When to prune citrus trees? Pruning tips

When To Prune Citrus Trees? My impression is that most of us think that all fruit trees must be pruned. This does not apply to citrus fruits. In contrast, Myd says citrus fruits should not be pruned. 

I can think of a few exceptions to this rule. In my garden, I grow eight varieties of citrus fruits, of which, for various reasons, I have only touched two. 

Prune to keep a citrus tree small 

Once a year, I prune our wild linden tree by simply cutting off any branch larger than I would like, or by giving the pruning shears to Cass. I give him a haircut because I want him to be smaller than the size of my three-year-old son. It produces more limes than we are used to, despite its small size. 

Prune to shape a citrus tree 

I pruned our large orange tree in Valencia. He is about 1.80 metres tall and I have never tried to trim the top. Instead, I clipped the sides and the interior to create an umbrella shape. 

The interior design makes it a comfortable place to sit in the shade on a summer’s day. I prune a few spots along its canopy edge to create an entrance to the door. I hold the umbrella skirt a few meters from the floor so that the interior is not pruned, so that when you walk through it feels like an outdoor living room. 

Valencia orange tree 

The only two good reasons I can think of for trimming citrus are Keeping the trees small (my lime-shaped trees and my Valencia). But there are many bad reasons. 

Don’t lace a citrus tree

The worst reason for the way I prune citrus trees I have ever encountered is to open the canopy of the citrus trees so that the interior gets sunlight. This is a good idea for other fruit trees such as plums and peaches. But for citrus it is not advisable. 

Recently, I was in consultation with a multi-million dollar residence at my home in Rancho Santa Fe, where the owners had planted an orchard of a few dozen fruit trees and their hired gardener pruned the citrus trees for peaches and plums. The foliage thinned and entire branches were cut from the canopy to create a skeletal effect, and you could see how much light fell through the trees onto the inside of the branches. All our citrus trees died. 

If you want to keep citrus trees small and in shape, you should cut them back on the outside, just as you would cut a hedge. But don’t cut off entire branches that expose the inner parts of the tree that serve as shadows. Inner branches, which are exposed to the sun, break and blacken from sunburn. That way the tree gets sunburnt. 

Watch this video showing how citrus growers prune their trees. This comes from a farm in Spain, but the same techniques are used in Southern California and around the world. 

Citrus experts tell me that citrus trees are in great health, because without them you cannot see the light in the sky when you look at its canopy. It is a dense green globe. There are a few other good reasons to prune citrus fruits, including cutting dead or crossed twigs. But it’s a big waste of time. 

It is up to you how well your citrus trees are doing, but I might not care if they have branches that are crossed, dead or hanging upside down. I do not cut dead or crossed branches of my citrus trees and have never complained about it. To me, it’s just harmless and natural. 

Insect damage citrus tree 

If aphids, miner moths or other insects damage the leaves of your citrus tree, don’t waste time felling them. The leaves are capable of photosynthesis and contribute to the growth and fertility of the tree, but they are not healthy. Pruning the leaves will not make a significant difference in the insect population of your tree. It is better to adapt your aesthetic sensibilities than to cut up your citrus tree for your health. 

(You might like to read my post, “Don’t spray for citrus leafminers.”) 

Pay attention to what grows on the lower trunk of your citrus tree. It could save your tree’s life. If you are not sure what I mean, read the title of this post: Beware of rootstock suckers on citrus trees. Normally I do not think about pruning, but it is important to do this when a branch from a plug (bud joint) starts to grow on the tree before removing it. 

When is the best time to prune? 

If you have a pruner at hand, this is a good time to cut citrus fruits, but there are a few exceptions. One is when there are unripe fruits on the tree and you want to wait until after the harvest. For example, if you are dealing with a satsuma or tangerine tree, the fruit will ripen in winter and you will want to wait until spring so that you do not have to sacrifice the fruit. Secondly, if you live in a place with cold winters that can damage citrus fruits, you may not want to cut in winter or autumn. The reason for this is that you may want to go into the winter with a larger canopy so that you have extra leaves and twigs to compensate for the frost damage that will occur. 

It is not only the cold that kills citrus trees in most parts of Southern California, it also affects many parts of the rest of the state and in fact in most other parts of the USA. It won’t just be a relief to know that your citrus trees know how to grow alone. Who knows, you may find that citrus trees thrive in Southern California farms that have been neglected for years. Or maybe everyone knows a Southern California farm that has a citrus tree or eight.

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