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Growing citrus takes a little care, no special skills

The Greenery Nursery in Turlock sells an array of citrus trees. Choose from dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard plants.
The Greenery Nursery in Turlock sells an array of citrus trees. Choose from dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard plants. pguerra@modbee.com

It seems like every office of a certain size has one – that person with a citrus tree in his or her yard who brings in lemons, oranges, limes or grapefruit several times a year.

Want to be that person? Or just grow some lemons so you can sip homegrown lemonade on those 100-plus-degree summer days?

It’s not as hard as people might think, said Adria Afferino, marketing and events manager for The Greenery Nursery in Turlock.

Citrus trees are grafted, meaning two types of trees are grafted together.

“You can generally see the graft,” Afferino said, pointing to a knobby area near the bottom of an orange tree. They are bred for the kind of fruit people want – a sweet Meyer lemon, maybe, or a mandarin orange.

The part of the tree under the graft – the rootstock – determines what kind it will be, dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard.

“If any shoots come out from under the graft, you want to trim those,” Afferino said. They will produce the wrong kind of fruit. Or no fruit at all, which can happen when people try to grow trees on their own.

“You see these things where you can grow a lemon tree in your kitchen from a seed,” Afferino said. “That’s true, but what kind of seed is it? What has it been pollinated with?” You could end up with a tree that never produces fruit.

Prime planting time for citrus is around April, but people start coming to the nursery in search of citrus trees in February, so that’s when it stocks up on them.

Citrus trees need about six hours of sun per day to produce a high quality and quantity of fruit – generally not a problem in this area.

Northern California isn’t a popular place for commercial citrus, but that’s not because the trees don’t grow here. Growers prefer warmer climates such as Florida and Southern California, where it’s less likely they will lose any of the crop to freezing.

“But even if there’s a freeze, the tree will come back and produce plenty for one family,” Afferino said.

Only plants that are new and still getting a foothold, and those in wide-open exposed areas, really need covering when temperatures drop.

Another threat to the trees is citrus greening, which is fairly new to the area. Carried by the Asian citrus psyllid, the disease causes infected trees to produce fruit that’s bitter and misshapen. And it’s fatal to trees.

Stanislaus County officials have kept a careful eye out for the Asian citrus psyllid since it was first found in the area a couple of years ago, Afferino said. Sightings remain rare.

Once established, citrus trees are fairly drought-resistant, which is good news in this area in recent years. One common problem Afferino sees with citrus trees is that owners overwater them.

Citrus trees should be dry between waterings – a problem for people who might have them in a low spot in the ground. A Greenery brochure describes how the tree will tell you how it’s doing: leaves folding upward mean it’s being watered too much, and leaves folding downward mean it’s thirsty.

“Once you kind of understand them, they’re really easy to grow,” Afferino said.

Patty Guerra: 209-578-2343, @PattyGuerra

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