I’m currently visiting my parents and they have many different fruit trees including lime, lemon, tangerine, avocado, apple, and fig. While many of them are growing well, their apple tree has started to die and they’re not sure why. To help them out, I did some research on why fruit trees die and how to revive them. Here’s what I found.
Fruit trees typically die because of improper watering, environmental stress, lack of nutrients, and disease. However, the two most common issues are under-watering and environmental stress—such as transplant shock or temperature swings. Once the source of stress is reduced, the tree should recover.
So, while watering, stress, nutrients, and disease are common reasons why fruit trees die, how can we identify the actual issue that’s causing it, and better yet—how can we fix it? Let’s take a further look.
Can Dying Fruit Trees Be Saved?
Dying fruit trees can be saved if you find the primary issue and use the right solution. Typically, it takes several weeks or months for a fruit tree to completely die, depending on the issue.
To see if your fruit tree is still alive, scratch or prune the tip of a small branch and see if it has any green inside.
It can be difficult to find out what’s wrong with your dying fruit tree, but there is a way to simplify and troubleshoot it effectively—by using the process of elimination.
By checking one possible issue at a time, you better the chances you can both identify the correct issue and provide the correct treatment.
So, to help you get started, let’s look at the 4 most common reasons why fruit trees die and how we can treat them.
The Top 4 Reasons Why Fruit Trees Die
1. Over and Under-Watering
Over and under-watering fruit trees can stress them and lead to dropping fruit, flowers, and leaves. If this goes on long enough, the fruit tree will start to die. For best results, only water when the first 2-4 inches of soil is dry and provide 2 inches of each compost and mulch on top of the soil.
Watering is probably one of the trickiest things to get right as there are a lot of variables that can affect it. For example, the sun, wind, soil, tree, and climate all influence how much (or little) you need to water your fruit trees.
Because there are so many variables, the best thing to do is to check the tree’s soil directly.
You can tell if your fruit tree is over or under-watered by pushing a finger into the soil, up to the second knuckle. If the soil is dry, it needs water. If the soil is sopping wet 1 or more hours after watering, the soil likely needs to be amended.
By checking the soil this way before watering, the risk of over and under-watering will be greatly reduced.
Another way to confirm if the soil is well-draining is by digging a 1-foot by 1-foot hole nearby, filling it with water, and waiting for it to drain. If the hole drains slower than 2 inches per hour, it has poor drainage.
If you do find your fruit tree’s soil isn’t draining well, you can amend it by adding 2 inches of sand and compost every 1-2 months. Over time, these smaller materials will find their way into the deeper soil and help break up the larger clumps of soil (typically from compacted clay).
Generally, I would suggest not digging up the fruit tree or repotting it, unless the soil’s drainage is too slow/fast and you find it necessary as a last resort. Transplanting can lead to transplant shock which can cause more damage (more on this later).
If you’d like to learn more about treating soil with poor drainage or those with heavy clay, feel free to check out my recent post: Can Fruit Trees Grow in Clay Soil (& How Do You Amend It)?
Once the soil is well-draining, provide 2 inches of each compost and mulch on top of the soil, under the tree’s canopy.
Compost greatly improves the soil’s richness, which can boost the amount of water it can hold. Every 1% increase in the soil’s richness can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre (source).
Mulch protects the soil and the beneficial life (such as mycorrhizal fungi) by shielding them from the sun and keeping water in the soil.
Mycorrhizal fungi promote many aspects of plant life, in particular improved nutrition, better growth, stress tolerance, and disease resistance.Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
This water retention goes a long way, especially in hotter climates. Some good mulches to use on fruit trees are leaves, bark, straw, pine needles, and grass clippings.
When applying either compost or mulch, avoid touching the materials to the tree to prevent mold or disease from spreading. Generally, keep them at least 3 inches away from the tree’s trunk.
Recommended: 10 Expert Tips for Watering Fruit Trees
However, if you’ve tried all of the above, and your fruit tree is still declining in health, consider checking for any environmental stress next.
2. Environmental Stress
If you’ve recently relocated or repotted your fruit tree, and its leaves are drooping or falling off, it’s most likely affected by transplant shock. Fruit trees can become stressed from the damage from moving and having to establish a new root system. For best results, avoid damaging the rootball and plant quickly.
Depending on the severity of the transplant, some fruit trees can take up to one year to recover from the stress. This can be made even worse if the taproot is damaged. If this happens, the fruit tree might not make a full recovery and could be permanently stunted or die.
Transplanting is best done when the trees are young—generally 1 year old or less. This way you don’t disturb as many roots and the tree can make a swifter recovery.
Because of the risk of transplant shock, it’s generally best not to transplant fruit trees at all if you can help it. However, this is not always possible, especially if you buy your fruit trees or need to move them to better draining soil.
So, if you’d like, here are some steps I commonly use to prevent transplant shock when planting my plants:
- 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
Keep in mind that transplanting is best done in the early spring, after the first frost. This way the tree can have plenty of time to heal in good weather. If the tree is trying to regrow its wounds (such as transplanting or pruning) in extremely hot or cold weather, it might not have enough energy to both heal and resist the extreme temperatures.
If a fruit tree is grown outside its preferred climate, its leaves and fruit can start to wilt, yellow, and drop. Most fruit trees will grow in USDA hardiness zones 4-9, but it depends on if the tree evolved in a tropical or temperate climate. For best results, plant fruit trees based on their hardiness zones.
Fruit trees require different hardiness zones based on their species and even variety.
For example, tropical fruit trees such as citrus, avocado, and mango prefer zones 9-11. Temperature fruit trees such as apple, cherry, and peach, like zones 4-8.
Here’s a table I put together that may help:
However, hardiness zones aren’t a black and white rule. Thanks to microclimates, there’s a bit of a grey area.
Greenhouses, oases, and forests are all examples of microclimates. Each of them captures rain, sunlight, and nutrients differently and can grow plants that otherwise wouldn’t survive in the surrounding area.
So, if your fruit tree is dying, and the weather has been a little extreme lately, check to see if your climate is the best hardiness zones for it. If not, you may want to consider opting for varieties that do best in your area (or at least adjust the tree’s microclimate).
If you’d like some more information on how to care for fruit trees in extreme weather, check out these tips:
Hot Weather Tips
- Apply 2 inches of compost and mulch to the tree’s soil, under the canopy. These two practices are some of the best ways to keep water in the soil and cool the tree’s roots. The roots can then use the extra water to cool the rest of the tree such as the trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. Remember to keep these materials at least 3 inches from the trunk.
- Provide some shade from the hot afternoon sun. This is extremely helpful, especially if you get strong, direct sunlight. You can use an umbrella, shade sail, or other trees to cast shade. Generally, the morning sun is the coolest and the afternoon sun is the hottest. Because of this, try providing shade west of the tree.
- Move potted fruit trees indoors during heat waves. Although, make sure to do it gradually as to not shock the tree. A gradual move over 2 weeks is enough to avoid stressing the tree from the sudden temperature change.
- Plant fruit trees in the spring. Springtime is best because the temperatures are mild, there’s lots of rain, and the tree is in a growth stage. This will help reduce stress and greatly assist the tree to adapt to its new environment quicker.
Cold Weather Tips
- Avoid planting fruit trees in the winter. Most fruit trees need to be dormant during the winter, and can’t afford the energy to heal or grow a new root system.
- Determine if your fruit tree is deciduous or evergreen. Deciduous fruit trees, like apple, cherry, and peach, lose their leaves in the colder months and enter dormancy to survive the winter. Because of this, they’re better equipped to handle the cold (sometimes as low as -30ºF!). Evergreen fruit trees such as citrus trees keep their leaves year-round as tropical trees don’t usually get much frost exposure. As a result, they should be better protected from the cold.
- Provide the proper amount of chill hours. Deciduous fruit trees usually prefer a certain amount of chill hours (typically 800-1200 hours per year) to properly enter dormancy and then push out a ton of new growth in the spring. Chill hours start when temperatures fall below 45ºF.
- Don’t let deciduous fruit trees wake from dormancy in the winter. If fruit trees break their dormancy while there is still the threat of frost, they could start to grow new buds and leaves, only to lose them from frost damage. This can stunt the fruit tree’s growth and fruiting for at least the following season.
- Avoid pruning fruit trees when there’s a chance of frost. Ideally, the best time to prune fruit trees is in the spring, but they can be pruned 2 weeks before any threat of frost if necessary.
Now, let’s take a look at another major reason why fruit trees die.
3. Lack of Nutrients
The best fertilizer for most fruit trees is either one with a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), or one with twice the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium. Alternatively, you can use compost. Compost not only provides quality nutrients for the tree but also for beneficial soil life.
When fruit trees don’t have the proper amount of nutrients, their leaves and fruit begin to wilt, yellow, brown, and fall off. The exact symptoms can vary from tree to tree, but if you haven’t fed your fruit tree in 4+ months, it could be why it’s dying.
Most fruit trees prefer a fertilizer with a balanced NPK (such as a 10-10-10), but younger fruit trees, as well as citrus trees, prefer fertilizer with double the nitrogen (such as a 6-3-3). This is because younger fruit trees and citrus trees expend a lot of energy on canopy growth, of which the primary nutrient is nitrogen.
As the fruit trees reach a mature height, switch to a fertilizer with a more balanced NPK to support more blossom and fruit growth.
If you’d like to see which fertilizers I recommend, feel free to check out my recommended fruit tree fertilizer page.
Keep in mind that nutrients aren’t the entire picture. Soil pH is equally, if not more, important.
If a fruit tree’s soil pH is either too acidic or alkaline, the nutrients will become bound in the soil and unusable to the tree. This can lead to a variety of issues and with enough time, kill the tree.
Because of this, keep the tree’s soil balanced. Most fruit trees prefer a soil pH of 6.0-7.0, but it can differ based on the species and variety.
A good way to check for soil pH is by using pH strips or a pH meter. To see which pH meter I use and recommend, you can visit my recommended tools page.
If you find that your fruit tree’s soil pH is too acidic, consider using alkaline materials like biochar, charcoal, or wood ash.
On the other hand, if your fruit tree’s soil pH is too alkaline, use acidic amendments such as sand, peat moss, coffee grounds.
4. Pests and Diseases
Generally, fruit trees die most often from improper watering and environmental stress, but pests and diseases are still possible causes. Common examples are aphids, root rot, canker, and fire blight. For best results, avoid over-watering fruit trees and check their leaves for any signs of diseases or pests.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common pests and diseases fruit trees can get, and how they can be identified (and treated).
Aphids are small bugs that suck the sap from under the fruit tree’s leaves. This loss of moisture causes the leaves to curl, yellow, and fall off. Aphids come in multiple colors and can appear as white, yellow, or black specs, usually underneath the leaves. They can be treated by using water, neem oil, or ladybugs.
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 fruit trees are:
- Spraying with water
- Spraying with neem oil
- Releasing ladybugs
When my potted 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 haven’t returned.
Tent caterpillars are native to North America and typically hatch around March—the time that fruit trees start to blossom. They’re commonly found on apple, crab apple, cherry, hawthorn, maple, peach, pear, and plum trees. Insecticides are largely ineffective, but parasitic wasps will help reduce their numbers.
These caterpillars eat the fruit tree’s leaves, make silken nests, and can quickly overwhelm the tree in numbers. The leaves have been seen to be eaten partially (leading to brown and dropping leaves) or entirely. Some trees can be nearly defoliated. However, the tree usually grows new leaves the following season.
While insecticides typically won’t work with mature larvae, promoting natural predators such as parasitic wasps and removing eggs from trees in the winter brings the best results.
Root rot is a water mold that typically starts in the fruit tree’s roots and spreads to the rest of the tree. Branches, leaves, and fruit can also become affected over time. The most common cause of root rot is overwatering or soil with poor drainage. Root rot can be treated by repotting the tree with fresh soil.
Symptoms of root rot on fruit trees include:
- Brown and rotting branches, leaves, and fruit
- Leaves and fruit dropping
- Sopping wet and swampy smelling soil
If root rot is left for too long, the roots will decay, killing the rest of the tree. Fortunately, root rot can be prevented and treated by allowing for proper drainage and aeration in the soil.
My potted Kaffir lime tree also suffered from root rot at one point. After discovering that the soil smelled like a swamp and wasn’t draining, I repotted the tree in fresh soil. From there, it was a quick recovery.
If your planted fruit tree is affected by root rot, hold off on watering and amend the soil to increase the drainage.
You can amend the fruit tree’s soil by adding 2 inches of each sand and compost, or by transplanting the tree to a mound or raised bed.
However, you’ll have to weigh the risk of transplanting the tree as it can potentially cause more damage. If your tree is dying from root rot, and you can’t amend the soil in place, transplanting it into fresh soil definitely makes sense.
Leaf spot is a fungus that affects fruit trees such as plum, cherry, and peach by creating yellow and brown spots on the top of the leaf. Occasionally, the leaves have white fuzz underneath and will drop over time. The peak time for leaf spot is in spring and early summer due to the heavier rains and wet conditions.
If left unattended, the fruit tree might not have any leaves by the time summer comes around. The best way to treat leaf spot is to use an organic fungicide and prune off the infected leaves (source).
Bacterial canker is a bacteria that can grow on fruit trees such as cherry, peach, and plum during wet weather—usually in the spring. While it can take a while, this disease turn leaves yellow and brown and drops them from the trees. The best way to prevent and treat bacterial canker is by pruning diseased leaves.
Prevention and recovery of bacterial canker are possible if you prune the infected areas carefully. If possible, avoid pruning in the hot and wet seasons (spring and summer) due to the increased bacteria.
When pruning, cut above the infected area and seal with a pruning sealer or wax. Disinfect the pruning shears after each cut to reduce the chance of spreading the bacteria to other branches or trees. You can use bleach, but vinegar works just as well and isn’t toxic.
Gummosis is when trees leak a gummy sap from their trunk or branches. This can be caused by chemical, physical, pests, diseases, or stress. Following proper horticultural practices will greatly reduce the chance of gummosis on your fruit trees.
There are many potential causes behind gummosis. Pests such as borers can cause it, along with physical damage, and even watering (source).
If you find that your fruit tree is oozing sap, take the time to check your tree.
Specifically, inspect your fruit tree’s branches and trunk. If you see sap oozing, check for any signs of stress on the tree such as holes from borers or sopping wet soil.
Fire blight is a highly infectious bacterial disease that affects members of the rose family—including apple, pear, crabapple, rose, cotoneaster, mountain ash, hawthorn, quince, spirea, and pyracantha. Fire blight causes browning and disfiguring of the leaves and fruit, sometimes killing the tree.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for fire blight. However, this disease can be managed and its effects greatly minimized.
For more information on fire blight and its treatments, feel free to check out my recent post: Fire Blight: The Most Effective and Natural Treatments.
How To Save a Dying Fruit Tree
If you’ve tried following the above information for the most common fruit tree issues, but don’t see the condition your tree has, or you feel you’re not any closer to saving your fruit tree, there’s still hope.
Here are 3 steps you can use to save your fruit tree, for just about any condition.
3 Quick Steps To Save a Dying Fruit Tree
1. Identify the Possible Issues
The first step in reviving a dying fruit tree is to identify the possible issues. After all, the process of elimination wouldn’t work if we didn’t know which options we were eliminating!
If you haven’t seen it yet, for more information on the most common fruit tree issues, reference the above sections.
2. Isolate the Actual Issue
Once you’ve checked the specific symptoms your fruit tree has, you can now cross off potential issues from your list.
Try to get it down to 1-3 potential issues that best match the symptoms your fruit tree is exhibiting. This will give you the best chances to provide the right solution for it (you don’t want to spray the tree with neem oil if the problem is a watering issue).
If you’re still not sure about the issue your fruit tree has, that’s okay! Call up your local nursery and get their opinion on what’s happening. You may need to talk to a few people to get their experience, but there’s a strong chance they’ve seen it before and can point you in the right direction (or even provide you with the solution!).
Additionally, you can contact your local professional orchard or cooperative extension service.
3. Test Solutions
Now that you have a narrowed-down list of the potential issues, it’s time to try the solutions one at a time.
Start with the least invasive and work your way up to the most invasive (for example, providing less water is much easier than going through the process of repotting the tree. Try to save that option for last).
Continue testing the treatments you believe are most likely to fix the issue. Hopefully, one of them sticks.
Worst case scenario, start from step 1 and make a new list of possible issues. There’s a chance you might have missed something or notice something new the second time around.
Stay persistent! It’s easy to say, “Dumb plant, why don’t you want to live?”, but there’s always a reason why plants act the way they do. Keep the course and see if you can uncover it.
Can Fruit Trees With No Leaves Be Saved?
Fruit trees with little to no leaves can be saved, as long as the tree is still alive. To check if your fruit tree is still alive, prune a small branch and inspect the core. If it’s green, the tree is alive and can typically be saved. However, this all depends on the issue it has and how it’s treated.
Most fruit trees are deciduous trees, so it’s normal for them to lose leaves in the fall and winter. On the other hand, if your fruit tree is losing leaves in the summer, then it likely has a growing issue and requires treatment.
More Tips to Keep Your Fruit Tree Alive
- Mulch and compost all fruit trees, especially if you’re in a hotter climate.
- Plant fruit trees in a south-facing direction for maximum sunlight and warmth.
- Plant on elevated ground, such as a mound or raised bed to promote better drainage.
- Get a fruit tree with a hardy rootstock. This will help with disease resistance and weather tolerance. Grafted trees also generally fruit sooner and better than trees that are grown from seed.
- Plant new fruit trees in the springtime if possible. Fall, winter, and summer all generally have more extreme weather, making it harder for fruit trees to adjust to their new environment and grow a new root system.
- Check on the fruit tree (and its soil) at least once a week. Check on the tree more often if you’re experiencing extreme weather.
- Plant other fruit trees between 25-50 feet away to avoid root competition and maximize cross-pollination efforts.
If your fruit tree is affected by a disease, and you’re looking for a good, organic fungicide to use, check out this homemade, non-toxic fungicide by Stefan Sobkowiak – The Permaculture Orchard.