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How to Succeed With Citrus

You don't need to do much with citrus. They need no pruning and too much water and fertilizer can hurt them.

March 22, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

At one time Southern California was covered with citrus. Groves blanketed the valley floors and crept up into the hills.

Yet today in these same soils, people are having trouble growing good oranges, tangerines and even lemons.

At least that's the impression I get from looking at the questions sent to The Times' "In the Garden" question and answer column. Many of the writers wonder why their citrus are doing poorly.

Los Angeles County's Master Gardeners hotline also gets lots of citrus questions, particularly about lemons.

In the last four years, 332 questions had to do with lemons alone, making it by far the most popular topic. The only contenders were tomatoes (186 questions) and roses (100).

Program manager Yvonne Savio said the most common questions about citrus problems are usually easy to answer. For instance:

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Question: What is the black stuff on my citrus leaves?

Answer: It is sooty mold fungus, which grows on the sticky, sugary excretions of aphids, white flies, scale and other sap-sucking pests.

Get rid of the pests and the mold will follow. Pests are often carted onto the trees by ants, and the ants protect them from predators. Sticky barriers will keep ants off.

Q: Why don't I get any oranges on my tree?

A: Maybe snails ate the flowers. Copper barriers keep snails off. Or moisten the soil and bait around the tree.

Q: Why are my lemons so ugly?

A: Grotesquely misshapen lemons are caused by bud mites, which can be controlled with the oil sprays sold at nurseries (they also safely control many other citrus pests).

Q: How should I prune my citrus?

A: You don't. Unlike many other fruit trees, Savio said, they don't need it. Just keep branches from touching the ground or ants will scale them.

Some questions--on general poor health of a tree, for example--are harder to answer:

"I have two Valencia orange trees that were here when we moved in 1958," a Whittier reader wrote to Garden Q&A, "but about two years ago we noticed that the trees looked kind of sick. The leaves were scarce and the fruit very small.

"I feed them regularly with citrus and avocado fertilizer and they get regular water," he continued, "and the trees to either side of us look healthy. How come?"

Or, "We have four citrus planted in a row in a sunny bed," said a Lomita resident, "but one of them has begun to lose its leaves at an alarming rate.

"We took it to the nursery and they said it wasn't getting enough water, though we water every week. Please help me."

Without seeing the tree, the soil or the spot where it's planted, it's difficult to know for sure what the causes of the problems are.

For a definitive answer, leaves or roots would need to be analyzed by a soil and plant laboratory, or the soil tested or an arborist called.

But in a majority of cases, the problem is often that the tree is too pampered: It's getting too much water and too much fertilizer.

When people ask Joan Citron, who has a garden-sized grove of 15 different citrus, why their trees are sick or aren't producing fruit, her surprising answer is to stop watering. She'll even suggest they quit fertilizing.

"Just turn your back on them and go read a book," she said.

This doesn't apply to trees that are under 2 years old (see the accompanying story for advice on planting and caring for new trees) or to trees grown in containers, but to larger trees growing in average garden soil.

If you could see Citron's fruit-laden trees, you'd know she must be doing something right. They're loaded with juicy, sweet fruit.

It's amusing that someone named Citron should be growing citrus in her garden. She and her husband, Jack, have been growing citrus since 1957, when they bought their house in Reseda and decided, "We live in California, let's plant citrus."

They started with a 'Robertson' navel orange and a 'Kara' tangerine, and through the years they've added a 'Bearss' lime; 'Eureka,' 'Meyer' and ponderosa lemons; 'Clementine,' 'Dancy' and Satsuma mandarins (tangerines); a 'Sampson' tangelo and 'Tarocco' blood orange; 'Trovita,' 'Valencia' and 'Shamouti' oranges; a 'Nagami' kumquat; even a lemon named 'Pink Lemonade' (it does have pink juice).

There are citrus in the frontyard, backyard and on the property they own next door. They make juice from a lot of the fruit (not just the oranges, but the tangerines as well), and even have a few extra juicers to back up their trusty, old Proctor-Silex. They also give much fruit away.

When the Citrons began, they watered often because the summers seemed so hot and dry, but they soon learned to water established trees only once a month during spring, summer and fall, and not at all in winter. And this is in one of Southern California's hotter climates.

They put a fan sprinkler (or a bubbler) on the end of a hose and water each tree for two hours, moving the hose to a slightly different spot every 20 minutes so they cover all the ground under the citrus. This long irrigation lets the water sink several feet into the soil.

But they do this only once a month.

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