Friday, 5 February 2016

A Backyard Stalwart - The Lemon

Easily the most popular home-grown fruit and synonymous with backyards across Australia, lemons are a versatile fruit and grow throughout a wide range of climatic conditions. They may be the most popular of all trees grown in the home garden but unfortunately unhealthy looking specimens are fairly common, as their needs are not always understood. Dad giving the 'good old lemon' a little night water is not the cure-all for lemon tree problems. When you listen to any gardening talk-back radio sessions there always seems to be a lemon tree question - this is not because they are particularly troublesome, but rather there are so many grown throughout Australia. 

Citrus are native to Asia and are attractive, evergreen trees with the most beautiful fragrant blossoms, so are worthwhile to grown just for their fragrance alone!  

Grafted trees are recommended for both pots and in-ground planting. There will be a lemon variety suitable for whatever application you wish - if, for instance, you are short on space, it is best to look for dwarfing rooting stocks. These grow to around half the height of varieties on standard root stocks but are absolutely prolific in producing full-sized, normal tasting fruit for their size.

Prepare the soil several months ahead by digging over well and adding half a barrow or more of good compost, 2kg of gypsum to the square metre if the soil is heavy and 300/400g of agricultural lime to the square metre if the soil is acidic (pH below 6.5). Mulch heavily and leave all this to decompose. Good preparation will set your lemon off to an excellent start! A fertile, well-drained soil is best so forming a mound that is 15-30cm high and about 1m wide will protect the base of the tree from fungal attack, allowing rain to run off and protecting roots from suffocation in saturating, rain events. This is especially relevant for clay soils. 

Soak the tree (in pot) for a couple of hours prior to planting in a seaweed enriched solution. When planting, add 1 kg of organic fertiliser to the bottom and work this thoroughly through the soil with a fork.  Remove from the pot and gently tease out the roots so they are not twisted together or circling. Trim off any damaged roots and gently backfill with soil. Make sure that the graft union is as high above the soil level as possible without exposing the roots. Form a rim of soil about the same diameter as the container to aid with watering. Give the tree a good soaking to remove any air pockets and never let it completely dry out. Mulch around the tree to about a depth of 5cm - keep grass away from the trunk to about the drip line of the tree. Lemons have fine, surface-feeding roots, so need to be protected.

On the Coffs Coast citrus can be planted in late winter or early spring but bare-rooted trees should only be planted in winter. Choose an open, sunny position with at least half a day's sun and shelter from strong winds. 

To help the tree establish strong roots and branches to support heavy cropping it is best to remove the emerging fruit for the first two years.

Citrus need regular feeding as they are hungry with high requirements for trace elements. A regular spray with a seaweed fertiliser will supply these trace elements. Fertilise citrus trees with a blended organic fertiliser every six weeks from spring to autumn, applying thinly around the roots from the trunk to the drip zone - never place this fertiliser too close to the trunk or in heaps but spread it as evenly as possible

Never feed a flowering lemon, as it can cause fruit drop. Wait until the fruit are about pea-sized.  Be mindful not to over fertilise with nitrogen based fertilisers in late winter/early spring as this could promote too much lush new growth for the Citrus Gall Wasp to lay their eggs.

Compost or animal manures can be used for feeding citrus at the rate of about 4kg in the first year and up to 20kg for a mature 8 year old tree! In November/December it may be necessary to apply agricultural lime or dolomite to correct the pH.

Prune in June or July - remove dead, damaged or inward and low growing branches - create an open vase shape to allow maximum air circulation. It is best to prune your trees to a height where harvesting is easily done without damage to the tree. Further shaping may be required after harvest in early spring. If you notice any Citrus Gall Wasp galls, cut off and destroy - this helps prevent recurring attacks, which weaken trees. Suckers below the graft point compete with the tree for energy so need to be removed by rubbing off - not cutting.

'Dwarf Meyer', a dwarf version ideal for pots, is also sold under the name 'Lots-A-Lemons'.

'Fino'  is almost seedless and is particularly suited to cool climates so great for Nana Glen and the hilly areas of Coffs.

'Lemonade' is an Australian hybrid between a lemon and a mandarin, with mouthwatering fruit. This variety thrives here on the Coffs Coast.

'Lisbon' and 'Eureka' fruit heavily between autumn and winter. If you'd like a lemon to help your homemade jam set, these two are perfect as they are rich in pectin. They are the best also if you require zest for cooking as they have a full flavoured lemon oil.

'Meyer' is a hybrid between a lemon and an orange. This will crop two or three times a year.

Rough skin (or bush) lemons are similar to true lemons but are larger and have a really bumpy thick skin and more seeds. It is often used as a rootstock for other citrus. Rough lemon trees are large with lots of thorns. Pulp is lemon-yellow, moderately juicy with a medium acid level and lemon aroma - a great zesting lemon.

'Villa Franca' crops in the temperate winter, and provides additional summer fruit on the Coffs Coast. This lemon has decorative foliage and fruit.

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