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I moved into my house about a year ago, and to my excitement and dismay, I had about 9 fruit trees, mostly citrus, that were all dying. I'd never lived in a house before and certainly knew very little about tree care. Elated at the thought of abundant fresh fruit, I made it my mission to rescue these ladies. In fact, that's why I became a member of the VPA. I wanted to join in the forums and pick people's brains and learn all there was to learn about tree care.
I learned about watering first, as so many people make the mistake of just wetting the ground and calling it a day. You want to water all of your trees low and slow. On my big trees, I keep the hose on a trickle the entire day, or over night in the summer- Small trees, several hours. In fact, I treat most of my plants this way. It encourages deeper root growth which will give you a healthier more stable plant; and it's really important to water this way, especially in Phoenix, Arizona. Remember, we live in a dried out sea bed, so it's important to flush the accumulated salt out of the soil (and avoid those granular chemical fertilizers if you can).
Anyhow, I figured out that many of my tree troubles intensified, due to the fact that the house was empty for a year and the trees were left to fend for themselves in the harsh Phoenix climate. So, I began nursing my trees back to health with a strict watering schedule.
Now, It's recommended to water your trees once a week in the summer and once a month in the winter. However, I find, like with everything else, it's situation specific. I had to water my young citrus 2-3 times a week when temperatures soared over 100 degrees. The trees were in such bad shape already, that they really needed that extra TLC when it got too hot, which pointed to additional underlying tree problems yet to be exposed.
Despite deep watering, I was still having issues with the trees. I did see some improvement, but they still suffered severe sunburn, bark splitting, terrible wilting, thrip and lack of fruit or even blossoms, and really, no substantial growth over a 3 year period- photos confirmed.
Upon careful inspection, I found 2 trees had been overcome by trifoliata root stock. I probably could have saved those or used the root stock to graft a new tree, but I just dug those ones up. With the remaining trees, I painted the trunks and branches exposed to the sun with a diluted mix of white latex paint and water and then continued to research and ask plant professionals for advice.
Funny enough the main problem ended up being simple and common, yet no one pin pointed it. That is, until I met an arborist and avid permaculturist at a local tree farm. He insisted that I check how deeply the trees were planted. I learned another important factor for healthy trees is reliant on how deep the tree is planted. When you plant a tree, you want to clean away the dirt at the top until you see the root flare. This is the area where the collar and the roots meet. This area should be level with the ground, or even slightly elevated. Burying trees too deep creates a whole slew of problems. Besides collar rot- a terribly damaging condition where the trunk of the tree rots out, burying a tree too deep inhibits the tree from taking up water and nutrients properly. It may not kill your tree right away, but the possibility of your tree eventually failing is very likely.
Sadly, I found this to be the case with all of my trees. It wasn't just a lack of water my trees were suffering from, but the prior owner of my home planted all of the citrus at the graft line, rather than the root flare- 4 to 8 inches too deep.
The good news is, not all hope was lost. I utilized the internet and researched solutions and performed a "root excavation" on all of my trees. It is a pretty simple process. I used a small shovel to dig the extra dirt away from the trunk of the tree, until I uncovered the root flare. I cleaned the dirt away until the root flare was completely exposed and then continued to create a berm around the tree- You can google root excavation for specific directions- Just make sure you are careful when you do it, so as not to damage the tree further. On one tree I followed my instincts and dug a little further after exposing what I though was the root flare, and actually found that the root flare was still 4 inches lower. The first root I encountered was actually the tree's attempt to grow new roots. That root got lopped off and the excavation was done at the original collar point. Keep that in mind.
Once I excavated the roots, the tree's problems were abundantly clear. The excavation revealed horrible scarring around the collar of all of the trees. At this point, I had the arborist come and take a look. He jokingly remarked that my trees had a "triple heart bypass" and recommended that I remove them, which I did remove one that had wrap-around scarring. However, against the arborist's advice, I decided to hold out and see what the trees would do post surgery.
I ended up with a decent harvest of tasty lemons from one tree, a few beautiful grapefruits and my tangelo that was not buried too deep but suffering from salt, chlorosis and lack of water, also provided over 100 beautiful specimens. As for the other trees, since the excavation process, last summer, most have doubled in size. One has been brought back from the brink of death, and another really didn't do anything at all, that is until this spring.
I'm so happy spring is here, because all of the trees are now revealing significant new growth and for the first time, I see blossoms forming all over their leaf covered branches. I'm excited to see how the trees take the summer heat this year, but at the same time, I am aware that the damaged trunks have significantly shortened the tree's life spans- which is why I have planted some replacements in close proximity.