How + When to Prune Citrus

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No matter what tree you prune, or how confident you are – always begin with a ponder. That is, go walk around the tree and study it. Pay attention to 2 things in particular – imbalance – ie one side stronger/ taller/ wider than the other and clutter ie an absence of light penetration.

Then consider other factors, external to the tree, that you need to prune for. Perhaps the lower branches need to be removed to better accommodate the driveway/ fence/ path. Or the height reduced to keep away from overhead wires. Or the width reduced to allow better access between neighbouring trees.

If you are a beginner pruner, or need a refresh – read this post here. It runs through the very basics and teaches the 2 different pruning cuts – thinning and heading. Understanding the difference between these 2 cuts is paramount, its the difference between creating an open, fruitful tree or not.

A small annual prune is all citrus need – small, but meaningful. What a difference it makes! Citrus can take a hard prune if needs must and you’ve inherited an overgrown old tree. The next few years will be light cropping as a result of all that fruitful wood being removed, but they’ll come back.

Timing

Citrus fruit on new growth

Timing is everything with citrus. If you live somewhere warm and mild, then prune late winter – right after harvest. If it’s frosty at yours, delay pruning until risk of frost is over – mid to late spring is fine. Beware of summer pruning though, as this is when the pest, citrus borer is out and about.

Meyer lemons bear fruit nearly year round. Pruning a tree covered in fruit can be mentally hard. Just get it done and once you settle into a rhythm of an annual prune, you’ll only be taking a small amount off each time reducing the concern regards removing fruits.

Begin

Showing the rootstock shooting away - the shoots are thorny and angular
These thorny, angular shoots are coming from the graft and need to be removed.

Choose a lovely, dry day and begin your prune by removing any dead and damaged wood. Cut it back to healthy clean wood.

Remove all growth that starts from below the graft. The rootstock is a different variety which is why it looks so different and may well be thorny to boot.

Drag out the removed wood and begin a stack. Put all successive prunings on this pile so as you can keep it real about how much you’ve removed.

Airflow

Before pruning the mandarin - a bit too much clutter at the base
Before pruning, this young mandarin has a bit much clutter down below

Though trimming around the outside (heading cuts) of the tree feels safer, it removes most of the fruiting sites and creates a very twiggy dense canopy through which light and air cannot penetrate. This is because heading cuts fork after pruning.

Make the majority of your cuts thinning cuts, and good airflow will be yours. At the same time you’ll inspire new shoots for future fruits, while leaving much of the fruitful wood intact for the forth coming season. Fresh shoots coming on each season is what you want – this is what creates a compact, yet productive tree.

After pruning the mandarin- lower growth pruned back for good airflow
2 very small cuts later and now the tree can breathe freely
  • Remove dominant, upright shoots completely. They clutter the tree and aren’t productive.
  • Lift the skirt up – pruning off all lower branches in the 1 metre (ish) space above the soil line. This airflow gap is super important to help prevent pests/ fungus.
  • Then, get right inside the canopy, removing the occasional whole branch to de-tangle and open. Where you can, remove the long branches, the ones that are causing imbalance by being too tall or too wide. Love me a 2 for 1 deal!
  • Stand back and check for balance. You may need one or two heading cuts to equalise the shape. Take it easy on those heading cuts to avoid loosing too many fruits.

Restoration

Citrus restore beautifully, so if you’ve got an old, dire tree – take heart. Either follow along the process I’ve just described, and slowly restore it over a few years. Or if the tree is way too tall with very little lower growth (or you just want it sorted now!), lop it off to about 2m and it will sprout away again. You wont get fruit for a goodly few years while it rebuilds, but such is the quid pro quo of life.

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