One of the most enjoyable aspects of winter for me is the pure abundance of citrus fruit in almost every form. Everywhere you look, there are trees literally dripping with colourful fruit. I can’t help but be in awe of this wonderful group of trees and the gifts that they are giving… and keep on giving.
The prime purpose of planting citrus for most of us is to enjoy their sweet juicy harvest, but you know, it’s at this time of year when I am constantly reminded of the sheer beauty of these trees and how good they look in the garden. They bear their colourful fruit… sometimes for months, which contrasts so beautifully with their glossy green foliage. And soon after harvest, they follow up a lovely show of flowers… masses of pure white blooms …with a sweet heady citrus-blossom fragrance… which is incredibly powerful.
On a more practical level, citrus can make a wonderful shade tree too, particularly in small gardens…just keep the lower branches pruned to raise the canopy and expose the trunk. They can also be used to create an attractive screen from unwanted views and make a particularly useful fruiting hedge. Imagine a long dense hedge along the border of your property laden with oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits… whatever you like.
I love this idea of an edible screen, but I don’t have the space for a broad hedge of citrus at my place, so I have set up a frame of posts and wires where I can train the trees flat as an espalier for a super slim effect. That has enabled me to grow six different varieties in a space fourteen metres long and just one metre wide. It’s going to look beautiful when it’s established. It’s a lot of fun to do… and you could just as easily apply the training techniques to dress up a tired old wall or fence. Just choose a sunny spot and attach some wires or a piece of trellis to fit the space you want to cover. To train your espalier, gently tie the branches to the support with stretchy garden tape, then as the tree grows, keep tying the new growth to the trellis and prune off anything that grows out of shape or off the structure.
So there you go… there’s a lot more to a citrus tree than just fruit. They make a wonderful plant for beautifying your garden as well. But what about growing them? Well, despite the many problems people face with citrus, they are really quite easy and trouble free to grow, as long as you follow a few rules.
The first one is sunshine. All citrus need plenty of sun to thrive, at least 6 hours of direct sun a day. They also need protection from wind, which can knock trees about and cause premature fruit drop… reducing your yield.
Good drainage is a must, because their roots are very prone to rot. If your soil is heavy, find a better spot, or make sure you incorporate plenty of organic matter… even sand if needed… and create a nice mound for planting.
Feeding is important too. Citrus trees are greedy… and will just about take all the feeding you are prepared to give them… and fair enough too… they work so hard! If you don’t feed them regularly, they will be miserable and start to show signs of stress. So be kind, and give them an application of blood and bone or pelletised chicken manure – a handful per square metre – every two months or so. To supplement that, I will often give my trees a foliar application of diluted seaweed extract and fish emulsion… just mix it up in a sprayer and apply it liberally to the foliage and then watch the leaves turn a beautiful deep green. Then of course you may have heard of the value of ‘liquid gold’. I often joke about it… but there’s an old saying… ‘Ask the gentleman of the house to say goodnight to the lemon tree’… not too many plants can handle undiluted urine, but citrus love it… so don’t waste it!
As far as pruning goes, there’s no special pruning techniques required to get better crops, in fact they need never be pruned at all. If they are getting starting to get too big, keep in mind… if you give them an allover haircut, you risk losing next year’s crop, so just chop back the odd branch that gets too long to keep their size in check over time.
Get those things right and you will enjoy many years of citrus pleasure.