The citronella plant is prized for its citrus-like aroma. The scent is mistakenly thought to contain citronella which repels mosquitoes. This belief has given the plants their alternative name of mosquito plant.
Pelargonium Citronella may not be the most effective way to keep mosquitoes away from your home. However, they are still pleasingly attractive and aromatic plants. The plant’s attractive foliage is similar to the leaves of the parsley plant. This is complemented by lavender colored, geranium-like flowers which appear during the summer months.
Citronella plants work in a range of planting schemes from floral mixed borders to herb gardens. You can also grow citronella in containers on balconies or around patios. If you want to make the most of the plants aromatic properties, plant them along the edge of paths or borders. When people brush past, the scent will be released filling the air with a fragrant, citrusy aroma.
Usually classed as a tender perennial, growing your own citronella plant is pleasingly easy. Here is everything you need to know.
The distinctive, parsley like foliage of the scented geranium citronella plant. When disturbed, cut or crushed a pleasing citrusy aroma is released.
Warning Citronella, or scented geraniums, can harm both cats and dogs. The foliage can cause dermatitis in pets if they are allowed to rub against the leaves.
Ingesting the plants can be toxic to pets if consumed in large quantities. Consuming smaller amounts can cause lethargy or upset the pets digestive system.
Growing Citronella From Seed
While young plants can be purchased from DIY or Garden stores, growing from seed is often more affordable. However it takes both time and space.
You can begin sowing seeds directly outdoors once the last frost has passed. Sow seeds in a light position that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight.
Alternatively, if you want a head start, sow seeds indoors around 6 weeks before the last frost. Many gardeners like to sow the seeds at the same time as they sow tomato seeds.
Citronella seeds are pleasingly easy to germinate. Simply sprinkle the seeds over well worked or fresh damp soil. Sowing on damp soil helps the seeds to stick in place meaning that they won’t be disturbed by the wind. Cover with a light layer of soil.
If you are sowing indoors in trays or pots, cover with a plastic wrap, or lid. Alternatively, sow into a mini propagator such as the EarlyGrow Propagator. This helps to protect the seeds. It also allows you more control over the microclimate, meaning that you can keep the soil warm and encourage germination.
Seeds can be started undercover in containers or trays filled with fresh compost.
Following germination thin the seedlings out once they are a few inches tall. This encourages the remaining plants to become stronger and healthier.
How to Plant
When your seedlings are large enough harden them off before transplanting into garden beds or larger containers. Plants purchased from DIY stores or garden centers can be planted straight into their final position.
Citronella plant is considered hardy, or an evergreen perennial, in USDA zones 9 to 11. In cooler climates the plant is considered tender. Here it is best grown in containers. This enables you to move the plants undercover in the fall, before the first frost of the year hits.
Position the plants somewhere where they will receive at least 6 hours of sunlight every day. If you are growing the plants indoors place them in containers on a bright windowsill that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight every day.
Citronella plants tolerate a range of different soil pH levels as long as the soil is well draining. If you are unsure of the condition of your soil, a soil pH testing kit is easy to use. It is also a useful way to ensure that your soil remains healthy and well balanced.
Before planting dig over the soil, removing any weeds. Breaking up the soil also helps to improve drainage. Work in organic matter such as well rotted manure or homemade compost helps to enrich the soil. This is particularly beneficial for citronella plants because they thrive in nutrient rich soil.
When you are ready to plant, dig a hole that is twice the size of the container currently holding the plant. Carefully remove the plant from the container, being careful not to damage the root system and position in the hole. The top of the root system should be level with the soil.
Once you are happy with the position of the plant, fill in the hole. Water well.
If you are planting more than one citronella plant space them 12 to 18 inches apart. This gives the plants space to grow and bush out. It also allows for air to circulate between the plants, helping to keep them healthy.
If your soil is particularly poor, try planting in containers or small raised beds, filled with fresh compost.
Growing in Containers
You can also grow citronella as part of a container garden.
Your chosen container should be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. The container should ideally be about 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep. This is roughly twice the size of the plant’s root system when fully established. Planting in a large container means that your plants have plenty of room to grow and spread.
Place a layer a few inches thich of nutrient rich fresh potting soil in the bottom of the container. Position the plant in the center of the container, the top of the root system should sit below the lip of the plant. When you are happy with the position of the plant, fill the container with more fresh soil and gently firm down.
Water well and place the container in a sunny position.
If you want a truly low maintenance garden, try planting in self-watering containers.
How to Care for a Citronella Plant
Once planted, caring for citronella is pleasingly easy.
Regularly weed the soil around the plants. Weeds are fast to grow and can smother small plants. They also take valuable moisture and nutrients away from plants. There are a number of useful tools that help you to keep your garden neat and weed free.
Scented geranium or mosquito repellent plants flower abundantly if correctly positioned and cared for.
How to Grow Citronella in a Container
1st Step: You want to pick a container that is the right size. Opt for one that is about eight to fifteen inches in diameter and height.
2nd Step: Assist the plant with proper draining and boost it with additional nutrients by adding a mix of fertilizer and potting soil.
Depending on the size of the container you may need to adjust your measurements.
3rd Step: Position your citronella plant in the container to allow the top of the root ball to rest about two inches from the top perimeter of the container. Add soil around the root ball. It needs to rest at the same level it was in while in its original container.
The root ball is the mass formed by the roots of a plant and the soil surrounding them as you see depicted above. Creative Commons Placing in root ball by Tara Severns / CC by 2.0
4th Step: Next, you need to water the soil. Doing this will get rid of air pockets and compact the soil around the roots.
Add more water so it will be evenly moist. Don’t overdo it. You don’t want to drown it with water.
5th Step: Place your plant in an area where it can get at least six hours of direct sunlight for proper growth.
How to Grow Citronella in a Garden
1st Step: Select a spot in your garden that gets a good dose of six hours of direct sunlight.
2nd Step: Get out your shovel and work a couple of inches of 5-10-5 slow-release fertilizer and organic compost into the spot you picked. You’ll be wise to follow the package instructions. Fertilizer usage is determined by the square footage of the space you’re using.
3rd Step: With your trusty shovel dig a hole for the plant. It should be about the same depth as the root ball but twice as wide. Next, you will need to put the plant into the hole.
Make sure that the top of the root ball is situated at ground level. The plant will need to be held in place so fill the soil around the root ball. Prevent crowding by spacing your plants eight inches apart.
4th Step: You’re almost done. The final step is to water the ground. Doing so will remove air pockets as well as compact the soil around the root ball.
Water the ground to help your newly-planted citronella thrive as depicted above. Creative Commons Watering by nicgep114 / CC by 2.0
Keep an eye on the soil’s moisture level. Give it just enough water to keep the soil evenly moist. You don’t want the soil to get dry.
A number of variables will determine how frequently you need to water your plant. You have to keep such things in mind as the humidity, temperature, and sun exposure.
When the plant is still young, water around it to keep the water from damaging the foliage. Be careful not to overwater your plant.
Too much can have bad effects. Giving your plant too much water on a regular basis will cause the plant to become flooded. This can lead to root rot.
Avoid issues with root rot by making sure that the underside of your container has plenty of drainage holes in it. Also, be sure to allow the soil to dry out between each watering session to make sure that you aren’t overdoing it.
Pruning your plant will enable you to fully enjoy the fragrant flowers and leaves it produces. You’ll love seeing the beautiful lavender blooms it likes to show off.
Prepare to prune your citronella in the late winter and or the early spring. Doing so will allow you to craft the perfect shape. Plus, you will encourage beautiful flowers to bloom.
Pruning is a practice you can’t afford to neglect if you want to ensure that your plant stays healthy and gorgeous. Since citronella plants can grow quite large you will need to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t start to overwhelm your garden or patio.
Another popular area where citronella is often planted includes entrance walkways. You don’t want anyone to trample on your precious plant on their way into your lovely home.
Citronella grows rapidly so you need to prune the foliage every few weeks to stay on top of the growth. The best way to prune your plant is to remove any leaves that look yellow.
A good rule to follow when adding fertilizer to your plant is to use one large tablespoon per square foot of soil. Striking the right balance is key. If you add too little, your plant won’t thrive as well as it could.
Water the plants regularly. When watering, aim to keep the soil evenly moist.
Once established these plants are pleasingly drought tolerant. Water only when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch. If you want to keep your water usage costs down, try harvesting rainwater. This allows you to keep your garden hydrated with fresh, chemical free water without spending too much money or wasting natural resources.
On average the plants require watering once a fortnight. However this schedule can change depending on temperature and growing conditions. Using a soil moisture meter such as the Atree Soil Moisture Sensor Meter helps you to accurately monitor the condition of your soil. This enables you to know exactly when the soil is drying out and also when you are in danger of overwatering plants.
How Often to Fertilize
The citronella plant does best in nutrient rich environments.
Fertilizing with a general purpose fertilizer helps to encourage flowering. Apply a liquid plant feed upon planting. Repeat this dose once every 10 to 14 days until the plant is established and thriving.
Once summer begins the plant starts to set flowers. As soon as flowering begins apply a high potassium feed, such as tomato fertilizer. Again, repeat this application once ever 14 days throughout the summer.
Cease fertilizing in the fall. If your variety of citronella is not a flowering variety switch fertilizers in mid-summer once the plant has achieved a pleasing amount of growth.
If left to grow, these plants can reach 2 to 4 ft in height. Once mature prune regularly to control the spread of the plant. A sharp, clean pair of garden scissors is ideal for this task. Pruning or pinching out new growth also helps to encourage a bushy growth habit.
The citronella plant can become leggy if it doesn’t receive enough sunlight. If this happens, trim away lanky branches and move to a lighter position.
Wilting foliage should be trimmed away. Cutting away any foliage that loses color or seems to be drying out helps to keep the plants healthy. This change of appearance happens naturally in the fall. If you need to prune away dying foliage in the spring or summer months it may be an indication that your plant isn’t receiving enough water.
Always use sharp clean tools when pruning. This enables you to make clean cuts without the risk of spreading disease from one plant to another.
In cooler climates citronella plants in containers can be moved inside for the fall and winter months. Once the last frost of spring has passed return the plants to their outdoor position.
If your plants are in raised beds or the ground cut them back and mulch well in the fall. You can also cover cut plants with a horticultural fleece. Gardaner Plant Covers offer great protection against seasonal frosts as well as protection from larger pests such as deer and rabbits.
Covering the plants helps them to survive winters as cold as 20 ℉. Remember, these are tender plants. They will struggle to survive in temperatures colder than this.
In the coldest climates, if you want to overwinter the plants, the best method is to lift them with a fork and cut back before planting in a container. Place the containers in a light position. After a few weeks apply a dose of time-release fertilizer to the soil surface. Water only when the soil begins to dry. Replant in the spring, after the last frost has passed.
Companion planting is the process of planting mutually beneficial plants together. The citronella plant does particularly well when planted alongside mint, nasturtium, thyme and coleus. This means that as well as growing the plant on its own it can also be planted as part of a herb garden.
How to Propagate
If you want to grow more citronella plants they are easily propagated from cuttings.
Use a clean pair of garden scissors to cut a 3 to 4 inch tip from the plant. Take cuttings from healthy stems and branches only.
Remove all the foliage apart from the top two sets of leaves. The cutting can be dipped in rooting hormone. This encourages root production but is not necessary. Plant the cutting in a container filled with a nutrient rich potting mix.
Place the cuttings in a warm position, out of direct sunlight. Keep the soil moist. Roots should form within a few weeks.
To check that roots have formed gently try to pull the root from the plant. If you feel resistance, it is a good sign that roots are present. Once the stems have taken root care as above.
Common Problems and How to Deal With Them
Dark spots appearing on the foliage of the plant, leaf spots, is a sign that the plant is receiving too much water. Cut away any affected leaves and allow the soil to dry out before watering again. When you do resume watering try to avoid watering the leaves of the plant. Instead only water the soil around the plants.
Whitefly, caterpillars and mealybugs are the main pests that frequently target citronella plants. Regularly check your plants for signs of infestation. Apply horticultural oil or neem oil to the infested areas of the plant. You may need to do this a few times to remove stubborn infestations.
Planting correctly helps the plants to not only produce lots of foliage but also attractive geranium like flowers.
The citronella plant may not be the best option if you want to repel mosquitos. Plants such as lemon thyme, lemongrass and eucalyptus are more effective. However it is a pleasingly attractive and fragrant plant. It is also easy to grow.
Planting a couple of citronella plants is a great way to add color and aroma to a garden. They are particularly effective when planted alongside other aromatic plants on a balcony or around a patio.
What Does Propagation Involve?
Plant propagation refers to the process of growing new plants from a variety of sources such as seeds, cuttings, and other plant parts. The best time to propagate citronella plants is in late spring. You want to give them enough time to mature before the summer.
Citronella plants are fast growers that can take up a lot of space rather quickly. Avoid feeling overwhelmed by propagating the plant to reduce its size.
Propagating is the process that will allow you to take a part of the original plant and place it in a pot of a similar size to grow another plant as seen above. Propagating Cotyledon orbiculata by el cajon yacht club / CC by 2.0
Propagation Steps For Watering
Some find it more challenging to propagate citronella using the watering technique. If you’re game for it, these are the steps you need to take to make it happen.
If you decide to try your hand at propagating by water, you will need to grab a jar and fill it with water. Depending on the length of the cutting you may need to grab a taller jar such as the one you see pictured here at the far right.
Creative Commons Girasole by Erich Ferdinand / CC by 2.0
1st Step: This first step is easy. It’s exactly what you would do if you were propagating using the stem cutting method. You will make five-inch cuts in a branch. Be careful that there are at least two nodes present.
2nd Step: Just as with stem cutting, you need to get rid of all leaves on the branch except the top two or three.
3rd Step: Grab a jar and fill it with water. You want the cuttings to be covered up to the top leaves. Take care with how you place your cuttings. They need to receive plenty of light. But don’t put them directly in the sun.
4th Step: Wait a week and you should be able to transplant your new citronella plants. By this time they should have taken root.
5 Simple Ways to Ensure That Your Citronella Plant Remains Healthy, Beautiful, and Fragrant
To sum things up, here are the most important tips you should take away from this guide in order to keep your beautiful citronella plant happy!
- Let it take in about six hours of sunlight every day.
- Avoid overwatering your plant. It’s better to keep it on the drier side. Only break out your watering can when you touch the top inch of the soil and find that it feels dry.
- Opt for a container that has draining holes so you can avoid that dreaded nemesis root rot.
- Keep the temperatures between 59 and 69 degrees Fahrenheit (15 and 21 degrees Celsius). The plant doesn’t like cold weather.
- Maintain the health and beauty of your citronella by pruning your plant every few weeks. The foliage will love being able to stretch without feeling cramped.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.