1873 from Bahia, Brazil. Its arrival in Riverside heralded the birth of the commercial citrus industry in California. Today, one of every three trees originally planted in Riverside is alive, well and still producing fruit. Although the prime commercial growing area for navel oranges is the southeastern San Joaquin Valley, they thrive in much of the Southland.
The trees yield a bountiful crop of fresh fruit in a small area. What's more, they are highly ornamental--glossy, evergreen foliage spotted with beautiful orange fruit and white, delightfully scented blossoms. For home gardeners without enough room for a full-size tree, a semi-dwarf is also available. Standard navels reach a height of between 18 and 25 feet, while semi-dwarfs grow to only 7 to 12 feet. Both sizes are available in cans year-round at many nurseries and garden centers.
There are several varieties to choose from. The oldest--the Riverside original--is the 'Washington' navel. Commercial growers consider it not only the choicest for eating but also the best-producing variety available. Its fruit-bearing period begins in mid-December and continues through April or May; peak sweetness occurs after mid-January.
The 'Trovita' does well in two areas where the 'Washington' does not: in the desert and near the coast, with a harvest starting considerably later than 'Washington.'
'Robertson' is a variety that ripens several weeks earlier than 'Washington' and produces at an earlier age, but the quality of its fruit isn't the equal.
Buy only healthy, vigorous-looking plants. Avoid trees with long trunks and branches concentrated at the top. Select one with a good skirt of branches near the soil line. If any fruit is on the tree, pick it off so that the tree's energies can be devoted to making new foliage and roots.
Plant in a sunny area, making sure that the tree is only as deep as it was originally grown. Add a very light application of citrus-tree fertilizer or fertilizer tablets, and water thoroughly.
Irrigate new trees twice a week for four weeks; then water on a weekly basis. Fertilize with a general-purpose citrus food in February and again in July. Do not fertilize in late fall, because that will promote new, tender foliage growth that could be subject to frost damage during the winter. Trees will bloom during the spring and summer, and next winter's crop will be the first.