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Growing citrus in Sacramento County

Chris Strutz, owner of Strutz Farm in Sloughhouse, walks through his 5-acre orchard along with his dog Bella.
Chris Strutz, owner of Strutz Farm in Sloughhouse, walks through his 5-acre orchard along with his dog Bella. lsterling@sacbee.com

Chris Strutz loved mandarins. Every Christmas, the trained horiticulturalist gave bags of this easy-peel fruit to clients and customers.

But some Decembers, mandarins would be in short supply, and Strutz didn’t have enough bags for his gift list. So he started growing his own.

And while he was at it, Strutz started planting other citrus trees on his Sloughhouse property, too.

“This is kind of a Noah’s Ark of citrus,” he said while walking through what’s now a 5-acre orchard. “We have everything from little kumquats up to big pomelos. I just kept adding varieties.”

Citrus is a favorite for backyard farmers, particularly in California where growing conditions produce flavorful fruit – and lots of it. With glossy evergreen leaves and fragrant spring flowers, citrus trees also are a handsome addition to an edible landscape.

But as easy as these trees can be to grow, citrus also has its challenges. They need summer heat, but too much sun can burn. For sweeter fruit, most citrus requires a “kiss of cold” in winter, but too cold too long can kill the tree.

Strutz sells his citrus at two farmers markets and the ranch’s farmstand, just off Jackson Highway.

“We are the only commercial citrus grower in Sacramento County that I am aware of,” Strutz said proudly.

Sacramento used to be a hotbed for citrus; that’s how Orangevale and Citrus Heights got their names. But the annual threat of killer frost wiped out most commercial orchards in the greater Sacramento area. Clustered in the Sierra foothills, only mandarin growers remain.

Strutz knew he was taking risks with citrus. Before starting his ranch in 2009, he was a longtime horticultural adviser to large nursery growers.

After planting his first trees in 2010, Strutz now has more than a thousand in the ground and is finally harvesting a viable crop.

“We primarily grow mandarins,” he said. “The Owari Satsumas have done the best.”

Strutz also grows extra-early Okitsu Ease mandarins, which ripen in November. On the other end, Gold Nuggets ripen in February. In between are four Clementine hybrids: Tahoe Gold, Shasta Gold, Yosemite Gold and Tango. Also in his citrus orchard are Meyer and Lisbon lemons, blood oranges, Cara Cara oranges, Oro Blanco grapefruit, Chandler pomelo, Key limes, kumquats and the oddball Buddha’s hand.

In winter, frost is constantly on his mind. Limes are the least frost resistant; they’re tender at 28 degrees. Orange trees are OK down to 25 degrees. Satsuma mandarins, the most frost-tolerant of these citrus crops, are cold-hardy to 18 degrees.

“We cover the Meyer lemons, limes and Buddha’s hand with Agribon floating row covers for frost protection, so we have a very nice, early and heavy crop of lemons,” he said.

Frost damage can be seen on many of his unprotected trees, a reminder of a few nights below 20 degrees two years ago.

“Once the trees grow enough mass, they can protect their core,” he added. “But you really have to protect young trees.”

Strutz planted his lime trees along the walls of his home on the ranch property for extra protection.

Chilly nights below freezing still can “burn” leaves and outer branches, dwarfing the tree’s overall size. The foliage turns brown and crisp as moisture is pulled out of the leaves. That “burnt” foliage serves to insulate the tree and keep it alive.

“They develop these huge trunks, but the trees stay short and bushy,” Strutz said next to a full-size mandarin tree under 6 feet tall. “It makes them easier to pick.”

Under normal conditions, a mature orange tree can reach 15 to 20 feet tall. Dwarf and semi-dwarf citrus varieties – which can be grown in containers or in the ground – stay under 8 feet but with full-size fruit.

Citrus takes patience, he noted. Most dwarf varieties need at least three to five years before they bear fruit. Full-size trees often take 10 years to reach prime production. Grown from seed, some trees won’t fruit for 15 years.

Once they start fruiting, there’s more waiting. Some trees bear only every other year, making a long gap between crops.

Citrus ripens only on the tree; it can’t be picked green. Oranges and grapefruit can take up to a year to become fully ripe. Lemons and limes need six to nine months.

“That’s where most people have problems; they pick too soon,” Strutz said. “People ask me, ‘Why aren’t my oranges sweet?’ It’s usually because they picked them before they’re ready. They can look ripe and feel ripe. But they need that extra hang time. Wait another month, then taste them again.”

Variety also plays a part in sweetness, Strutz noted. Some citrus have a high acid content and will always be on the tart side.

“It can also be lack of heat,” he said. “They need hot days in summer to develop enough sugar. A lot of factors go into sweet citrus.”

Most citrus require little pruning other than to manage their size and shape. In particular, Strutz looks out for suckers from the tree’s roots.

“You can tell them by their big thorns,” he said. “They look nasty.”

Strutz also removes any dead wood or “weird random growth,” he said. That trimming is done right after harvest before the trees’ growth spurt in early spring. But he’s careful not to take off too much or trim too late; that new wood growing in the spring will produce the next crop.

For fertilizer, he swears by pasteurized organic chicken manure; it’s high in calcium, a needed micronutrient for flavorful citrus. He keeps his trees mulched with wood chips to conserve water and cut down on weeds.

Citrus trees grow deep roots, giving them built-in drought tolerance. They prefer deep watering, usually twice a month in summer.

Citrus gets better with time, Strutz noted. As they mature, trees develop better-tasting fruit.

“The secret to citrus: You have to taste it,” he said. “And then taste some more. That’s the only way you know when it’s just right.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Strutz Ranch

Where: 13751 Indio Drive, Sloughhouse (just off Jackson Highway)

When: Farmstand open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

Details: 916-500-9794, http://strutzranch.com/