My Pixie mandarin tree is carrying its first fruit, which look pitiful. They’re small, warped. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Pixie mandarins are no good, and I’d replace it with a different mandarin.

Luckily, I’ve had fruit off of mature Pixie trees. They’re bigger, beautiful, peel easily, seedless, and flavorful: everything you could want in a mandarin. Also fortunately, I’ve had the experience of eating the first fruit from other citrus trees I planted and know that they’re sometimes inferior to the fruit the tree later produces. I won’t judge this Pixie based on these initial offerings.

I remember my Cara Cara orange tree’s first fruits. They were also small, plus hard to peel and never very sweet. Later, they were just like the ones I’d had from mature trees. More often than with other types of trees, citrus seem to have these substandard first crops. I’ve been searching for an explanation, but have been unable to find one. Is it that the small-sized tree just can’t muster the power to build a full-sized and full-flavored fruit yet? That’s my only guess.

In the California Master Gardener Handbook’s chapter on citrus I read: “Many citrus types yield bland fruit for the first few years of production, but quality improves as trees mature.” I’ve heard other citrus growers say the same thing. So at least I know I’m not alone in this experience.

Note that the Handbook said many citrus, not all. That’s also been my experience. For example, my Kishu and Gold Nugget mandarins sized up well and tasted great from crop one. And they were small trees. So my guess about the cause is probably wrong.

Anyway, this phenomenon of subpar first fruits is not exclusive to citrus. I planted a SpiceZee nectaplum last year and it set one fruit, one scarred little fruit. The thing was mealy and mushy at the time I ate it. But I have many friends who tell me their SpiceZee nectaplum is the star of their orchard, so I eagerly await its second crop, its first real crop.

One reason my SpiceZee fruit didn’t taste good is probably that I picked it late. In other words, it was my fault. Almost always, a tree’s first crop is small in quantity, which gives you a thin margin for error in terms of picking the fruit at the optimal time. Also, since it’s likely to be your first experience growing that particular variety (I’d never grown a nectaplum in my yard before), you just can’t know exactly when to pick the fruit in your yard’s microclimate. No harvest chart you might refer to, such as Dave Wilson’s, can be that accurate — not to mention the fact that the weather is different every year.

I expect my nectaplum to grow up similar to the way my Snow Queen nectarine has. I love my Snow Queen nectarine tree today, but in its first summer with a crop I thought I might cut it down. The few fruits were mostly split open, and many were too soft in texture for my liking as soon as they started tasting as sweet as I wanted. Nowadays, however, the fruit quality has improved in every way.

And with crops of a hundred nectarines, I can start testing fruit very early because I have so many to spare. Many peaches and nectarines and plums and apricots have short harvest windows, making it very easy to miss picking them at exactly your preferred ripeness. It is very helpful to feel free to “waste” fruit by tasting one here and there before you’re sure they’re ripe, as you can with a mature tree that is loaded.

The point I hope to make here is that if you planted a new fruit tree in the last year or two and you’re looking at your first crop this year, don’t jump to conclusions on its size, taste, and overall quality. Like my Pixies, they might be small and funny at first.

small Pixie mandarin fruit

Further, don’t think that changing your care of the young tree will improve its fruit. More fertilizer or water or pruning is almost certainly not going to be of benefit. What will help? A little patience.

 

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