I have a potted Meyer lemon tree that sometimes gets curled and dropping leaves. I’ve heard mixed reasons as to why lemon tree leaves curl, so I did some more research to find out more. Here’s what I found.
In general, lemon leaves curl when the tree doesn’t get enough water. Essentially, the leaves curl to conserve moisture. To fix curled leaves, water the tree when its soil gets dry and provide it with mulch and compost. Leaf curl on lemon trees can also sometimes be caused by extreme weather and some pests and diseases.
So, while lemon tree leaves curl for several reasons, how can you tell which issue is affecting your tree and how can you fix it? Let’s take a further look.
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Under-watering is the most common cause of curling and drooping leaves on lemon trees. When the tree is under-watered, the tree conserves moisture and begins to shed its leaves. For best results, only water lemon trees when the first 2-4 inches of soil gets dry. This is typically every 1-2 weeks, depending on the weather.
The bad news is that it’s easy to under-water your lemon tree. The good news is that it’s easy to fix.
If you’ve ever juiced lemons that had little to no juice in them, you know it can be frustrating. Like other citrus trees, lemon trees like a lot of water. This makes sense since they typically grow in hot climates and require plenty of water to make their fruits, well, juicy.
So, watering properly not only helps hydrate the lemon trees and their leaves but also gives you plenty of plump juicy lemons!
The problem is that many climates and regions have different temperatures, humidity, wind, soil, and other factors. Because of this, there’s no one rule on how to water your lemon tree—you have to water based on your tree’s environment.
Fortunately, you can find out how much to water your lemon tree by simply testing the soil with a finger.
Push a finger 2-4 inches into the soil under the drip line of your lemon tree. If the soil is bone dry, your tree needs more water. If the soil is sopping wet 1+ hours after watering, the tree needs less water (and more drainage). The goal is for the soil to have the same moisture as a wrung-out sponge.
If you’re watering your lemon tree more than once a week, its soil is likely drying out too fast. This is usually caused by too much drainage or environmental factors such as the sun and wind.
In this case, mulching and composting are highly recommended for just about every lemon tree (and most other plants in your garden).
Composting not only provides plenty of nutrients (potentially replacing fertilizer) but also helps the richness of the soil. It’s reported that with each 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter, the soil can help hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre.
On the other hand, mulching protects the soil from the elements and greatly improves water retention by reducing evaporation. Because of this, the soil life is also protected and can continue to thrive (further benefiting your lemon trees).
To compost and mulch your lemon trees, provide 1-2 inches of compost every 1-2 months, and 1-2 inches of mulch every 3-6 months around the drip line of the tree. Make sure to keep both materials at least three inches away from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold.
Overwatering is also a problem for lemon trees, but it usually causes other issues such as root rot and yellow leaves. If your lemon tree also has yellowing leaves, make sure to check out my recent post on why lemon trees get yellow leaves.
Extreme weather, or swings in temperature, can also cause lemon tree leaves to curl. Lemon trees typically grow in temperatures from 35ºF to 100ºF and can get stressed if their temperature falls outside of this range. To prevent leaf curl, keep your lemon trees within 60ºF to 80ºF if possible.
When temperatures become too extreme, or there’s a dramatic swing in weather, lemon trees can become stressed and curl their leaves as a result. Leaves can also curl if temperatures get too hot and dry out the leaves.
To help prevent this, aim to keep your lemon tree’s temperature between 60ºF-80ºF if possible. While this can be difficult to do for lemon trees that are outdoors, there are some ways to influence their temperature:
- Provide shade during the hottest part of the day (usually between 2pm-4pm)
- Plant in a south-facing direction for maximum sunlight and warmth
- Insulate lemon trees during times of frost
- Move potted lemon trees indoors when temperatures are outside of 35ºF-100ºF
While it’s important to monitor the temperature of the tree that’s above the ground, it’s also incredibly helpful to check the tree’s temperature below ground. Meaning the temperature of the soil, and therefore—the tree’s roots.
The primary way lemon trees cool themselves is from their roots, since the roots transport moisture to the rest of the tree. If the tree is unable to send enough moisture to its leaves, they’ll begin to curl and fall off.
This is why mulching is such an important practice. Not only will it improve water retention and help the beneficial life in the soil, but it protects the soil from baking in the hot sun. So, by cooling the roots, mulching effectively cools the entire tree.
You can also use drip irrigation to reduce water evaporation and make sure the soil gets properly saturated with water.
Pests and Disease
Even though it’s not as likely as other causes, pests and diseases can lead to leaf curl and drop on lemon trees. The most common are aphids and spider mites. To get rid of these pests, you can spray them with a jet of water, use neem oil, or use natural predators such as ladybugs.
Generally, aphids are more likely to cause lemon tree leaf curl than other pests and diseases. This is because aphids suck the sap from the leaves, taking their moisture which makes them curl.
Aphids come in multiple colors and can appear as white, yellow, or black specs, usually underneath the leaves.
Aphids can really be pests, but they’re not too hard to get rid of. The most effective ways to get rid of aphids on lemon trees are:
- Spraying with water
- Spraying with neem oil
- Releasing ladybugs
When my Kaffir lime tree recently had aphids, I wasn’t sure how to get rid of them. After some research and testing, I found that a simple jet of water from a hose was enough to knock them off of the leaves.
All I did was remove the nozzle from the hose and fit my thumb over the opening to create a stronger blast of water. It was strong enough to remove the aphids, but not strong enough to damage the leaves. To this day, the aphids have yet to return.
While not as common as aphids, spider mites can also be removed with water or neem oil.
On the other hand, you can usually identify diseases from any spots on the leaves or issues with the bark. If you believe your lemon tree has a disease, or its leaves have yellow or brown spots, consider referring to this citrus tree disease guide by the University of California.
More Tips To Prevent Lemon Tree Leaf Curl
- Use self-watering pots to help prevent leaf curl for indoor trees. This should reduce how quickly the soil dries out. However, keep an eye on the soil as I’ve found that it can get moldy faster and more prone to root rot.
- Good soil is key to aid in proper drainage, nutrients, and root growth. For best results, use loose, rich soil from a reputable brand such as Espoma’s potting soil found on Amazon. Alternatively, you can make your own lemon tree potting soil at home.
- Check the soil’s moisture and temperature every few days (or every 1-2 weeks if mulching and composting). You can use a moisture meter to help with this (it also reads the pH of the soil). To see which moisture/pH meter I recommend and use, check out my recommended tools page.
- For best results, water the soil around the drip line of the tree. While misting the curled leaves can introduce moisture directly and help cool them, the tree more effectively cools itself through its roots. Watering the leaves directly can also splash fungus or other diseases from leaf to leaf.
Is Your Fruit Tree Beyond Saving?
Generally, you can tell if a fruit tree is still alive by either pruning or lightly scratching off some bark from a small branch. If there’s any green inside, the plant is still alive.
In the off chance it’s not alive, revisit what may have happened (ask yourself if it was the wrong climate, watering, nutrients, etc) and adjust as needed for any remaining plants.
If you’re looking to replace your fruit tree, or add more to your orchard, the best places to get them are your local nursery or an online nursery. For example, I got my Fuji apple, brown turkey figs, and bing cherry tree from Fast Growing Trees, and they were all delivered quick, neat, and healthy (see below).