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Where this lemon tree went wrong

Already root-bound when it was planted 20 years ago, it might have been saved by pruning or propping.

March 25, 2004|Robert Smaus | Special to the Times

After that torrential overnight rain in late February, I found our 20-year-old lemon tree sprawled across a flowerbed, the victim of saturated soil and a poor root system. Rain-toppled trees are not uncommon. After any soaking storm, camera crews always manage to find a few for the evening news, but I was a bit surprised to find one in my own backyard.

It must have fallen very slowly. It was right outside our bedroom windows, but we heard nothing. I briefly considered standing it back up and cabling it to the garage but decided that it was obviously a bad place for a tree, even a small one, and we could live with the loss.

As I began to cut it up, one reason for its downfall was obvious: too many ripe lemons. A single 3-foot section of branch was so full of lemons that it must have weighed close to 100 pounds. We filled boxes with the fruit from the fallen limbs and set them out on the curb with a "Free Organic Lemons" sign. We gave more boxes to friends. But we should have done this a bit earlier. I, of all people, should have known better because one of my childhood chores had been to prop up fruit-laden branches in our small orchard. If you didn't, branches would break. I saw trees actually rip down the middle because they were so overburdened with ripe fruit.

In the past, I had supported the branches of this habitual over-producer (a variety named 'Eureka'), with sturdy props, just as my grandfather had taught me. To make one, nail short sections of 1-by-2 lumber to each side of a 2-by-2 stake so there is a roughly U-shaped end to cradle the heavy limbs. He sometimes added bits of cloth or old inner tubes to cushion the branches. He kept quite a pile of props of varying length next to the three-legged orchard ladders and picking pails.

I could have thinned the lemons. Up to two-thirds of the fruit must be removed early from many deciduous trees or you will get small, misshapen fruit. Citrus seldom need thinning, but when branches begin to bend, thinning is a good idea.

But thinning and sturdy supports might not have saved our lemon. Enough of the root mass tipped out of the ground to suggest even bigger problems at that end. I quickly saw that it had been root-bound when it was put in some 20 years ago. You've heard the caution about buying root-bound plants. Inside a container, roots circle round and round into a tangled mess. Sometimes they actually choke a plant, but more often they simply keep the plant from ever having a sturdy, supporting, tripod-like root system. In our case, all it took was a soaking wet soil and a big crop of lemons to start it on a slow sideways fall.

It would have been a good idea to cut some of those circling roots and untangle others before we planted it. If it had been badly root-bound, I could have taken it back to the nursery and exchanged it. Planting a younger tree from a smaller nursery container also would have lessened the likelihood that it would be root-bound. As I recall, ours was planted from a 15-gallon container because we were in a hurry for lemons. Little did we know that in a few years we'd be overwhelmed.

In addition, most of the roots were on one side of the tree. Because it was planted close to the neighbor's garage, few roots had ventured into the dry area under the concrete slab. That's one good reason not to plant too close to buildings. Another is that all the branches and leafy growth end up on one side of the tree, making it decidedly lopsided, especially when laden with fruit. Even a small tree should be planted at least 10 feet from a building.

Back then I thought this "dwarf" lemon was going to be more like a bush than a tree, even though it quickly grew to about 15 feet tall. I should have started whacking away at the top to keep it low, since I have learned this is what commercial growers do. Entire orchards get flat tops, as unsightly as that sounds, so the lemons can be picked without ladders. Most trees would deeply resent that kind of "pruning," but apparently not lemons.

My wife and I cut our fallen tree into 4-foot sections and tied these into 40-pound bundles. The city of Los Angeles will pick up a curb full of vegetation once a year if you follow these rules and call in advance. Our once-mighty and prodigious tree made a rather sad little pile on the curb.

We left the trunk about 5 feet long so we'd have leverage while digging and rocking it out of the ground. I had to sacrifice a cheap pruning saw to cut some of the large roots (dirt really dulls a blade) but we got most. You could hardly tell it was ever there.

Our neighbor planted an identical lemon a few years back, and it now hangs over the fence. We'll try something different where ours had been, an opportunity one doesn't often get in an established garden. Our border of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses is certainly going to look different without the lemon for a backdrop, but I'm sure we'll find just the right plants. And change is good, right?

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