Saving citrus from frost

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Whether or not you can salvage a few precious fruits, the more important task is to save your trees so they can live to fruit down the road.

First of all, understand that some types of citrus trees are much more cold-hardy than others. Lemon and orange trees are the most susceptible to cold damage, but smaller species are often able to withstand very low temperatures for much longer. I have a backyard fruit-growing friend in central Mississippi (USDA Hardiness Zone 8b, well north of where growing citrus outdoors is recommended) who has had satsuma, mandarin and other closely-related types of tangerine trees and their hybrids survive below 15 degrees F; his kumquat trees can tolerate even colder temperatures.

In general, larger, mature trees can withstand and recover from cold injury better than young trees, and those that are kept in good condition tend to fend off damage better as well. It is important to fertilize citrus trees, but not too much and not in the late summer, which can keep trees too tender going into the cooler weather. And trees which are allowed to get too dry can be more susceptible to cold injury later.

In fact, watering the ground underneath citrus trees a day or two before predicted cold weather can help quite a bit,as moist soil radiates more ground warmth than dry soil. Most commercial citrus growers remove all weeds, grass, and mulch underneath their trees, then water deeply so the sun can warm the moist soil better in the winter.

Also keep in mind that citrus trees that are gradually exposed to cooler temperatures “harden” against cold damage, but this can be lost quickly during just two or three weeks of warm weather. Sometimes citrus trees will start growing or even flowering during mid-winter mild spells.

Protect young trees by covering their trunks with burlap, blankets or cardboard, but inspect regularly for ant or other insect infestation. For young or small trees, the most effective method of cold protection is to set up antifrost candles between two trees.

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