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Are my oranges ripe?

Are these oranges ready to pick? Not quite yet. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)
How to tell when citrus is ready for harvest

December in California brings a vibrant harvest in shades of yellow and orange. It’s the start of citrus season.

Mandarins -- those juicy little easy-peel favorites – start the winter-long procession, followed by navel oranges, blood oranges, kumquats, tangelos, grapefruit and Valencia oranges. Lemons and limes may ripen in winter or later in spring (or even summer or fall). Depending on varieties, fresh backyard citrus can be harvested over six or seven months.

So, when do you pick? The key is knowing when citrus is ripe, which takes some trial and tasting. (With five citrus trees in our yard, we’ve done plenty of both.)

Color alone is not the decider, although it’s a major clue. Navel oranges may be their bright namesake color, but not yet sweet and juicy. Valencia oranges may reach full ripeness while still looking a little green.
This grapefruit has the right color but it's still weeks away
from harvest.

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.

Once ripe, citrus can hang on the tree for months, too, and still maintain its quality. The best place to store citrus is usually on the tree (except if a heavy frost is in the forecast). It will stay fresh in place until picked.

Another reason to delay picking: 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.

According to 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 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

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

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

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

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

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

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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