How to Revive a Dying Lemon Tree


Why is my lemon tree dying

Is your lemon tree, and you are unsure why? This is a common problem that I have seen a lot, and I have had to deal with it personally.

I work at a garden nursery where we grow plants to supply garden centers, so I have been able to learn a lot through experience in my job and from directly talking to some specialist citrus growers so I can share with you all the tips and tricks have learned to identify the cause of your lemon tree is dying and how you can save it…

The most common reason I encounter for a dying lemon tree is usually because of overwatering, cold temperatures, or transplant shock after being moved indoors.

Overwatering causes lemon tree leaves to droop and turn yellow with a dying appearance. A dying lemon tree that has lost its leaves is due to transplant shock or temperatures cooler than 50°F.

If your lemon tree leaves are curling inwards, then in my experience, this is due to drought stress or a lack of fertilizer.

Keep reading for why a lemon tree’s leaves turn yellow, droop, drop off, or curl inwards and to implement the solutions to revive your dying lemon tree

Why Are My Lemon Tree Leaves Turning Yellow?

  • Symptoms. Lemon tree with leaves drooping and turn yellow.
  • Causes. Overwatering, slow-draining soils, drought, low nutrients, lack of sun, and low temperatures.

From what I have seen in my day job, most problems with lemon trees, such as yellowing leaves, have to do with overwatering and cold temperatures…

Lemon trees require well-draining soil and do not tolerate temperatures lower than 50°F. If the soil is boggy due to overwatering or lack of drainage, then lemon trees can develop root rot, which turns the leaves yellow with a dying appearance.

I find it’s helpful if we understand where lemon trees are cultivated so we can replicate these conditions in our gardens…

Lemon trees are native to Mediterranean climates where they thrive in full sun (more than 6 hours of direct sunlight) and warm temperatures and prefer well-draining soil that dries out slightly between bouts of watering.

I have learned that lemon trees are susceptible to root rot (which causes the leaves to turn yellow and droop with a dying appearance) if the roots are sat in consistently saturated soil, which can be from:

  • Overwatering.
  • Slow-draining soils (clay soils drain too slowly for lemon trees).
  • Pots without drainage holes in the base, causing water to pool around the roots.
  • Pots with saucers and trays underneath collect water and prevent the soil from draining properly.

If the leaves are just starting to turn yellow, then I can assure you this does not necessarily indicate root rot has developed.

However, too much water in the soil excludes oxygen from the soil which prevents root respiration and interferes with the roots ability to draw up moisture and nutrients properly.

If the roots cannot draw up water and nutrients, the leaves turn yellow, droop, and may even drop off.

Suppose you have a potted lemon tree like me. In that case, you should be aware that potted lemon trees also suffer from drought and a lack of nutrients more frequently, particularly if the pot is small as smaller pots dry out quickly in the Summer sun and also have a limited capacity for nutrients, which turns the leaves yellow.

This happened to me as my lemon tree had ground the size of the pot and become root-bound. The soil was no longer able to hold enough moisture, and the leaves of my tree started yellowing and drooping.

In my case, it was a combination of both drought stress and a lack of fertilizer.

From experience, lemon trees typically tolerate high temperatures very well (as long as they have access to moisture), but in temperatures of around or below 50°F (10°C), the lemon tree leaves can turn yellow and usually drop off.

Lemon trees are native to climates with mild Winters but can often be saved after brief exposure to cold.

My lemon tree leaves once turned yellow and dropped off after a cold snap, but I was able to revive it… However, in freezing temperatures, the lemon tree usually dies back.

How I Revive My Dying Lemon Trees with Yellow Leaves

  • If you have been watering more often than once per week, then I advise you to scale back the watering so that the top two inches of soil feel somewhat dry to the touch, then water generously. When growing lemon trees in a nursery, this is the guidance we are given by specialist growers. Allowing the soil to dry, followed by thorough watering, creates the optimal balance of soil moisture for lemon trees to thrive. This allows the roots to function properly so they can draw up moisture and nutrients to revive the yellowing leaves.
  • Ensure the lemon tree has well-draining soil amended with horticultural grit. In the Mediterranean, the lemon tree’s soil is slightly gritty or sandy which allows for good drainage. We need to replicate these conditions by amending the planting area or pot with around 1/3 grit to 2/3’s compost. Suppose your garden soil is naturally boggy and slow draining. In that case, this is contrary to the lemon tree’s preferred conditions, and I recommend transferring it to a pot or another area of the garden with better drainage and adding grit to the soil. Just use horticultural grit from a garden center as I do.
  • Potted lemon trees should have drainage holes in the base, and any saucers or trays should be emptied regularly. I know this may seem obvious, but I think it is worth mentioning as I have seen this mistake many times. Well-draining conditions are imperative to reviving a dying lemon tree, so ensure the drainage holes are clear of any compacted soil and do not allow excess water to pool at the bottom of your lemon tree’s pot, as this keeps the soil too damp. What I like to do is, place lemon tree pots on feet or bricks to allow water to drain from the base more freely.
  • Always locate lemon trees in full sun. If your lemon tree is in too much shade, the leaves fall off, and the tree dies back. Cut back any overhanging tree limbs that cast shade on your lemon tree, or transplant it to the sunniest location of your garden.
  • Add fertilizer to potted lemon trees during the Summer. Potted lemon tree roots, in particular, can exhaust the soil of nutrients, which can turn the leaves yellow. Use a specialized citrus fertilizer once a month in the Spring and Summer, which promotes fruiting and contains all the right nutrients to prevent yellowing leaves and your lemon tree from thriving.
cirtis fertilizer
This is the citrus fertilizer that I personally use on my lemon trees and all my citrus plants. This has been key to reviving my lemon tree after it was in the same pot for too long.
  • Protect lemon trees with fleece or bring them indoors if temperatures go below 50°F (10°C). Lemon trees require mild Winter and do not tolerate the cold, so always plant them in a pot and bring them indoors over Winter to protect them from the cold and to prevent the leaves from turning yellow and dying back. If your tree is planted outdoors or the pot is impractical to bring indoors, then what I like to do is protect my lemon tree with horticultural fleece to provide insulation from cold temperatures. Lemon trees can revive after brief exposure to cold, but severe cold or extended periods of cold often cause the lemon tree to die back.

Once you have corrected the environmental conditions that caused the leaves to turn yellow, with the right watering schedule, well-draining soil, and full sun, the yellow leaves can revive or drop off, in which case new growth can emerge during Spring and Summer if the conditions are favorable.

What I find often happens is that the yellow leaves fall off, but new green leaves emerge in the Spring and Summer.

(Read my article, how to water lemon trees, to learn how often to water your lemon tree according to your climate and conditions).

Why is My Lemon Tree Losing Leaves?

  • Symptoms. Lemon tree leaves turn yellow, wilting, and dropping. Leaves can drop all of a sudden, particularly when moved indoors for Winter.
  • Causes. Overwatering, drought, not enough light, too much wind, low temperatures, drought transplant shock when moved indoors

A classic reason lemon trees lose their leaves is due to drought and too much wind drying out the leaves, causing them to drop.

I have a friend whose Indoor lemon trees lost their leaves when he moved indoors because of the contrast of light, temperature, humidity, and watering.

He moved it indoors for Winter but placed it too near to the radiator, which caused the leaves to fall, much to his distress!

When lemon trees lose their leaves suddenly, it is usually because of a sudden and significant drop in temperature lower than 50°F (10°C) or when they are brought indoors for Winter protection.

Lemon trees adapt to their range of conditions outdoors, adjusting to the cycle of watering or rainfall, temperature, light and humidity.

When brought indoors for the Winter, they do not have as much light or air circulation; the air is much less humid, which saps moisture from the leaves; the lemon tree also has to adapt to the fluctuating temperature indoors, which can be cooler during the day and warmer at night due to indoor heating (which is the opposite temperature cycle they experience outdoors).

When my friend brought his tree indoors, it had to cope with heat from the radiator and much dryer air, and every time he opened the door, his poor tree was blasted with cold air!

All these factors can dry out the lemon tree much quicker, causing the leaves to initially wilt and the shock of the change of conditions causes the leaves to drop.

If the lemon tree is outdoors, then what I find can happen is excess wind can sap too much moisture from your lemon tree causing, the leaves to lose too much moisture, which results in the leaves dropping and the lemon tree dying back.

I must warn you that lower levels of light and a lack of soil moisture can also contribute to the leaves dropping.

My Tips for Reviving a Dying Lemon Tree Losing its Leaves…

  • Bring lemon trees indoors if the temperature is forecast to be lower than 50°F (10°C) or protect with horticultural fleece. Bringing lemon trees indoors can cause the leaves to drop, but leaving them in the cold is likely to cause the tree to die back, so I’m afraid you have to bring your lemon trees indoors in climates that experience freezing temperatures. A lemon tree can survive if all its leaves drop off as they can regrow in the Spring, but they die if you leave them to freeze.
  • Locate your indoor lemon tree in a sunny South-facing window. Even in the Winter, lemon trees prefer as much sun as possible, so try always to find the sunniest window in your house, or ideally, place it in a heated greenhouse. I put mine on my porch, which is cooler than the rest of the house but still warm and sunny enough for my lemon tree. Ever since I have done this, my lemon tree does not lose any of its leaves.
  • Keep the lemon tree away from sources of heat. If the lemon tree is too close to central heating or in the air current of forced air, then the plant is likely to dry out much quicker, causing the leaves to wilt and drop, so put your tree in a cool room or on the other side of the room from any source of heat.
  • Spray the lemon tree with a mist spray once a day to create a more humid microclimate. The air outdoors is more humid than the air indoors, so spraying any remaining leaves and the tree itself can somewhat reduce the contrast in humidity from outdoors to indoors and reduce water loss from the leaves, which is a major cause of leaf drop. If you cannot spray your leaves, you can use a humidifier. I have done this before and found that a humidifier works better than spraying the leaves. Of course, I should acknowledge this step is more prevention than cure.
  • Even in Winter, lemon trees require a generous soak. Water lemon trees thoroughly when brought indoors so that the roots have access to moisture to counteract the dryer conditions of an indoor climate. I soak mine every time the top 2 inches of soil dry out.
  • Always water lemon trees thoroughly so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot or so the garden soil has had a good soak. This is a tip straight from the expert citrus growers. This style of watering promotes the roots to grow deep in the soil so they can access moisture and nutrients, which makes them less vulnerable to drought. If water trickles from the pot’s base, then the moisture should reach the roots where it is required and prevent leaves from dropping due to drought. Watering too lightly causes the roots to grow shallow and increases the risk of the lemon suffering drought and losing leaves.
  • Allow the top two inches of the soil to dry somewhat between bouts of watering. Overwatering and slow-draining soils typically turn the lemon tree’s leaves yellow and can contribute to the leaves dropping off. Allowing the soil to dry slightly ensures the optimal balance of moisture and creates more favorable conditions for the leaves to grow back.
  • Create a windbreak to revive outdoor lemon trees. Plant shrubs or trees nearby that do not shade the lemon tree but buffer the wind from sapping too much moisture from the leaves. I use bamboo plants whenever I need to create a windbreak.

Pro tip: To establish when my lemon tree needs watering, I always use my finger to feel when the top 2 inches of soil are just drying out before giving the soil a good soak. If your soil is still damp, then delay watering for a few days. I prefer this method to using moisture meters as I find that in my experience, they are not precise enough.

This is the exact method for watering that commercial growers use for citrus trees.

If the lemon tree leaves have all dropped after being indoors, then correct the indoor conditions so that they are more favorable for the lemon tree to revive (more light and humidity and keep away from sources of heat).

As long as you have addressed the problems and the conditions are improving, the lemon tree can adapt to its new set of conditions, and I would expect the new leaves to regrow in Spring and Summer.

Why are My Lemon Tree Leaves Curling?

  • Symptoms. Lemon tree leaves curling inwards and possibly drooping downwards.
  • Causes. Most often associated with drought stress or too much wind. Small pots, low-nutrient soil, and aphid infestations can be contributing factors.

Do not worry if your lemon tree’s leaves are curling, as I’ve found this one is much easier to solve…

The reason for leaves curling is usually because of dry soil or too much wind. If there is not enough moisture around the roots or it is too windy (which saps moisture from the leaves), then lemon tree leaves curl inwards to reduce their surface area, which helps to conserve moisture.

Lemon trees require a well-draining soil with lots of organic matter (compost) which helps to hold some moisture, yet retains a well-draining structure that allows excess water to drain away from the roots, so they are not sat in waterlogged soil.

If the soil dries out too quickly, then the leaves curl inwards to save moisture which is a survival strategy against drought and a sign of stress.

Bear in mind that the advice from specialist growers is to aim for around 1/3 grit to 2/3s compost to create the right balance of moisture for lemon trees, so don’t be too heavy-handed with the grit.

I have seen leaves curl on a potted lemon tree that is in full sun at the height of summer without being watered often enough. I have also seen a lemon tree that was in a matte black pot that absorbed all the light and heat throughout the day, which heated up the soil to such an extent that it needed watering every day to prevent the leaves from curling.

As we discussed, this is more common in potted lemon trees as pots dry out more quickly than garden soil, particularly if the pot is too small, as smaller pots have less capacity for soil and, therefore, less capacity to retain moisture.

However curling leaves occurs in any lemon tree that is suffering drought stress. Wind also saps moisture from the leaves quicker then it can be drawn up at the roots, causing the leaves to curl.

If your lemon tree is planted in poor soil or has been in the same pot for too long without any fertilizer, then the roots can exhaust the soil of available nutrients, which causes the leaves to curl and turn yellow. Typically I find the leaves start curling and then start yellow if they do not have enough nutrients.

Aphid infestations can also be a problem in the growing season as they draw sap out of the leaves and stems (particularly the young and tender leaves) in Spring which causes the leaves to curl.

My Tips for Reviving a Dying Lemon Tree with Curling Leaves

  • Always water thoroughly in Spring and Summer so that excess water escapes from the pot’s base. This ensures the soil is evenly moist and mitigates the drought stress that causes the leaves to curl. Watering too lightly causes the top inch or so of the soil to become moist, and the water does not reach the roots where it is required. I use a hose for watering at the hottest times of year to ensure the soil gets the soaking required to prevent the leaves from curling.
  • Water your lemon tree thoroughly when the top two inches start to dry out. To establish the correct watering schedule for your lemon tree in your climate, monitor the soil moisture by feeling it so you can detect the point at which the top two inches of soil beginning to dry out. As I stated, This is the method used by commercial citrus growers to establish the correct watering frequency so that the lemon tree has enough moisture to prevent the leaves from curling, yet the soil drains sufficiently to prevent root rot.
  • Create a windbreak to buffer the excess wind. To prevent the leaves from curling due to wind, plant large shrubs or trees near your lemon tree, or if it is potted, move the pot to a more shelter position to help the tree retain more moisture.
  • Replant potted lemon trees in a pot that is the next size up. If the pot is proportionately small to the size of the lemon tree or you notice that the roots look pot bound then I advise repotting your lemon tree. A larger pot has more capacity for soil and, therefore, can retain more moisture so that it does not dry out as quickly to revive the curling drought-stressed leaves.
  • Use a special citrus fertilizer in the Spring and Summer to add nutrients to the soil. Both lemon trees planted in garden soil and those in pots benefit from the use of fertilizer to encourage flowering and fruiting and also to provide the correct balance of nutrients to support the healthy growth of the lemon tree and address the nutrient deficit in the soil that causing the leaves to curl.
  • Address aphid infestations quickly to revive curling leaves. I’m told the most effective way to tackle an aphid infestation is by manually disturbing the insects by hand. If you disturb the aphids this not only deals with the problem quickly but also causes the aphid colony to send out an alarm response pheromone, which can attract natural predators such as ladybirds, and the garden ecology re-balances the population of aphids to mitigate their effect on your lemon trees. Aphids are most often seen attacking new growth in the Spring and Summer.

To revive a lemon tree with curling, dying leaves, it is important to ensure the roots have enough access to moisture and that they are protected from drying winds. With fertilizer applications in the Spring and Summer, the lemon tree has enough nutrients for the leaves to grow healthy rather than curl inwards.

If the cause of the curling leaves is drought stress, then your lemon tree should start to recover in the next few days, whereas the lemon tree should from a nutrient deficit in the following weeks.

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for a lemon tree dying is usually the roots are too wet or too dry, which causes the leaves to turn yellow, curl inwards, and drop off. Indoor lemon trees can drop their leaves with a dying appearance in Winter when brought indoors due to a sudden contrast in temperature, light, and soil moisture.
  • Usually, lemon tree leaves turn yellow because the roots are in waterlogged soil. Lemon trees require good soil drainage. If the soil is boggy, then this causes root rot which prevents the roots from drawing up moisture and nutrients and turns the leaves yellow.
  • Lemon trees can lose their leaves suddenly when the temperature drops below 50°F. Lemon trees are adapted to warm temperatures and climates with mild Winters. Freezing temperatures is often the cause of a dying lemon tree in Winter. The contrast in conditions when bringing a lemon tree indoors for Winter protection also causes leaves to drop.
  • Lemon tree leaves curl inwards because of dry soil or too much wind. Lemon trees require thorough watering in Spring and Summer so that the soil is evenly moist. If the soil dries out too quickly, the leaves curl inwards as a survival strategy to conserve moisture.
  • To revive a dying lemon tree, replicate the conditions of its native Mediterranean environment with full sun, moist soil with good drainage, protect the tree from wind, and use a special citrus fertilizer to ensure the lemon tree has the nutrients it requires.

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