How to take care of citrus trees amid January's hard freeze

bajslj@aol.comJanuary 19, 2014 

The passion for growing your own fruit has led to large numbers of us to branch out from Meyer lemons to limes, lemons, tangerines, grapefruit and the new fun fruit, the kumquat.

PHOTO BY LARRY JUKOFSKY

My mid-January column was going to be about the new varieties of annuals coming into the market in early spring. Of particular interest are any new colors of vinca available â€" to replace the overgrown plants that were set into my front garden in spring 2012. But then it got cold.

Last year's frostless winter gave cold-sensitive plants a pass on survival. Best of all, it freed gardeners from the inevitable "lift and carry" of heavy pots into the house or garage. The passion for growing your own fruit has led large numbers of us to branch out from Meyer lemons to limes, lemons, tangerines, grapefruit and the new fun fruit, the kumquat. The afternoon of Jan. 6 found me trying to keep covers on container-grown trees while fighting a blizzard-like wind.

All the while I was thinking of Bob Manne.

Manne is the Hilton Head Plantation resident who took a piece of land at the farm there in 2005 and grew an orchard. What has this hard freeze done to the trees?

Let's allow him to tell us about it.

Question. Bob, you've said that when you brought up the idea of an orchard, the Plantation Farmer's board members did not think it would work. How did you proceed?

Answer. We had lived in Port Royal Plantation, and I'd grown citrus trees there. I took several board members to see the trees; they observed and were willing to give it a try. I decided on which and what based on experience and use of the Web.

Q. What varieties did you decide to start with?

A. I put in 24 varieties immediately: six tangerine, different varieties; two grapefruit; two lemon trees and four orange, different varieties; plus several trees that were a combination of orange and tangerine. All were bred on hardy stock. There was a light freeze that year; I did not lose any. The first year, I picked 15 ruby red grapefruits, eight each from Meyer lemon and tangerine trees, 10 from Hamlin orange. Some trees did nothing; I did not expect them to. I just wanted them to grow. With citrus, you have to be patient.

Q. What did you do with the fruit you picked?

A. The original idea was to sell at the farm with proceeds to go to the farm for maintenance, repairing roads, buying a tractor. The second year, we sold 450; the third year, 767; fourth year, 3,327; this year, 7,867.

Q. When I visited the orchard three weeks ago, you were hoping for a light freeze this year. Why was that?

A. Because citrus trees need hibernation. When they don't get to go to sleep, they get confused. They don't know whether it's time to flower -- or what. For example, the navel orange did not flower or produce last spring, but did in November.

Q. All of our citrus grower/readers would like to know, what do you feed the trees and how often?

A. I fertilize almost every month; first in March, last in December. Originally, I used 24-10-5, then changed to 8-10-10 that Clemson recommended. As you saw when you visited, the 8-foot kumquat tree had a large branch hanging on the ground from the weight of the fruit. You can spot when a tree is going south by its production, i.e. stress.

Q. And now for the big money question: What are the results of a two-night freeze in the orchard?

A. The temperature at the farm Monday morning was 21 degrees. I had covered 80 trees. One cover blew off. They looked like they got hammered. We have to wait and see if they shed their leaves. Limes are susceptible to cold, less susceptible are oranges, tangerines and lemons. Grapefruit are the least susceptible.

Thanks, Bob. I'm watching the leaves on my citrus trees; they're looking limp. What was not covered and not disturbed, though, was the guava tree.

Sixty-year master gardener and environmentalist Betsy Jukofsky has spent three decades on Hilton Head Island learning the peculiarities of Coastal Lowcountry gardening.

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