How to Grow Oranges
Oranges are not only delicious and healthy but also orange trees look beautiful, especially with brightly shining oranges on them.
Orange trees can be both small and tall, but both look beautiful and can be very decorative. Since oranges are so tasty and healthy, and one can enjoy them in so many different ways, one might wonder if they can grow their own oranges. The good news is that one can grow their own oranges rather easily.
What is an Orange?
The oranges one finds in stores are sweet oranges and they are botanically named citrus x sinensis.
This is a tender perennial fruit in the Citrus family the trees of which are both tall and small i.e., dwarf. Orange is a summer fruit that thrives in warm weather. It’s very sensitive to cold and frost.
Sweet Oranges and Sour (Bitter) Oranges
Oranges are of two types – sweet oranges and sour or bitter oranges. While sweet oranges are grown for eating, sour oranges are grown for peels and used in culinary arts.
However, sometimes sweet oranges can taste sour or bitter due to various factors and by dealing with these factors growers can grow sweet oranges that really taste sweet.
It’s believed that the origin of sweet oranges is India from where they spread all through Europe and later reached the Americas. Since then, homeowners continued trying to grow this delicious fruit in their own yards. However, they often have to keep wondering why their oranges taste bitter rather than sweet.
Several things can affect the sweetness of sweet oranges including climate, time of harvest, variety of the tree, use of fertilizers, watering, and general care.
How to Make Oranges Sweeter?
If a homeowner grows oranges that are too sour, maybe some of the following factors are affecting the taste of the oranges. They can make appropriate changes and make the oranges sweeter.
Variety: Growers should choose a sweet orange variety and allow the tree to establish itself for a few years before expecting a fruit with excellent taste. It’s believed that the older the tree, the better and sweeter are its fruits.
Location: Oranges belong to tropical and subtropical regions and perform best in those conditions. If a grower plans to grow a sweet orange tree, they should make sure that it’s planted on the sunniest side of their yard.
Soil: Orange trees love loamy soil. If one’s soil is heavy clay, it won’t favor a strong root system and substandard fruits will be produced.
Time of Harvest: As the fruit remains on the tree in cooler temperatures, its acid content is reduced. Leaving the fruit on the tree just a little longer as winter sets in will make the fruit sweeter. Although peel color is not a definite indicator of ripening, in general, the more orange or deep yellow the peel, the more ripened, mature, and sweet the fruit will be.
Fertilization: Oranges require just the correct amount of nitrogen all through the growing season to produce sweet fruit. One should not add fertilizers until the tree starts growing. Also, excessive fertilizer can cause leggy growth and a reduction in fruit number and even size.
Watering: Once the tree is established, the grower should reduce watering up to every couple of weeks. Excessive watering can make the fruit less sweet.
Maintenance: The grower should keep grass and weeds away from the tree trunk and also should not add any mulch. Pruning is usually not required and may cause distress to the tree which can cause sour fruits.
Varieties of Oranges
There are numerous varieties of oranges, each having somewhat different fruits, harvest period, flowering period, fertilizer requirements, etc.
However, for most home growers general growing guidelines are more than enough for growing healthy orange trees.
Sweet Orange Varieties
Sweet oranges are divided into four classes:
Common Orange: Common oranges are widely grown and come in several varieties. The most common varieties are Valencia, Hamlin, and Hart’s Tardiff Valencia. But there are many others.
Blood Orange or Pigmented Orange: This category is again divided into two – light blood oranges and deep blood oranges. Blood oranges are actually a natural mutation of C. sinensis and get their deep red color due to high amounts of anthocyanins. There are categories like Moro, Tarocco, Maltese, Sanguinelli, and Scarlet Navel in Blood oranges.
Navel Orange: Navel orange is a commercially important category and is sold commonly in the markets. The most common types of Navel oranges are Bahia, California Navel, Washington Navel (a large, seedless variety that is easy to peel and thrives in Southern California), Dream Navel, Cara Cara, and Late Navel.
Acid-less Orange: Acid-less oranges have very little acid and therefore little flavor. These are early-season fruits and are also known as ‘sweet’ oranges. Since they contain little acid, which protects against spoilage, they are unsuitable for juicing. They are not usually grown in large amounts.
Mandarin, an original citrus species, is also included among the sweet common orange varieties. Its many cultivars include Tangerine, Satsuma, and Clementine.
Bitter (Sour) Orange Varieties
Seville Orange: C. aurantium is used as rootstock for sweet orange trees and to make marmalade.
Bergamot Orange (C. bergamia Risso): Bergamot orange is mainly grown in Italy for its peel which is used in perfumes and also as a flavoring in Earl Grey Tea.
Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata): Trifoliate orange is also used as a rootstock for sweet orange trees. It bears downy fruit and the fruits are used in making marmalade. It’s native to Korea and northern China.
Willowleaf: This sour orange variety is mainly used to make a base for marmalade.
The category of bitter oranges also includes some oriental fruits like:
- Kitchli from India
- Sanbo and Naruto from Japan
- Nanshodaidai of Taiwan
Plant Hardiness Zones
Oranges grow well in USDA plant hardiness zones 9 through 11 as the sunshine and warmth in these zones are favorable for their growth.
When Does The Orange Tree Fruit?
The orange tree produces fruits 3 to 5 years after planting depending on whether the grower grows it from seeds or buys a plant and how old the plant is at the time of buying.
Also, after the fruits emerge, they take 7-8 months to ripen. So, the grower needs to have a lot of patience.
How to Grow Orange Trees
When to Plant Orange Tree
One should be very careful while planting oranges because it’s a very delicate crop. One should plant it a minimum of six weeks after the last frost, i.e., when the temperature of air and soil is consistently warm.
The region from Southern California to Florida is called the commercial citrus belt. This region is consistently warm year-round. If one lives in this region, one can plant oranges at any time.
One should just learn about their plant hardiness zone to determine if their area is favorable for year-round citrus plant growth.
Growing Oranges Outdoors
Choosing and Preparing a Planting Site
While growing oranges in their yard, one should first find a spot that receives abundant sunlight and is well-draining and with plentiful loam.
One should remember that roots of orange trees go deep and hence they should remember to keep a clearance of at least 20 feet around the base of a full-sized tree variety and 10 feet around a small-sized variety.
Also, to let the roots grow properly, standard-sized trees should be planted at least 12 feet (3.7 m) from walls and other large objects and 25 feet (7.6 m) from other trees.
While planting dwarf varieties, one should check their variety’s requirements. Orange tree canopy can grow up to 10 feet (3 m) in diameter, so, a gardener should plant the tree minimum of 5 feet (1.5 m) from footpaths to maintain a clearance.
The grower should mound the soil around the base of the fledging tree, and then make sure they water the roots with around an inch of water per week.
The planting site should be protected from the wind.
Temperature & Humidity
The gardener should watch their young seedlings carefully because the seedlings are susceptible to burning and other dangers than fully grown trees.
However, overall orange trees do best in full sun. The ideal temperature for orange trees is from 75 to 90-degree F (24 to 32 degrees C).
They perform poorly in spring or summer temperatures i.e. below 45 degrees F (7 degrees C) and depending on the variety, may die in temperatures 32 degrees F or below. Temperatures above 100-degree F (38 degrees C) sustained for several days may likely cause leaf damage.
If an adult tree is exposed consistently to too high temperatures, the grower should hang a sun shade or sheet over it until the temperatures go below 100-degree F (38 degrees C).
The grower should move their orange tree indoors before there is a frost, as citrus trees are more susceptible to frost damage than heat damage, although certain varieties may be able to tolerate a mild period of frost.
Pruning is very important in the case of orange trees because it encourages fruiting and new growth.
Pruning can improve the aeration and entry of light through the canopy. This in turn improves the fruit quality and yield. It also makes harvesting easy and reduces potential injuries due to falls from ladders as the overall height of the trees is reduced due to pruning.
Late winter or early spring, before next year’s crop starts budding, is the right time for pruning. in general, in warm regions, the grower should prune in the spring from February to April, whereas growers living in cooler regions should wait till late February or March.
Small trimmings, such as snipping off sprouts, can be done at any time barring late in the growing season, as it induces new growth, which can be damaged by frost.
Once the pruning is done, the grower should protect the area with a 50:50 mixture of water and white interior latex paint. They should make sure they sterilize the pruning tools to prevent any disease or contamination the tools may carry through any previous pruning task.
Small sprouts can be easily removed by hand. If they’re too big to easily snap off, the grower can use hand pruners.
The grower should continue removing the sprouts as they should never become so large that the grower may need a saw or loppers to remove them. If the grower needs loppers, they should remove the sprouts at their base, retaining the branch collar.
The collar is the swollen part of the trunk that encircles the base of the branch and prevents the decaying of the tree.
The grower can wrap the trunk with white cardboard to inhibit the growth of sprouts. The lower 10-12 inches (25-30 cm) of the tree should be kept free from sprouts.
The grower will need hand pruners or a saw to remove branches. They should prune the branch leveling with the collar, not the trunk. This will give the tree the best chance to totally heal and minimize sprout growth.
During the first couple of years, pruning helps to shape the plant. From the 3rd year, the gardener would have to prune spent branches or branches that fruited the year before. They should also regularly prune any brown leaves or flowers, or dying/dead branches.
This much said, pruning orange trees is usually not absolutely necessary barring the times when there are any damaged or diseased branches. The grower need not prune to thin out fruit unless there is simply an overabundance.
Pruning container-grown orange trees is often not necessary as well, as their growth is kept in check by the size of the container.
Again, if the grower wants to remove any damaged or diseased limbs, they should lightly snip off suckers that emerge below the graft or bud union and should keep the canopy open.
A flower becomes a fruit due to pollination. Orange trees can produce the most beautiful blossoms. But if they are not pollinated, not a single orange fruit can appear. Gardeners can do hand pollination which can help in fruit production.
Orange Tree Pollination: Pollination refers to the transfer of pollen (collection of powdery grain on the tips of the stalks that form an outer circle) from the male part of a flower, the stamen, to the female part of another flower, the pistil (the single bigger stalk at the center of the ring of stamens).
In nature, this process is carried out mostly by bees that carry pollen on their hairy bodies and move from flower to flower.
However, if the grower’s orange tree is indoors or in a greenhouse, or in an area where there are not many bees around, or if the tree is blooming but the weather is still cool (which means the bees may not be active yet), the grower should consider manual orange pollination.
Even if the grower lives in a warm, bee-rich region, they can hand pollinate if they want to increase fruit production.
How to Hand Pollinate: Hand pollination of orange trees is not difficult. The grower just needs a small, soft tool for the process, like a child’s paintbrush, a cotton swab, or even a bird’s soft feather.
The gardener should just brush the tool against the stamen of one flower and the pollen will stick to it. Now they should brush the tool against the pistil of another flower.
They should repeat the process until they touch all the flowers on their tree. They should perform this process once a week until all the flowers are gone for the greatest yield of oranges.
As mentioned earlier, the grower of oranges needs to have a lot of patience, because the tree produces fruit after 3 to 5 years and takes 7 to 8 months more to ripen.
But during this waiting period, the grower can take utmost care of the trees, which will reward them in the form of the best oranges.
As such, orange trees can grow in a variety of soil types. For optimal growth, however, they need well-draining soil that has a pH between 5.0 and 6.5. A soil rich in loam, i.e., a combination of 40% sand, 20% clay, and 40% silt is ideal.
Orange trees need a significant amount of water to grow well, particularly to start with.
It’s ideal to provide around 1 inch of water weekly to the trees, depending upon how moist the soil is. If it’s too dry, the gardener should add one more than an inch of water. However, they shouldn’t saturate the soil with water. The soil should be just moist and not too wet.
Although sprouts or young seedlings need moist soil, once grown into young trees, orange trees like to be in soil that dries out before the next watering.
Before the next watering, the grower should check if the soil has dried out by making a deep hole in it with their finger. If it is dry, they should water heavily until the soil is soaked. They should leave a large adult tree alone until the soil is dry up to 6 inches beneath the surface.
Generally, the gardener can water an orange tree once to twice weekly, but this can change according to the temperature, humidity, and amount of sunlight the tree is receiving. They should use their judgment and water more often during hot, dry seasons.
Note: The gardener should not water orange trees with tap water if their tap water is hard (if it leaves a white scale on pipes or kettles). Instead, they should use filtered water or rainwater.
Protection from Frost
Since young orange trees are very sensitive to cold and frost, they should be brought indoors before the frost, if possible. But if this is not possible, one should wrap their trunks with fleece, corn stalks, cardboard, or other insulating materials. The trunk should be covered up to the main branches.
When it comes to adult trees, they will rarely die due to frost. However, they may undergo leaf damage. One should wait till spring to check which branches survive before pruning the dead branches.
The natural components of compost activate the soil’s contents, like healthy bacteria, fungi, and minerals. This strengthens the plants’ immunity and prolongs the crop’s life.
The gardener can even use other organic ingredients to fertilize their soil. Fertilization should be done at the right time. If the timing is wrong, the trees can get burned or damaged in other ways.
A special citrus tree fertilizer or any other fertilizer that should be high in nitrogen can be used.
2–3-year-old trees should be given 2 tablespoons (30 mL) nitrogen-high fertilizer 3-4 times a year. This should be spread under the tree, right before watering. Or one can mix one gallon (3.8L) of high-quality composted manure into the soil. But this should be done only in the fall so that rains can wash away excess salts before they can cause damage.
4 year or older trees grown outdoors need 1 – 1.5 lb (0.45-0.68 kg) of nitrogen a year. The label on the fertilizer should include the information about the percentage of nitrogen the fertilizer contains so that one can calculate how much of it one will need to provide the right amount of nitrogen to the soil. It should be spread over the root area and then one should water the tree. This can be done either once during winter or thrice in equal batches in February, July, and September.
The fertilizer should also include phosphorous and potassium, along with a range of micro-nutrients. If an older orange tree is not producing abundant fruit, the grower should better do a soil test to check what nutrients the soil is lacking. Usually, additional fertilization is applied by spraying the leaves once or twice a year.
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Weeding is also an important part of orange tree maintenance.
It should be made a regular step of one’s everyday gardening routine. It can prevent diseases like citrus cankers.
It’s recommended to do weeding in the morning when the soil is damp and the weeds can be easily eliminated.
Oranges can be harvested by cutting them from the stems with a sharp tool such as a small knife or shears.
If picked by hand, the gardener should wear gloves. They should remember that once picked, oranges don’t ripen. Hence, they should be picked after they ripen. They should be stored in a refrigerator or any other cool place. They usually last for 2-3 weeks.
The key is to identify when to harvest oranges. If one buys oranges regularly from stores, they may know that uniform color is not an indication of a ripe orange as the fruit may even be dyed.
Actually, the time to harvest oranges depends on the variety. Harvesting may be done anytime from as early as March to as late as December or January.
It’s recommended to know when the variety one has planted ripens. Here are a few helpful rules:
- Clementine oranges ripen till October.
- Pineapple sweet oranges ripen from November to February.
- Satsuma oranges ripen until December or January.
- Cara Cara oranges are ready to harvest from December to May.
- Valencia oranges can be harvested from March to October.
- Navel oranges can be harvested from November to June.
As mentioned earlier, uniform color is not an indication of the orange’s readiness for harvesting. That said, one even doesn’t want to harvest green fruits.
Often ripe fruits will just drop down from the tree. The gardener should make sure the fruit doesn’t have any blemishes, mold, or fungus growth.
The fruit should smell fresh, sweet, citrusy, and not moldy. The most definite way to make sure if an orange tree has all the fruits ripened is to sample one or two oranges before harvesting the entire tree. As mentioned earlier, oranges don’t ripen once picked.
The grower should note that leaving fruits on the tree may decrease the crop for the next year. An adult tree may produce fruits more than one needs for home use.
Certain varieties like Valencia and Mandarins produce fruits heavily and lightly in alternating years. One should fertilize lightly during the year of light production as the tree needs fewer nutrients.
What if Orange Flowers and Fruits Grow at the Same Time?
Deciduous trees like apple fruit once a year and the gardener can pick the fruits and prepare for the next year’s crop. In short, there is no confusion here. However, this may not be the case with oranges.
As oranges are evergreen trees, some varieties of them continue fruiting all year long. Thus, such a tree may have fruits and flowers at the same time. In that case, the gardener may get confused about whether to pick fruits from a flowering tree.
Especially, in Valencia oranges, growers have more chances, than in other varieties, to see flowers and fruits at the same time. It’s because of the long ripening season of Valencia oranges.
Valencia oranges may even sometimes take as many as 15 months to ripen which means that it’s quite possible that the tree gets two crops at the same time.
Navel oranges just take 10 to 12 months to ripen. However, the fruit may hang on trees for weeks after ripening. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to see a navel orange tree having flowers and developing fruits, and mature oranges at the same time.
In such a case, the gardener can harvest mature oranges and let the developing fruits be on the tree.
In other cases, an orange tree flowers usually in late winter and then produces a few more flowers during late spring, known as ‘off-bloom fruit’. However, oranges developed from this second wave may not be of very good quality.
Commercial orange producers remove off-bloom fruit from the trees so the trees can focus all their energy on the main crop. Also, this compels the tree to get back to its normal schedule of blooming and fruiting.
If a home grower has orange blossoms that seem to be a late wave of off-bloom fruit, removing them may be a good idea because these late oranges could meddle with their tree’s regular blooming time and affect the next winter’s crop.
Growing oranges may thus be a challenging task but it’s equally a rewarding experience.
The beauty of the plant is that those having a yard and those who don’t have one both can grow this plant and get their very own sweet oranges with proper care and maintenance. As a bonus, the tree makes their yard or home look beautiful.
Thus, every homeowner should try growing this golden orange, juicy, delicious fruit and enjoy the process.
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