Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Citrus Month: Minneola Tangelo

Minneola Tangelo ©Tyler Storey

The Minneola Tangelo is one of the finest citrus fruits for the Desert Garden, and probably not planted as often as it should be. A cross between a mandarin and a grapefruit, the Minneola is essentially a large mandarin that grows in clusters like grapefruit and has all of the fine flavor of the best tangerines, in a larger fruit with fewer seeds.

The Minneola tree is reliably hardy and a strong producer, tending towards alternate bearing when young, but then often leveling out. The fruit is easily peeled and excellent eaten fresh, but also makes the best orange juice (think fresh-squeezed Tang, just like the astronauts drink!) and the very best candied citrus peel. It's also among the most expensive citrus fruits to buy fresh at the grocery.

Most nurseries or guide books will tell you that the Minneola requires cross-pollination from a mandarin orange.

When I planted the Minneola here at The Ranch some years ago, I dutifully installed a Kinnow Mandarin to ensure a bounteous harvest. One morning a few months later I walked to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper and something seemed different, something – somehow – was missing.

It took me a ridiculously long time to realize that what was missing was the Kinnow Mandarin tree that I should have been standing next to. In its place was but an empty hole full of broken roots. I followed the trail of dirt where the tree had been dragged down the street and around the corner, the trail abruptly ending at a tidy line of soil where the Kinnow had clearly been hoisted onto the tailgate of the waiting getaway truck. I had visions of doors slamming and tires squealing as the villains peeled off down the street on their way to . . . . Well, to what exactly I wasn't sure.

There are mysteries in gardening, but the one thing that is definitely not a mystery is what happens to a mandarin tree when it's pulled out by its roots at the end of June in the desert, dragged on the pavement for a block and then driven around in the back of a truck. It dies.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the Minneola tree here at The Ranch has never had a dedicated pollinator and still produces a very heavy crop every year; there are lemon, Seville orange, lime and a neighbor's sweet orange nearby; these may make the difference.

The Minneola fruit ripens late in the season; the fruit is good now and will improve over the next month. When harvesting, kind of heft the fruit in your hand; if it feels heavy for its size, it's ready to pick. The best place to store your Minneolas is on the tree, so pick them as you use them; as with any citrus, they don't improve or ripen off the tree. They will gain in sweetness later in the season.

Minneolas are subject to fruit-splitting if the water is irregular throughout the growing and ripening season. For the healthiest tree and best fruit, water deeply – to a depth of three feet, and as wide as the canopy – and infrequently.

Your best method is to build a watering basin as wide as the canopy, placing a ring of soil on top of the existing soil line; build a smaller ring to keep the water away from the trunk. We commonly see citrus planted in the bottom of a watering well, but this is incorrect in the home garden and will restrict proper root growth. If you water deeply each time, you shouldn't have to water more often than every two weeks, even in June and July; if you see the leaves curling more than usual or wilting at all, then water more frequently, but always to the same depth.

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