No self-respecting gardener should be without a fruiting citrus tree. Whether you choose the garden or a pot, here are a few things you should know first.
Perhaps the most familiar sight in the average Australian garden is the humble lemon tree. But why stop there?
These days kumquats, Tahitian limes, grapefruit, blood oranges, native finger limes, oranges and myriad mandarin varieties offer exciting new flavour experiences. Better yet, their blossoms add wonderful colour and fragrance to your garden.
The great thing is, citrus trees are not difficult to grow. With a little care they thrive in containers and home gardens. They'll bear fruit in winter and their glossy green leaves ensure your garden looks gorgeous all year round.
Caring for your citrus plant
Here's how to care for your citrus plant when you bring it home from the nursery.
Where to plant?
Confused about how to plant a lemon tree? Not sure how to plant a lime tree? Here's what you need to know: Citrus plants love sunshine. They do best in a warm position, protected from frost, and in well-drained soil.
If your patio or balcony gets the most sun, try growing your tree in a pot.
With so many options to choose from, including dwarf limes and 'citrus splitzers' (a grafted tree combining two fruiting varieties on the one plant), you'll be sure to find a plant that tickles your fancy.
Your young tree will need good drainage, so make sure you select a pot with large holes in the bottom. Elevate it slightly off the ground by setting it on pot-feet or bricks. Wine barrels cut in half are perfect, or go for a large plastic or terracotta pot.
Citrus trees love to be popped in full sun. Picture: Gerry
Top tips for planting citrus trees in a container
User a good potting mix, and buy enough to fill the pot within 4cm of the rim;
Slide the tree carefully from its nursery pot;
Set the tree in the hole you've prepared;
Make sure the root ball rests at lease 5cm above the surrounding soil and fill with potting mix, patting down lightly;
Be sure you add enough potting mix to allow for slumping after you water it a few times.
Caring for your potted plant
Potted citrus needs to be watered two to three times a week, more if they are flowering or fruiting. Make sure your plant gets all the nutrients it needs by fertilising with citrus food about once a month.
Not sure how to plant a lemon tree? Why not in a pot? Picture: Erinna Giblin
Planting in the garden
When planting citrus in the garden you'll want to plant it high. This creates surface water run-off and will be a great help to the tree in wet weather.
Top tips for how to plant citrus trees in the garden
Choose a sunny, spacious spot, with enough room for your plant to grow its branches; Use a deep, sandy loam-type soil if possible - although a loamy soil that is well-drained will also do the trick;
Dig a hole that's wide and deep enough to accommodate the entire root system of your tree.
Your best bet now is to build a raised garden bed and fill it with good soil, then plant the tree straight into the raised bed. Fresh soil will help the plant to grow, and avoid wet feet.
Place the plant in the hole, making sure the bud union (the slightly swollen area on the lower stem where the cirtus is grafted onto the rootstock) sits at the same level that it did in the pot.
Cover the root system with soil, ensuring the tree is upright and straight as you backfill. Firm the soil in around the roots to get rid of any air pockets and water it with a seaweed solution to help it settle.
Keeping your plant happy
Pruning: Just prune when necessary. A light trim across the canopy in early spring will see a surge of new growth. Older trees will need a renovation prune every five years or so.
Watering: It's important to keep the soil moist during the hotter months with a deep soaking. A light watering will only result in the fine surface feeder roots dying out when the soil dries. That said, only water is needed - too much may result in rot.
Mulching will help to prevent drying. It also helps to suppress weeds and improve soil structure.
Orange trees can be potted too. Picture: Gerry
Pest & disease control
Regularly spray new growth with a horticultural spray oil to control citrus leaf miner and aphids, along with sap suckers like spined citrus bugs.
You'll need fairly large quantities of citrus food to keep your plant happy. Be careful not to apply too much nitrogen (such as sulphate of ammonia), as it will cause the tree to produce thick-skinned fruit and lush leaf growth at the expense of fruiting. Your citrus can do with a feed at least four times a year.
- Water the soil well, and aerate with a hollow-tined fork before applying fertiliser;
- Potash is great for citrus as it assists both fruit formation and sweetness;
- Apply plant food around the 'drip line' of the tree - where the furthest branches are at their widest - because this is where the roots are most active;
- Trees around six years and older should receive approximately 3kg of citrus food each year.
Beware: This does not include encouraging your pet to use your tree as a watering post. Despite common folklore, the salts in dog urine can actually burn the plant, making it an unpredictable fertiliser. Cat pee isn't much better.
Try spreading used coffee grounds instead. Neither should replace a good quality citrus fertiliser.
Autumn is the perfect time to plant.
This is because citrus grow big and robust after a good summer growing season. In the southern states, it's best to plant in spring after the frosts have passed. In sub-tropical regions, citrus trees can be planted most times of the year, except during the wet.
Whatever you do, never plant a citrus in your lawn - they don't play nicely with others.
If you pick a fruit from the tree and it tastes good, the rest should be ripe enough to harvest. Ready for cocktail, smoothie, salad or seasoning.