The Harris Citrus Nursery is on the right or west side of SR39 just south of the Lithia Pinecrest Rd intersection in Lithia.
The two men stood by the pickup truck talking... of citrus and many other things. Then they loaded up the truck with the citrus trees, first the bigger ones in five gallon pots, then the smaller ones in the long, thin 4 inch citra pots.
"I just sell these at my nursery," said Richard Skinner of Hawkins Corner in Plant City. "He (Paul Harris) is the one who makes them."
It may be true to only God can make a tree, but the Harris Citrus Nursery on SR39 just south of the Lithia Pinecrest intersection in Lithia gives Him the needed human help to bud different varieties on different rootstocks for different soil or parts of the state.
Some of us don't have any idea onto what rootstock our citrus trees are budded.
"It doesn't make a much difference to the homeowner who can amend his soil or change his watering as needed," says Harris's daughter Ruth Nowland. She and son Robert also work full time at the nursery, as does his wife Rebecca and nine other people. "But we make sure that information goes with our trees. It is stamped on the label."
A Flying Dragon rootstock can keep a tree down to 10 feet for people with limited space and for easy picking. It is very slow growing and therefore more expensive and takes a bit longer to produce a crop. Swingle keeps the tree small than some but not quite that dwarf. Kinkoji make a big tree. Navels haven't been budded onto sour orange since '91, but my own is older than that and that is why is it dying of deadly decline. Harrises raise their own rootstocks from seed and their own budwood. They bud trees year round except for December and January when the sap is not flowing as much.
Paul Harris grew up in Florida but then went to Alaska for 25 years and worked on construction. He met and married Rebecca there and raised their three children. Then they came back to Florida so Robert could commute to a university. They meant to retire, but instead began the Citrus Nursery in 1985 to grow new trees for their own grove. Due to the canker freeze, they opted to grow their own trees, and from there the business grew to accommodate the grove owners who had seen their trees and liked the results.
"The Rare Fruit people kept asking for different varieties and we got to the place where we had 105 different kinds," says Harris. They are the largest growers in the state, working hard to keep up with orders, and currently taking care of 200,000 citrus trees: oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, grapefruit, pummelo, tangelos, kumquats, citron and hybrids.
"We are supposed to be wholesale, but we're customer oriented," says Harris. "One lady asked me what was the smallest amount we'd sell, and I told her one. We sometimes spend an hour or more with someone who buys one tree and then sell 60,000 in a few minutes."
Orange blossoms are coming at odd times this spring due to our strangely warm and then cold and then warm winter.
Lucky the customer who gets an hour, because Paul Harris is rich and generous with his amazing stories and his good advice about growing citrus.
Some citrus such as the delicious mandarin Satsuma will grow as far north as Georgia. They advertise the stock as cold hardy trees, probably the only citrus grown by Eskimos.
Watering is automatic but they spot check and hand water with a hose to make sure that no sprinklers have clogged and no trees are missed. In summer the trees in containers are watered every day, every two or three days the rest of the year depending on weather.
The Harrises believe strongly on the use of microbes to work with nature and have noticed that their trees are taking up nutrients and suffering less from pests and diseases since they have been using them. More about this in future column.
Best of all, Paul Harris is convinced that nothing will destroy the Florida citrus industry.
Now's the time to...
- Tell you that a the smallest tree you can buy there can produce a crop just one year later than a larger one if it is properly fertilized, but will be four years later if it is not fertilized right. Harris Nursery recommends a citrus fertilizer with minor elements and spreading a small handful around the outskirts of the newly planted tree at least once a month for the first nine months. The outskirts will encourage the roots to grow out to reach the food.
- Over feeding is worse than under. And for some reason the spikes don't work well on citrus. One customer gave a new tree six spikes and killed it.
- Overwatering can also kill a tree. Water a new tree at least 3 times a week for the first two weeks then gradually back off to twice a week. Water just enough to moisten the ground and do not overwater. Mature trees need a good soaking, rain or irrigation, every two weeks and time to dry out between waterings since citrus are prone to root rot if too wet.