When to Fertilize Avocado and Citrus in California

Nov 25, 2013

Citrus and avocado are of subtropical and tropical origin are cold-tender plants that have not developed the effective cold hardening process of deciduous trees that drop their leaves and go dormant. Even within deciduous, temperate tree species there are ranges of frost tolerance. Subtropicals do have the capacity to develop some cold tolerance and this is by going through quiescence, a sort of resting condition of no or slow growth when cooler temperatures arrive. Quiescence is induced several weeks after 40-50 degree F temperatures arrive. Cold tolerance develops most when trees are not flushing. The healthier and less stressed the tree, the more responsive it is to the cooler temperatures that induce quiescence. A tree that has been recently pruned or nitrogen fertilized is more likely to continue flushing through the cold-induction of early winter and is more subject to cold damage. Unfortunately along the coast, there can be warm temperatures that occur during the winter. This can break quiescence and the trees start flowering or flushing and when cold weather arrives again, the trees are now more susceptible to cold.

Because an evergreen canopy like avocado continues to transpire, the roots of subtropicals continue to operate to deliver water to the leaves. The leaves though are not doing much other than losing water. Therefore, there is not much demand nutritionally on the part of the tree. In fact, fertilizing with nitrogen can break the quiescence and make the tree more susceptible to cold. The tree already stores the bulk of its nutritional needs in the roots, branches, stems and leaves and can call on nutrients if it needs them. Supplemental fertilizer at the time of quiescence, though, can result in an excess of the tree’s needs and induce flushing. The goal is to go into winter with adequate storage, so that when spring comes, the nutrients are there for the demanding flowering period. Adequacy is based on previous fertilizer applications, tree condition, leaf analysis and crop load. Nitrogen applications applied in winter are also susceptible to high losses from leaching and volatilization, resulting in environmental problems.

So fertilizer timing starts with when the first frosts might come. Along the coast in Southern California, the last nitrogen application should be no later than October 1, in preparation for frosts than can occur in December. Nitrogen can resume March 1 in most cases. Then the next issue is how frequently to apply nitrogen after that. The more frequent/small applications that are made, the more efficiently it is taken up, so the less that is required. Continuous injection is ideal, but most operations are not equipped to do it this way. Setting a monthly time for injection, such as the first of the month, is the next most efficient. Whatever timing you use, though, nitrogen applications should be confined to the spring and summer months with some possible in early fall.

As for potassium, it is not so liable to cause flushing and is not so susceptible to leaching and has no volatilization. It can be applied most any time and will not go anywhere other than through erosion, waiting for the tree’s roots to absorb it. Microelements such as iron and zinc though, need an actively growing root system for uptake. Their soil application should be limited to the summer time.