How to Revive a Dying Orange Tree

How to revive a dying orange tree

I love growing orange trees. However, I do not live in their preferred Mediterranean climate, which has caused one or two of my orange trees to die back. To save my trees I did my research an learned directly from commercial growers how to care for and specifically how to save dying orange trees when they are in need of TLC.

In this article, I detail everything I learned and share the steps I took to restore my orange trees to their former glory!

Most often, a dying orange tree is usually caused by cold temperatures, drought, or overwatering. Orange trees lose their leaves and die back if exposed to temperatures lower than 50°F (10°C) for too long. Orange tree leaves turn yellow with a dying appearance due to dry soil and high winds or because of root rot.

From experience, I can tell you orange tree leaves curl due to drought stress, lack of nutrients, or aphid infestation.

I discovered the key to reviving a dying orange tree is to recreate the conditions of its natural environment with full sun, moist soil with good drainage, shelter the tree from wind, and use a specialized citrus fertilizer to ensure that the orange tree has access to all the nutrients it requires.

Keep reading to pinpoint exactly why your orange tree is dying and to learn how to save it…

Why Are My Orange Tree Leaves Turning Yellow?

  • Symptoms. Orange tree leaves droop and turn yellow with poor growth. The leaves may drop off after turning yellow.
  • Causes. Overwatering, cold temperatures, drought stress, lack of nutrients, or not enough sun.

From talking to commercial citrus growers, I was told the reason orange tree leaves turn yellow is usually overwatering, a lack of nutrients, or cold temperatures. They told me that cold temperatures lower than 50°F (10°C) are another common culprit for turning leaves yellow. However, boggy soil from overwatering or slow-draining soils prevents the roots from uptaking nutrients and also causes the leaves to turn yellow.

To understand how to save our dying orange trees, it is important to understand their preferred growing conditions so we can emulate them in our gardens and homes…

Orange trees grow best in Mediterranean and subtropical climates where they thrive in full sun (more than 6 hours of direct sunlight) and warm temperatures and prefer well-draining soil with the surface of the soil drying slightly between each bout of watering or rainfall.

Because of the orange tree’s preference for well-draining soil, saturated soil and root rot can be a problem that turns the leaves yellow and drooping, potentially falling off.

The most common reasons I see for orange tree roots sitting in too much water are due to:

  • Watering too often.
  • Soils that drain too slowly (heavy clay soils or naturally boggy low-lying areas are too damp).
  • Pots without drainage holes in their base.
  • Saucers or trays underneath the pot cause water to pool around the base rather than drain away properly.

Orange tree’s need porous aerated soil around their roots which allows water to drain effectively and allows the roots to respire.

Too much water around the roots excludes oxygen from the soil, which prevents the roots from respiring.

If the roots cannot respire, they cannot draw up the moisture and nutrients that the orange tree needs, and without nutrients or moisture, the orange tree’s leaves turn yellow, curl, and can fall off.

Unfortunately, I can report that if the orange tree has been in saturated soil for too long, then root rot has likely developed, and the orange tree’s roots can be too damaged to save the tree.

After some investigation, I concluded my potted orange tree leaves turned yellow due to drought and a lack of nutrients; one Summer, as high temperatures and blazing sun dry out the soil too quickly between bouts of watering or rainfall, and the roots exhausted the limited supply of nutrients available from the soil. (I hadn’t repotted it for about three years).

Orange trees tolerate high temperatures very well, but the leaves can turn yellow and drop off if they are exposed to temperatures below 50°F (10°C).

I have been told that a sudden cold snap can turn leaves yellow, but in my experience, most of the leaves usually drop off due to shock.

How I Revive My Orange Tree with Yellow Leaves

The way I saved my orange tree with yellow leaves was to recreate some of the conditions of its native environment with the right watering frequency so that the soil is moist yet well-draining, use fertilizer in Spring and Summer, and protect the orange tree from temperatures below 50 F.

  • I allow the top inch of soil to dry between each bout of watering, then water thoroughly. Allowing the soil to dry somewhat before soaking the soil creates the optimal balance of moisture to meet the water requirements of the orange tree whilst mitigating the risk of root rot.
  • Plant orange trees in well-draining soil amended with horticultural grit. Orange trees grow best in slightly gritty soil, allowing for good drainage, therefore mitigating the risk of yellow leaves due to root rot. To avoid the leaves turning yellow it is important to replicate gritty soil conditions by amending the potting soil of orange trees with around 1/3 horticultural grit and 2/3 compost. If your orange tree is in saturated soil, then transplant it to a pot with gritty potting soil to save it.
  • Always plant orange trees in pots with drainage holes in the base and empty any saucers or trays underneath the pot regularly. It is imperative that the soil around the roots can drain effectively to save the tree. Ensure drainage holes are clear of compacted soil and place potted orange trees on ‘feet’ or bricks to elevate them off the ground to ensure water can drain freely from the base of the pot.
  • I use a specific fertilizer for orange trees during the Spring and Summer. Orange trees have a relatively high demand for nutrients and can exhaust the compost of available nutrients (particularly in pots), which turns the leaves yellow. Oranges are more widely cultivated than any other citrus fruit in the world, and a huge amount of research has gone into the optimal balance of nutrients in fertilizer to produce the greatest yield of oranges. Therefore, some brilliant, well-formulated orange tree-specific fertilizers (available at garden centers or online) provide orange trees with the nutrients they require and at the right concentration to produce the best crop of fruit.
Use a citrus fertilizer as it has all the nutrients the orange tree needs at the right concentration.f
This is the citrus fertilizer that I use in the Spring and Summer. It has all the nutrients the orange tree needs at the right concentration, and I have seen great results using it with a great yield of oranges.
  • Protect orange trees from temperatures below 50°F (10°C) with fleece or bring them indoors in Winter. Orange trees are from subtropical climates and do not tolerate freezing temperatures which can either turn the leaves yellow or, if the temperature fluctuation is sudden, cause the leaves to fall off. In climates with cold Winters, plant orange trees in pots and place them in a heated greenhouse or a porch, ideally with full sun. You can also protect the orange tree with fleece if a cold snap is forecast. The yellow leaves often fall off, but orange trees can rebound from the cold and regrow leaves in the following Spring if the conditions are favorable. However, orange trees often die back in severely cold weather.

Useful tip: While you can place orange trees in a heated greenhouse, I have had the best results moving my tree into a porch in the winter. It has a great amount of sun, and the temperature is cool at above 10 degrees F but not too cold.

Once I repotted my tree into a larger pot and added fertilizer and water with the right frequency, my orange tree made a full recovery in the Spring. However, I must emphasize that spring is the best time for repotting.

In a lot of cases, most of the yellow leaves tend to fall off, but if the conditions are favorable in the Spring with warm temperatures and lots of sunlight, the orange tree can regrow new healthy green leaves.

Why is My Orange Tree Losing Leaves?

  • Symptoms. Orange tree leaves can turn yellow and wilting and drop off over days or weeks or may drop off suddenly, particularly when moved indoors in winter.
  • Causes. Overwatering and underwatering, sudden increase or decrease in temperature or humidity, and transplant shock when moved indoors.

From my research, orange trees lose their leaves because of drought and too much wind in the Summer, but cold temperatures of less than 50°F (10°C) and overwatering in the Winter are also factors.

A classic problem I encounter is orange trees losing their leaves when moved indoors in Winter because of a contrast in sunlight, temperature, humidity, and watering. (This happened to me).

As I stated, Orange trees are native to subtropical climates and prefer warm temperatures and relatively high humidity; therefore, they often lose their leaves in climates with contrasting conditions.

If your orange tree is in an exposed area, then the problem could be that high winds combined with cooler temperatures can sap moisture from the leaves quickly. The orange tree’s roots can draw up water, therefore the orange tree drops its leaves as a survival strategy to reduce water loss from leaves to prevent the tree from dying from drought.

Orange trees in pots during the height of summer can lose their leaves as the orange trees demand for moisture is high and the pot can dry out too quickly in high temperatures, which also results in falling leaves.

Orange trees should be brought indoors before the temperatures at night go below 50°F (10°C) to prevent leaf loss. However, bringing orange trees indoors, unfortunately, often causes the orange tree to lose leaves as a result of the sudden contrast in conditions. (Which I can tell you is very frustrating!)

Indoor temperatures are often much higher and can increase at night in Winter when we turn on indoor heating. This is contrary to the cycle of temperatures of warmer days followed by mild nights to which the orange tree is adapted.

The air in our homes is often much dryer, which saps moisture from the leaves, causing them to drop off.

It is also worth noting that the orange tree’s demand for water significantly decreases in Winter, so they can often suffer from overwatering, which turns the leaves yellow and causes them to drop off.

How to Save it…

Here is how I save orange trees from losing their leaves indoors or in Winter…

  • I now preemptively bring orange trees indoors if the temperature at night is forecasted to be lower than 50°F (10°C). Orange trees can also lose their leaves due to the shock of being moved indoors (or into a heated greenhouse), and they are likely to die back if they are left outdoors in climates with cold winters. My advice: If your orange tree is planted outdoors, use horticultural fleece, which somewhat insulates the tree overnight and prevents cold drying winds from causing more leaves to fall off.
  • Locate the orange tree in a sunny south-facing window or heated greenhouse. Even in the depths of winter, orange trees prefer as much sun as possible, so always find the sunniest location in the house to place your oranges, which is why I found my sunny porch to be ideal. Sunny south-facing windows are also a great place. If you do not have these options, then I can recommend An LED grow light for growing citrus trees indoors in Winter, especially in locations with very short Winter days.
  • Keep the orange tree away from direct sources of indoor heating. I locate my citrus trees out of any direct air currents or radiators as citrus trees prefer cooler evening temperatures than their daytime temperature. Heat can also dry the air and dry out the soil too quickly, both contributing to the orange tree losing its leaves.
  • I spray any remaining orange tree leaves with mist every day to create a humid microclimate. Misting the leaves regularly replicates the orange tree’s preferred subtropical conditions and counteracts the dryer air indoors to reduce water loss from the leaves. Higher humidity should prevent more leaves from falling off. There are also houseplant humidifiers, which I like (available from garden centers and online), that can increase the humidity if you cannot mist your plants every day.
  • Reduce how often you water orange trees in Winter (around every 3/4 weeks). Orange trees have a lower demand for water in winter as they are dormant, so it is important to reduce watering to mitigate the risk of root rot, which turns the leaves yellow and causes them to drop off. I usually water around 3/4 weeks in Winter to meet the water requirements of my citrus trees without risking root rot, although the exact watering frequency varies according to your climate and conditions. While it is important to reduce how often you water, it is also important to water generously so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot to ensure the soil is evenly moist, and the roots can access the moisture when they need to.

For orange trees losing their leaves in Spring or Summer…

  • It is important to ensure the soil is evenly moist yet well draining. Typically, leaves turning yellow and dropping is associated with too much moisture around the roots or not enough, which may be because of dry weather, overwatering, or soil that retains too much moisture. In this case, follow the advice in the section above pertaining to orange trees turning yellow as the instructions are the same.
  • Protect the orange tree from excess wind. If your orange tree is in an exposed area then it may be necessary to create a windbreak. I use bamboo planted in a pot which I have found does a great job at buffering the excess winds.
  • I use a citrus fertilizer to provide the orange tree with all the nutrients it requires, at the right concentration. Orange trees demand a high amount of nutrients. In low-nutrient soil the orange tree’s leaves can turn yellow and drop off, so use a specialized fertilizer in the Spring and Summer months.

Once you have identified the cause and addressed why your leaves are dropping then the orange tree can sometimes recover and grow new green leaves in the Spring or Summer.

However orange trees do not recover as well from freezing temperatures and overwatering which may cause the tree to die back.

Top tip: It is worth noting that as citrus trees of all kinds mature, they typically become more resistant to cold temperatures and more resilient to environmental change. So if you are buying a new orange tree pick the biggest you can find with the thickest trunk as it is going to be far more hardy then a spindly one.

Why Are My Orange Tree Leaves Curling?

  • Symptoms. Orange tree leaves curling inwards and possibly wilting.
  • Causes. Most often drought stress or too much wind. Pots that are too small, a lack of nutrients and aphid infestations can all be contributing factors.

From my observations as a gardener, the reasons for orange tree leaves curling are usually because of dry soil, high temperatures, low humidity, and too much wind.

Excess wind saps moisture from the leaves more quickly than the roots can draw it up. Orange tree leaves curl inwards to reduce their surface area which decreases water loss from the leaves.

Curling leaves is usually a survival strategy if the tree is losing too much moisture.

My orange trees tend to curl their leaves and wilt temporarily at the hottest times of the day but perk up in the evening with more mild temperatures. If this is happening to you I can assure you this is nothing to worry about.

Curling leaves are a more significant problem for immature orange trees or orange trees in pots, particularly during blazing sunshine and high temperatures during Summer, or even excessive wind.

Pots have a limited capacity for soil and therefore a limited capacity to hold moisture which means they dry out much more quickly, resulting in the curling leaves.

Also, you should consider whether the pot is big enough for the maturity of your orange tree as it may need to be repotted to a larger pot.

Curling leaves are a common problem for orange trees if they are planted on poor, thin sandy soils that drain very quickly and don’t hold much moisture.

Sometimes aphid infestations in the Spring and Summer can also draw sap from the orange tree which also results in curling leaves.

How to Save it…

  • I always water my potted orange trees generously in Spring and Summer so that the soil is evenly moist. Typically, watering orange trees every week with a thorough watering is enough for most orange trees; however, if the temperature is particularly high, combined with the blazing sun, I have found it to be necessary to water my orange trees every 3 days. Always use enough water so that it trickles from the base of the pot to ensure the moisture reaches the roots.
  • A good guide for watering citrus trees, in general, is to wait until the top inch or so of soil starts to feel dry before watering again. Monitor the soil moisture with either a moisture meter or, as I prefer, just feel the soil to detect the point at which the soil starts to dry before watering again. This helps to establish a good watering frequency that is specific to your climate and conditions to provide enough moisture to prevent the root ball from drying out and the leaves from curling without risking root rot from overwatering.
  • Create a wind break to provide shelter and buffer high winds. Ideally, move potted orange trees to a less windy location that is still in full sun. You can also plant a large evergreen shrub near your orange tree to naturally deflect wind which should help a lot to prevent curling leaves.
  • Replant your orange tree in a pot that is the next size up. This is a job that I find comes up every 3 to 4 years. A larger pot has more capacity for moisture for the orange tree’s roots to uptake, thus alleviating the stress that causes the curling leaves due to drought. Only replant orange trees in a pot one size up, as a much larger pot can take a lot longer to dry out around the roots than the orange tree is accustomed to, which can also cause problems.
  • I recommend using a citrus fertilizer in the Spring and Summer months as an additional step to help revive orange trees with curling leaves. A severe lack of nutrients in the soil turns orange tree leaves yellow and causes them to drop off, but a less drastic deficit of nutrients can also contribute to the stress that results in curling leaves.
  • Address any aphid infestations quickly to revive curling orange tree leaves. Aphids infestations can occur almost any time during the growing season (but are normally seen on new growth in the Spring) and cause leaves to curl. I have found the best way to tackle aphids is to manually disrupt the aphids by shaking or brushing them off the branches. If you disturb aphid colonies in this way this also triggers an alarm response pheromone release that attracts natural predators of aphids such as ladybirds and the garden ecology balances out the population of aphids to mitigate any damage to your orange trees.

In my experience, the curling leaves should recover quite quickly if the underlying problem is access to moisture or high winds, however, it may take longer for the leaves to recover from aphids attacking new growth or due to a lack of nutrients.

Here is a full list of pests that can cause problems for orange trees.

Key Takeaways:

  • Usually, the reasons for an orange tree dying are cold temperatures or drought stress. Orange trees are subtropical trees that need evenly moist soil and mild Winters with temperatures above 50°F (10°C). Orange tree drop their leaves in freezing temperatures, and the leaves turn yellow and die back if the soil is too dry.
  • Orange trees lose their leaves due to overwatering, a lack of sunlight, too much wind, and temperatures consistently lower than 50°F (10°C). Orange trees lose their leaves when brought indoors for the Winter due to the contrast in temperature, sunlight, and humidity from outdoors to indoors.
  • Orange tree leaves turn yellow because of overwatering, underwatering, a lack of nutrients, or not enough sunlight. Orange trees need well-draining soil and are susceptible to root rot in boggy soil. If the soil is too damp around the orange tree’s roots they begin to rot which causes the leaves to turn yellow and droop.
  • Orange tree leaves curl due to drought stress or excessive wind. Curling orange tree leaves indicate that the tree is losing too much moisture, so the leaves curl to reduce their surface area and minimize water loss in times of drought. Curling orange tree leaves are also caused by aphid infestation.
  • To revive a dying orange tree, emulate the preferred conditions of its native environment with full sun, well-draining yet evenly moist soil, protect the orange tree from excessive wind, and bring the tree indoors to protect it from freezing temperatures in climates with cold Winters.

One thought on “How to Revive a Dying Orange Tree

  1. My Valencia orange tree is compromised and is 35 years old…all the leave in the last week are drooping and now starting to turn yellow. They are not falling off…not yet. We did have some high winds and it has been dry. Our weather in Northern California is around 40-60F*. I have deep watered with fertilizer and I believe it is responding. The oranges are big and delicious about 15 left on tree which I am removing…and has no new blossoms. it might be too early for that. My question to hopefully help it recover…should I prune it back? It is twelve feet tall and 15 ft. wide. I have been wanting to do this however I don’t want to compromise the tree.
    * note…I have a Navel orange…6 Meyer and 1 Eureka lemon trees and they are fine.

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