The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Lemon - the tree of champions

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The humble lemon tree should be a mandatory addition to every New Zealand garden.

Justin's favourite citrus is the tangelo, but you still can't beat a lemon for its reliability. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Justin's favourite citrus is the tangelo, but you still can't beat a lemon for its reliability. Photo / Paul Estcourt

In New Zealand's northern climes there is one tree that you can confidently add to any garden. It's the most sour, stubborn and sometimes thorny mongrel you'll ever set eyes upon. It's the lemon tree - the tree of champions. I'd go so far as to say that the next time we crown Miss Universe we should do so with a lemon.

What makes lemon trees and their citrus cousins so important to the New Zealand garden is their practicality and reliability.

Once planted and established, little is required in the way of maintenance to keep them looking good while they pump out literally buckets of tasty fruit.

My favourite citrus tree is the tangelo - easy to grow, prolific and the fruit is delicious to eat, sweet enough to win over the fussiest children.

Gaining peak performance out of your citrus begins with planting.

If you have poor soil conditions then make sure you spend a good dollop of your budget correcting this.

Long term, you are better off planting a smaller tree in good soil than a big tree in poor soil.

If at all possible try not to have the lawn going right up to your tree. Have a circle of mulch or compost which extends out to the drip line, or intended drip line (from the trunk to the outmost leaves).

Your citrus has shallow surface roots and will feed most efficiently if they're not competing for nutrients with other plants or lawn. Doing this also makes your trees easier to compost and mulch around. Use high nitrogen mulch around your tree such as chicken poo, which would burn a lot of other plants.

There is an urban myth that urine is good for citrus. As it happens urine is high in nitrogen, enough to burn most plants, but citrus loves high nitrogen so guys, go for gold ... so to speak.

Make sure your trees are mulched through summer as helping them retain water is critical during this time.

Often your citrus is in flower and will shed blossom or small fruit if stressed by drought, thus reducing next season's crop.

From time to time (usually around spring) it pays to spray your trees to knock back fledgling white fly. I use a mixture of soap, oil and garlic. Just soak a couple of crushed cloves in water overnight, add about 5ml of garden-friendly dish soap (I use "eco" brand) and about 10mls of olive oil with approximately 2 litres of water.

Don't forget to spray under the leaves. Repeat this every month or so until the tree is clear of pests.

For borer mix borax into a paste (you can get it from the chemist) and apply to the affected area.

I hope that after reading this you will feel more kindly toward citrus and that "lemon" will no longer describe a bum deal, a shonky boyfriend, or that second-hand car you bought from the guy with the chest wig and the medallion.

Three of the best: Compost activators

Cow poo
Put an even amount of poo between every layer or two.

Comfrey
Apply the leaves the same way as the cow manure.

Compost
That's right, all the bugs and bacteria you need to make great compost are in, wait for it ... compost. Raid the compost piles of your friends and family.

* Justin Newcombe is a landscape gardener and Life's Back Yard columnist. For more information see landscapesafari.co.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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