‘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
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
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
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