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Why Lime Trees Drop Their Leaves (& How To Fix It)

My parents have a lime tree that recently had some leaves falling off, and they were concerned the tree was dying. To help them out, I did some research and testing to find out more. Here’s what I found.

Lime trees drop their leaves due to stress from water, nutrients, and weather. While lime trees are evergreen and normally keep their leaves year-round, these stressors can cause the tree to drop leaves, even in the summer. For best results, only water when the soil is dry and provide sufficient nutrients.

So, while lime trees commonly drop their leaves from improper watering, nutrients, and weather, how can we tell which issue is causing it? And how can we fix it? Let’s take a closer look.

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our lime tree with limes growing on it

Will Leaves Grow Back on a Lime Tree?

A lime tree’s leaves will grow back, as long as the tree is still alive. To check if your lime 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.

Some leaf loss is normal on lime trees. However, if you’re noticing 10% or more of the leaves discoloring or falling off, then the tree is likely stressed and needs to be treated.

Once you find out if your lime tree can be saved, it’s time to take a look at the most common reasons why lime trees drop their leaves and how we can fix them.

Why Do Lime Tree Leaves Fall Off?

Over or Under-Watering

Lime leaves can lose their leaves for many reasons, even during the spring and summer such as May, June, and July, but the most common cause is improper watering.

Over and under-watering will quickly stress a lime tree and cause it to drop its leaves, blossoms, and fruit. You can check the tree’s watering by pushing a finger into the soil, up to the second knuckle. If it’s dry, water it. If it’s sopping wet and has poor drainage, hold off on watering and amend the soil.

Before watering your lime tree, check if it even needs water in the first place. This will help tremendously in preventing over and under-watering.

While moisture meters can help, they’re not always accurate in predicting soil moisture. Because of this, the best way to check is with the finger test mentioned above.

Simply water the soil when it’s dry and hold off on watering if it’s sopping wet. However, if it’s been sopping wet for over an hour after watering, the soil likely needs to be amended.

Lime trees that get dry soil too quickly can greatly benefit from applying 2 inches of compost and mulch on top of the soil, under the canopy. Keep these materials at least 3 inches from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold.

This is because compost is amazing at improving the soil’s richness and water retention, while mulch dramatically reduces evaporation and protects the soil from the elements.

On the other hand, if you find that your lime tree’s soil has poor drainage, it will need to be amended by adding 2 inches of both sand and compost to the top of the soil. Over time, these particles will be worked into the soil and break up the larger clumps. Again, keep them at least 3 inches away from the trunk.

However, if your lime tree’s soil is currently waterlogged, it will likely be getting root rot soon and possibly need a more urgent solution. You can tell if your tree is starting to get root rot by the stagnant water and the swampy smell.

In this case, both planted and potted lime trees will likely need to be transplanted with fresh soil to save them from root rot. While this might create more stress for the tree (more on this later), it’s usually necessary to save it.

Along with dropping leaves, over-watering can also cause lime trees to get yellow leaves. If you’d like more information about treating yellow leaves on lime trees, feel free to check out my recent post: How to Fix Yellow Leaves on Your Lime Tree.

Lack of Nutrients

Lime tree leaves can turn yellow or brown, or fall off if the tree has insufficient nutrients. Generally, lime trees do best with a fertilizer with twice the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium, such as an NPK of 6-3-3. Alternatively, you can use quality compost every 1-2 months. A balanced soil pH is also important.

Like us, lime trees need sufficient nutrients to function and live properly. Without them, they’re more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and poor weather.

As with most plants, lime trees require three main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (commonly abbreviated as NPK). While lime trees do well with a balanced fertilizer, they prefer one with double the nitrogen.

Higher nitrogen leads to better and more foliage which helps the tree capture more sunlight. In turn, photosynthesis in the leaves creates sugars that help the fruit ripen.

If you’d like my recommendation on lime tree fertilizers, check out my recent post where I reviewed the top three brands: The Full Guide to Lime Tree Fertilizer and the Top 3 Brands.

If you’re not a fan of chemical fertilizers, organic compost is just as good, if not better. While compost may not have the nutrient density of chemical fertilizers, compost’s nutrients are typically more absorbable by the tree, especially if it’s fresh. Compost also greatly helps the beneficial soil life, such as mycorrhizal fungi.

As a result, these soil organisms help the tree by gathering nutrients beyond the reach of its roots in exchange for sugars from the tree’s photosynthesis. They also connect related trees together through the soil, boosting the trees’ pest and disease resistance, as well as the soil’s water content.

But while nutrients are important, they’re not the entire story.

Lime trees require a balanced soil pH to properly absorb the nutrients from the soil. Without a balanced soil pH, the nutrients will be inaccessible for the roots, and the tree will die after using its stored nutrients.

ph scale couch to homestead

Like most fruit trees, lime trees prefer a soil pH of 6.0-7.0.

Soil that’s either too acidic or too alkaline will bind the nutrients in the soil. This is especially common in soils that have a high clay content.

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 lime tree’s soil pH is too acidic (below 6.0), consider amending it with alkaline materials like biochar, charcoal, or wood ash.

On the other hand, if your lime tree’s soil pH is too alkaline (above 7.0), use acidic amendments such as sand, peat moss, coffee grounds.

Environmental Stress

Extreme Weather

Like other citrus trees, lime trees prefer growing in subtropical and tropical climates including USDA hardiness zones 9-11. Generally, avoid letting your lime tree reach temperatures below 35ºF. However, some lime trees varieties and those grafted on more hardy rootstocks can tolerate colder weather.

For best results, aim to keep lime trees within 35ºF to 100ºF. Any more or less and the tree will expend energy to survive the weather. If this goes on for too long, the stress will cause the tree to become stunted or die.

To help prevent this, here are some tips that can help in either of the two extreme climates:

Hot Weather Tips

Generally, it’s difficult for lime trees to get too hot since they prefer tropical climates. However, if you live in a hot and dry climate, such as California, Arizona, and New Mexico, lime trees need a bit more care.

  • Apply 2 inches of each compost and mulch. These soil amendments are vital in hot and dry climates where soil can dry in a matter of minutes. Reapply compost every 1-2 months and mulch every 3-6 months.
  • Shade lime trees from the afternoon sun. The afternoon sun is much hotter than the morning sun, so providing shade from the west of the lime tree is super helpful.
  • Bring potted lime trees indoors during heat waves. At the same time, avoid exposing the tree to dramatic temperature swings. If the indoor temperature has a difference of 30ºF or more, move the lime tree gradually.
Cold Weather Tips
  • Insulate the tree’s trunk and canopy with cardboard or bedsheets during times of frost. You can also use plastic tarps to reduce ice exposure.
  • Bury the pot or build a mound for planted trees. Potted lime trees can be buried outside in the ground for more insulation. You can also place the pot in a box and pack in the space with mulch. Planted lime trees can benefit from a 1-2 foot high mound of mulch during frost.
  • Avoid exposing potted lime trees to central heat. When moving indoors, central heat can do more harm than the frost by drying out the leaves quickly. This happened to my potted Meyer lemon tree one winter—after moving it to a cooler room with a sunny window, it grew well and survived the winter.

Transplant Shock

If you’ve recently relocated or repotted your lime tree, and its leaves are drooping or falling off, it’s most likely affected by transplant shock. Lime 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.

Lime trees that get transplant shock will commonly show symptoms such as wilting, yellowing, browning, or dropping leaves, blossoms, and fruit. If severe enough, the tree will die.

The effects of transplant shock can last up to one year as the tree attempts to adjust to its new environment and grow new roots.

If you’d like, here are some steps that I commonly use to prevent transplant shock with my fruit trees:

  1. Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
  2. Remove as much of the tree’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
  3. Grab the base of the tree’s trunk and wiggle lightly
  4. Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
  5. Lightly place the tree in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
  6. Make sure the soil is at the same level on the trunk as before
  7. Apply 1-2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil
  8. Water generously and add more soil as needed

How Do You Revive a Dying Lime Tree?

You can revive a dying lime tree by first checking its water, nutrients, and soil. After, inspect the leaves for any signs of pests or disease such as spots or holes. If you’re unable to identify the issue, consult your local nursery, professional orchard, or cooperative extension service.

If your lime tree is continuing to shed its leaves and decline in health, and you’d like some more assistance, I recently wrote a post that you may find helpful: 3 Quick Steps To Revive a Dying Citrus Tree.