If you only have one or two citrus trees, you probably aren’t going to be concerned with say programming a microcontroller’s watering cycles and regulating the soil’s PH for each plant. The cost of time and money to automate or semi-automate certain processes can be much greater than performing the equivalent manual operation. There are folks whom find pleasure getting their hands a little dirty and the peaceful exercise of citrus tree caretaking by hand. To each their own.
My automation projects are mainly intended for indoor use during the winter months. This allows me to disassemble the equipment in the spring and care for my citrus trees like normal outside.
When considering automation, a major factor is the time and energy required to figure out the “right” solution for you. Do I build it or do I buy it? How much does each approach cost? What are likely the points of failure for my chosen automation system? What regular ongoing maintenance should I expect each year? How much does that cost?
All of the above questions are vital to answer before you go off and start buying stuff or constructing your own home-made system.
As your citrus tree collection grows, some nice-to-haves will become should-haves. This probably will happen when you have eight or more trees. It really depends on what you are trying to do and what constraints you are operating within.
Budget Versus Performance
Generally speaking, the more complex and autonomous of a system you design, the higher the cost. Ask yourself, “Where do I fall on the spectrum of budget versus degree of automation desired?”
For those truly on a strict budget, traditional growing methods for citrus trees is right for you. Before all these electronic gizmos and automation systems, citrus trees existed and did just fine with proper care and attention. You can buy a cheap soil tester meter to monitor your soil’s moisture and PH level. If your house happens to have a lot of south-facing windows, perhaps you don’t even need grow lights during the winter!
Know your budget and figure out exactly what you NEED from what you WANT. Spec out your requirements before getting started.
Implement in Phases
Don’t get the idea in your head that one magical day in the future you will have everything working perfectly all at once. Automating different aspects of citrus in phases mitigates risk, both financially and also time-wise. You don’t want to build some elaborate to find out it really doesn’t work well and redo the whole kit and caboodle.
Have a plan. Write down what processes you want automated. Then prioritize them. It’s a simple exercise that needn’t be skipped. You always want to have milestones set ahead of time so you’ll know once you achieved them.
Are you are renter? You’ll want to be able to take your trees with you when you move. How’s that done efficiently so it doesn’t feel like a big production?
How quickly can you take your trees from indoors in the spring to the patio? Vice versa, how efficiently can you transport your trees from outside to inside and have your automation equipment setup and operating?
Knowing exactly what your process is here will save you headaches and give your more time to do other things. Well-thought automation systems and tree moving plans should allow you get up and running again in very little time.
I have about 25 fruit trees in my backyard and it will take me about an hour to transport all the plants indoors, place the pots in their assigned locations, install and configure my automation equipment to have everything up and running in a manageable way throughout the winter. Streamlining your moving process as much as possible should be one of your target goals.
Personal Motivation & Competency
Are you a engineer by profession? A software developer? Mechanically inclined? If not, do you have the free time do develop some relevant skills for citrus automation?
Don’t be alarmed! Old or young, engineer or non-technical, anyone can build automation system to grow citrus. Some people may have a larger skill gap to fill than others but it’s not something that cannot be overcome. Many will find some sort of already built system or kit that’ll meet their requirements. Explore the available options and know your competencies.
If available near you, taking classes is a great way to learn! Visit college and university extension websites. There’s a plethora of quality DIY agricultural information just waiting for you to discover it.