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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 June 4:

Because of the comfortable weather, it’s not too late to set out tomato and pepper seedlings as well as squash and melon plants. They’ll appreciate this not-too-hot weather. Just remember to water.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes.

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the wee hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

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