Late Winter Citrus Management Considerations

Both niche market farmers and home gardeners may be uncertain about late winter management of Satsuma trees.  Several questions that have come in to the Extension Office recently include: Should I prune my trees? Why are the leaves yellow? How soon should I fertilize?  The focus of this article is to provide some answers to these common questions.

Should I prune my tree?

Jackson County citrus grove with branches allowed to near ground level. Image Credit Jose Perez, UF / IFAS

This is a complicated question that is best answered with “it depends…”  Pruning is not necessary for citrus, as it is in many temperate fruits, to have excellent production quality and quantity. Citrus trees perform excellently with minimal pruning. The only pruning necessary for most citrus is removing crossing or rubbing branches while shaping young trees, removing dead wood, and pruning out suckers from the root-stock. Homeowners may choose to prune citrus trees to keep them small, but this will reduce potential yield in a commercial setting, since bigger trees produce more fruit.

Often, maturing Satsuma trees produce long vertical branches. It is tempting to prune these off, since they make the tree look unbalanced. To maximize yield, commercial Satsuma growers allow these branches to weep with the heavy load of fruit until they touch the ground. This allows increased surface area for the tree, since the low areas around the trunk are not bare. Additionally, weeds are suppressed since the low branches shade out weed growth. The ground under the trees remains bare, thus allowing heat from the soil to radiate up during cold weather events. The extra branches around the trunk offer added protection to the bud union as well. If smaller trees are desired for ease of harvest, ‘flying dragon’ root-stock offers dwarfing benefits, so that the mature scion cultivar size will only grow to 8-10 feet tall.

Why are the leaves yellow?

Leaf deficiency with heavy fruit load. Image credit Matthew Orwat, UF / IFAS Extension

Heavy fruit loads were produced in many groves throughout Northwest Florida last year. When fruiting is heavy, citrus trees translocate nitrogen and other nutrients from older leaves to newer growth and fruit. Therefore, temporary yellowing may occur and last until trees resume growing in the spring. Remember, never fertilize after early September, since fertilizing this late in the year  can reduce fruit quality and increase potential for cold injury. If a deficiency, as in the photo above persists through spring, consider a soil test, or consult a citrus production publication to determine if additional fertilizer should be added to your fertilizer program.

How soon should you fertilize?

Although most Florida citrus publications recommend fertilizing citrus in February, they don’t take into account the potential for late frost in the Panhandle. Thus it makes more sense to wait until mid-March for the first fertilizer application in this region. Citrus trees don’t require a fertilizer with a high percentage of nitrogen, so it is best for fruit quality if an analysis of around 8-8-8 with micro-nutrients is used. Fertilizer should be applied in the drip-line of the tree, not around the trunk. The drip-line of a mature tree is generally considered to extend one foot from the trunk out to one foot from the edge of the furthest branch tip from the trunk. For fertilizer quantity recommendation see the chart below.

Through awareness of the unique managements techniques inherent to Panhandle citrus production, increased yields, better quality and healthier trees can be achieved.

 

For more information on this topic please use the following link to the UF/IFAS Publication:

Citrus Culture in the Home Landscape