My Meyer lemon tree was doing well for most of the year, but when I came back from a week-long trip, I noticed all of its leaves were wilting and drooping. So, I did some research to find out more and how to fix it. Here’s what I found.
Citrus tree leaves often wilt and droop due to a lack of water, but transplant shock and heat stress also cause it. If not corrected, the leaves will continue wilting and drying, soon falling off of the tree. This is usually fixed by watering only when the first 2-4 inches of soil is dry and using mulch and compost.
So, while citrus tree leaves wilt and droop from under-watering, transplant shock, or heat stress, how can you tell which issue it is, and how can you fix it? Let’s take a closer look.
The most common reason why citrus tree leaves wilt and droop is from under-watering. When under-watered, citrus trees attempt to save themselves by shedding their fruit, blossoms, and leaves. As a result, these shrivel, dry, and drop. Aim to only water when the soil is dry, and apply 2 inches of compost and mulch.
Citrus trees are natively from the subtropics and tropics, so they prefer well-draining, loamy, and warm soil. Because of this, they are best grown in USDA hardiness zones 9-11 but can be stretched with methods such as moving indoors (if potted), greenhouses, and microclimates.
Since citrus trees are often grown in these tropical climates, hot weather commonly dries out the soil.
In the wild, citrus trees relied on soil shading from mulch acquired from other trees such as leaves, branches, and other decomposing matter (similar to forests). However, in most suburban areas, citrus trees are grown alone and with their soil bare.
Bare soil invites many issues, such as:
- Rapid evaporation
- Dead soil life
- Loss of nutrients
- Root exposure
These are all problems because, without protection and shade, soil loses its moisture from the sun and wind (sometimes within hours), leading to beneficial soil life such as worms and mycorrhizal fungi drying out and dying. This is when soil becomes dirt—from living to dead.
The loss of nutrient-creating soil life, and the fact that stored nutrients become solid again from the lack of water, means the tree’s finer roots are unable to absorb food.
On top of this, we often spoil our trees by watering them with shallow amounts of water daily. This encourages shallow roots—because why would the tree waste its energy growing deeper roots if all of the water is already on the surface? This becomes a problem when there’s a dry spell, as the tree will be poorly adapted to survive on its own.
So, how do we fix under-watered citrus trees and treat their wilting leaves?
The best way to water citrus trees is to only water when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry and apply 2 inches of both compost and mulch. The increase in organic matter from the compost improves the soil’s water absorption, while the mulch protects the soil from drying out by the sun and wind.
In Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil, he speaks of how his large farm in North Dakota boomed in productivity once he started covering and caring for his soil. In his words, soil is meant to be covered.
Compost not only provides valuable nutrients but it increases the soil’s richness. For example, every 1% increase in the soil’s richness can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre (source). It also provides nutrients to the beneficial soil life, which in turn helps the tree.
Mulch, such as leaves, bark, and straw, dramatically reduce evaporation by shading and collecting condensation from the soil. It’s also a great way to improve beneficial soil life. Over time, mulch breaks down and provides additional nutrients for the tree.
Pro-Tip: When applying compost and mulch, place them at least 3-inches away from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold.
Even potted citrus trees need mulch on top of their soil. In fact, potted citrus trees require mulching more than planted trees—since potted trees dry out faster (due to the pot’s surface area attracting more sunlight).
So, by only watering your citrus tree when the top of its soil becomes dry, you’re not only providing sufficient watering but encouraging the tree to grow deeper roots (accessing deeper water) and become more water independent. This is often called deep watering. Generally means watering for 5-10 minutes once a week.
Combine deep watering with adding compost and mulch, and your citrus tree’s leaves wilting and drooping will most likely be fixed.
After checking my Meyer lemon tree’s soil, I found it was bone dry. I guess I didn’t water it enough before I left for my trip! Fortunately, after watering it generously, the tree recovered quickly with only minor leaf and fruit loss. You can check your tree’s soil by using a moisture meter, but I prefer just checking with my finger.
So, watering is the first thing you should check since it’s the least invasive (it doesn’t involve pruning/wounding or digging up the tree, etc). However, if you find your citrus tree’s soil is staying moist, but there’s still no improvement in its leaves, consider these other common issues.
If you’ve recently planted or potted your citrus tree, and its leaves are wilting, drooping, or falling off, it’s likely stressed from transplant shock. Transplant shock varies depending on how stressful the move was, and recovery can take up to one year. Ideally, provide a gentle move and generous watering.
Planting citrus trees can be tricky, but with some practice and preparations, it can go more smoothly.
Here are the steps that I use whenever I’m planting a new citrus tree or repotting an existing one. They really help in reducing transplant shock (which can stunt the tree and last up to one year):
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the tree’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the tree’s trunk and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the tree in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the trunk as before
- Apply 1-2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
At this point, if you’ve provided the proper watering, and you haven’t recently moved your citrus tree, then consider its climate.
While not likely, citrus trees can get stressed from temperatures exceeding 100ºF. This is especially true in dry regions such as California, Nevada, and Arizona. As a result, the leaves commonly and rapidly dry out, wilt, droop, or curl. For best results, provide sufficient water and some afternoon shade.
When in hot and dry climates, the air can sometimes dry out the leaves faster than the roots can send water to them. As a result, the leaves wilt, droop, or curl before falling off.
To fix heat stress, use a combination of properly watering the tree (mentioned in the above section) along with providing some afternoon shade. Keep in mind that the tree’s soil also needs to be shaded, which is why mulching is so beneficial.
Since the afternoon sun is typically much hotter than the morning sun, shade is best provided from the citrus tree’s west side.
To shade your citrus tree, you can use any of the following:
- Shade Sail
- Other Trees
Umbrellas are a quick and easy way to shade potted citrus trees, but you can also use larger, patio umbrellas to shade planted dwarf citrus trees.
Shade sails are another good option, and great for backyards since there are many anchor points to set them up. They also let in some sunlight, providing the tree with some photosynthesis.
However, one of the best ways to shade citrus trees from the afternoon sun is to simply use other, larger trees.
Overall, as long as your citrus tree receives at least 6 hours of mostly-direct sunlight, it will photosynthesis properly—allowing for sufficient canopy and fruit growth. Of course, the more sun the better, but in extremely hot and dry climates, a balance of some shade is likely needed.
More Tips to Care For Citrus Trees
While I found that my Meyer lemon tree leaves were wilting and drooping from a lack of water, it’s good to know about other issues that also cause it.
Here are some other tips to care for your citrus tree:
- Plant in a southern-facing direction for maximum sunlight. On the other hand, planting north-facing will likely result in less than ideal sunlight (usually 4 hours or less).
- Plant along a southern-facing wall in colder climates. A tree next to a southern-facing wall helps reflect sunlight and heat onto the tree, often into the night. You can also paint the wall white to increase its reflection. This is not recommended for climates that get too hot and dry.
- Repot potted citrus trees into a larger pot with fresh soil every 3-5 years. Fresh soil provides better drainage, root aeration, and nutrients. Upgrading to a larger pot helps prevent root binding, allowing them to grow properly.
- Compost can eventually remove the need for fertilizers. While store-bought fertilizers have their place, citrus trees have been growing fruit successfully without it for millions of years. I switched to homemade compost and my Meyer lemon tree LOVES it—starting new growth almost immediately. If you’d like to learn more about making homemade fertilizer/compost for your citrus tree, check out my post here. On the other hand, I also reviewed the top 3 citrus fertilizers you can buy.