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Growing citrus well

Alison Aplin

Alison Aplin

October 17, 2012

Why do so many people have trouble growing citrus? I have never had a problem and so feel that I should share some of my experience of growing them with you.

Lisbon lemon growing in poor soil with eucalypt forest in background

All citrus have a strong root system. They are not deep rooting but have superficial roots that spread beyond the tree’s drip line. For this reason, how irrigation is applied is critical and is often the cause of failure of the plant.

I know that most water authorities recommend the use of drippers or in-line drippers to irrigate gardens; this recommendation is based on reducing the amount of water used in a garden. I water my citrus differently and probably use less water as well.

My citrus in our garden in SW Victoria are growing in a semi-shaded position relatively close to gum trees – certainly not ideal positioning for citrus growing. They only get full sun in winter when the pear trees to their north are leafless. Full sun is preferable, but when you haven’t got the room, you make do with second best!

If I watered with the drippers twice a week which is often the recommended irrigation advice, these trees would never have survived, let alone flourish and fruit, when growing so close to eucalypts. So I apply overhead irrigation once every 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the season and rainfall, for about 2 to 4 hours at a time, once again depending on the season. And the soil in this area is sand with a limestone base. Good drainage is essential for growing citrus.

Wobbler sprinkler (Image from irrigationwarehouse.com.au)

This water is applied with a Wobbler sprinkler. Each droplet of the Wobbler is large, replicating rain. It is not as easily wind-borne if the wind picks up without notice [I hate irrigating on windy days]. The volume of water put out by the Wobbler is small – hence the limited use of water. But it is the fact that the whole of the plant’s root system is irrigated, plus the cleansing benefit of water on the leaves of the plants removing any built up dust etc. Any fertiliser or Saturaid that is applied around each plant is easily watered in by irrigation that replicates rain.

Disturbing the soil around the base of citrus is not recommended. I have succulents at the base of mine – planted small and increasing naturally as room allows and nothing else. These plants also act as living mulch, helping to keep the ground cool on hot days.

Lisbon lemon with Tahitian lime (right) with mixed planting

In order to get plants moving once planted out, I use sulphate of ammonia [only a handful] around the base of each plant and water it in. I keep the plant well watered for the first growing season, and this is where once to twice per week is vital. But in the early stages I just hand water. The following year the irrigation is as mentioned above.

You should notice a lot of healthy green shoots appear. This is from the high nitrogen in the sulphate of ammonia. This product should never be applied in autumn or winter in cold areas. Wait until spring to apply so that the new shoots are not damanged by frost or excessive cold.

Once the tree is growing strongly, a regular application – once every 6 to 8 weeks of a proprietary citrus food is ideal. I also remove the flower buds while the plant is young so that the vigour goes into producing a healthy tree before flowering and fruiting. It took four years for our Tahitian Lime to settle down and start producing fruit, but we have a strong and healthy tree so fruit production will now be continuous.

Meyer lemon Photo Debra Roby

The fruit of the existing lemon in the garden had very thick skin, with no juice. It took at least 3 years to get the nourishment into the plant before the fruit, a Lisbon lemon, was edible. But it now producing constantly with good, edible fruit. Our soils here are extremely deficient in both potash and nitrogen. These have both been applied whenever I feel that the trees could do with an extra boost. And citrus are big feeders. But remember – small amounts often is the best method. And the occasional extra boost of sulphate of ammonia for nitrogen really keeps the plant thriving.

I have recently purchased a Meyer lemon, but my oft heard cry is “Where am I going to put it?” As always in the garden of a madwoman gardener, where there’s a will, there’s a way!

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anne latreille
anne latreille
11 years ago

I must get one of those wobblers, Alison! On the Meyer lemon, I’ve espaliered mine – it’s about 15 years old now. It fruits well and the only hassle is keeping it tied back and also getting rid of the bits that are attacked by gall wasp. But thinking positive, this is also a good way of keeping the growth in check. As for my Lisbon lemon – it receives no artificial watering and is still alive and healthy after more than 20 years. Must admit it did look very sick at the end of our decade-long drought in Victoria but once it started raining I chopped it back hard and now it is laden. With fruit and gall wasps, actually.

11 years ago
Reply to  anne latreille

Yours is obviously another success story Anne. I do wonder whether people overtend their citrus because they have heard that they are hard to grow. Occasional water, well-drained soil, fertiliser when needed and making sure that the plant is not planted too deeply initially are the prerequisites I have found.

Julie Thomson
11 years ago

Have onpassed this to many lemon-lamenting friends, thanks Alison. I have two middling trees, my neighbour has a miraculous bush lemon tree that produces for the street every year. No special treatment. Grey water wash, sits near the workshed where every kind of mechanical substance is sprayed and spilt. Just a pearler. Thank you for the great post

10 years ago

Hi Alison , I planted a dwarf Tahitian lime at the start may, the leaves are green going yellow along with the veins and falling off, do you think it could be too much water, I also gave it some chelated iron, which is prob wrong. Or maybe it’s bait stressed.. Please could you give me your thoughts?

10 years ago
Reply to  Christine

Hello Christine
Thanks for your question.
I think that I will answer this as dot point for ease of reading –
1) planting in may in late autumn is not a good idea if your soil is clay
2) a vital question here is where are you situated? If you are tropical it is not so much of an issue, but if you are southerly and cold then this could have a bearing
3) the type of soil that you have will also have a bearing – many sandy soils are deficient in potash and magnesium; it could be magnesium deficiency that is causing trouble more so than iron
4) is your soil well drained? Last winter our citrus were all under water from a flooding wetland nearby. There was no lasting effect on the citrus as the water had drained by spring when the new growth starts. And we have a limestone base which means that drainage in this area is excellent
5) it is hard to tell if you overwatered as you haven’t mentioned your watering routine. In May the plant shouldn’t have needed much water. It is better tho to plant citrus in spring if your soil is at all heavy.
6) why did your citrus collapse so quickly [i.e. leaf loss] – it usually takes longer? The chelated iron won’t have caused too much of a problem if you followed the dosage guidelines.
7) and what baits were used – you don’t specify?