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3 Quick Steps To Revive a Dying Citrus Tree

There was a time when my potted Meyer lemon tree was dying, and I was pressed for 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 die from improper watering, environmental stress, a lack of nutrients, pests, or disease. However, the two most common issues are under-watering and environmental stress—such as temperature swings or transplant shock. To avoid under-watering, only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil gets dry.

In this article, we’ll discuss some important steps to successfully revive a dying citrus tree. Let’s get into some more details.

How to Tell If Your Citrus Tree Is Dying

It’s sometimes difficult to tell if your citrus tree is dying, but generally, if it has any of the below symptoms, it’s likely declining in health.

Citrus Tree SymptomIssue*
Wilting/Curling LeavesUnder-Watered, Heat Stress, Transplant Shock
Yellow LeavesUnder/Over-Watered, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pests
Brown LeavesUnder-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Pests
Red LeavesFrost Stress, Lack of Nutrients, Disease
Spotted Leaves or FruitPests or Diseases
Dropping LeavesUnder/Over-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pests or Diseases
Dropping FruitUnder/Over-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Lack of Pollination, Pests or Diseases
*While these diagnoses are accurate in many cases, they are still generalizations. Symptoms vary based on the plant and the issue.

Keep in mind that these symptoms aren’t normally a cause for concern if they’re affecting less than 10-20% of the plant. For example, it’s fairly normal for 10-20% of your tree’s leaves to be yellow or brown. The same is true for some flower or fruit drop.

However, if more than 20% of the plant is affected, or you’re seeing other concerning signs such as pest or disease symptoms, then action is likely needed to save the tree.

There’s also the fact that citrus trees tend to lose some of their leaves every year (around 10%), which is normal. This is usually during spring and fall.

3 Quick Steps To Save a Dying Citrus Tree

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.

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 chance to provide the right solution for it.

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.

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.

If you have no idea what issue your citrus tree might have, that’s okay! That’s what I’m here for. To give you a head start, let’s explore the 4 most common reasons citrus trees die.

The Top 6 Reasons Why Citrus Trees Die

leaf loss that fell off my Meyer lemon tree

1. Under-Watering

Generally, citrus plants are sensitive when it comes to water requirements.

The best way to water citrus trees is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry. I check this by pushing a finger into the soil, under the plant’s drip line. When watering soak the ground at least 2 feet deep.

Since over 90% of the plant’s roots are found within the first 2 feet of soil, soaking the soil ensures the majority of the roots get water.

On the other hand, shallow and frequent watering encourages shallow roots and makes drought stress and wind damage more likely.

Apply 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch under the tree’s drip line. Reapply compost every 1-2 months and mulch every 3-6 months. Keep both materials at least 3 inches from the trunk to avoid mold buildup.

Compost provides essential nutrients and increases the soil’s water retention. Every 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter leads to an additional 20,000 gallons of water held per acre. Compost also feeds the soil life, leading to benefits such as increased nutrients and pest and disease resistance.

Mulch dramatically reduces evaporation, regulates soil temperature, and prevents soil erosion.

Both compost and mulch also amend soils that drain too quickly. But what happens if the soil has poor drainage?

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. Over-Watering (Poor Drainage)

While both under and over-watering can be prevented by only watering when the soil is dry, if the soil has poor drainage it can become waterlogged and lead to issues such as root rot (more on this later).

Over-watered soils are most often a result of ground that’s depressed, compact, or high in clay.

Here are some quick steps to fix poorly draining soil.

  1. Test
  2. Amend
  3. Mulch

Percolation Test

doing a soil percolation test in our backyard

A good way to test your soil’s drainage is by doing a percolation test.

  1. Dig a 1-foot by 1-foot hole
  2. Place a yardstick in the hole and fill it with water
  3. After an hour, measure the water line on the yardstick

The goal for proper drainage is about 2 inches per hour. However, this is a guideline and not a rule, so don’t worry if yours is way off. This is just a way to see if your soil has poor or fast drainage.

I recommend digging at least 3 different holes across your property as some areas might have much better drainage than others.

Amend Poorly Draining Soil

raised mound of soil and compost in my garden

Once you determine your soil’s drainage, it’s time to amend it.

Interestingly, the solution for both poor drainage and fast drainage is the same—compost.

Compost not only breaks up the clumps of ground in poorly-draining soil, but its organic matter retains water in fast-draining soils.

As mentioned above, I recommend providing your citrus tree with 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. Over time, the compost will work its way into the soil.

If you can’t wait for the compost to do its job on the soil, you can also move your citrus tree to an area with better drainage such as a raised bed or mound of soil.

Potted citrus trees that have poor drainage should be amended by repotting them with fresh potting soil.

Provide Mulch

using my cover crops as a mulch

Once your citrus tree has well-draining soil, provide 4-12 inches of mulch to give it a boost of water retention and protection from the elements.

Some good mulches for citrus trees include leaves, wood chips, straw, and pine needles.

Recommended: 10 Expert Tips for Watering Fruit Trees

an organic companion planting guide ebook square

    3. Transplant Shock

    If your citrus tree was recently planted or repotted, and it’s starting to die, it’s probably due to transplant shock. Transplant shock occurs when the plant is exposed to a new environment and has to establish a new root system.

    Avoid transplanting unless necessary as it can take up to 1 year for recovery.

    To help avoid transplant shock, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:

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

    4. Lack of Nutrients

    Nutrient DeficiencyLeaf Symptom
    NitrogenEntire leaf is pale or yellow
    IronDark green veins, rest of the leaf is yellowing
    ZincYellow blotches
    ManganeseBroadly pale leaves, foliage color looks mottled or smeared
    Source: The University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

    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.

    If you decide to use a chemical fertilizer, opt for one with a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), such as a 10-10-10.

    Alternatively, you can use compost.

    I recommend applying 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months under the plant’s drip line followed by 4 inches of mulch.

    Keep in mind that while nutrients are essential, they aren’t everything.

    Imbalanced Soil pH

    ph scale couch to homestead

    Citrus trees prefer a soil pH of 6.0-7.0.

    When citrus trees have an imbalanced soil pH, they develop issues such as discolored and dropping leaves. Additionally, their flowers and fruit drop early and the plant is more likely to develop other issues.

    Two good ways to test your soil’s pH are with pH strips or a meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re affordable and easy to use. To see which pH I recommend, check out my recommended tools page.

    If you find your soil is too alkaline (above 7.0), provide acidic amendments such as peat moss, sand, and coffee grounds.

    On the other hand, if your soil is too acidic (under 6.0), provide alkaline amendments such as charcoal, wood ash, and lime.

    5. Diseases

    Citrus Greening

    citrus greening disease on leaves
    Image source: Sciencedirect.com

    Citrus greening is the most common citrus tree disease and is spread by an insect called Asian citrus psyllid.

    Here are the symptoms presented by the USDA:

    • Visible psyllids or waxy psyllid droppings
    • Lopsided, bitter, hard fruit with small, dark aborted seeds
    • Fruit that remains green even when ripe
    • Asymmetrical blotchy mottling of leaves
    • Yellow shoots
    • Twig dieback
    • Stunted, sparsely foliated trees that may bloom off-season

    Sadly, there is no cure for citrus greening. Although, you can prevent this disease by providing the proper nutrients and care for your citrus tree.

    Also, if you have multiple citrus trees and notice the disease on one tree, it is best to prune and burn the infected parts of the diseased tree to prevent it from spreading to other trees.

    Root Rot

    tomato plant with Phytophthora root and crown rot
    Tomato plant with root rot.

    Root rot kills off the plant’s roots, which stresses the plant and causes symptoms such as fruit, flowers, and leaves yellowing, browning, and dropping. If not addressed, it leads to stunted growth or a dying citrus tree.

    You can typically tell if your citrus tree has root rot if the soil is staying sopping wet and starts smelling. Allowing the soil to dry out or repotting citrus trees with fresh potting soil are the best ways to amend this disease.

    6. Pests

    Aphids

    a ladybug eating an aphid on a citrus tree
    A ladybug eating an aphid.

    Aphids are small bugs that suck the sap from underneath the citrus tree’s leaves. This loss of sugar and moisture causes the leaves to curl, discolor, and drop. Aphids also deposit honeydew, which attracts ants.

    If left unchecked, aphids can damage the plant’s health and potentially stunt or kill it.

    These bugs come in multiple colors including white, yellow, or black, and usually are found hiding underneath the leaves. Typically, aphids won’t cause damage to the fruit, but because they suck sap from the plant, they can compromise its health and therefore reduce fruit size and yield.

    The best ways to get rid of aphids (and mites) on citrus trees is by spraying the infected leaves with water or neem oil, or releasing ladybugs (a natural predator of aphids and mites). Most often, a jet of water is enough to knock them off and kill them, but neem oil is a good second option.

    For example, when my potted Kaffir lime tree had aphids, I found that a jet of water was sufficient to blast them off and prevent them from coming back. All I did was remove the hose nozzle and used my thumb to increase the pressure. Just keep in mind that too strong of a blast can damage the leaves.

    Leaf Miners

    leaf minor larvae on the leaves of a citrus tree

    We recently purchased a young lemon tree from our local nursery, and it soon started to get leaves that curled and dropped. The leaves also had some bumps and white trails. We sent it off to be analyzed and they told us it was leaf miners.

    Leaf miners are small white moths that lay larvae to burrow inside the leaves of citrus trees, causing them to curl and drop. This pest is fairly common in most of California along with Florida and Mexico.

    The good news is that leaf minors don’t cause much damage and are only a concern for young citrus trees. Once the leaves harden off and mature, the leaf miners won’t be able to penetrate them.

    The best way to prevent and manage leaf miners is to encourage natural predators such as beneficial wasps (the non-stinging kind).

    You can do this by planting companion plants such as:

    • Fennel
    • Caraway
    • Dill
    • Yarrow
    • Parsley
    • Tansy
    • Zinnia
    • Coriander (cilantro)
    • Queen Anne’s lace
    • Sweet alyssum

    Avoid using sprays as they’re not that effective and will cause more damage (they’ll promote whiteflies, scale insects, and other citrus pests).

    Available insecticides for backyard trees are not very effective and many products leave residues that kill natural enemies, compounding problems.

    University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources

    Also, avoid pruning leaves infected with leaf miners as the leaves are still functional and feeding the citrus tree via photosynthesis. Pruning can cause more damage in this case.

    Feel free to prune leaves that are brown as they’re no longer assisting with photosynthesis, but it’s not necessary.

    For our lemon tree, here’s the trap we used to get rid of our leaf miners.

    our trap for citrus leaf miner

    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 loves it when I add some to the top of the pot (it starts new growth almost immediately). Depending on the quality of the 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 note whenever it starts to fruit.

    Final Thoughts

    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.

    Need More Help?

    You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.

    • Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. See your local services.
    • 7 Easy Steps to Grow Fruit Trees (Free Guide): Need more fruit tree help from the ground up? See our free guide to make growing fruit trees a breeze.
    • Ask the Free Community: Join The Couch to Homestead Community and connect with other members discussing gardening, homesteading, and permaculture.
    • 30-Day Permaculture Food Forest Course: Learn how to turn your backyard into a thriving food forest in just 30 days with our online course.