Key lime frost damage

spicesea1February 26, 2007

Hello, I have a 3 year old key lime tree planted in the ground. We live on the FL panhandle near the water and rarely get frost, however, we had some a couple of weeks ago. My key lime tree is strong, 8-10 feet tall and has been putting out limes like crazy. Had new buds on it before the frost. The tree looks really bad, is yellowing out and the buds are dead. Is there anything I can do to help it? Should we prune, fertilize, etc? Thanks for your help.

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bcfromfl(z8a NW FL)

I live just north of Panama City a few miles, but our wintertime nightly lows can be as much as 10-15 degrees less than those on the coast. I have several citrus trees, some in pots and others in the ground, and I have to do some serious winter-protecting.

To grow citrus in this climate, especially a Key lime, you really have to keep an eye on the weather. Key limes are among the most sensitive to cold, and require some form of protection below 35F to avoid damage. The easiest method for you would be to string mini-white Christmas lights (indoor/outdoor) through the branches, and leave them in place year 'round. Since each string of 100 lights puts out 40 watts, a tree the size you described would require the addition of another string or two. Then, when cold weather is forecasted, all you have to do is plug in the lights and cover with a frost cloth. I highly recommend the frost cloths specially made for this purpose. (If you have the thorny-variety, you may want to throw a bed sheet over the branches first. Frost cloths don't handle thorns too well.) I bought a case of the 10x12 size and use them liberally. Make sure the cloths go all the way to the ground, and hold down with bricks. Two or more frost cloths can be joined with clothes pins, or even hemmed together if you want to make them stay in place more securely. If it's windy, lash the cloths with lines tied to stakes.

We are relatively new to this area, but people I've spoken to agree that this winter has been colder than others. You may have been fortunate enough the past couple of winters to avoid damaging cold temps enough for your tree to get some size to it. But, you should plan on at least one sub-freezing spell (and possibly more) each winter.

Whether or not your Key lime made it I can't say. Don't bother pruning yet, and certainly don't fertilize. You should begin seeing some recovery in a few weeks, if there's still life in it. Keep in mind that if you have a grafted Key lime, it's possible the root will come back but not the graft. That, of course, would not be the tree you want in your yard.

Hope this helps.

Bruce C.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2007 at 10:36AM
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I have a key lime in a pot and it got really damaged with the cold until I brought it in the room to heat it up. There are still green branches on some of the lower parts, so as long as there is some green, it should recover. It lost all it's leaves too.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2007 at 4:38PM
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If bcfromfl thinks this winter was harsh on the Gulf, then he really is new to the area. Back in January 1982 we had a cold spell which wiped out the satsuma trees which had been growing along the northern Gulf for many years. Even before that, Univ. of Florida used to grow experimental citrus groves around Gainesville. You could see them from I-75. UF gave up years ago.

There may be 20-25 year periods when citrus will grow along the northern Gulf with minor damage, but sooner or later you get a bad winter. BTW, winter 2006-2007 has been relatively mild.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2007 at 11:27PM
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The freeze of December 1983 wiped out satsuma and meyer lemons in Texas that were planted in 1929. Some of these were 16 inches at the base.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2007 at 9:32AM
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bcfromfl(z8a NW FL)

tsmith -- I know the potentials in this part of the country are for much cooler temps than we have experienced this winter. But I watch weather patterns pretty closely, and this winter the areas along the I-10 corridor, to within 10 or so miles of the coast, have been under the influence of la Nina. This has given us a slightly cooler winter than "normal". It's a relatively narrow band of cooler temps, due to the jet stream being "wrapped around" the high pressure systems that have dominated the weather systems in the East, allowing a channel for Canadian air to move closer to the Gulf. For those areas of the mid-South, Ohio valley, Atlantic states, and northeast, the winter has been milder than normal. Since you are further north, I don't doubt that you have been relatively mild. The mid-West has been about normal, and portions of the West have also been cooler-than-normal.

Sometimes a devastating cold spell doesn't necessarily mean the entire winter is cooler. Yes, a sub-freezing period lasting several hours, or even days, can wipe out sensitive trees. But it's entirely possible that the remainder of the winter can be "normal" -- or even mild.

The point is to be prepared, and protect things as I described above. I have a blood orange, grapefruit, jakfruit, mangos, lemon, satsuma, and an avocado in the ground (among others), and they have weathered the winter just fine.

I'm originally from upstate New York, but my wife and I moved here in 2005 from south Florida.

Bruce C.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2007 at 9:29AM
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Hi all

My wife bought a little key lime tree from K-Mart. Little tiny tree, which is now about 15 feet tall and many years produces bags and bags of keylimes. Secrets?
1. My wife fertilizes it twice during the summer
2. We had bug problems, but beat them off using malathion.

and the biggest secret of all

3. We live in Jax and sometimes it get's really cold here. One time it was down to 19 overnight. We put 2 floodlights around the trunk about a couple of inches away from the tree every time it goes down to freezing. Keeps the sap flowing. My wife found it somewhere and it actually works.

So we have a happy fruitful tree. Some years we have had multiple grocery bags of fruit.


    Bookmark   October 31, 2007 at 5:46PM
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softmentor(z9/sunset13 CA desert)

+1 for just leaving it alone until it recovers on it's own. do not prune it. Next spring there will be new growth and dead wood. You will be able to clean out the dead wood, but wait and let the tree find it's own. If you try to second guess how much wood will recover and prune now, it will actually sap strength from the tree trying to heal the pruning wounds.
Also correct is that key lime is among the most frost tender. We had 3 days of 10 degrees last winter, Very unusual for us. I ran every kind of frost protection I could, lots of water and my little candle/can radiators. Everything did pretty well except the limes. The bearss barely came back the key lime kept a little bit better but neither had fruit this year. Everything else had fruit.
note also that my key lime is on the outside row, which did worse since it was most directly influenced by the cold air mass and helped the least by trying to build heat. A tree standing pretty much by it's self will have the worst exposure thus need the most protection.
Eustis limequat did the best of my limes. Eustis and Palestine are the only limes I have that has fruit this year. Palistine is a really lousy fruit, no flavor. yuck. It is the only citrus that I truly don't like. I'm going to regraft it with Eustis this next spring.

I have
Mexican (key)
Mexican thornless (key)
Palestine Sweet

    Bookmark   November 1, 2007 at 10:25PM
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softmentor(z9/sunset13 CA desert)

also just realized this post started in February. silly me.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2007 at 4:31AM
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:D Well, it's probably good to revive it... with all the climate change going on... last year, California had freak frosts that wiped out citrus, but this year, we are still hovering around 80º. You never know what will happen nowadays.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2007 at 8:33PM
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softmentor(z9/sunset13 CA desert)

re climate change. We have a normal 11 year cycle based on sun's energy that the "global warming" folks never seem to remember. A lot of citrus farmers in my area were hit pretty hard in the 80's during the colder part of that cycle. Weather has never been the same year after year anywhere. There have always been swings and extremes over the long term.
Should have seen the rains in 1932 and again in 1975 and 1983 here!

    Bookmark   November 3, 2007 at 7:36AM
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