Thursday, November 18, 2010

Citrus Protection in a Frost or Freeze

We are now officially entering the shivering season for the Central Valley, Bay Area and low foothills. Late November through mid-February is the most critical time for protecting frost-susceptible plants.

This is especially true for citrus tree owners, who are anxiously keeping an eye out on the upcoming weather forecasts.

For instance, the current seven day forecast for Sacramento calls for overnight temperatures to drop into the low 30's, Sunday through Tuesday. But depending where you live, it could be lower; all gardening is local.

Several days before an expected frost (temperatures dipping down to 32 degrees) is the time to gather the necessary implements to protect your citrus trees, including giving the ground beneath them a good soaking (moist soil is better than dry soil at moderating the temperature beneath the tree).

Most gardeners first thoughts about protecting their citrus trees during a frost or freeze is, "protect the fruit!"

Four Winds Growers, the Winters-based wholesale grower of many excellent varieties of citrus, offers the Citrus Variety Information Chart at their website,

Included in that chart is extensive information about each citrus variety, including suitability for indoor growing; its bloom and fruiting seasons; its recommended summer heat level to produce good fruit; and, its minimum tolerable temperature for preservation of fruit quality.

  The chart points out that lemons, limes and citrons are most sensitive to frost, while sweet oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and calamondins are intermediate. Kumquats and Owari Satsuma Mandarins are the most frost-tolerant, braving temperatures into the twenties (that would classify as a freeze).

From that chart, here are the temperatures (in degrees Fahrenheit) at which citrus fruit damage may occur.

Sweet Oranges
Washington Navel Orange  28  
Trovita Orange  28  
Cara Cara (Pink) Navel Orange 28  
Lane Late Navel Orange  28  
Robertson Navel Orange  28  
Shamouti Orange (Jaffa Palestine)  28  
Valencia Orange  28  
Midknight Valencia Orange  28  
Blood Oranges
Moro Blood Orange  28   
Sanquinelli Blood Orange  28   
Tarocco Blood Orange  28   
Sour Oranges
Bouquet De Fleurs Sour Orange  28   
Chinotto Sour Orange (Myrtle-Leaf)  28  
Seville Sour Orange  28  
Bergamot Sour Orange  32  
Gold Nugget Mandarin (Patented)  26  
Tango Mandarin (Patented)  32 
Owari Satsuma Mandarin  24  
Dancy Tangerine  32  
Clementine Mandarin (Algerian)  28  
Murcott Mandarin  32  
California Honey Mandarin  32  
W. Murcott Mandarin  32  
Kinnow Mandarin  32  
Kara Mandarin  32  
Page Mandarin  32  
Piie Mandarin  32  
Kishu Mandarin  32  
Improved Meyer Lemon  32  
Eureka Lemon  32  
Lisbon Lemon  32  
Ponderosa Lemon  32  
Variegated Pink Lemon  32  
Yen Ben Lemon  32  

Mediterranean Lemons
Villafranca Lemon  32  
Genoa Lemon (Gea)  32  
Limonero Fino Lemon  32  
Millsweet Acidless Limetta  32  
Marrakech Limetta  32  
Bearss Seedless Lime (TahitiPersian)  30  
Kaffir Lime (KiefferThaiWild)  32  
Meican Lime (Key)  32  
Thornless Meican Lime  32  
Meican Sweet Lime  30  
Palestine Sweet Lime  30  
Rangpur Lime  32  
Oroblanco Grapefruit  32  
Rio Red Grapefruit  28  
Star Ruby Grapefruit  28  
Chandler Pummelo  28  
Cocktail Grapefruit  28  
Chinese Grapefruit  28  
Melogold Grapefruit  28  
Meiwa Kumquat  28  
Nagami Kumquat  24  
Indio Mandarinquat  26  
Centennial Variegated Kumquat  30  
Nordmann Seedless Nagami Kumquat  28  
Marumi Kumquat  26  
Eustis Limequat  32  
Buddha's Hand  Fingered Citron  32  
Etrog Citron (Ethrog)  32  
Other Interesting Varieties
Minneola Tangelo  28   
Australian Finger Lime  32   
Yuzu  24   
Calamondin  32 
Variegated Calamondin  32

But what about the overall health of the citrus tree? How low can temperatures go during a freeze event before the tree is toast?

 "I consider 22 degrees to be terminal for citrus tree cambium cells," says Cedar Seeger of Four Winds Growers. The cambium layer is the growing part of the tree, the cells that are producing new wood and healing wounds. It is located just beneath the bark.

And that's for a citrus tree in tip-top shape: good health, with moist soil around it during a freeze. Cedar uses the example of a Meyer lemon tree:

We often have a two to three hour dip to 28 degrees after storms; and if the above conditions are met, even Meyer lemon trees can survive, albeit not to happily, without protection. 28 degrees for four hours probably won't kill the tree, provided the rootstock cambium doesn't freeze. It will defoliate and lose twigs. At 24 degrees things start to get dicey.
Ideally, this frost blanket should be touching the ground.

That's when the frost blanket, bonnet and lights will work wonders. Remember, those blankets and bonnets need to go to the ground in all cases."

When a large, cold-air mass moves in from the north after a storm in the winter, that is called an advective freeze. The one that sticks out in most gardeners' memories here was the freeze of mid-December 1990, when nighttime temperatures fell into the teens for several days in a row, with a couple of days that didn't climb above 32 degrees. To add even more injury, a second cold snap hit near the end of the month, with temperatures dipping into the mid-20's. Many of the most susceptible (frost intolerant) landscapes were completely lost; some nurseries never recovered.

"Our first year in the citrus business here in Winters was 1990-91. My wife, Mary Helen, and I have a Masters in Disaster," says Seeger. 

Which is why Cedar is an adherent of watching the dew point, the temperature at which saturation has been reached, when water vapor condenses into water. The lower the dew point, the more danger of cold damage to your plants. One good online source for dew point temperatures is the National Weather Service's Tabular Forecast Page  , which offers a forecast for two days in advance (that link is for Sacramento).

"A good watering going into an advection night is mandatory. If the ground and surrounding grass is wet, it creates a micro dew point environment around the trees. In a dry, cold La Nina winter such as we're about to get, it is important to remember the dew point concept. At 22 and below, it's full on emergency response, pile straw, hay around trunks, anything, lights, covering," says Cedar, a man who learned these lessons the hard way.  But he is not an adherent of running sprinklers during a freeze.

"My experience with overhead sprinklers is that they more often than not freeze up, and then it's all over. And you are risking branch breakage on that ice-entombed citrus. Yeah, it can work, but screw it; it's messy, risky and a lot of work. Use the large Christmas lights and mid-weight frost covers. But pay attention to the trunk / rootstock. If that freezes, it's a goner."

Citrus trees most at risk to fatal damage from a frost or freeze are the young trees. It is vital that they be covered completely when a heavy frost or freeze is predicted, and provide protection for the trunk, bud union and rootstock area. That can include trunk wraps, newspapers, old carpeting. 

In his book, "Citrus" , author and grower Lance Walheim also suggests applying a copper-based fungicide to the trunk and then mounding or banking soil against the trunk and lower limbs. Just don't leave it on too long; fungal rots can develop (that copper can only work for a limited time). He advises leaving that soil next to the trunk from Thanksgiving until February, or March, in colder areas.

And Thanksgiving, by the way, is next Thursday.


  1. Buying up Christmas lights at after Christmas sales helps me stock up on the lights I run during freezes.

    I would rather protect the citrus and bring on the freeze to kill off some pests. Doesn't freezing temperatures help stone fruit trees and apples?

  2. For citrus protection, make sure those holiday lights are the old style large bulbs. Yes, most deciduous fruit trees need a certain number of chilling hours (hours below 45 degrees). Depending on the variety, that requirement might range from a couple hundred to over a thousand. Here in the Sacramento area, we usually get about 800 chilling hours between November and February.

  3. Why the larger Christmas lights? Do they provide more warmth?

  4. Yes, the older, larger holiday bulbs put out much more heat than the newer, smaller bulbs or LED's.

  5. I put five gallon buckets of water around the trunk, like the "wall of water." The "heat of fusion" plus the stored heat goes up and to the trunk. The "wall of water" is claimed to protect tomatoes to 17F.

  6. My grandfather used to burn wood in a 55 gallon drum before nightfall, not good for an orchard but great for a couple of trees. I think a black drum filled with water would be highly effective.

  7. I'm a bit confused as it doesn't say what kind of dewpoint is desirable vs. dangerous, only that 22F and dry conditions are bad.

    The idea here in the comments of putting open barrels of water to absorb heat would probably work but it can also allow invasive mosquitoes (that bite during the day) to set up shop, which in 2013 wasn't much of an issue but is probably significant enough that it would be inadvisable in 2019. (Aedes' eggs can survive 6 months, near the waterline, even if dried out and later hatch.)

    The old-style Christmas lights are getting harder to find but I managed to track them down on Amazon (look for 7 watt/120 volt bulbs, E17 base, incandescent type).

    As for protecting the trunk or creating a more favorable micro-climate, what about surrounding the trunk with a tight ring of decent size rocks or decorative concrete/brick edging? Would that absorb daytime heat and help keep the tree trunk warmer?

    Lastly, if the leaves droop after the first freeze (a couple hours at 28F) is it all over for a first-year tree? My spouse and I failed to order the C9 lights in time so we used the mini incandescent kind on the tree (unfortunately they did not reach the trunk). We then placed a metal tomato plant trellis with frost blanket wrapped around the tomato trellis as a tent. As of the following day, the tree still appeared stressed (leaves drooping after several hours in sun/warm temps). At this time of year (October) our Zone 9 climate tends to be warm during the daytime (70-80) and cold at night (upper 30s to mid 40s). The tree in question is in its first year — an in-ground Dwarf Washington Navel from Four Winds Growers, Zone 9. Any advice would be appreciated as another freeze warning is in effect tonight and our C9 lights aren't expected until next week. Thanks!

  8. Your combination of lights, cloth and cage should get you through light frosts. Piling anything near the trunk, if left there, can lead to rot issues or insect hotels. You could temporarily wrap cardboard around the trunk. Temporarily. Young trees are most susceptible to freeze issues, but it usually takes two or three frosts to do damage to a young tree.