I’ve had my potted Meyer lemon tree for a while now, but it recently started to get some droopy leaves. I wanted to find out more about what causes wilting and drooping leaves, and how to fix it, so I did some research and testing. Here’s what I found.
Lemon trees get wilting and drooping leaves from improper watering, wrong climate, transplant shock, or too few or too many nutrients. If not treated, the stress will cause further issues such as falling flowers, fruit, and leaves. Ideally, only water when dry, grow in zones 9-11, and provide compost and mulch.
So, while lemon trees can get wilting and drooping leaves for several reasons, how can we identify what’s causing it, and from there—how can we fix it?
Under or Over-Watering
To prevent issues such as leaves wilting, drooping, and falling, only water lemon trees when their soil is dry. You can check this by pushing a finger into the top 2-4 inches of soil. Soil should be moist, not wet. Additionally, if the soil has sufficient drainage, provide 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch.
Lemon trees can get equally stressed from both under-watering and over-watering. Over time, under-watering leads to drought stress while over-watering leads to root rot (slowly killing the tree). Both conditions can result in issues including wilting, discoloring, or falling leaves.
You can tell if your lemon tree’s soil has poor drainage if it stays wet for more than an hour after watering. The finger test is the best way to check the soil’s moisture. Ideally, the soil should be moist and not wet—similar to a wrung-out sponge.
For potted lemon trees, you can amend the soil’s drainage by repotting it with fresh soil. Make sure to repot it gently as to avoid transplant shock (more on this later).
For planted lemon trees, you can also check the soil’s drainage 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.
However, it can take a long time to amend garden soil (especially those with heavy clay soil), which is why it’s best to plant the tree in a mound if you have poor soil drainage. For more about clay soil and planting in mounds, see my other post: Can Fruit Trees Grow in Clay Soil (& How To Plant Them)?.
Fortunately, once the lemon tree has soil that’s well-draining, watering lemon trees is straightforward.
Once the soil has sufficient drainage, only water it when it’s dry. Also, provide 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch under the drip line of the tree. Keep the materials at least 3 inches from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold from growing.
By checking the soil’s moisture with the finger test before watering, and applying compost and mulch, the likelihood of under and over-watering is greatly reduced.
Here’s some quick info about compost and mulch.
Compost provides valuable nutrients and retains soil moisture, with every 1% increase in soil richness holding 20,000 more gallons of water per acre (source).
Mulch protects the soil from drying out in the sun and wind, helping shield the tree’s roots and beneficial soil life (like earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi). Some good mulches for lemon trees are leaves, bark, pine needles, and straw.
Keep in mind that if your lemon tree’s soil doesn’t yet have proper drainage, providing compost and mulch will likely make the issue worse.
Lemon trees are natively from the tropics, so they have little to no tolerance for frost. They can get stressed and get droopy or wilting leaves either in cold weather (45ºF or below) or in hot and dry weather (above 100ºF). Generally, lemon trees do best in USDA hardiness zones 9-11.
If you’re growing lemon trees outside of these zones, or have an unusually hot or cold season, here are some climate tips that might help:
Cold Weather Tips
- Insulate the tree’s canopy with bedsheets or its trunk with cardboard. Provide windbreaks if possible.
- Plant lemon trees facing the south to get the maximum amount of sunlight and warmth. Planting along southern facing walls also helps.
- Apply mulch to help insulate the roots.
Hot Weather Tips
- Provide compost and mulch to prevent the soil from drying out and baking in the sun.
- Check the soil’s moisture often, especially on hot days. Water when it’s dry.
- If possible, shade the tree when temperatures exceed 100ºF or if you notice scorched leaves.
Keep in mind that moving lemon trees indoors can cause leaves to droop or fall off. This is either due to a sudden temperature swing (of 20ºF or more), or the central heat is drying out the leaves.
For example, last winter I moved my Meyer lemon tree inside and the central heat started stressing it out. Its leaves started to drop. I then moved the tree to a cooler room, without heat or fans (which can also dry out the air) and the tree’s leaves started growing back immediately.
If you’re interested in learning more about growing your plants in microclimates and stretching your hardiness zones, check out this cool video by Gardener Scott.
Transplant Shock and Root Damage
If your lemon tree was recently transplanted or has shallow roots exposed, there’s a chance the tree is stressed, leading to issues such as drooping leaves. Generally, only transplant when necessary and provide mulch to help protect the tree’s shallow roots. Transplant shock can take up to one year for recovery.
Transplant shock typically occurs when the plant is exposed to a new environment and has to establish a new root system. This is common after lemon trees are moved to another area of the garden or are repotted.
After being transplanted, it can take some time for the tree to adjust and recover from the shock, especially if the roots were damaged. While recovery can take up to one year, if the damage is too great, the tree will likely decline in health before dying.
To help avoid transplant shock and root damage, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:
- 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 2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
When planting, take care to avoid thorns! To see which citrus trees have thorns, and how to deal with them, check out my other post here.
Generally, as long as you avoid damaging and breaking the roots, and you keep your lemon tree comfortable during the move, the amount of stress from transplant shock will be reduced or eliminated.
To help avoid shallow roots from becoming exposed and damaged, apply 4 inches of mulch under the drip line of the tree. Mulching also has many other benefits (as mentioned in the watering section above).
However, lemon trees with bound roots can also become stressed and get wilting or dropping leaves.
Root binding normally happens for potted lemon trees, but those that have too small of a root barrier can also be affected. You can tell if a potted lemon tree has bound roots if they’re starting to come through or circle the bottom of the pot (you may have to lift the tree out slightly to check).
To fix root binding, repot lemon trees into larger pots with fresh soil every 3-5 years.
Lacking or Excessive Nutrients
Lemon trees do best with either compost or a fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 2:1:1 (double the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium, such as an NPK of 6-3-3). While chemical fertilizers provide abundant nutrients, they can often have long-term consequences for both the tree and its beneficial soil life.
With too few or too many nutrients, lemon trees can experience issues such as wilting, discolored, and falling leaves, flowers, and fruit. Over time, this can lead to other issues. Too much fertilizer can also chemically burn the tree’s roots, especially those high in nitrogen.
Compost generally makes for a great fertilizer for lemon trees as it has abundant nutrients and microbes. These not only benefit the tree but grow the health of the soil. Beneficial soil life such as mycorrhizal fungi provides extra benefits to the tree such as protection against diseases, better water retention, and more self-sufficiency.
However, if you instead decide to opt for store-bought fertilizer, look for these qualities for the best results:
- 2:1:1 NPK (twice the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium)
- Quality ingredients
Ideally, store-bought lemon tree fertilizer should include a high percentage of nitrogen. Other nutrients important to fruit development include magnesium, copper, zinc, and boron. While these secondary nutrients are included in most fertilizer mixes, each brand has a different primary nutrient mix or (NPK) you can choose from.
Keep in mind that soil pH is just as important (if not more) than nutrients. Without a proper soil pH, lemon trees will be unable to absorb the nutrients in the soil, leading to deficiencies and issues with growing leaves, flowers, fruit, roots, and more.
The best soil pH for most plants, including lemon trees, is between 6.0-7.0. This is because a slightly acidic pH helps dissolve the solid nutrients in the soil.
Fourteen of the seventeen essential plant nutrients are obtained from the soil. Before a nutrient can be used by plants it must be dissolved in the soil solution. Most minerals and nutrients are more soluble or available in acid soils than in neutral or slightly alkaline soils.Donald Bickelhaupt, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
If you’d like more information about soil pH and the best lemon tree fertilizers, feel free to check out my other post: Fertilizing Lemon Trees: The Full Guide (& Top 3 Brands).
For your lemon tree with wilting or droopy leaves, start by checking its soil moisture. From there adjust its watering if needed.
Then, see if there’s been any extreme weather lately before considering fertilizer.
Start with the least invasive option first, and move to the more invasive options if needed. For example, adjusting watering is easier on the tree than pruning or transplanting it.
After I saw my potted Meyer lemon tree get droopy leaves, I found it was getting too cold outside (winter was coming). So, I moved the tree indoors and it started improving (after a brief issue of placing it too close to the central heat).
If you’re also moving your potted lemon tree indoors for the winter, place it near a sunny window and in a cool room if possible. You can also mist its leaves or place a humidifier nearby if you’re concerned it’ll dry out while indoors.
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).