Kumquats on tree

Rain, Drought, and Citrus Trees

If you’ve been living in Southern California for the last few years or decades, you’re likely familiar with the changing weather patterns. In 2012 to 2016, we experienced a very harsh five-year drought and 2023-2024 had record-setting winter storms and an El Niño. With these constantly changing weather patterns, caring for your fruit trees can be overwhelming. Let’s talk about what happens to your citrus trees during these times and what you can do to help your trees thrive through thick and thin, rain and drought. 

Rain and Citrus Trees

Citrus trees are originally found in tropical and subtropical regions, which makes water essential for their health. Water is what moves nutrients through trees and keeps the leaves and fruit firm. But, like any tree, there is a fine line between just right and too much. The amount of water your tree needs is dependent on the environment it’s in and the tree itself. Factors like the age of the tree and soil composition can affect how much your tree needs and how much is too much. Here are some signs that your fruit tree is getting too much water. 

Leaf curling: Often leaf curling is the first sign of overwatering. When there’s too much moisture in the soil, less oxygen is able to be taken up by the tree. This creates less circulation of oxygen throughout the tree, resulting in leaf curl. 

Leaf discoloration: If your tree’s leaves are pale green or yellow, this could mean that your tree is waterlogged. Excess water prevents nutrients from being properly distributed. 

Split fruit peels:  If you notice fruit is splitting on the tree, that can mean too much water is going into the fruit when the peels are already fully grown. 

If you notice any of these signs, check your soil to make sure the water is draining properly and take a break from manually watering your soil. Check your soil after about a week before watering your trees again. Generally, most trees only need to be watered once a week. 

Drought and Citrus Trees

Droughts can bring lower yields and poor fruit quality, as well as, in extreme circumstances, dying fruit trees. Here are some steps you can take to care for your trees during a drought. 

Adding mulch: Mulch might be something that is overlooked at times, but we can’t stress how important it is. Mulch around your tree will insulate the soil, retain water, prevent weeds (reducing competition for water), and add organic matter to the soil. When applying mulch, add two to four inches on top of the soil and extend it so that it comes to the drip line or the area under the outermost branches of the tree. Start the mulch about one foot away from the trunk so that moisture doesn’t stay on the tree trunk causing it to rot. 

Improve the health of your soil: The first step to healthy trees is healthy soil. Add compost and organic mulch to the soil. As it breaks down, it will make the soil more porous, allowing the soil to hold onto water, providing nutrients to the tree, and hosting a wide diversity of beneficial microorganisms which also support the health of the tree. 

Monitor watering: Before setting up your watering system, we recommend that you hand water your trees first to determine what their water needs are. To do this, either shovel or use a moisture meter to feel the moisture about 1 foot below the surface of the soil. Do this in multiple areas of the drip line. More trees die from overwatering in Southern California than from anything else, and the symptoms of drought stress and overwatering look almost identical. By monitoring your soil moisture, you can determine what the problem really is. 

Apply water deeply and infrequently: Watering slowly will allow more water to seep into the soil, whereas applying a lot of water at once will just create runoff. Watering less often will encourage your trees to create wider and deeper roots for the search of water. This will increase the strength and vigor of the tree. 

Schedule watering for the morning: Watering your trees in the morning will reduce the amount of water that evaporates during the afternoon heat and allow your tree trunk to fully dry out before you water again. 

Prune your trees: Pruning your tree reduces transpiration, which is the water evaporation through leaves. The other benefits include encouraging healthy fruit growth, allowing more sun and airflow through the tree, and removing sick or dying limbs that waste resources. 

Use greywater: Greywater is water reused from your home to irrigate your yard. 

Although greywater may have a dirty connotation, the key is to use water that is recycled, but not unsafe. Never use water that’s from your toilet or has come into contact with human waste in any way. Great places to get your water from are your sinks, showers, and/or washing machines. However, avoid using dish water because detergents are typically high in sodium which can be harmful to many ecological systems. Plants that can thrive off of greywater are fruit trees, bushes, berry patches, shrubs, and large annuals as long as non-toxic, biodegradable products are used. Rule of thumb: this water should not come into direct contact with the fruit or what’s going to be eaten for health reasons, which makes fruit trees a great option. \Greywater systems are a great way of reusing water and reducing your overall water bill, but there is an initial cost. Greywater systems cost $2,500 on average, ranging from as low as $700 to as high as $20,000. This cost can vary depending on how complex you want your system to be and the cost can be greatly reduced if you are able to install the system yourself. 

The laws and regulations on greywater differ between states. Before making the decision of installing a greywater system, check your state’s jurisdiction. 

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