In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
August, 2012
Regional Report

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Citrus foliage is evergreen and dense and makes an effective screen, either as a single tree or planted in a row.

Xeriscape Part III: Plant Selection: Edibles: Citrus Trees

Xeriscape design includes a set of seven principles to guide you in the creation and long-term maintenance of a colorful, earth-friendly landscape that suits your unique needs. Previous reports covered design, site analysis, whether to install turf, and varied plant selection topics. This report continues the topic of selecting edible plants; in particular, the pros and cons of citrus.

In addition to providing fresh fruit, citrus trees can be considered a multipurpose landscape plant. Glossy evergreen foliage and bright yellow or orange fruits give long months of color. Dense foliage acts as screening and provides shade. Spring flowers waft incredibly intense fragrance around the neighborhood and are a good nectar and pollen source for bees. (Citrus honey is luscious, if you are into beekeeping.)

However, here's the big caveat for drought-tolerant or low-maintenance landscapes: Citrus trees require considerable water throughout the year and three fertilizer applications annually to remain healthy and provide a good crop. Do not think you can skimp on water and get away with it! Not only will fruit fail to develop properly, stressed trees are prone to attack by pests and diseases. Citrus is susceptible to a number of problems that can kill the tree quickly.

Check out this link to Irrigating Citrus Trees from the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension on the water needs of citrus before deciding: http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/crops/az1151.pdf. Do the numbers fit your water budget? Maybe you choose a citrus tree in lieu of turf. Another option is to incorporate rainwater-harvesting methods into your landscape, such as rain gutters that direct water from your house or garage roof to the citrus. About 6058 gallons of water can be harvested from a 1000-square-foot rooftop in one year in the Phoenix area, which averages a mere 10.8 inches of rain per year. Let that water soak in around citrus trees to create a moisture bank that root systems can tap. (Water should not stand against the trunks.)

Citrus trees and fruit are susceptible to frost damage, even in the low desert. Their cold tolerance varies from about 32 degrees for limes to about 20 degrees for kumquats. If you live at elevations that are too cold, you can grow citrus in pots, moving them indoors and outdoors with the seasons. Another option for marginal climates that experience infrequent cold spells is to plant citrus in a warm microclimate, such as next to a block wall that absorbs heat, and be prepared to provide cover. The publication Frost Protection from University of Arizona Cooperative Extension gives details: http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/az1002.pdf.

Finally, citrus varieties have different harvest times. If you are not a full-time resident, be sure to choose a variety that produces fruit when you are around to harvest it! University of Arizona Cooperative Extension offers a handy harvest chart in Low Desert Citrus Varieties at http://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/az1001.pdf. If you live in another region, consult your county Cooperative Extension office for guidance.


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