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Lemon tree with curled leaf

Ask Gardenerd: Curling Leaves on Lemon Tree

Tee wrote in to Ask Gardenerd this week with a common problem. “Why are the leaves on my lemon tree/bush curling inward?”

It could be a number of things, Tee, so let’s start with the most common reason. Pests.

curled lemon leaf
Lemon tree with curled leaf. Check the undersides for pests.

Pests

Sucking insects such as aphids, mealy bugs, white fly, the citrus psyllid, or leaf miners can cause leaf damage or curling. Our first line of defense against sucking insects is to apply a layer of worm castings around the base of the tree, starting 4″ away from the truck out to the drip line (where the branches end). A 1/4″ layer should help the tree fight off sucking insects for awhile. Other treatments include neem oil or soap spray, but we save those as a last resort.

Lemon leaves curing1
Drought stress caused leaves to curl on this neglected lemon tree.

Watering Issues

Inconsistent watering or drought stress can cause curling leaves. Citrus trees, like most fruit trees, prefer deep but infrequent watering. Overwatering is indicated by yellow leaves, but sometimes underwatering can show up as yellow too. Use this rule of thumb: water deeply 1 time per week for young trees or trees in containers. As they mature, cut back to every 2 weeks, but increase the watering time for a deep soak. From there move to every 3 weeks, 1 month, etc. Soaker hoses left on to trickle overnight will do the trick.

Other Factors

There are other environmental factors that can cause leaf curling. Your soil may be lacking nutrients. Do a simple NPK soil test to find out what’s missing.

Frost and extreme hot weather can also contribute to leaf issues. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and plan to protect your trees from harsh weather with shade cloth or frost blankets.

Take a look at this article from GardenZeus, a site we contributed to a while ago. It goes into more detail about why leaf curl occurs.

Thanks for writing in, Tee. We hope this helps!

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Ed

    Will the leave curl go away when watering is regularly?
    I don’t have any pest issues at this time. It has been about a year after I have repotted in a larger pot. I used a cactus, palm, citrus soil which has great drainage. However, I have noticed that after watering, the top surface looks wet but when you turn it, it is still dry. I am thinking that to soil is doing a great job of draining but is leaving root ball dry.

    1. Christy

      Leaf curl is usually caused by either a nutrient deficiency or a pest infestation. So watering won’t make it go away until those other issues are addressed. Look for leafminers on the leaves and treat with beneficial nematodes (We get ours from Arbico Organics). As far as watering goes, it looks like your soil might be hydrophobic, which means it takes very slow watering to get it to actually start absorbing water. Then you have to keep it moist from there. You’re doing the right thing to check the water a few inches down. It should be moist after watering. If it isn’t you’re not watering enough. You could be watering too fast – meaning the water is draining down the sides of the pot and running out the bottom instead of soaking in. Water very slowly and see if that changes things.

  2. Caren Patterson

    I live in Goliad Texas. We moved from Austin Texas about a year ago. While in Austin my two Lisbon Lemon trees were doing wonderful with thick dark green foliage. My Lime tree was doing wonderful too.. very full foliage, green and producing a lot of limes. All in pots. Got to my new house and they didnt fair so well. Leaves started discoloring, yellowing, curling and falling off. I thought maybe it was the pots so I planted them in the ground. They did a little better but still not as well as in Austin. I did notice some white bugs on them and on one occasion, ants. I’m not sure if this is vitamin deficiency and/or bug issue. Is there anything I can do for the curling leaves? I read one page that said to cut off all the branches with curling leaves and let it start over. Not sure what to do

    1. Christy

      Hi Caren, sorry to hear about your tree. It clearly went through some kind of shock from moving and now that it’s in the ground, it may take a little while to come back and adjust to it’s new hardiness zone, but it most likely will. The white bugs and ants are a sign of tree weakness. Ants farm aphids, mealybugs, and other sucking insects to the tree in order to harvest the insects’ honeydew. You can cut off the affected stems to help reduce the population. If you follow the instructions under “Our Solution” on this blog post: https://gardenerd.com/blog/ask-gardenerd-yellow-leaves-on-citrus-trees/ that will help fortify the tree and ward off the pests. Worm castings help do both.

  3. Archana Patel

    Hi!

    I recently bought a dwarf lemon tree, it had 4 beautiful lemons and full of green leaves. I kept it indoors bc of cold weather. When I took it outside it was still green and blooming with flowers. The plant I bought it from, that lady said to water it every 5 days. I followed her directions to the T. It was hot and no humidity in East Bay, California. So all leaves curled and fell off. Slowly flowers fell off too. I started watering it every other day (disregarding her directions.), trimmed it. When it was trimmed new flowers grew. I then replaced old soil to Jobe’s organic fruit and citrus granular plant food/ fertilizer. It grew more flower buds. I accidentally poured more water in the plant. I also bought a soil moisture meter. Remaining few leaves that are on tree has now started to curl up. I don’t know what I did wrong. Water meter is wet when I insert it on the daily. I also spritz the plant with water 2-3 times a day because it’s hot. Also, tree is facing south where it receives lot of sun shine. Please help! I can also send you pics of before (beautiful tree) and after.

    1. Archana Patel

      *Water meter reading says wet.

      I inserted my finger, top layer is dry. I went a little further down it was moist and warm fertilizer. We also haven’t changed it’s nursery planter. When I added extra water, it didn’t drain, and I now know we didn’t do something right. 🤦🏻‍♀️ I love citrus and I was hoping this tree would yield more fruit, but now I think I am killing it in a long painful death. 😢

      1. Gloria

        Archaea…I’m in Pleasanton and was wondering how your lemon tree is doing…I have problems with mine now. It’s been potted for 30 years….

    2. Christy

      Hi Archana,

      It sounds like you need to repot that plant into something larger with good drainage. If it’s clogged and not draining, the leaves will turn yellow and fall off. The surface reading will usually say “dry” but deeper down is where it matters. It could have suffered when being moved from indoors to direct sunlight without any hardening off (slow progression of moving it to dappled shade, then sun, for increasing periods of time to adapt to outdoors). You’ve fed it and it responded, so that’s something good. It can take up to 2 weeks for trees to recover from transplanting. I recommend watering with kelp emulsion after transplanting to help ease the shock. Move it to the new pot, inspect the roots and moisture when you do, water accordingly with kelp emulsion and give it time to recover. Then see what happens. I hope this helps.

  4. Andre

    I recently bought a orange tree and some of the leaves are curling inwards on themselves. It has been hot and sunny here’s I am, have I not given the tree enough water or have I given it too muc?

    1. Christy

      Drought stress is one of the reasons why leaf curl is happening. Young fruit trees need a good soak once per week. Possibly more often if in a container. Make sure your tree has enough room to grow if it’s in a container. Move it up to a new pot if it’s still in one nearly the size of the nursery pot. If it’s in the ground, consider putting down mulch around the tree if you haven’t already, to keep roots cool and help keep moisture in the soil. Start about 4″ away from the trunk and apply mulch out to the dripline (branch tips).

      1. Andre

        How much water should I give the tree and how many times a week should I water considering how hot it is

        1. Christy

          Andre, there is no hard and fast rule about watering. It all depends on the size of your tree, the soil it’s in, how well draining the soil is, and how hot it is where you live. I usually advise watering young citrus deeply one time per week up to one time per month with well-established trees. Your tree will tell you. If it’s getting too much water the leaves will be yellow overall. Most people water their trees too frequently, as they would a lawn. Trees want deep, infrequent watering. If the tree is in a container, it will need water more often depending on the size of the container. Be observant and watch the tree for a response. You’ll figure out what your tree needs over time. I hope this helps.

  5. Carole Wallis

    Planted a 3 year old lemon tree into a large pot which we purchased from a fruit & nut tree nursery but have noticed one of the leaves has curled upwards we have had a fair bit of rain so have refrained from watering as the soil feels damp can u please let me know if there is something I am doing wrong.

    1. Christy

      I wouldn’t worry about one leaf, but if the majority of the leaves begin to curl, there are a couple things that might be at play here. This article from GardenZeus helps articulate the possible issues. https://www.gardenzeus.com/why-are-leaves-curling-on-my-orange-and-lemon-trees/ Inspect for insects, and possibly do a soil test to see how the nutrient levels are after the heavy rains. Rain can wash out nutrients, and in containers you may need to replenish more often than with soil-planted crops.

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