Down in the Garden: How to Grow Healthy Citrus

Everyone should have a lemon tree but not everyone is always successful at growing said citrus tree.

Let’s explore ways to help you master the art of the juicy fruits!

We have had a love affair with the tangy sweetness of citrus for a very long time.

Fossil finds date the citrus genus back to eight million years ago, in seemingly one place, the Himalayan foothills and then from here, most citrus fruits spread.

First, they made their way to South-East Asia and then into Spain and Portugal via Middle Eastern traders and travellers.

There were originally only five types, and we did what we gardeners love to do, we hybridised and experimented and sometimes nature took its own hand until we now have countless varieties.

The five parent plants are:  Citron (Citrus medica), Mandarin (Citrus reticulata), Popeda (Citrus micrantha), Pomelo (Citrus maxima) and Cumquats (Citrus japonica).

Which Tree?

Select a tree that you know you will use and that will be compatible with your area and environment.

Grafted varieties will generally be hardier as they are clones of desirable plants that are grown upon strong, disease resistant rootstock that is suitable for your area.

There are a large variety of sizes so make sure that your intended spot can accommodate the growth.

While you can grow a tree from a seed, they probably won’t grow true to the type of the fruit they came from and though you may be pleasantly surprised, you will probably end up with sometime inedible.

As it will take about seven years until you see the fruit, you will be better off having faith in a grafted tree of the type you are after.

A few of my juicy selections for Central Coast/temperate regions include Lemon: Eureka, Orange: Valencia, Lime: Makrut, Grapefruit: Ruby Red Grapefruit, Mandarin: Imperial, Cumquat: Nagami. Australian Native: Finger Lime (any they are all wonderful!) Something Unusual: Buddha’s Hand.

How to Grow a Citrus Tree

Citrus will require at least six hours of full sun every day.

The soil needs to be deep, rich and loamy, with free draining qualities being an absolute must.

It won’t want other plants, or a lawn, sharing its space at all and a sheltered spot is best as they don’t fare well in strong winds.

Planting time is early spring but planning time is right now, in the middle of winter, because a well-prepared bed will mean a happy, healthy long-lived tree.

Chose you spot and dig in.

If your soil is heavy, add compost and lots of it and some sand can help as well.

Dig your hole right out to three metres wide and as deep as you can manage.

Enrich the soil now with a little well-rotted manure if you feel your soil is depleted as fertilising during planting will burn the sensitive root structure of citrus.

The preferred pH level for citrus is 6 – 7.5 and so you may need to toss in a little lime to bring up the level.

When it is time to plant, ensure you mound up earth in the planting hole and spread roots out over it before filling.

Water in well and mulch the surrounding area with an organic material and leave at least 12cm away from the trunk.

Citrus Care

Citrus are hungry garden buddies, so you need to feed them well.

To leave no doubt there are specialised citrus fertilisers that are brilliant and take the guess work out of things for beginners.

The usual pattern for feeding is mid-winter, late spring and late summer.

Watering is essential once a week for newly planted trees and then only once every couple of weeks except if the weather is very hot.

Container grown plants will naturally need additional watering and just remember that they detest soggy feet.

Pruning may seem a bit daunting but in all honestly, it’s relatively easy with most citrus.

Just trim back after harvest should you wish to shape your tree and remove dead branches and any that may be diseased but never cut away more than 20% of your tree canopy.

You should be able to reach the trunk of the tree without being too obstructed by branches so keep the centre clear.

When it comes to harvest, leave fruit on the tree until they have fully developed to ensure best flavour.

What’s Wrong with my Citrus?

Holes in my Tree: Probably Tree Borers and they can be removed by digging out with a skewer and a pyrethrum-based spray can knock them down as well.

Wiggly Lines on Leaves: The Leaf Miner is usually the culprit and can be controlled with an organic pest oil.

Sooty Mould & Honeydew: The sticky dew is created by insects, and it can lead to the sooty mould fungus issue. It can be controlled by washing the plant with a horticultural soap and then treating the tree with an organic insecticide.

Healthy Leaf Drop: This happens in most cases due to lack of water but can also indicate a health issue with the tree so give it a close examination.

Yellow Leaves: These will usually also drop and indicate too much water and poor drainage. Reduce watering and the tree should return to good health.

Stink Bug Infestation: This is a big one, and dreaded, as the fruit is punctured and drops off and tree slowly dies.

If they are known in your area, my advice is to get a jump on them by spraying your trees completely in early spring with an organic horticultural oil but if they are already there then you will need program of organic insecticide as per the manufacture’s recommendations.

No Room Citrus Tips

Why don’t you try growing citrus in pots?

This is also brilliant for those who are renting as you can simply take your ‘movable orchard’ with you and there are lots of dwarf citrus available.

You will need as deep a pot as possible and repot every two years.

An old but clever way to grow citrus in limited space to train it to grow up a wall.

Espalier style, as it is called, needs careful planning and constant maintenance, but if you have the time, it’s an easy way to make use of tight spaces and provide a stunning backdrop in a courtyard or garden.

DOWN IN YOUR GARDEN: Mandy, Children’s Playgroup Garden, Tuggerah

The Central Coast Wetlands is a majestic open-spaced wonderment of nature nestled in the heart of The Coast and today I am standing, surrounded by smiling Mums and Dads, some carrying babies, others delightfully juggling conversations with each other, encircling their pre-schoolers who are gardening and playing in the Community Garden here.

Children are covered with dirt, watering plants, in awe of the worms, birds and bugs and all under the enchantment of Mandy McLoughlin Dos Santos, a bright and bubbly, early childhood educator who sings about growing things and tells stories about healthy, fun, eating.

You can’t help but be drawn into the magic that Mandy has created in the ‘SWAMP’ (Sustainable Agricultural Wetlands Project) garden.

There are pumpkins, zucchinis and snow peas that the children helped grow last term and are now cooking up for a snack right here in amongst the garden beds and not a single child is not as enthused as I find myself.

I asked Mandy how her ‘Foodie Nature Playgroup’ came to be.

“Normally when I am working with children it is in preschools or early learning centres and although they might have a garden, the incursion is often inside.

“To be on land, within nature, surrounded by the food and plants we are talking about in our stories or using in our cooking or arts, is magical.

“It connects children to the environment intimately.

“And so much exploration and learning spontaneously occurs, simply by being in an outdoor natural space.”

Three Big Gardening Questions

Q. One Plant You Can’t Live Without:

A. I love snow peas and beans for how they climb and how beautiful their flowers are. They are magical. And such a delight for children to find and pick.

Q. Piece of Advice:

A. Just try. If you are new to the area or gardening, just plant something and see what happens! I have some wonderful advice from my friends and family, including Cheralyn, but also just testing it out myself.

Q. What Do you Think Your Garden Is Missing:

A. Our garden is very young at SWAMP at the moment so I think as it grows, hedges, bushes and trees grow, it will change and evolve. But what I would love are some chickens. That would be great for scrap management from the playgroup and beautiful for the children to be involved with their care.

You can find out more about this amazing garden here:


You could plant artichokes, asparagus crowns, beetroot, broad beans, cabbage, carrot, English spinach, lettuce, mustard, late season onions, parsnip, peas, potatoes, radish, rhubarb crowns, salsify, silverbeet, English daisy, delphinium, dianthus, gloxinia, gypsophila, marigold, roses, spider flower, statice.


Due to COVID restrictions how about a virtual, interactive garden tour? Here are a few.

Sydney Royal Botanic Garden:

The Huntington Gardens, California:

The Gardens of Versailles, France:

Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘At Home with The Gardening Gang’ 8 – 10am every Saturday on Coast FM 96.3.
Contact Cheralyn with your questions, events, news or if would like to be a part of ‘