Because canker and freezing temperatures recently have plagued the citrus industry, selecting - and actually obtaining - rootstock isn't as simple as it used to be. Plant diseases have wiped out thousands of acres of trees and raised the demand for replacements, making the limited availability of new stock a serious problem.
"It's throwing a major monkey wrench in the works of the nurseryman," says Rick Bucy, president and chief executive officer of Tropical Sun Citrus Inc., Dade City. "With availability and other things, some people are saying, 'I'm not going to deal with this. I'm getting out.'"
Although the process of buying from nurseries might be a little more complex than in years past, new growers and veterans alike can benefit from remembering the basics. Follow these steps to help make the most of your time and money.
Keep an eye on nearby sites
An easy way to learn the performance of a specific rootstock is to keep in touch with neighboring growers. Ask them how their crops are turning out and if they have any suggestions for starting out with a new rootstock.
Know your growing conditions
According to "Considerations for Choosing the Right Rootstocks," a guide written by William Castle and James Ferguson for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Gainesville, knowledge about the ground you're planting is essential. Factors such as soil texture, pH and nutrient status, as well as irrigation water quality, will be valuable tools in your decision, the guide says.
Consult your county's soil survey for information about what rootstock might be your best bet. Some counties have paper copies of the survey, while others have made them available online.
Also, given Florida's ever-changing weather, experts say growers who use research data relevant to their growing areas to assess and plan for variations in rainfall, frost patterns and other factors, gain a significant advantage. Planalytics Inc., Wayne, Pa., offers weather research data and analysis to help businesses understand and predict the impact of weather. Visit www.planalytics.com for more information.
Research your options
After gathering as much information as possible about your site's characteristics, begin to look at what's available.
Use research from IFAS and other agricultural organizations to brush up on the types of rootstock. The "Florida Citrus Rootstock Selection Guide" compares different types of rootstock to show how they perform in various conditions, such as droughts or freezes.
"Nowadays, if you want to be successful in citrus, you've got to do your homework," Bucy says.
Tropical Sun Citrus set 750 trees last year, Bucy says. The company grows Hamlins, Parson Browns and navels, among others, and uses Swingle and Cleopatra rootstock, he says.
New developments in rootstock are happening all the time, he says, so keep checking research findings to stay on top of what variety might best suit your needs. Also, check with IFAS for rootstock availability.
Berry Treat, assistant director of research programs for IFAS, says to check with extension agencies to discover which varieties have been tested and evaluated.
Data from such agencies will help you determine which rootstocks performed best in sandy soil, which ones produced the highest yields and which varieties' fruit produced the highest quality juice. For example, the widely used Swingle citrumelo is not suitable for use in clay soil, according to the "Florida Citrus Rootstock Selection Guide."
Make your selection
Once you are confident you have acquired sufficient information, it's time to choose a rootstock.
Keep in mind that growing citrus rootstock is a lengthy process. And because the number of nurseries is dwindling, there is limited greenhouse space where rootstock can be grown. Have a plan and stick to it to ensure that your plants arrive on time.
"You contract with a nurseryman to grow those trees for you a year or two in advance," Bucy says.
Authors Castle and Ferguson say planting your own rootstock trial is an easy and effective way to judge whether a rootstock is right for your groves. Planting just 1 percent of your groves with experimental rootstock is enough for observation and data collection.
For further reading on rootstock trials, go to http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/HS196.
No rootstock will perform perfectly, regardless of conditions. But the information you have gathered thus far, with any luck, will lead to an educated decision and a profitable crop.