Provided photo/Anne Ditmer

A mandarin orange tree the Ditmers are slowly nursing back to health following a couple of horticulture errors that were compounded by the ice storm of January 2018.

Three years ago, we downsized and built a smaller home. It is the third house we have owned over the 35 years of living in the Golden Isles. With both my husband and my skills as professional landscape horticulturists, the landscaping of each residence has been done with great care, consideration, sweat equity and lots of love. To us, each move left a part of ourselves behind (well-established perennials, unique shrubs and hard-to-find trees). Unfortunately, it doesn’t bode well in a real estate sale if one asks to take the landscape with them.

Our second landscape had three citrus trees in the front side yard. With mild winters and a watchful eye, we enjoyed mandarin and blood oranges over the 15 years we lived there, often giving tasty fruit baskets as Christmas gifts to friends. In the early spring, the sweet fragrance of orange blossoms filled the air and there was nothing better than sitting in the porch swing breathing in the scent while hearing the buzz of happy bees foraging for nectar. It’s the simple things that can keep a gardener happy.

Our new home is just several hundred feet away down the street and it has a tiny yard. We still love to garden but grandchildren are in the picture, retirement looms and we wanted the freedom to travel more. Our landscapes have always reflected our passion but they have taken a high level of energy to maintain. So, this new landscape has just one citrus tree planted in the fall of 2016 located in the back corner near the small deck. It was positioned where we can enjoy the scent and easily walk over to pick off a delicious fruit. We chose a cultivar of mandarin orange, “Ponkan.” It’s a small citrus, growing to 15 feet with zippered–skin fruit having a very sweet flavor. It is supposedly cold hardy in USDA zones 9-11. The plant arrived in a 30-gallon container. We planted it in a spot with a fair amount of sunshine throughout the day. If we had any sod (which we don’t), we would have removed a six-foot diameter to prevent competition between the sod and the young tree. The hole was dug wide enough to accommodate the root ball and deep enough so that the top of the root ball was about one to one and one half inches above ground level to allow for settling. The container was cut away, roots gently splayed, and the plant was carefully lowered and positioned in the hole. The hole was slowly filled in, stopping one third of the way and again half way to add water so that the soil would settle and remove any unwanted air pockets. No fertilizer was added at the time of planting because it can result in root damage. After finishing filling the hole with soil, wood chip mulch was then spread. A good supplier is Forest View Tree Service. Never apply mulch around the trunk in the form of a volcano; this is a mistake we often see around the area. Instead, we spread the mulch out to cover the six-foot cleared area to a depth of 4-6 inches, and then came back in towards the trunk to construct a water basin around the tree that is 36 inches in diameter. We did this by using our hands to pile up extra mulch three to four inches high around the perimeter to create the brim of the basin. We filled the basin with water and allowed it to slowly percolate into the soil. This was repeated a second time. A few hours later, we watered it again for a third time. We continued to do this twice weekly for a month, dropping down to just once a week as the growing season progressed if it was hot and dry.

The little tree appeared to thrive in its new location that first year. It was covered in blooms in March of 2017 and produced copious amounts for fruit that December. But, we had made a huge mistake. By allowing such heavy fruit set on a newly planted small tree, all of its energy went to fruit production and very little went to growing a vigorous root system. January 2018 came with a deep freeze and horrific ice storm in the Golden Isles that we hadn’t experienced since moving from Ohio! That was our second mistake — we hadn’t given our little citrus tree enough protection, and it suffered winter injury. It needed more covering and would have benefited from a spot light under the cover to provide extra warmth through the storm. It barely survived, and the last growing season was dismal — small yellow leaves and very little new growth, despite making sure it had sufficient water and proper nutrition. We even had a friend concoct his very special compost to lightly spread over the root zone hoping that would help. It produced just one fruit in December.

Now it is March 2019. The plant looks a bit better following a mild winter. We are busy removing 3/4 of the emerging flower buds, nipping them off with our fingers so that this year’s plant energy will be directed to root and stem growth. Emerging new growth looks promising. A fresh concoction of our friend’s compost (peat, alfalfa pellets and bone meal, lightly watered, allowed to heat to 150 degrees and turned daily so that the high temperature goes through the entire heap) will be ready to add to the surface around the plant soon. With vigilance, providing all the extra care we can, we hope to see our young citrus settle in, grow for another year and then provide us with a handful of fruit in December this year. In March 2020, we may repeat the process of removing most of the flower buds to ensure an even stronger tree. Meanwhile, we just might have to go down to our old home and ask our neighbors for a few of their mandarin oranges.