Spring time is the right time for citrus in Austin.
The tree planting season in Austin runs from October through March, with the fall and winter being the best time to plant—but there is one notable exception to this rule. Citrus trees are best planted in the late spring after the weather has warmed up and there is no danger of frost. Nursery stock, and citrus in particular, is often grown under idyllic conditions and will likely not be acclimated to the conditions in your yard. This means the beautiful, blooming, tender leafed citrus tree that you might find for sale at local nurseries in February is probably not going to like that last cold snap we always seem to get mid-March. Early April is the perfect time to plant a kumquat, satsuma, or lemon in a sunny and protected southern or western facing spot.
Most importantly, citrus trees need plenty of rich, well-drained soil and ample sunlight. Neither rocky outcrops nor soggy low spots are ideal for these trees. They’ll also need supplemental irrigation, regular fertilization, and occasional protection in winter to produce a good yield, so if you are a ‘set it and forget it’ gardener, you are probably better off planting something else (like a fig tree, for example). If you have a sunny concrete patio, planting a citrus tree near the patio provides a nice heat sink to help protect the tree during cold weather, and the tree makes a nice conversation piece and sweet perfume to enjoy while you sit outside with friends.
Follow tree planting best practices.
Dig the hole at least twice the width of the pot, and a little shallower than the depth of the soil in the pot. When you remove the tree from the pot, hold it firmly in one hand at the base of the trunk, and gently knock on the top edge of the plastic pot until the pot falls off. Set the tree down on the ground and cut or pull the outer roots away so that there are no longer any roots circling around and around and around and around and…. It is better to be a little too aggressive at this stage than to have a tree with circling (aka girdling) roots. Girdling roots stunt the tree’s growth and can even kill it in the long run. Now, set the tree in the hole and fill it back in with the existing soil. The tree should be planted slightly above the grade of the existing soil, so you’ll still see the potting soil. Don’t bury the trunk. If you want to add compost and mulch, it should be applied to the soil surface, and kept at least 4 inches away from the trunk.
Citrus are thirsty.
Make a shallow berm around the edge of the now filled in hole with some dirt, to act as a watering basin. It’s important to give your tree plenty of water when you plant it, and every week thereafter. Citrus trees need 40 – 50 inches of water per year to make a good harvest, and Austin gets 32 inches of rain on average, so unless it’s planted next to your gutter downspout or something similar, you’ll need to give it supplemental watering for the life of the tree. Remember, the best gauge of whether the tree needs water is to check the soil. If the soil is still moist at a depth of 4 inches, you don’t need to water. Also, if your tree is sitting in saturated soil, it will quickly die. So, don’t over water your tree either. Always check the soil moisture by digging down with your hands or a small trowel to check whether you should water. Watering slowly will prevent runoff and waste. About 15 gallons a week for the first year or two should suffice, but that amount will increase as the tree gets bigger.
Spare the clippers and feed the roots.
Citrus trees flower and produce fruit on both new growth and buds hiding at the base of leaves on last year’s growth, so don’t prune your trees until after they have bloomed in the spring. When pruning, focus on removing dead or diseased wood, and any root suckers from below the graft union. Otherwise, citrus trees can be allowed to grow into their natural form. Slow-release organic fertilizers (ex. compost, alfalfa pellets) should be applied in early to mid-January, while more readily available fertilizers (ex. synthetics, blood meal, guano) should be delayed until mid- or late February, so as not to encourage the tree to break dormancy until after all danger of freezing weather has passed. Well-established citrus trees produce heavily in the Austin area with our long growing season. With a little bit of care and attention, you could be giving away fruit to your friends and neighbors in just a few years.
Greg Mast is TreeFolks’ Community Forester and coordinates the TreeFolks NeighborWoods Program in addition to managing the organization’s GIS and mapping needs for the Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program.
Greg is an ISA Certified Arborist, has a MS in Geography from Texas State University, is an avid home gardener, and speaks German. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, their two sons, one dog, and a passel of goats.