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Key Lime Tree - Leaves turning yellow and falling off. Twig die back.

David Munsell
13 days ago
last modified: 13 days ago

Hello, I'm having issues with my citrus trees. The key lime is having the worse time of the bunch. It looks like a nutritional deficiency.

I had issues using potting soil so I made my own potting mix which is similar to 5-1-1 mix. I was using all organic fertilizer but I'm giving up being all organic and starting to use Dyna-Grow Foilage-Pro. The trees have only received two mild doses of this fertilizer. I was hoping it would get rid of the issue I am having but so far I have the same issue.

I'm in Zone 5a. The plants have been inside since the very beginning of October. They started showing signs of a nutritional deficiency in late summer. I sprayed them with a citrus foliage spray and they seemed to do better but haven't grown much since. Since the plants have been inside I was giving them organic citrus fertilizer and using seaweed extract as a foliage spray and sometimes in the water the plants received.

My water is hard and the PH is at least 6.5 if not above 7. The organic fertilizer contains calcium so it's not helping. Would putting PH Down in my water, making it about a PH of 5.5 help lower the PH of my soil?

Comments (36)

  • joeinmo 6b-7a

    Looks like mites, also you might mix some Epsom salts in with some water next time.

    helps with magnesium deficiency

  • David Munsell

    I was using Epson salt this summer. Do you think it is magnesium deficiency? What makes you think it's mites? I actually do have a spider mites on another plant not to far away but it has obvious signs of them.

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  • norwoodn

    Don’t fertilize if the temps aren’t consistently above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant only grows above 55. Fertilizer will cause excess salt and burn the roots and leaves.

  • James (zone5b)

    The shiny stuff on the leaves looks like a sign of a pest infestation, unless that is residue from a foliar spray you are using.

    Some other information that might help others assist you is how often are you watering them, what kind of light do they get, and what temps are they exposed to.

  • Ken B

    If you have mites on a plant that isnt too far away then you have mites on all your plants.

  • David Munsell

    Neem oil is the correct treatment for mites correct?

    The temperature is 63 degrees F. I have the house set at a constant 68 and it ends up being about a constant 63 for the trees. I have a line of 3 dual 30 watt LED full spectrum grow lights on the ceiling for them. I think they are "like" 30 watt and not actually 30 watt.

  • David Munsell

    I water them once a week. I watered them yesterday making it a week and a half since it seemed like the bottom of the pots may not be drying completely.

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    A nutritional deficiency can certainly account for foliage discoloration - as can any number of other issues - but rarely would that result in leaf drop and/or twig dieback. I'd guess there is more than a single problem here.

    And it is ill-advised to assume that the nutrient deficiency is specific to magnesium. Iron chlorosis will produce similar symptoms and is very common with acid loving plants in insufficiently acidic soils. The higher pH binds the iron and makes it unavailable. Organically derived ferts are extremely inefficient when applied in a container setting. And they also tend to lack many of the required micronutrients. You would be better served with a liquid synthetic with a full range of required plant nutrients and in the correct proportions - something like Foliage Pro 9-3-6 - and eliminate any guesswork about whether or not you are supplying what the plant needs. And regular fertilization (during the primary rowing season) will also go a long way to offset the effects of a less than ideal soil pH as well.

    I would also have questions about your soil doesn't look much like any 5-1-1 I am familiar with. Can you provide more details? And to go along with this comment, I'd also refrain from watering on any sort of a schedule. Water only when the plants need it. You can determine this by using a 'tell'. Although discussing another type of plant, you can get an excellent explanation of how to use a tell HERE. It works equally well on any kind of houseplant.

    And if you are concerned about pH and especially with hard tap water, try adding a couple of tablespoons of plain old white table vinegar to a gallon of water in your watering can.

  • David Munsell

    Hi gardengal, I don't actually water on a schedule. I just generally find that weekly my plants need watering. My coffee trees and orchids as well as the tropicals in the pics I posted. I put a wooden skewer in the 5-1-1 mix and let it sit for 10 minutes or so then pull it out to see how moist it seems.

    There are black rocks on the 5-1-1 mix so my cats don't play in the mix. The wooden skewers help prevent them from going to the bathroom on them.

    This summer I came to the same conclusion you did about the iron deficiency and put some chelated iron on them. Didn't seem to have an effect but the PH issue was never corrected.

    I also noticed this summer that my trees had scale. I treated them with neem oil and besides the chlorosis of the leaves I never had an issue. I'm going to give my trees a bath soon with dish soap and water to get the honey dew and other substances off the leaves. Hopefully this will give me a fresh start and help determine what the current issue is.

    I was using vinegar for the water but never seemed to make a different to the substrate itself. Last night I started using PH Down which is 40% citric acid. One tablespoon make two gallons of water 3.8 PH. The water started as 7.2. Impressive. I need to try less next time and get it to around 5-5.5 PH. Citric acid lasts a lot longer than vinegar does. It should be enough to fix the PH issue. 8 months of vinegar didn't seem to do anything.

    If anyone is wondering I used 1/3 cup of vinegar and it yielded water that was about 5.5 PH. I didn't have the fancy PH meter back then and was using strips.

  • ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

    I have a line of 3 dual 30 watt LED full spectrum grow lights on the ceiling for them.


    looking at the third pic.. of the whole plants ... it appears that you have leaves closest to the lights.. and it has shed a lot of the lower leaves ...

    im wondering if the light you are providing.. is actually being effective ...??

    also.. how is your house heated... and what is the ambient humidity???

    imo ... you need to start with the basic cultural issues... before you start trying to fix all kinds of secondary issues ....

    also .. you dont state when you fert ... but during my MI winters... i fert.. extremely lightly only once when the plants are basically winter dormant ...

    on some level.. you might be trying to love them to death ....


    ps: use bottled water if your water is out of whack .. and keep in mind... dormant plants do not need a lot of water ... keeping the pot saturated will not help of ambient humidity is low due to the furnace ....

  • David Munsell

    The lime tree kept the leaves on the lower branches by the pot that grew this summer. They are just now starting to turn yellow and fall off.

    The house if heated by forced hot air. The humidity is in the low 30s which is pretty darn low. I started misting them with water a couple times a day.

  • Silica

    ['The perfect pH for citrus is 6.5, not 5 or 5.5.

  • David Munsell

    I'm using water at a PH of 5-5.5 to lower the soil PH to 6 to 6.5. It's around 7 at the moment.

  • Vladimir (Zone 6a Massachusetts)

    One, of a number of problems, with this forum is that there are too many people that do not know what they are talking about. (Gardengal - you are one exception. You have been consistent in providing good, accurate information.)

    Also, posters should do a search before posting. This is what I found by searching yellow vein chlorosis, citrus:

    Read Johnmerr"s answer. He has been growing thousands of trees and has a lot of experience.

  • Lemon Lime Orange Zone 6b

    Some quick tips.

    Look for insects (honeydew on leaves)

    Don't fertilize indoors (not enough photosynthesis to use fertilizer)

    Terra cotta pots are the best indoors (resin pots can't breath)

    RH (need at least 50%)

    Not enough photosynthesis (fertilizer becomes toxic)

    Your plants looks very dry from low room humidity.

  • Lemon Lime Orange Zone 6b

    Citrus advice online is like finding two or three pieces of a puzzle that fit together. But it takes hundreds of pieces fitting together to solve a puzzle. Like all puzzles you have to apply the right pieces at the right time. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn growing citrus in pots (especially indoors) is when to fertilizer and how often. I was over fertilizing for years and my results were often exactly as you have described in your post. I brought my plants indoors in September and within days leaves were turning yellow and falling off. I bought a Blue Lab Pulse Meter in September and the first reading I took completely changed my growing habits. My EC was off the charts 5 EC. Went back to my grower and he says they use between 1-2 EC. I transplanted to fresh potting soil and DID NOT add FERTILIZER. The really interesting thing I noticed is that 5 months later the EC is still in the correct range. Which indicates to me that indoors the plants don't need much fertilize beyond the nutrients already present in the potting soil. I did add powered chelated iron twice and Jack's powdered fertilizer twice to correct a small mineral deficiency but overall extremely please with the results of withholding fertilizer over the winter. Since I corrected the potting soil I have had ZERO leaf drop and ZERO yellowing, have harvested some fruit and other fruit is near maturity, and other fruit is about golf ball size. Leaves are all healthy and green. I also noticed that when I gave it a two week dose of water soluble fertilizer it pushed out new green growth almost immediately. By keeping fertilizer lower this winter I have not had the flushes I normally would have in the winter but at the same time have had less die back, less leaf drop, and less fruit fall. My leaves are green and healthy and new wood is pushing out slowly at a sustainable rate. I do have one plant that has mealy bugs. I spend an hour once per week removing them. I spot spray with 70% rubbing alcohol or I dilute 70% rubbing alcohol with water and a drop of dish soap or neem oil and wipe the leaves with a disposable lens cloth. Based on what you have said I think you probably had over fertilized in the summer and than added more fertilizer indoors to correct an issue which has made things worse and not better. I think a lot of people run amuck indoors adding fertilizer to fix a mineral deficiency when they have not addressed the main issue which is lack of light. Without light your plant can't utilize the fertilizer and too much fertilizer pushes new growth out which can't be sustained and the cycle becomes toxic. With limited light indoors it is better to rest citrus indoors than trying to push new growth which can't be sustained indoors. In your current set up humidity is a big problem. The reason I suggested terra cotta pots is because they allow moisture and oxygen to pass through and the moisture evaporating from the terra cotta raises the humidity around the tree. From what I see in the pictures there is a whole host of issue including light, humidity, watering technique, type and frequency of fertilizer, potting mix, and container. I agree with most of the advice given but it is more than 1 or 2 variable needing fixing.

  • David Munsell

    Thank you for your comments. I gave the plants organic fertilizer is October. Since then I haven't given them anything but sea weed extract hoping to fix the yellowing. In the last two weeks I gave them two doses of Dyna-Grow Foilage-Pro to try to help the issue. No improvement or change.

    The trees haven't grown at all since they have come inside. Is this expected? I don't see how I could be fertilizing to much when I'm using 5-1-1 mix which doesn't have any nutrition in it except for what I add. With organic fertilizer not working well in containers and in the cold, I don't see how that would have hurt them when I added it.

    All of these trees were potted in the 5-1-1 mix this summer so until recently they were only using organic fertilizer. Around the time I went to 5-1-1 mix I started having the nutritional deficiencies and that's when I found my organic fertilizer didn't have anything for the micronutrients and my soil PH was high.

    I do like the idea of testing the soil. Knowing for sure definitely beats guessing.

  • David Munsell

    I ordered pot feet from Amazon to get them off the water saucers under the pots. This way I can leave water in them for humidity. Maybe this will help the trees and the banana.

  • Lemon Lime Orange Zone 6b

    On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is hibernating and overwintering in a cool dark wine cellar vs 10 which is growing in a bright greenhouse your overall feeding and watering strategy and expectations indoors has to shift along that scale depending on how much light is available. As a benchmark one plant database I use for reference suggest 3700-60,000 Lux for key lime and about 3500-70,000 Lux for sweet orange. This is based on quality light meaning light hitting the plant at all different angles. The lighting requirements for citrus are similar to what you would use if you were growing weed. If you don't have the correct lightening which I suspect the plants will not be able to photosynthesize properly and will starve and die. Some suggestions would be to use some mylar film available on Amazon and make reflective panels that can reflect light onto more leaves or use a grow tent where you could raise humidity and use more light effectively. Technically it is much harder to maintain correct water level in a resin pot vs a clay pot because the water evaporates off the top of the soil but water is trapped at the bottom of the pot with no
    way for excess to evaporate off. Unless you have ideal light indoors, growth will be slower than normal growth and growth will come at a cost to the overall
    health of the plant. has the Pulse Meter on sale for $203. It seems expensive but if saves 4 plants you have broken even.

  • David Munsell

    I wonder how I could tell what my Lux is. Maybe next year I'll put lights on the walls as well.

    I have 3 of these lights currently for the 5 plants. 3 dual T5 LED Grow lights.

  • David Munsell

    After a bit of research it looks like my lights are way under powered for the trees to grow well.

  • Lemon Lime Orange Zone 6b

    I posted this because of your comment about pH. I use reverse osmosis water which is the perfect pH for the citrus I grow. Where is your pH on this scale? Micro nutrients are just as important as Macro nutrients.

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    The pH of a soil-less container potting soil is far less critical than that of growing the same plant in the ground. Because there is no actual soil in these types of mixes, they really offer nothing in the way of any nutrients (unless already implanted with some sort of fertilizer). All nutrient needs are basically addressed by the grower via routine, dilute fertilization during the growing season and the frequency of this practice overrides any availability issues the plant might have due to the pH being either slightly higher or lower than 'ideal'.

    I grow a number of strongly acidic pH favoring plants in containers - blueberries, rhododendrons, heaths and heathers, Pieris japonica - and never alter or amend my soil mix (typically a 5-1-1) to decrease pH. But I do use a full range fertilizer (Foliage Pro 9-3-6) that includes all necessary micronutrients and I do so with bi-weekly regularity during the primary growing season and none have ever shown any sign of a nutrient deficiency.

    I do not fertilize outside the normal growing season (April-October) even for evergreens, as photosynthesis slows and the need for nutrient absorption dwindles. And this is the same for both indoor and outdoor containerized plants.

    If your water is hard or more highly alkaline, I do recommend correcting its pH any way that works - acidifying the water, using bottled water, reverse osmosis, etc. - as the need for irrigation will continue through winter (although usually reduced) and the water can adversely affect the media to the point where nutrient deficiencies can occur in the off season.

  • David Munsell

    My water is 7.2. My reverse osmosis water is probably higher than that because calcium is added to it. It's definitely above 7. I haven't bothered measuring it lately.

  • Lemon Lime Orange Zone 6b

    If the pH is too high (alkaline) or too low (acidic), it can restrict the uptake of nutrients through the roots of your plants. Regardless of whether you are using hydroponics, potting soil or something else the same rules apply to nutrient uptake. In 5-1-1 both pine bark fines and peat become acidic but the overwhelming direction of pH will be the moisture content in the mix.

    With citrus they don't take up enough nutrients through the roots and ideally they should get nutrients through foliar spray a couple times during the growing cycle. Seaweed and Dyno are all adding fertilizer to the equation. The elephant in the room is still the light.

    Because citrus want around 50% moisture the pH of your 5-1-1 or any other mix will always gravitate to the pH of the water you use.

    Misting helps flowers and tender new shoots but with 30% humidity it is not going to last but a minute and the moisture is gone. You really need to raise the whole room humidity. This can be very hard on home structure and can cause problems with windows. This is why suggested a grow tent as an option. You can put lights vertical in a grow tent as well as horizontal.

    A better option would be Southern AG citrus nutrition spray.

    Indoors you want to mimic the growing cycle outdoors to the best of your ability.

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    I think there are some fallacies floating around here that need to be corrected......the first of which is that citrus are some strange plants from another planet that behave differently than any other plant. They are not! Their roots work just like any other plant roots work, which is primarily to take up water and nutrients (oxygen filters into the equation as well) they withdraw from their growing media. They do not absorb nutrients via foliar feeding - or at least not the slightest bit efficiently - no plant does. They are sure not receiving it when being grown in the ground so why would one think that if grown in a container they are going to behave differently?

    And a pH out of whack has no effect on the plant roots or their ability to access nutrients. It only affects how easily those nutrients that are provided are able to be accessed or released from the media. It is the soil condition that hampers uptake, not the roots. That's why virtually every plant you can name will be tolerant and can thrive in a range of soil most case, a fairly wide range. And if you are providing routine fertilization you are essentially 'force-feeding' or consistently reapplying all the nutrients required despite whatever the actual soil media pH may be. So in this case - quite separate from an inground growing situation - soil pH is not the be-all and end-all of the growing environment and does not need to be monitored to a fine degree.

    Finally lack of humidity indoors in winter is a concern for any type of plant. Misting has been scientifically proven to be ineffective and in some cases, actually detrimental. If your home is dry then you need a humidifier. Although, grouping a collection of plants together in close proximity can help. Their group transpiration will actually increase the ambient humidity in that specific area.

  • Lemon Lime Orange Zone 6b

    In sandy and calcareous soils, foliar applied fertilizers are 4 to 20 times more effective when compared with soil applied fertilizers. (Lingle & Holmberg, 1956.)

    Citrus foliar fertilization has been an industry standard practice in citrus groves for over 50 years.

    Where soil PH is too high or too low, resulting in 'lock up' of nutrients (frequently micronutrients) in the soil, foliar application of those nutrients will ensure rapid response in the trees and prevent growth from being restricted.

    Effect of irrigation water acidification and soil pH on citrus nutrient availability

    Four winds growers sells over 50 varieties of citrus nationwide. Here is what they say about misting, "In winter months, heated rooms may need additional humidity. Placing the pot on pebbles in a saucer will elevate the tree above the drainage area, and improve airflow and humidity for citrus. Misting citrus foliage with a simple spray bottle is another way to help citrus cope with insufficient indoor humidity in winter."

    If you have new leaves and new shoots it is really beneficial to mist those. Because of the VPD they loose moisture much faster than mature leaves. Flowers are also very susceptible to losing moisture and misting can help them set fruit.

  • joeinmo 6b-7a

    I have a lime tree and its an indoor lime tree, it's well over 20 years old. Every spring I bring it out and leave it out through the summer. Every time when fall arrive, I really hit it hard with neem Oil for mites before I bring it in and usually once when it's inside for the winter. Also I have an auto watering system that waters twice a day when it's outside.

    I do this because hot summer temps will dry it out in a day. Watering that much leads to defficiencies in the soil, and it's mainly magnesium..

    if I don't get rid of mites and add the magnesium..I get yellowed leaves and pretty good amount of leaf loss. I do water alot inside too..I have my pot raised off the drainage pot with pebble rocks so if it does flood the pot a bit it won't keep roots submerged.

    Every couple years I take the root ball out of the pot, and trim and replace as much soil as I can. So to give you and idea how big this tree is, my ceiling in the room is 11 ft, the length of the room is 13ft, it's a whole lot of fun getting it and out of the house every year.

    Trees · More Info

  • poncirusguy6b452xx

    Joe Your tree looks fantastic. How many bushels of fruit do you get off that tree. Is it grafted, seed grown, or from a cutting. How big is the container. Like my container your's has vertical walls. They don't blow over that easily. I hope my Fukushu kumquat gets that big. My ceilings are only 9.5 ft, but that should do. My basement floor is wood with a 3 foot craw space that I may drop my tree in to get 12.5 feet, wife permitting. How many bushels of fruit do you get off that tree.


  • Lemon Lime Orange Zone 6b

    Beautiful tree Joe.

  • jaydub83

    as others said, thats a beautiful tree joe. can you share more about your automatic watering and fertilization routines when the tree is outside?

  • David Munsell

    That tree is huge Joe! Thanks for your input by the way.

  • David Munsell

    How do you get that tree outside? It's way to wide and tall for a regular door.

  • joeinmo 6b-7a

    Steve, it's from seed.

    every other year it gives what you see in the pic, on the off years about half at best, although I gave away about 10-15 that weren't included in this pic.

    these were harvested Oct 9, 2019

  • joeinmo 6b-7a

    I have a fairly tall door 10 ft, normal width. It's a job ..I have to bungee cord the branches tight together. I have to put on a refrigerator dolly ..but the trick is wether your bringing in or out you always put the pot first..I get some leaf loss and small branch breakage. But it needs that outside sun in the spring and summer and grows like a weed, so I have to trim back down every year. I have left inside one year all year and it didn't do well.

  • joeinmo 6b-7a

    Jay, I have an auto water (attached to outside spigot ) that I just have an old cut hose with a sock zip tied to the end - it auto waters once in the morning for about 3 min ..basically floods the pot and then again around any natural rain that gets in the pot (not that much). Fertilize once in April and again in early Sept (fertilome brand fruit, citrus and pecan)

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