Several varieties of citrus plants can succeed in South Texas

January 12, 2006

NANCY KRAMER - Victoria County Master Gardener


I've been motivated to give Satsuma mandarins a chance. I had heard that it is easy to get lots of juicy, sweet fruit from just one tree - and it's been proven to me.

Right before Thanksgiving, Joe Janak, Victoria County Extension agent, brought a bushel basket of the most delicious oranges to our Master Gardener meeting. They were so good, everyone was grabbing a few (handfuls) and commenting how they were the sweetest oranges they had ever eaten. Janak's one tree had produced more than 3,000 Satsumas or 12-15 (5-gallon) buckets.

I knew I wanted to plant a mandarin tree like Janak's variety, Armstrong Early. The nice, orange color peel came off easily, and the Satsumas divided into sections easily. There was usually only one seed in each of the mandarins I ate. Another variety, Owari, is supposed to be even better and very good for our area, but I didn't see how anything could be as good as the Armstrong Early.

According to the article "Home Fruit Production - Mandarins" by Julian W. Sauls, Professor and Extension Horticulturist, mandarin oranges (Citrus reticulata) are divided into four groups: Mediterranean; king, from Vietnam; Satsuma, originating in Japan; and tangerines. The article, found at:
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/citrus/mandarins.htm says that Satsuma and tangerines are of most interest in Texas. They are a more erect citrus than others and tend to have droopy, brittle branches that may break off with the weight of many Satsumas. Janak said his variety never had any breakage but occasionally he did prop up a few limbs. The Armstrong Early variety is self-pollinating and self-fruiting, unlike other hybrids that may need a suitable pollenizer nearby to produce a great amount of fruit.

Janak says to start off by finding a protected spot on the south or southeast side of the house so that citrus will be protected from a hard freeze. They will withstand temperatures down to 26 degrees. When it is extremely cold, Janak mulches the trunk and root area with hay to better protect them from freeze.

Due to citrus diseases, any citrus grown in Texas has to be legally started in Texas and not imported from any other area. The Armstrong Early Satsuma mandarin is grown on sour-orange rootstock, instead of trifoliate rootstock, which is a wild sweet orange.

After you have selected your Satsuma, be it Armstrong Early or Owari, and you have found the perfect spot for planting, you should build up a raised area, rather than digging a shallow basin for watering, as you would do with most trees. Digging out a well for watering will only lead to root rot.

Most container-bought citrus have been started in a soilless mix. It is hard to get them established unless you take special care to wash off about an inch of the mix and expose the roots, dislodging any roots encircling the root ball before planting it. Mix peat, compost or humus with topsoil and fill in half way, and then water in good, to help the soil settle in the roots. Then fill in the rest of the way, making sure you plant the tree slightly higher than it was in the container to insure the bud union where it is grafted stays above the soil line. Then you can bring in a soil mix and build a ring around the tree making sure it is about 2 feet away.

Keep the weeds and turfgrass from growing around the tree, because the mandarin does not compete well while getting established. Fill the water ring with water and let it soak in. Water every few days for the first couple of weeks and then every 7-10 days for the next two months depending on rainfall.

When the growth resumes, fertilize with ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) using 1 cup spread out for the first year, in February, May and September.

The second year, use 2 cups, the third year, 3 cups, and then for every year of growth use that many cups per year. Continue the applications in February, May and September by spreading the fertilizer around the tree and watering it in. If using a general fertilizer for our area, adjust the amount based on the relative amount of nitrogen.

When mature, the Satsuma should need a long, slow watering every couple of weeks. Other than cold damage, Satsumas should not need any special pruning. Janak said he does prune off some of the lowest branches that droop down. Otherwise no pruning is needed.

I recently planted one, and I hope to eventually have a nice crop. I've been told that alternating bearing may be a problem I'll just have to deal with. Janak has never thinned out fruit in the spring at fruitset, but it may not be a bad idea. He said sometimes the fruit is a bit smaller when there are so many, and the ones toward the top are usually larger than the lower ones.

There are few pest problems that can be controlled rather easily. Although Janak has never had any major pests in 16 years, his father's crop had whiteflys one year and he treated them with an insecticidal soap. Aphids can occasionally increase in numbers, causing honey due to fall and black sooty mold to develop on citrus. Again, an insecticidal soap would work best for control. Thrips can rasp out 1/8- inch spots on the peel in early summer, though they are typically never seen doing this. The spots later turn black, but this, too, is minimal damage and nothing to be alarmed about.

Satsuma mandarins have the Texas Superstar distinction and are supposed to perform well anywhere in Texas for anyone.

Some of my master gardener friends gave me information about their successes with growing citrus trees in containers, including calamondin, ruby red grapefruit, improved Meyer's Lemon, a variegated lemon that produces pink pulp, a miniature orange, and several kinds of limes, especially Mexican limes (Citrus aurantifolia 'Swingle'), also known as Key limes.

Laurie Garretson at Earthworks advised me that she has kumquat, loquat, lemonquat, Mexican or Key limes, naval oranges, and Brown, Owari and variegated Satsumas, so it looks like I could start an orchard.