The Joy of Growing Citrus in North Texas
by Mary Karish
The fragrance carries me back to when I was six years old, growing up in Lebanon, a tiny country in the East Mediterranean. Each spring, my grandmother and I would get up early in the morning to harvest orange blossoms from the Sour Orange tree that grew adjacent to her kitchen window. We used the orange blossoms to make orange blossom water.
Early morning was always the best time to harvest orange blossoms. We stored the harvested blossoms in tightly closed glass jars, filled with water. We placed the jars in a sunny area for three weeks. During that time, the oils from the orange blossoms would seep into the water, and after draining the water from the spent blossoms, we had Orange Blossom Water. My grandmother swore by the miracle cures of orange blossom water. She used it for everything that ailed you — indigestion, a hang-over, a heartache, a headache,…you name it. I also have reason to believe she used it as an aphrodisiac.
My grandmother was always beautifully dressed to receive visitors. On one particular afternoon, I observed my grandmother adding orange blossom to her bath water, and later sprinkling more on her hair as she brushed her long strands. I always associated this ritual with the arrival of visitors. Out of curiosity, I asked her “Are we expecting visitors this evening?” She replied impatiently, “No dear, tonight, I have to wrestle with your grandfather.”
My grandfather was a good handyman. However, in his retirement, he preferred to play backgammon with the village elders. The following day, however, I noticed my grandfather repairing all the items my grandmother had on her “to do” list. In the mind of a six-year-old, “wrestling” was a real fixer.
Our village was the winter home for goat herders, who came down from the high mountains. I wanted to play with their goats but was not allowed because the herders feared that the “mama” goats would wean their kids if they smelled humans on their coat. One day, I decided to take matters into my own hands and meet the goat herders head on. I sprinkled myself with enough orange blossom water to raise the dead. On my way out the door, my grandmother asked me, “Where are you going?” I replied innocently, “To wrestle with the goat herders.”
Although I never wrestled with the goat herders, I have had a love affair throughout my life—growing citrus.
Today, I live in North Texas and have been told repeatedly, it is not a place to grow citrus. For those doubters, my Satsumas and Kumquats are a testament that everything is possible. They are both in the ground and survived 72 consecutive hours of freezing temperatures in January 2010.
Citrus trees available for consumer purchase are typically sold in 3 to 5 gallon containers. Young trees require steady moisture, and the best way to determine soil moisture is to use a moisture sensor, available at any garden center. Citrus need at least six hours of direct sun during the growing season, from March through August.
Citrus plants are self-pollinating, evergreen and require three applications of nitrogen during the growing season. Texas A&M University recommends the following feeding regimen:
|8-13% Nitrogen||17-21% Nitrogen|
|First Year||1 cup (8oz)||1/3 cup|
|Second Year||2 cups (16 oz)||1 cup|
|Third Year and Beyond||4 cups (32oz)||2 cups|
I supplement the feeding regimen with an application of Liquid Seaweed every week year round. I call it “Vitamin D.” It helps plants tolerate stress and extreme temperatures.
Early spring is the best time to report citrus or move citrus plants to bigger pots before bud formation. I use unglazed pots because they retain moisture. When repotting, always plant “wet to wet.” Thoroughly wet the soil in the original container, as well as the potting mixture of the new, larger container. Planting “wet to wet” reduces transplant shock and the likelihood of stressing the plant, which makes it more susceptible to diseases and invading insects.
The ideal potting medium for citrus is a combination of 1/3 homemade compost, 1/3 ground pine bark mulch and 1/3 garden sand. Homemade compost contains live microorganisms that aid in the absorption of nutrients, while commercial compost is usually heated above 140 degrees, rendering it sterile. Ground pine bark mulch retains moisture and increases the acidity of the potting medium. Finally, adding garden sand aids in effective drainage.
Citrus is damaged by few insects or diseases. The ones that can cause serious damage and may kill the tree are phytophthora (root rot and foot rot), citrus tristeza virus and citrus greening disease.
Phytophthora (root rot or foot rot) is easily prevented by proper planting depth and spacing between the trunk and the mulch. Although a citrus plant can grow from seed, it may take as long as 10 years for a seed-grown plant to produce fruits. Grafting ensures fruit production within a year, increases cold hardiness and encourages disease resistance. Deciding which rootstock is suitable for your area depends on the following factors: soil pH, cold tolerance and disease resistance. If your soil is alkaline and loaded with clay, your best choice is Sour Orange. If your soil is acidic, Trifoliate Orange is most suitable. The grafting point should never be buried in the potting soil. If your citrus is in the ground, the mulch should be at least 10 inches away from the trunk.
Aphids can appear at any time your tree is stressed. They lay eggs on the underside of the leaves and suck the juices of the plant. Aphids also can transmit citrus tristeza virus, which will kill the tree. A power wash or a few applications of Spinosad or garlic pepper spray will take care of the aphids population.
Ants and aphids often form a deadly cartel. Aphids secrete a sweet liquid that lures the ants, and ants in turn transport aphids to other parts of the citrus tree to protect them from predators, such as wasps. People often believe ants are munching on aphids, but ants are vegetarians. They feast on the sweet honey-like substance that aphids excrete.
Citrus greening disease is a devastating bacterial disease that has struck several states, including Florida, California and Louisiana. I call it the “Citrus AIDS.” It is highly contagious and transmitted by a tiny insect, no bigger than 3 mm, called Asian citrus psyllid. The nymphs secrete a waxy substance. To date, there is no known cure. A healthy looking citrus infected with citrus greening disease may not exhibit symptoms for several years. Once the latency period is over, the tree will exhibit the following symptoms before dying:
- Leaves are blotchy and yellowing. Unlike nitrogen deficiency where yellowing of leaves is asymmetrical, the yellowing of leaves in citrus greening disease appears symmetrical on either side of the leaf vein.
- Fruit is lopsided and smaller than normal.
- Branches are sparsely foliated
Currently, Texas has no reported cases of citrus greening disease, and to protect our citrus industry, Texas is under quarantine. That means citrus plant material cannot be brought in or out of the state. The citrus industry in Texas is valued at $121 million and supports 2,000 jobs, according to the Center of North America Studies at TAMU, and the quarantine aims to protect that business.
You can help control the spread of the Citrus Greening Disease by following these simple measures:
- Purchase citrus that comes with an identification tag. The tag contains the following information: variety, where it was grown and an ID number, which aids in tracking down where the citrus was grafted.
- Graft your own healthy plants by using certified bud wood.
- Obey quarantine laws.
- Check your own citrus for psyllids or symptoms of citrus greening disease. If you suspect citrus greening disease, contact Texas Plant Clinic
Winter may present a challenge for North Texas growers, depending on the type of citrus grown. Young Satsumas and Kumquats are hardy citrus that can be planted in the ground, provided they face the south-east side of a building or brick wall and have some winter protection, such as blankets, burlaps, Christmas lights or pop up greenhouses. If you use plastic covers overnight, always remove them during the day to avoid leaf burn.
Pots can also be wheeled into your garage when nighttime temperatures are expected to dip below freezing. Another option would be to house your plants until the danger of freeze is past. If you opt for the later, ensure they are situated in a bright area. My favorite varieties that do well in North Texas are:
|Kumquat: Nagami and Meiwa||20F|
|Satsuma: Brown Select, Seto and Owari||24F|
|Cara Cara (red-flesh) Oranges||25F|
|Moro Blood Orange||28F|
*No published numbers of the low temperatures at which a particular citrus survives are absolute. Acclimation and the conditions associated with a freeze, along with the duration of those lows, have bearing on the outcome.
Citrus trees are full of magic. In the spring, they produce a medley of fragrant buds. Each summer, buds turn into fruits. In the fall, they display an array of orange and yellow colors as the fruits ripen. In winter, they retain their green outfit when everything around is dormant. They bear the promise of spring in the palms of their leaves. My grandmother shared with me the love of citrus, and I gladly follow her footsteps growing my own citrus, and using orange blossom water for many purposes.
The fragrance of citrus blossom is known to softly warm your heart on a spring day, and the citrus fruit is known to sweeten any sour day. Enjoy it. I certainly do.
Sources of Citrus and citrus information:
- John Panzarella at www.panzarellacitrus.com.
- Citrus and tropical fruits: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/citrus/urban.htm
Mary Khazen Karish
Photo Credits as they Appear in the Article:
- Orange Blossoms in the spring – author
- North Texas Kumquat loaded with fruits – author
- Lemon Meyer in spring – author
- Moisture sensor – author
- Foot Rot – Michael Rogers, Associate Professor of Entomology
UF-IFAS/Citrus Research and Education Center
- Aphids – aggiehorticulture.tamu.edu
- Waxy substance nymphs produce on citrus trees – Michael Rogers, Associate Professor of Entomology
UF/IFAS/Citrus Research and Education Center
- Psyllid insect – Michael Rogers, Associate Professor of Entomology
UF/IFAS/Citrus Research and Education Center