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Know when to pick the sweetest oranges

Navel oranges ripen first, in December or January in the
Sacramento region. A taste test is the best way to tell if
they are sweet and ready to pick. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)
Color alone won't signal full ripeness

How do you tell when to pick oranges? How about grapefruit or other citrus?

When it comes to citrus, color is not enough. You need to take a taste test.

Citrus ripen slowly, often taking nine months or more to reach their peak of flavor. They also can hang on the tree for months after maturity.

Adding to the puzzle: Citrus will look ripe long before they are ripe. That leads many gardeners to despair that they planted a “bad” orange or grapefruit variety that will never produce “good” fruit.

Right now, navel oranges are reaching full ripeness while Valencias are still a month or more away. Grapefruit, too, need more time.

Weather, climate and growing conditions all factor into the citrus calendar. Grapefruit grown in Sacramento can take 12 to 18 months to reach full ripeness, twice as long as the same grapefruit varieties grown in Coachella. The more summer heat, the faster citrus develops.

Citrus do not ripen off the tree. Once picked, they won’t get sweeter or juicier. Bitter or dry oranges often were just picked too early. In addition, oranges benefit from “a kiss of cold” (overnight temperatures in the 30s) to bring out their natural sugars.

This month, our oranges finally got that “kiss,” and taste much sweeter for it.

According to local citrus experts, ripe citrus looks bright and full colored. But it also feels heavy for its size and firm when squeezed. A fully ripe orange or lemon will slip easily off its stem without tugging. To pick, gently twist and pull at the same time.

The best way to judge ripeness is by tasting. Pick fruit from opposite sides of the tree and sample. Fruit growing on the outside of the tree tends to ripen faster than fruit that grows closer to the trunk. If the trial oranges taste sweet, the tree is ready to pick. If not, wait a week, then sample again.

Oranges are the trickiest to judge. Variety plays a key role. Navel oranges (the popular seedless eating variety) ripen in December and January in Sacramento. They will hold on the tree until March.

Meanwhile, Valencias (the juice orange) may turn color in winter, but aren’t really ready until late February or March. They keep ripening through early June, until the tree finally pushes them off to make room for new fruit.

For more citrus tips: .


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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