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Rats! Citrus has other afficiondos

Every night, for a month now, it happens.

We are enjoying a nice, breezy, all-the-doors-and-windows-open evening. Suddenly, there's a series of thuds from the screen porch.

I go to investigate. I find the shepherd hurling herself against the inside of the screen enclosure, trying to get at that rustling noise out in the back yard.

I open the screen door, and both dogs vault into the darkness like heat-seeking missiles locked on to their target.

They careen over to the orange tree, but they're too late. Always. The most they can do is stand under the tree and growl, trying to intimidate a fruit rat they can't see.

This week, in our Master Gardener class, I got an up-close look at Rattus rattus. (I swear, that's the correct scientific name.) It was in a cage, Exhibit A for our class on growing citrus. This, said horticulturist Opal Schallmo, is the roof rat, which has earned the nickname fruit rat for its habit of snacking on citrus in backyard trees.

Now I know we live in Florida, and we're all supposed to hate roof rats. But I am compelled to report what I saw: This was a cute little thing, this Rattus rattus. It had ginger-colored fur and button ears and sparkly eyes that looked at me as if to ask, "Please, ma'am, mightn't I have another orange?"

I couldn't swear to it, but I suspect Schallmo shares my benign attitude toward Rattus rattus.

"They like to feed on citrus as much as we do," she told the class.

So do mealybugs, whiteflies, scale and aphids, not to mention the really big threats such as citrus canker and Mediterranean fruit fly.

Why, then, do we love to have citrus trees in our yards? Why do we set ourselves up for so much pain and suffering, so much malathion and fungicide?

Last week, Schallmo said, a man called the extension service office in Largo.

"He had recently moved down here from New York and he had just picked his first grapefruit, that morning, from his tree. He was so proud."

Having a citrus tree is symbolic of living in Florida, Schallmo said, and most of us can't resist the urge.

She showed slides of the most popular varieties and offered lots of tips for getting the most out of your citrus tree:

Don't plant citrus trees too deeply. They have shallow roots. Make the planting hole so that the tree sits no deeper in the ground than it did in its pot.

Pick a well-drained site in your yard. Citrus trees don't like wet feet. Plant the tree at least 25 feet away from your house. If you don't, you'll have fruit rats like mine performing Kerri Strug leaps from the eaves of the house into the tree. Drives your dogs crazy.

Mound a circle of dirt a few feet out from the base of a newly-planted tree, to form a watering basin. The first week, fill the basin with water twice a day. The second week, once a day. The third and fourth weeks, every other day. The fifth and sixth weeks, twice a week. The seventh week, rake the dirt mound away from the tree and put it on a maintenance irrigation schedule of one inch of water once a week.

A young citrus tree will need half a pound of fertilizer (4-6-8 formula) every month or so. Mature trees need 10 pounds scattered under their canopy three times a year: in January/February, in May/June and in October/November.

Don't be concerned if your citrus tree has overlapping fruit crops _ old fruits still on the tree as flowers or even tiny new fruits begin to form. That's perfectly normal. Some varieties will bloom off and on until June, and sometimes there is even a "June bloom" after a dry spring.

Don't prune a citrus tree until after it blooms. If you're concerned about losing next year's crop by lopping off flowers or young fruit, prune only those branches without blossoms on the ends.

Citrus bark is tender and easily damaged by a weed whacker. To be safe, it's best to remove grass from a circle around the base of your tree. If you want to mulch the circle, pull the mulching material out so it doesn't touch the trunk.

Don't plant flowers under a citrus tree. "This is a big mistake," Schallmo said. You'll overwater the tree as you water the flower bed.

If a young citrus tree doesn't begin growing within a year after planting, it probably will not do well. "If it's standing there, yellow and weak-looking, get it out of there and replace it," Schallmo said.

Some citrus trees _ several varieties of lime, lemon and calamondin, particularly _ do well in containers, for a fruit-bearing patio tree.

The other half of this week's Master Gardener class was a short course in vegetable gardening by horticulturist Allen Cordell.

There are two planting seasons in Florida, Cordell said. We put in warm-season crops (beans, okra, tomatoes, eggplant, watermelon) around Feb. 20, and we put in cool-season crops (carrots and other root vegetables, as well as brassicas such as broccoli and cauliflower) around Sept. 20.

The Florida gardener has to work extra hard at building good soil, Cordell said, because less than 1 percent of our sandy soil is organic matter, the "food" that nourishes healthy vegetable crops.

We can create our own organic matter by keeping a compost pile, Cordell said. Yard wastes such as hedge trimmings and leaves are mixed with kitchen scraps and other organic materials and allowed to biodegrade naturally.

The result is a crumbly, black, earthy-smelling material that can be worked into the garden site before planting.

"The organic gardener believes the soil is a living entity," Cordell said. "You work with it to keep plants healthy."

Some gardeners don't have space for a vegetable garden, though. For them, there's "Renzo's Dirt Bucket," a homemade hydroponic system in which you can grow tomatoes, strawberries, other small vegetables or flowers.

Master Gardener Renzo Gervasoni of Palm Harbor, a graduate of last year's class, showed us how to build his contraption out of two plastic 5-gallon buckets and a few other scrounged materials. In 30 minutes, he created a portable tomato garden that keeps plants watered by capillary action.

"The beauty of this is, if it gets cold, you can just carry the whole darn thing inside," he said.