How To Grow Great Citrus

Stasuma mandarins are ready when the skin feels loose when you squeeze them

Citrus are fussy darlings, deeply sensitive to wind, wet feet, dry feet and frost. The foothill’s of the Tararua’s is not their ideal which means I need to choose my varieties well and put some effort into creating awesome micro climates for them.

Before you go plant shopping, take the time to choose a great spot, and sort drainage and shelter, if needs be. That way, when you come to plant – boom, off she goes.

Variety plays a big part in success – choose citrus to match your particular climate. Your local nursery should help you here. No Blood oranges for me – its too cold at my place, but Navels are all good, so too Tangelos, Grapefruits, Satsuma Mandarins, Bears or Tahitian Lime, Yen Ben and Meyer Lemons – tick, tick, tick.

As for rootstock, hardy Trifoliata suits perfectly – small, tough and productive.

Choose a great spot


Face your citrus into the sun, especially being sure of good winter sun. They need a well drained, frost free, sheltered spot. Ha! What’s the chances?! Don’t despair, you can modify – turning windy into breezy and sodden muck into draining humus. What you can’t modify is north, so make this your first priority.

Walk your property and find micro climates that suit – on the north side of buildings is awesome for cooler climes – citrus will lap up all that reflected heat. You may end up dotting them about, rather than planting them all in one spot – a great solution in cool or windy places. Make use of the best spots you’ve got, homegrown citrus are well worth it. Keep the lemon and lime close to the house, such handy, often used fruits in the kitchen.


measuring the drainage test to assess how fast the water is draining

Well drained soil is a must for citrus. If you don’t know how well drained your soil is, do this simple drainage test to figure it out. Worthwhile, as it’s a make or break moment.

If drainage is poor, sort it. Its tempting not to, I get it – it sounds like a mission, but often the solutions are pretty simple. One of the most common reasons for sodden soils is overflows from tanks that pour on the ground, likewise downpipes that aren’t directed anywhere. Here’s some ideas for managing too much water.

A quick cheat that is often touted, is to plant citrus on a mound to rise above poor drainage. Thing is it’ll need to be a huge mound for the roots to never reach it. As soon as they have to live in the wet, the tree will let you know by suddenly loosing its leaves and keeling over. If for some reason you cannot correct the drainage, you’ll need more than a mound, a north facing slope is a better option. Or even a big pot.

Shelter: Frost + Wind

lemonade frost protection

If you don’t have anywhere sheltered from prevailing winds, create it. Before planting.

As for frost, well there’s frost and then there’s frost. Likely you already know whether or not your climate is citrus friendly. If not go for a walk and spy for citrus in neighbouring backyards!

The most vulnerable years are the early ones, so build them a shelter to get them through the first 3 years. Providing the frosts aren’t heavy and frequent, citrus can cope once they have a decent canopy.

Plant out

a young orange tree protected by long grass
Mulch the base and leave the surrounding grass long – for shelter and below ground strength.

The best time to plant is when you are sure of no more frosts – I start to feel pretty safe from October onwards. Don’t plant in the dreary cold of winter that’s for sure, citrus are not one with the cold.

Plant citrus into yummy homemade compost or vermicastings. If you are using bought compost, drench it with a biological brew to get the microbes going.

A rotten woodsy mulch on top will fire up the beneficial fungi that drive tree health. Go for a mixture – some fine stuff + chunky stuff from a mix of trees. Or scrounge about and gather whatever tree debris you have – leaves, the stuff beneath the firewood pile, sawdust, sea-wrack (the woody bits that wash up on the west coast) and mix it altogether.

My favourite way to start citrus on heavy clay or sand, is to build a compost pile in autumn, and plant into it the following spring.

  • On sand, go down. Scoop out a hollow, lay wet newspaper in the bottom of the hole and make a compost pile on top.
  • On clay lay newspaper or card and make a compost on top of the ground. By time the compost rots down it wont be that much higher off the ground, but it will have kick started the soil life that are at the heart of nutrient exchange, and beginning to transform your clay.