Why Your Citrus Trees Won’t Grow and How to Fix It

our lime tree with limes growing on it

The first year that we got our kaffir lime tree, it didn’t grow at all and only gave us one fruit. This was a bit disappointing, but the tree wasn’t dead, so we had some options. To find out what our tree needed to grow we did some research. Here’s what we found.

The most common reasons why citrus trees won’t grow are lack of sunlight, water, nutrients, and maturity. Even if you’re providing everything for your tree, some varieties can take 10 years to fully grow. For best results, provide full sun, 1-2 inches of water weekly, and high nitrogen fertilizer.

While it can be tough to determine what issue your citrus tree is going through, it’s much easier when we take it step-by-step. Let’s break down exactly how long citrus trees take to grow and what they need to grow properly.

How Long Does It Take for a Citrus Tree to Grow?

Citrus trees take anywhere between 3 to 10 years to grow. The two main factors are the type of citrus and if it’s grown from seed or grafted. Generally, grafted trees grow at a much faster rate, taking 2-3 years to fully mature. For example, grafted Meyer lemon trees take about 3 years while grapefruit can take 10.

The reason why grafted citrus trees grow much faster than those grown from seed comes down to the maturity of the tree. For example, since seeds have a slightly different and newer DNA than the parent tree (just like us and our parents), it will take more time to mature.

On the other hand, the process of grafting involves taking a part of a branch from a mature tree and fusing it onto another tree. This means that we’re borrowing the mature DNA from the parent tree and merging it onto the younger tree. So, even though the rootstock is from the younger tree, the branches and fruit that develop are from the more mature parent tree.

Other benefits of grafting are:

  • True to seed (the same fruit as the parent tree)
  • Increased disease resistance
  • Increased frost resistance

This explains why most citrus farmers use grafted trees. While growing from seed can be fun, it can often be less fruitful.

If you have a lemon tree that’s grown from seed and might take 10 years to grow, it might be a better choice to put it off to the side and purchase some grafted trees. They’ll grow in a fraction of the time.

If you’re interested in saving some money and grafting your own citrus trees, check out this video by FruitMentor.

How To Know if Your Citrus Tree Is Growing

A healthy tree grows every year. We’d know that if we could simply cut down the tree and take a peek inside its trunk. Those little rings inside the trunk let us know that our tree is continuing to grow. The problem is that, once we do that, we no longer have a growing tree.

However, there are some ways you can determine if your citrus tree is growing or not. You can find out if your citrus tree is growing by:

  • Measuring the trunk size
  • Measuring the foliage size (height and width)
  • Inspecting the tree for any new growth

The only problem with measuring your citrus tree and its foliage is that if you have a variety that takes several years to grow, you could be waiting and measuring for a while.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to find out if you have a grafted tree or one grown from seed. Call up who you purchased the tree from and see if you can find out.

The maturation size of your citrus tree may also vary. Citrus trees often come in dwarf varieties as well, and you can expect those to only grow to about two-thirds of the height of a non-dwarf tree.

Normally, you should see growth each year and can often spot it by taking a look at the tree trunk. If you can see that the tree trunk is expanding, even by just a bit, your tree is likely growing normally. You may not be able to spot this by just looking at it, so a ruler is helpful to keep track of your tree’s growth.

Another factor that affects a citrus tree’s growth is where you plant it. For example:

  • Is it in a pot indoors?
  • Is it in a pot outdoors?
  • Is it planted directly into the ground?

In general, a tree grown properly never fully stops growing, and the amount of time needed for the tree to mature as a fruit-bearing tree varies.

Reasons Why Your Citrus Tree Isn’t Growing

There are no quick fixes that will make your citrus tree grow before it’s ready. However, your tree should be growing each year. If you find your citrus tree isn’t growing, it’s time to pull up your figurative sleeves and do some “digging.”

There some common reasons your tree might not be thriving as needed, and many of them are fixable. Let’s take a look at them.

Under-Watering

Citrus trees need quite a bit of water (how else will they get juicy fruits?). If you’re under-watering your citrus tree, you might see some signs such as curling, yellowing, or dropping leaves. Also, you can tell if citrus trees are under-watered if the top 2-4 inches of soil is consistently bone-dry.

But by far the biggest problem with under-watering is that it trains the citrus tree to keep shallow roots and search for water near the top of the soil. This is bad because, in times of drought, the citrus tree won’t be able to access the moisture that’s stored deeper in the soil.

So, the best way to water your citrus tree is by deep-watering. Deep-watering is the practice of watering your plants less often but in higher volumes of water. This is designed to mimic a strong rainfall.

And the result of deep watering? Your citrus tree will grow deep and healthy roots that can access the water stored deeper in the soil. Over time, you’ll need to water your tree less and less as the roots also retain more water in the soil. This effectively makes your citrus tree drought-proof which means you can relax more when you’re away on vacations.

Deep watering is also best when you mulch your citrus tree. Providing a layer of mulch around your citrus tree will help the soil retain moisture and protect it from drying out from the sun.

However, this is a balancing act. Overwatering is not good for your tree either, so be careful to water enough without over-saturating your tree’s soil. Water generously, but make sure to have soil that drains well to avoid stagnant water and root rot.

Over-Watering or Poor Drainage

I overwatered our kaffir lime tree once and it quickly developed root rot. Luckily, repotting it saved it. I found that the original pot didn’t have enough holes in it and the water was collecting around the roots.

So, here are some tips to make sure that your potted citrus tree has proper drainage:

  • Check that the soil isn’t collapsed
  • Mix your own potting soil for increased drainage
  • Make sure there are enough drainage holes

And here are some tips to improve the drainage for your planted citrus trees:

  • Plant in an elevated location
  • Plant in a raised garden bed
  • Make sure the soil is loose and rich, and not compact or clay-like

If your potted citrus tree does have collapsed soil, then repotting it will likely be the best bet. For planted trees, there’s much less of a chance of root rot, but planting on an elevated spot will be more than enough to keep the water from pooling. When you can, let nature (or gravity) do the work.

Lack of Sunlight

Citrus trees prefer full sunlight, which means at least 5 hours a day. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to meet, especially if you’re growing citrus trees indoors. I have this problem with my indoor Meyer lemon, so I’m constantly researching ways to provide it with enough sun in the winter months.

Sunlight is required by citrus trees for proper nutrients, namely developing sugar (its energy source) via photosynthesis. Without sugar, citrus trees will have a hard time growing and providing ripening fruits with extra sugar.

If you’re growing your citrus tree indoors, then consider getting a grow light to supplement sunlight. This Relassy LED Grow Light on Amazon provides the artificial light your citrus tree needs to thrive indoors.

If winter is coming, and your citrus tree is in danger of frost, place smaller potted trees indoors and use artificial light to keep them growing, or use a thermal blanket on outdoor trees to keep them from withering in the cold.

Lacking Nutrients

Citrus trees are heavy nitrogen feeders, and this is especially important when they’re first growing. As nitrogen is a primary ingredient for developing foliage, your fertilizer should have a sufficient level.

The best fertilizers for citrus trees are an NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) ratio of 2:1:1. To see which citrus tree fertilizers I recommend, visit my guide on organic citrus tree fertilizers.

The best time to fertilize your citrus tree in its growing seasons. Typically, this means early spring. Avoid fertilizing in the winter as citrus trees are more dormant and won’t need as many nutrients.

Over or Under-Pruning

Pruning your citrus tree is a healthy practice as it helps the tree focus on the proper growth.

For example, if you’d like your citrus tree to grow faster, then pinching off the budding flowers will signal to the tree to focus its energy on growing roots and foliage.

On the other hand, if you want your citrus tree to fruit more, then pruning some branches will conserve its resources for fruit development and will maximize the amount of fruit growing per branch.

The best time to prune is at the end of winter after the danger of frost has passed. Ideally, citrus trees should be pruned before they start their growing season so they can heal properly and get a head start on growing how you’d like.

Prune dead or disease branches, suckers, and any other non-essential parts of your citrus tree.

Keep in mind that a good amount of foliage is required to keep the tree cool and maximize the amount of sunlight it absorbs. Generally, you should prune to allow sunlight to slightly pierce through the canopy.

How Do You Know if Your Citrus Tree Is Dying?

The best way to tell if your citrus tree is dying is based mostly on its leaves. After all, when citrus trees start to die, they shed leaves, flowers, and fruit to conserve resources to keep themselves alive. If your citrus tree’s leaves are curling, yellowing, browning, or falling off, it’s likely starting to die.

Citrus trees aren’t deciduous trees, they’re evergreen, which means that they don’t naturally shed leaves in the fall, like other fruit trees do. Citrus trees should be maintaining green leaves year-round. If they aren’t then there’s an issue somewhere.

Citrus trees know what they’re doing, so when they don’t have enough of a vital resource, they’ll start shedding their non-essential parts. Usually, the first things to go are the fruit, flowers, and then leaves. Sometimes it’s all at once.

If you catch the issue fast enough, you can minimize the loss and provide your citrus tree with what it needs.

Luckily, citrus trees aren’t too complicated. There are ways you can tell what is lacking or what’s in excess. Generally, start with one area (such as the soil), and use the process of elimination.

Here’s how to find out what is going on with your citrus tree so you can take action.

  1. Check the soil. Is the top 2-4 inches of soil bone dry or soaking wet? Is it loose or compact? Make sure to check the moisture near the roots if possible too, especially if it’s a potted citrus tree. It’s also a good idea to check the pH of the soil. You can measure your soil’s pH with a good pH sensor for just a few bucks on Amazon. Aim for a pH of 5.5-6.5.
  2. Check the leaves. Leaves are one of the best ways to determine the health of a tree. If you’re seeing any curling, discoloration, or leaves dropping, then it’s time to check the nutrients in the soil and use a good fertilizer in the growing seasons.
  3. Check the trunk and branches. It’s not as common, but there are times when citrus trees can develop diseases or pests. Often times, this means citrus trunks and branches will be peeling or oozing sap. Some diseases and pests can also manifest in the leaves, so check them for spots as well.

After going through these steps, you should find out what’s wrong with your citrus tree and why it’s dying.

Keep in mind that just like any other living being on this planet, trees die from old age too. Citrus trees can live up to 50 years, so if you have a citrus tree that’s at least a few decades old, it might be on the decline.

If you like the fruit from these trees and don’t want to give them up, consider grafting a scion from the tree onto new rootstocks to produce the same fruit.

If you’d like more tips and to see how to save a dying citrus tree in action, check out this video by Productive Gardens.

Final Thoughts

When it came to helping our kaffir lime tree grow, we found that it needed to be repotted and given another year to grow and mature. Today, it has several fruits and more developing (up from the one fruit last year!).

Keep in mind that citrus trees don’t all grow to the same heights. There are many varieties, including dozens of dwarf varieties. If your citrus tree is grafted, then you should expect it to mature completely in about 2-3 years. On the other hand, if your citrus tree is grown from seed, then you could be waiting up to 10 years before you see it mature and start to bear fruit.

When in doubt, graft your citrus trees to speed up the maturity, fruiting, and help them become more disease and frost resistant (for best results, graft onto orange rootstocks since they’re the hardiest).

our kaffir lime tree growing some fruit

Tyler Ziton

After years of fatigue and declining health, Tyler found that good, fresh food was his answer. He learned more about healthy food by obtaining a certification in health coaching, and from there decided to grow his own food and become more self-sufficient. From gardening to learning about living off-grid, homesteading has become a good fit and pairs well with Tyler's odd childhood dream – to one day own a goat. Read more.

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