Oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruit…there are so many types of citrus fruits! And for those who love citrus (whether for snacking, juicing, or using in your favorite recipes), there’s nothing quite like the thrill of growing your own. Citrus trees need consistent care if they’re going to produce fruit, however, and whether you envision a large grove on your property or a few dwarf citrus trees in your sunroom, you’re going to need to prune from time to time.
Pruning is the practice of cutting away unhealthy, overgrown, or poorly positioned branches and stems to promote healthy plant growth. The trick is to prune enough, but not too much – the leaves are the manufacturing part of the plant, and removing too much of the canopy will reduce tree growth and crops. Citrus bark also burns easily if over-exposed to the sun.
You may be wondering exactly what is citrus, and why does a citrus tree even need to be pruned? It may surprise you to learn that citrus is actually an evergreen plant. While all fruit trees benefit from regular pruning, citrus trees require less pruning than deciduous trees (such as apple or pear trees). All types of citrus still need regular pruning, however, if they’re to produce a healthy, abundant crop.
Here are some of the many benefits that occur from regularly pruning your citrus:
- Keeps your citrus trees at a manageable size, and within their allocated space.
- Makes it easier for you to get close to your tree for watering, harvesting fruit, and basic care.
- Lets light break through the thick canopy at the top of the tree to reach the leaves and branches below.
- Increases airflow in and around the tree, which helps prevent citrus tree diseases and citrus leaf curl.
- Increases blossom quality, fruit size, and fruit yield.
- Prevents damage to fruit due to limb rubbing.
- Keeps shoots from becoming dominant.
- Prevents crowding of main scaffold branches
The benefits of pruning can be reduced or delayed if trees are not pruned at the right time and in the correct way. The best time to prune is soon after harvest in winter to early spring before bud break. The timing for this is usually between late February and early April, but will vary depending on climate and whether your tree is an indoor citrus tree or an outdoor tree.
The key is to wait to prune your citrus tree until after the danger of a frost has passed entirely. If you prune your tree too early, the pruning can stimulate a growth spurt that will leave your tree vulnerable to frost or freeze damage.
Pruning your citrus tree too late, however, can put the tree in danger of sunburn. Citrus bark is thin and easily damaged, and sunburn can cause the bark to crack, leaving it susceptible to citrus diseases and causing cankers that may kill the tree over time. Therefore, prune your tree as soon as possible after the danger of frost has passed.
Homeowners with previous experience pruning deciduous trees often assume that citrus trees should be pruned similarly. However, citrus fruit quality is typically just as good or better from a minimally pruned tree as compared with one that is heavily pruned. So while regular pruning is a good thing, do it with a light hand. Here are some suggestions:
- Sprouts. Keep the lower 10-12″ of the tree trunk free of sprouts. Sprouts are best removed by hand when they are small. They will break off easily and removal will not damage the tree. When they are larger, hand pruners should be used to make a smooth cut and avoid damaging the tree.
- Branches. Always use a tool to remove branches (a hand tool is fine for smaller branches; for larger branches, a curved tree saw with a sharp blade is best). If you don’t want the branch to grow back, to not prune the branch flush with the trunk.
- Dead or diseased branches. Diseased branches should be cut back or removed completely. If the affected branch is to be cut back, be sure that the cut is made into healthy wood. Healthy wood is whitish-yellow, (like the color of a manila folder). Any darker wood that is still visible at the cut is an indication that disease still exists.
Once you’ve pruned, you may apply a citrus tree fertilizer to encourage more growth. (You can either use a slow-release citrus fertilizer once a year in early spring or a liquid citrus fertilizer every other week.)
Occasionally on citrus yellow leaves crop up. If the sight of a few yellow leaves on an indoor tree bothers you, you can go ahead and snip them off, though it isn’t necessary. If you have a lot of yellow leaves, though, that’s a sign that you should figure out what’s causing the problem and address it. Is your citrus soil too wet? Overwatering can cause yellow leaves, as can too little sunlight. Don’t just prune away the yellow leaves until you’re sure of what they’re trying to tell you.
Note: Do you have a citrus cocktail tree? This is a tree that has more than one kind of citrus fruit grafted onto it. When looking for citrus trees for sale, keep in mind that a citrus cocktail tree us usually bought in a mature state, eliminating the need for early pruning.