There was a time when my potted Meyer lemon tree was dying, and I was pressed on time to figure out why. Unsure of where to start, I started doing some searching online and tested some solutions. Here’s what I found.
Citrus trees typically start to die because of improper watering, environmental stress, a lack of nutrients, or disease. However, the two most common issues are under-watering and environmental stress—such as temperature swings or transplant shock. Once the source of stress is reduced, the tree should recover.
In this article, we’ll discuss some important steps to successfully revive a dying citrus tree. Let’s get into some more details.
The Top 4 Reasons Why Citrus Trees Die
Even though citrus trees are fairly resilient, they still need a good amount of care. Here are some of the most common reasons why citrus trees die:
1. Over or Under-Watering
Generally, citrus plants are sensitive when it comes to water requirements.
Too much water can leave the soil to rot and prevent air from circulating in the soil. Too little water can leave the plant dehydrated.
So, avoid having your citrus tree go through dehydration or drowning in water as it can lead to it dying quickly. A good tip to keep the roots cool and soil moist is to mulch around the base of your citrus tree. Just remember not to let the mulch touch the tree directly as it can introduce disease.
Another symptom of under-watering is when the tree’s leaves curl. For more information about citrus leaf curl, check out my recent post: Why Citrus Tree Leaves Curl (and How To Fix It).
2. Wrong Growing Environment
Some of the signs that your citrus tree isn’t in an ideal or too wet location include dull leaves, weak branches, premature fruit drops, and little to no growth.
Similar to providing proper watering, citrus plants are more likely to die when they’re planted in locations with poor soil drainage.
If your citrus tree needs better soil drainage, consider moving the tree to an elevated spot or planting it in a raised bed. Gravity will help excess water drain from the tree’s soil (but still keep the soil moist).
The raised bed should also have loose and loamy soil to help the citrus tree’s roots spread and grow properly.
For potted citrus trees, consider drilling more holes in the pot or repotting it with new soil if the current soil is collapsed.
Lastly, consider planting citrus trees in locations where they’ll receive as much sunlight as possible (aim for at least 6 hours daily, ideally more).
3. Lack of Nutrients
Nitrogen deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency that citrus trees can get. It’s essential for foliage growth and the overall health of the tree.
You’ll know that your citrus plant has nitrogen deficiency if its leaves turn yellow and start to fall off. If not addressed early enough, the deficiency can lead to a complete loss of leaves.
At the same time, avoid overpowering the tree with too much nitrogen. Excess levels in the soil can chemically burn the tree’s roots and kill the tree.
So, what’s a good balance of nutrients (including nitrogen)?
A good rule to follow is to use a citrus tree fertilizer with an NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) of 2:1:1. For example, a 6-3-3 fertilizer would be a good choice for citrus trees.
To see which citrus tree fertilizers I recommended, check out my recommended fertilizer page.
By far, one of the most common diseases a citrus tree can get is root rot (a fungal disease). The reason why root rot is so common is that it’s directly caused by overwatering, which is easy to do to citrus trees.
I overwatered my potted kaffir lime tree once and when it started dying and the soil smelled like swamp, I knew I had to fix it. Luckily, the solution was simply planting it in the ground (I could have also repotted it). The new soil absorbed the excess moisture and the roots were able to breathe and grow back.
Naturally, there are many other diseases (and even pests) that can cause citrus trees to die. Since this blog post would be over 10,000 words if I covered them all here, it wouldn’t be fun for you to sort through.
If you believe your citrus tree is dying from a pest or disease, I recommend searching Google with the symptom (for example: yellow leaves, leaking sap, etc). You likely already thought of this, but it’s the best way to get you the most relevant answer.
How To Save a Dying Citrus Tree
The good news is that you can save your dying citrus tree (at least if you act fast enough). Here are 3 steps you can use to revive your citrus tree and restore its health.
3 Quick Steps To Save a Dying Citrus Tree
1. Identify the Possible Issues
The first step in reviving a dying citrus tree is identifying 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 citrus tree issues, reference the above section.
2. Isolate the Actual Issue
Once you’ve checked the specific symptoms your citrus tree has, now you can cross off potential issues from your list.
Try to get it down to 1-3 potential issues that best match the symptoms your citrus 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 citrus 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!).
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 Citrus Trees With No Leaves Be Saved?
To know if your citrus tree is still alive, even if it has little or no leaves, you can prune a small branch. If you see a green, wet inner surface, then the plant is still alive and can be saved.
Citrus trees are evergreen trees, so they only tend to drop leaves when stressed. Other fruit trees, like apricots, naturally shed their leaves in the fall and winter (also called deciduous trees).
Extreme weather, lack of nutrients, and excess water are some of the main reasons why leaves drop in citrus trees.
If your citrus tree has no leaves, and you suspect it’s dying, try following the 3 troubleshooting steps above to isolate the issue and get you a quick solution.
More Tips to Keep Your Citrus Tree Alive
- Provide 1-2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. Although it’s slightly alkaline, compost is one of the best sources of nutrients for citrus trees. I have a vermicompost bin at home and my potted Meyer lemon absolutely loves it when I add some to the top of the pot (it starts new growth almost immediately). Depending on the quality of soil, you may not even need fertilizer.
- Check on the sunlight levels. Especially if you’re growing your citrus tree in a cold climate, place them next to a sunny and southern facing wall to maximize warmth and sunlight.
- Fertilize just before every growing season. Citrus plants are heavy feeders, which means they need a lot of nutrients to thrive and fruit. The specific growing season depends on the type of citrus tree you have, so make sure to take a note whenever it starts to fruit.
It turns out that my Meyer lemon tree was placed too close to our central heater vent and even though it didn’t feel that warm, the hot and dry air was quickly killing the tree and causing it to lose its leaves.
Depending on the type of issue, it can usually take weeks or months for a citrus tree to die. Because of this, there’s no need to over-stress about your tree’s health, but it’s best to act when you notice something is off. Remember, if you get stuck you can always contact the seller or your local nursery for some help.