How to Grow and Care for Citronella Plants
This mosquito-repelling plant is a smart pick for your garden.
A nice summer night on the back patio is all fun and games until you hear that tell-tale, high-pitched buzzing in your ear. Or worse—you feel the familiar twinge of a mosquito bite and go in for the slap. While there are many ways to reduce the number of mosquitos in your yard, citronella is arguably one of the most well-known methods. A type of scented geranium, citronella plants produce a strong, citrusy smell that is pleasant to us, but repels bugs like mosquitoes. Better yet, it's surprisingly easy to grow and care for citronella plants.
"Citronella is at home in the garden, as well as containers, as long as it is getting full sun," says Nancy Trautz Awot, a horticulture specialist at Burpee Gardening. While you might have seen citronella candles—which use extracted oil from the plant—the plant itself is excellent at keeping bugs away. You can also lightly rub the plant on your skin, or crush a couple leaves between your fingers, to enjoy its repelling effects.
Related: 3 DIY Mosquito Traps That Actually Work, According to Pest Control Experts
Growing Citronella Plants
Growing From Seed
You can grow citronella from seed, but many plant experts agree it's far easier to purchase a small plant in the spring, or to propagate a stem cutting from an existing plant. Citronella plants can take a long time to sprout, are very sensitive to overwatering and lack of light, and must be planted about 10 to 12 weeks before the last frost.
If you do plant from seed, Awot recommends using a very fine seed starting mix and lightly covering the seeds with 1/8 inch of soil. Citronella benefits from bottom heat. Make sure the seeds and seedlings get 16 hours of light and be careful of overwatering.
Mature or Starter Plants
Purchasing a starter or mature plant is the best way to introduce citronella to your home and garden. Look for a plant that is green and healthy, and avoid plants with leaves that are discolored, have brown edges, bugs, or appear thin and straggly. The stems should be firm and not limp. Awot also says to avoid a pot-bound citronella plant. "If you see a lot of roots coming out the bottom of the pot, it is pot bound and best to choose a different plant," she says.
First Time Transplanting
Once you've picked the perfect citronella plant, transplant it to a container or your garden. "Plant citronella in well-draining soil. Use fresh potting soil for planters or amend the native garden soil with some compost before planting in the ground," says Lindsay Pangborn, a plant expert for Bloomscape. "Choose an area that receives full sun, meaning six or more hours of direct sunlight per day."
When planting in containers, choose a pot with a drainage hole and make sure the plants are at the same soil level they were in the container. If planting in the ground, space your citronella plants about 12 inches apart.
"Citronella grows best in a border where it can spread in at least one direction, and having it near a high-trafficked area makes it more useful," says David Angelov, a master gardener and founder of PlantParenthood in Massachusetts. "You can put it in a vegetable garden, but I recommend keeping it away from direct contact with edible plants, as it is not edible itself."
How to Care for Citronella Plants
Citronella plants are light-lovers, so make sure to place them in a sunny spot. Pangborn says they should receive six hours of full sunlight per day to grow healthy and strong.
This plant is very susceptible to overwatering. As a rule, only water citronella when the soil feels about 75 percent dry. If watering a pot, pour enough water so that it trickles out of the drainage hole, then stop. "If you are using a saucer under the pot, make sure you dump out any water, since citronella does not like wet feet," Awot says.
This sun-loving plant is particularly happy in warm weather, but it can handle temperatures between the high 30s and 90s. Once temperatures cool, you'll either need to bring the plant inside, transplant it to a container for the winter, or allow the plant to die. It's important to plant your citronella—or bring it back outside—after all danger of frost has passed.
These mosquito-repelling plants do best when fertilized, but they don't need a ton of it. "Try to feed with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer once every two weeks," Pangborn says. Any more than this can potentially harm the plant.
Citronella plants have pink flowers that should be deadheaded. When the flowers are spent, remove the stem by pinching the stem back below the flower. This encourages new blooms and keeps your plant healthy. Also cut away any dead leaves.
Transplant your citronella to a larger container once the roots reach the outside of its current pot. "Citronella plants can be transplanted to a container about 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter," says Pangborn. "After transplanting, be sure not to water the plant too frequently. It will utilize water at a slower pace for the first few weeks as it settles into its new pot."
How to Identify and Treat Distress and Disease in Citronella Plants
Citronella is a well-behaved plant that allows for a more "hands off" approach. Give it lots of sunlight and water it as needed, and it'll take care of everything else. Just like any other plant, though, it's not exempt from disease and stress. Be on the lookout for the following issues.
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Root Rot, Crown Rot, and Yellow Patches
The entire geranium family, including citronella, is susceptible to root rot, crown rot, and light brown/yellow patches on the leaves (edema) caused by overwatering. Only water once the soil is 75 percent dry, make sure it's in well-draining soil, and empty the water saucer.
If your citronella has brown leaves and/or looks weak or droopy, it may not be getting enough light. Make sure the plant gets six full hours of sun every day.
"Seedlings are susceptible to damping off, which can kill the plant," Awot says. This is caused by a fungus that thrives in damp, cold conditions and presents as drooping/flat seedlings with a brown base. To prevent the issue, don't overwater and make sure your plants aren't crowded so they can get good air circulation.