Gardening - Glorious citrus

By: Andrew Steens

The star of a midwinter backyard garden is undoubtedly citrus. Beautiful golden, yellow or bright orange fruits bring colour to an otherwise drab time of year, and the fresh, vitamin C rich fruit is a boon to family health during flu and cold season.

Currently, we are eating deliciously sweet Clementine mandarins. We have so many that we have juiced several hundred fruit, freezing the juice in bottles for refreshing summer drinks. Mandarins are prone to biennial bearing, so I’ll try to balance the heavy crop by applying a decent dressing of fertiliser now. This encourages more spring growth, which is needed for next season’s flowering. For the same reason, I won’t prune this tree this winter as it needs as much leaf area as possible.

Satsuma mandarins are great for children – not as sweet, but much easier to peel than the Clementines. This tree is also heavily cropping this year, and the weight of the crop has caused the branches to touch the ground. This is normal for this type of mandarin, but I will tip some of the branches to lift next year’s fruit off ground level to reduce rotting.

Our navel orange, which we are about to start picking has a more balanced crop, so I won’t need to feed till spring or summer, and it needs just a light prune to keep the tree size in check. Most citrus are best pruned straight after harvest to avoid the main flight season of the lemon-tree borer. Freshly cut wood is a strong attractant to this irksome pest.  

I’m eyeing up the grapefruit tree at present. This giant of a tree is about two-storeys high and almost as wide. Although an occasional grapefruit or a fresh glass of juice is lovely to have for breakfast, we’d be lucky to eat more than a dozen or so in a season, so having a tree this large is hard to justify. My current thinking is to remove one or two large limbs each year for the next five years or so until the tree is back to a more manageable size.
Over-production is also an issue with lemons and limes, so I’ve taken to growing these in large pots on the edge of our deck to keep them to the size of a shrub, rather than a tree.

As a bonus, it’s easy to just pop out from the kitchen whenever a lemon is needed for cooking, or a lime for my gin. Feeding and watering take a bit more care though, as citrus are relatively heavy feeders and need good moisture levels over summer. Regular feeding with sheep pellets, the occasional sprinkle of Epsom salts and some extra citrus fertiliser in summer should do the trick.

We lost our tangelo tree last year to an unidentified root disease. I suspect its root system was weakened in the previous summer’s drought, then succumbed when the winter rains came. I’ve purchased another as this is one of the best producing trees for late winter/spring, and the juice is fabulous mixed with orange juice. I’ll wait until spring to plant, when the soil is starting to warm up, so it gets a good start.

With just these seven trees and a few hours work, we get to eat delicious, nutrient-rich fruit from late April to late November and enjoy the frozen juice for even longer. Every backyard should have these growing.

Andrew Steens


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