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Milberger's Nursery and Landscaping
3920 North Loop 1604 E.
San Antonio, TX 78247

Three exits east of 281, inside of 1604
Next to the Diamond Shamrock station
Please click map for more detailed map and driving directions.

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Dooryard Citrus

‘Tis the season to plant a Satsuma at your door.

Texas horticulturist Ernest Mortenson wrote, “The earliest citrus in Texas was from seed planted in dooryards by the early settlers. The early part of this century was the scene of a rapid development in the southwest coastal area in planting Satsuma mandarins. These loose-skinned, sweet, practically seedless fruit with low acidity were first introduced from Japan in 1878. It was considered to be cold resistant and able to withstand as low 15 degrees F. This it can do in January, if the temperature doesn’t remain there more than 2 or 3 hours. Trees can be damaged by 26 degrees F. in November, since previous exposure to cold increases the ability of citrus trees to withstand cold. The coastal area near Houston and Beaumont had a citrus boom until February, 1911, when the temperature dropped to 8 degrees F. at Alvin. Most growers were lucky to save 10 percent of their trees. This was followed by the 1915 hurricane.”

The highest quality citrus with the most cold resistance is the Satsuma. You’re probably asking, “If this is such a good citrus, why is it not sold or available in quantity to the gardening public?” The answer is supply.

Children provide the best testimony on how good these mandarins really are. Many children do not like oranges or orange-juice because of their tartness. Satsumas have a milder, “sweeter” taste because of the low acid-to-sugar ratio.

Many people have eaten and enjoyed satsumas and not realized it. Have you ever eaten a coconut-marshmallow salad (sometimes called Fruit Ambrosia or 5-Cup Salad) with small locules (slices) of orange in it? Those small, sweet, seedless “orange” slices are actually mandarin slices or satsumas. That’s right. The Japanese are selling us small, cull satsumas. The reason slices are so small is that they are culls of Japanese satsumas. Now we can grow our own large, fruited satsumas. Does the name Satsuma sound a bit Japanese to you?

Growing your own citrus in a permanent location is not without problems. A cold night after a mild fall can put all your efforts to an end very quickly. If you decide to plant the satsuma in the ground, be sure to plant it near a house or in an area that has access to electricity so a space heater or a string of light bulbs can provide some supplemental heat during those unusually cold nights (below 25 degrees F.). The tree is normally 15 to 20 feet tall at maturity and can be kept even smaller by yearly pruning. If pruned yearly to keep the tree height below the eave of the house, a lean-to type structure can be made by draping plastic from the house eave to the ground. Then, supplement heat sources (light bulbs, space heaters, etc.) can be added. Understand that the more drastic the cold, the greater amount of heat must be furnished to keep the temperature inside the lean-to above 25 degrees F. Some folks thought that 4 light bulbs would keep plants warm in 6-degree F. weather. Now all these folks have left is a dead satsuma stick. (Remember that satsumas are grafted trees and the sprouts that come from the ground are not a “new” tree but merely the thorny rootstock—on which the citrus was grafted.)

Cold protection is necessary if a crop is expected every year since cold weather can defoliate trees without killing them but there will more than likely be no fruit produced following such a defoliation. Plant protectors should avoid the danger of electrical shock when using any electrical equipment outdoors!

During a hard freeze (12 degrees F.) in ’83, some satsuma trees didn’t even lose a twig to cold. Of course, they were covered with plastic and had a portable electric heater under the foliage canopy. Some families may have been a bit cold, but the precious citrus was safe and warm!

A minimum of pruning will be required for citrus trees. Citrus has a tendency to form an apron around the trunk that helps to protect them from both cold and heat. To try to interfere with this by pruning the lower branches to make them look better will result in reducing the next year’s fruit crop as well as encouraging sucker growth. In Texas, mulching is beneficial in the summer months. Mulching will reduce the soil temperature and promote conservation of soil moisture. However, the mulch should be kept at least a foot away from the trunk of the tree to prevent a tree-killing disease known as foot rot.

Creating Espalier Citrus Trees

(NOTE: Most people find it hard enough to grow plants in the yard without going to the interminable difficulty of trying to espalier them. Citrus grows so readily and vigorously with minimal care. The less pruning the better. And, because they look so good in their natural shape and form, I would not care to propound the use of espalier. Moreover, few people actually master the art and science of good pruning, let alone the extensive pruning involved in creating an espalier!)

Another way to keep your citrus warm during the winter is to grow the trees directly onto your house. Heat from the house can provide a buffer zone to cold. If you want to grow a cold-tender tree onto your house, you can espalier it on a sunny, southern-exposure wall. Espalier simply means “a tree or vine trained and pruned to grow flat on a wall or structure. This practice is much more common abroad than in America. Espaliering of plants has the advantages of saving space, of giving trees maximum care, of helping to produce high quality fruit which might otherwise be impossible, and when necessary, shelter. Fruit trees such as citrus are especially adapted for use as espaliers.

The plant can be fastened directly to a masonry wall or a wood trellis can be used to hold the plant 4 to 6 inches from the wall. A simple method of supporting espaliered plants against masonry structures is the use of galvanized or aluminum wire strung between eye screws anchored in plastic or lead plugs inserted in holes drilled into the mortar joints. The desired pattern is established in wire and the plant fastened to the wire using plastic plant tie, cloth or plastic strips to avoid girdling. These ties must be watched carefully and when they become tight, they should be cut and re-tied.

There are many forms for training espaliers; however, in most cases they are trained to grow so all branches form a vertical plane. The plant may be trained to a single shoot, or to 2 shoots lying in opposite directions, mostly horizontal, in which case it is called a cordon. The cordon is usually trained along a horizontal wire or low wooden fence. Other methods include the fan-shaped espalier and the gridiron espalier that are both suitable for growing against a wall.

The training is started when the plant is very young, preferably no older than a 2-year-old budded or grafted tree. You must start before the plant has produced a stiff trunk and large slide branches. Allow only those side shoots to develop that are growing in the proper position and direction to produce the desired effect. All others should be pruned off when they are still small.

The selected lateral shoots are tied to the support as they grow and the side shoots developing from these are pinched out, except those wanted for additional arms in the framework. The espalier form most frequently used in the gridiron is that in which 3 branches are initially chosen. The center one is used as a leader and the other 2 area trained as horizontal cordons until they reach the point where the outside verticals are desired. If the 7-branched gridiron is preferred, the leader is pinched to develop until they reach the point where the vertical branches are wanted. It may require 2 or 3 years to get the desired structure. The side shoots on the lateral canes must be continuously pinched back.

While the production of an espalier is rather time-consuming, the results are very rewarding and reliable citrus production insured. BE SURE to do this on a wall that receives as much sun as possible—at least 8 hours of direct sun daily.

Planting Citrus in Containers

The easiest and surest way to avoid the freezing problem is by planting trees in containers that can be rolled into a protected area at the onset of adverse weather. The satsuma mandarin is a very worthwhile plant to containerize. Thought the satsuma is technically a small tree, its size can be dwarfed even more when it is containerized. Use a large container such as a whiskey barrel or 20-gallon container. If the container does not drain well, insure adequate drainage by drilling or cutting holes in the bottom. If using a wooden container, attach heavy-duty coasters to help mobility. Invest in a well-drained potting mix (soil).

Use a slow-release fertilizer such as Osmocote. Be sure to follow label directions. This slow-release fertilizer application should be done yearly in the spring (March). Plant one satsuma or citrus tree in the middle of the container and transplant a trailing type of lantana or flowering annual plant (such as petunia, periwinkle or pansy) to fill in the rest of the perimeter planting space in the pot. Flowers will eventually cascade over the side of the container producing a beautiful display. Satsumas should be grown in a location which receives as much direct sun as possible. Watering is gauged by plant size and temperature. Larger satsumas with more perimeter color plants require more frequent watering during hot, dry conditions.

Though satsumas are considered to be one of the most cold-hardy edible citrus, temperatures below 25 degrees F. will defoliate trees and make them non-productive the following year. So, avoid low temperatures in protected areas where trees are stored. Containerized plants that can be stored in garages are easier to keep warm during prolonged periods of cold. It is more economical to maintain the temperature of a garage above 25 degrees F. than it is to maintain the same temperature in a plastic-covered lean-to type structure on the side of the house.

Such a planting will make an attractive patio plant as well as a productive addition to the landscape. By planting in containers, satsumas can be enjoyed in the northern-most areas of Texas. The main problem most people have is waiting until the fruit turns orange in October to harvest it. The fruit is actually sweet when the skin is still green in September. Some folks tell me the best whiskey sour on earth is made from a green-skinned, just-about-to-turn satsuma fruit. Some folks tell me satsumas have the tart taste of an orange when harvested before they color. The longer the satsuma fruit can stay on the tree without freezing, the sweeter the fruit will become. But keep in mind that this is true only until the time that the juice vesicles begin to dry out, which occurs as early as mid-December in some years. Most citrus will naturally fall from the tree in February and March if not harvested.

NOW is the best time to buy a citrus because of the new source of trees. Quality plants are very reasonable prices are available from local retail outlets. The purchaser will receive the first gratification from the wonderful fragrance of the citrus blooms next spring. If any fruit set, they should be removed from the trees so the trees can continue to grow foliage and limbs.

People are always searching for fragrant blooming plants to naturally deodorize their surroundings. No other plant has a more pleasing perfume than the orange blossom fragrance of citrus. Due to fragrant flowers, tasty fruit and beautiful glossy, evergreen foliage, THIS IS a supreme patio, garage-in-winter plant. Try to grow your own citrus this year. It is a healthy, joyful experience. So join the citrus-mania and plant lemons (Improved Meyer); oranges (Moro Blood, Sanguinelli Blood, Ruby Blood, N-33 navel, navel, Everhard navel, Skaggs Bonanza navel, Valencia, Marrs, Jaffa), mandarins or satsumas (Okitsu Wase, Seto, Miho, Dancy tangerine, Sunburst, Clementine tangerine, Page, Kishu, Kinnow), grapefruits (Rio Red, Henderson), Orlando tangelo and Temple Tangor.

So while NOW is the time to buy citrus, don’t procrastinate or you may be left citrus-less. Supplies of this precious citrus, satsuma, are limited!

For more information on growing citrus at home, visit this website: