Citrus are subtropical and tropical natives of Asia and Indo-Malaysia where they have been cultivated for thousands of years. They once held the reputation of being “lucky” trees and “trees of life” because of their beauty, strength, aromatic oils used for medicines and cosmetics, and for their delicious and long-lasting fruits that are some of Nature’s highest in minerals and vitamins and especially vitamin C.
Citrus are best planted in spring or late summer/early autumn while air temperatures are mild and ground temperatures are moderate to warm provided the soil around the trees can be kept moist. Choose a sunny site that is as sheltered from strong winds as possible to avoid crops being striped from the trees during storms.
Be sure the site is warm all year! Most citrus can withstand light to moderate frosts but severe frosts or freezing can often cause young fruits to drop or the fruit to mature dry and pithy especially in lemons and New Zealand Grapefruit. Good drainage is essential to the development of good citrus and probably the biggest reason for crop failure or loss of the tree.
If soil is heavy, copious drainage materials like sand, pumice or gravel should be added to lighten the soil. Alternatively, conduct the water away from the tree’s planting hole through a series of channels or drains, plant on a large raised mound, or plant on a sunny sloping site.
Even so, the fact must be faced that most citrus resent growing in clay, especially if it gets soggy and cold in winter. Good air circulation around the trees can sometimes help to overcome a drainage problem as the excess water can sometimes be evaporated from the soil and through the foliage.
Citrus generally prefer to have plenty of space between trees to allow maximum light and air to pass through. Allow at least 3.5 meters between oranges, a little less for mandarins, and at least 5 meters between grapefruit and larger lemons like Lisbon.
Citrus trees generally have fairly shallow roots with feeder roots often appearing just below the soil surface. Thus cultivation around the trees must be done carefully and only quite shallow.
Many gardeners choose to mulch in a circle around the trees because this not only eliminates weeds and the need to cultivate but also keeps the soil evenly moist.
It’s also easy to spread fertiliser in spring and autumn over this mulch where it is first absorbed by the mulch and then slowly and evenly by the tree.
A weedmat mulch covered by stones or gravel will greatly increase yields on temperamental trees in colder sites by raising the soil temperature.
With careful planning it is possible to pick some variety of citrus year-round from the backyard garden.
Try Meyer, Eureka and Villa Franca lemons, N.Z. Golden Special and Wheeny Grapefruit, Washington and Carter Navel and Harwood Late Oranges, Satsuma or Clementine followed by Burgess Scarlet and Kara Mandarins, Seminole Tangelos, a Kumquat for very special marmalade and a lime for that warm spot and you’ll be in luck with citrus from your own “trees of life” all year!
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