Calamondin crisis -- slowly dropping leaves for months

brooklyn_orangesJuly 19, 2014

Hi all,

I realize the web is full of posts similar to the one I'm about to write, but after spending considerable time reading through them, I have yet to find an answer that really seems to speak directly to the problem our orange tree is having. I do apologize in advance if the question seems redundant.

The problem is basically that our calamondin has been slowly but steadily dropping leaves for several months and is now getting to the point where its foliage looks alarmingly thin. Apologies are due again for the length of the following saga, but I'll try to provide as much detail about the history of the plant as possible, in hopes that there may be some useful clues.

We've had the plant for about two and half years. It was a robust and healthy specimen to begin with, full of oranges and very thick with foliage. We keep it inside year-round, as we don't have a yard, but we do have south-facing windows, so it gets quite a bit of direct sun throughout much of the year, which we augment with a growing light when needed. Early on, we made the common mistake of watering a bit too often, leading to an episode of leaf-dropping. We corrected that problem quickly, and the plant rebounded well. That was maybe two years ago.

Since then, the plant has had a few minor ups and downs -- mite issues and heat stress mainly. But all in all, nothing too major. I guess I'd say that while it would sometimes lose leaves, those losses were almost but not quite offset by new growth. Occasionally, a small branch would die off, quickly turning black. This was disturbing, but it didn't seem to affect the overall health of the plant. We would just trim the dead branch and go on. The plant had several periods of robust leaf growth, and has produced a steady output of fruits. In other words, it seemed pretty healthy overall.

About a year ago, we repotted it in a larger pot, replacing a basic plastic container with a fiberglass one. Around that time, we also put a thin layer of coconut husks as a mulch to try to keep the soil from drying out as quickly as it often does during the summer.

These changes seemed to suit the plant fine, and it continued to produce fruits and new leaves. At some point last summer or early fall, one of the five or six main trunks of the plant died off entirely, so we trimmed that trunk down near its base. Again, the rest of the tree seemed healthy, so we weren't terribly worried.

An additional questionable trend throughout the plant's life has been that many of the new leaves have been misshapen. On top of that, most of the newer leaves weren't as deep of a green color as the older ones. We took that to mean there may have been nutrient deficiencies. Which reminds me to mention that we have been giving it a basic Miracle-Gro fertilizer since pretty early on. I don't remember exactly how much or how often, but basically we tried to err on the side of caution, and typically gave her less than the amount recommended on the product, and less often. Probably something like a half dose, half as often as recommended.

We pruned the tree pretty conservatively also, mainly just for aesthetic purposes or to keep certain branches from getting too long for the rather small space of our New York apartment.

This past spring, the plant put on a tremendous flush of new leaf growth, followed by a similarly impressive production of blossoms. I don't really remember us doing anything unusual to provoke this growth spurt. It just happened as the days started getting longer.

Around this time, we tied a few small sticks between the some of the branches to try to shape the position of the trunks and space them apart a bit more, as some crossed quite close to others.

And then, for no apparent reason, the leaves started to drop off. The rate has varied, but it's usually anywhere from 2-5 per day. Many of the new oranges shriveled up and died while still very small. We of course checked for mites and didn't really find any. We tried experimenting with watering, giving her less or more, watering more or less frequently, but none of that seemed to make much difference. After maybe 4-6 weeks of this problem, we bought a citrus fertilizer (link at the bottom of the post), and added what was again a conservative amount, a bit less than the recommended dose. Around that time, it seemed like the devastation did slow a bit. Many leaves started looking notably greener, and the plant actually started putting out new leaf growth again in some spots.

Unfortunately, this reversal did not last long, and the plant again started dropping leaves. Even more distressingly, a number of branches have turned black and died off, leading to two more entire trunks doing the same. At this point, even some of the healthiest, greenest leaves have started to succumb to whatever is afflicting the plant.

Needless to say, we have been maintaining an extremely close eye on the watering regimen throughout this trying period. Still, I recognize that we may be watering too much or too little, despite our best efforts to be careful. Generally, it has been a relatively cool summer in NYC, and we've been watering roughly every 3-5 days.

A couple of additional details: we tried adding a small amount of vinegar to the water a couple of months ago. Didn't seem to have an impact, but it's hard to be sure. We also have been regularly misting the plant during the summer months, often with a bit of dish soap in the water to drive mites away.

And that's pretty much the whole saga. I will add some photos to the post tomorrow, when I have the daylight on my side. But I wanted to go ahead and get the post up tonight in hopes of getting some feedback ASAP. The plant still has some good leaves, so hopefully we can figure out the problem and get her back on track. Many thanks in advance for any insight folks are able to share. And of course I'll be happy to add any further info that may help.

This post was edited by brooklyn_oranges on Sun, Jul 20, 14 at 18:20

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Steve, Z (6Bground,5B roof) Cincy,OH

You want to use foliage pro. I believe it is about 5-1-2. Like Dr. earth it is a specialty item and cost as such. In cincinnati I use 1 Part Miracid 30-10-10, 2.5 parts a natural grass feed at 8-0-4 to give me 50-10-20 that I cut in half. It is a fraction of the cost and works well for me.

Post picture so we can fine tune our help. I am one of the more anemic advice givers. Click link to see my 18 month old Sweetlee tangerine tree I grew from a seed out of a tangerine.


    Bookmark   July 19, 2014 at 11:54PM
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Steve, thanks so much for your reply. It will be great if all we need to do is apply the right fertilizer. I'm adding some pics now, so hopefully that will help you and other folks on the forum diagnose the issue. The shot I added to my initial post is from when we first got the tree. I think it's plain to see how healthy it was at that time. The next shots are from today. A sad state of affairs, but hopefully one that can still be rectified.

One of the pics shows the misshapen leaves that have become all too common. Another shows what the leaves often look like right before they drop. You should be able to see discoloration there. That same leaf is the one I'm holding in another pic.

I'm also posting a couple of shots of the whole tree, partially so I can ask a question we've wondered about for awhile: does the container seem to small for the canopy? We've read that there is an appropriate balance between what's under the soil and what's above the soil. I've been thinking that when the plant put on the amazing growth spurt earlier in the year, maybe it overextended itself and tipped that balance. Just a thought...

Any additional suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks to all in advance. And Steve, that's a nice looking tree. Amazing you grew it from seed!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 6:33PM
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This shot shows some struggling leaves. Not all of the ones that drop curl like this. Most of them don't, in fact.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 6:34PM
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This is pretty typical of the leaves that are about to drop. Some don't look nearly this bad, however.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 6:36PM
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A close up of a leaf that just fell...

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 6:37PM
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And finally, a shot that (I hope) shows the container to canopy ratio.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 6:38PM
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Have you ever flushed the plant with copious amounts of water? Have you taken a peek at the roots?

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 6:57PM
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tcamp30144(7B N.ATLANTA)

It looks thirst and hungery what's your watering and feeding schedule like. Many people say a eye dropper of vinegar and a 1/4 tablespoon of Epsom salt in the fertilizer may help with uptake of nutrients. I add them every time I feed my tree and I noticed a noticeable difference. Like Steve I have to custom mix my citrus fertilizer I feel that there is no perfect one out there for citrus. It looks over watered or under water they both can look the same you're watering and feeding schedule will determine which it is. If in doubt if the roots are too wet or to dry do the wooden dowel test to see if that comes out moist or wet or dry. How long has it been since you repotted the tree it could be rootbound holding pockets of water which will cause root rot over time.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 7:26PM
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Hi all,

I'm happy to report that not long after I posted the pics of our calamondin in crisis, it started to bounce back and has been okay for the past couple of months.

Trace and Serge, thanks for your questions and suggestions. We have not tried flushing the plant with copious amounts of water, and we haven't looked at the roots lately. Mainly for fear that pulling it out of the pot would just add stress to an already stressed plant. That was going to be the next thing we did, if it hadn't bounced back.

I'm not entirely sure what stopped its decline, but here are a couple of things we started doing differently. First, we resumed the practice of adding a bit of vinegar with each watering. Second, we stopped misting the leaves. I may be way off base, but it seemed to me that the misting may have been the primary cause of its grief.

Third, I took Steve's suggestion and ordered some Foliage Pro, which I've been adding every other week or so. But it should be noted that the leaf dropping and general decline stopped before the fertilizer arrived in the mail. So it seems safe to say that while the fertilizer is helping the plant -- the remaining leaves are a much deeper green and in general look healthier than they have in quite a while -- it seems that the leaf drop may have been the result of something other than nutrient deficiency alone. Maybe?

In any case, the story has again taken a complicated turn in the past week or so: the plant has started to put out a flush of blossoms, which in some places is quite profuse. A few new leaves are also coming in, although unfortunately not nearly as many as there are new blossoms. At the same time, she has started to drop leaves once again.

As I noted in my initial post, the leaf issues started in the first place after a similarly spectacular flush of blossoms several months ago. Is it possible that the plant is somehow putting too much energy into producing blossoms? In any case, should we pinch off some of the blossoms? Would that help generate more leaves? And I assume that during this phase of budding, fertilizer is particularly important?

One final thing to note: From an original five trunks, the tree is now down to two. Does the death of entire trunks suggest that the (or at least a) problem may be in the root structure?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts folks want to share. I'm adding a pic of the blossoms and of the trunks.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2014 at 11:34AM
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Here are the trunks...two living, two bare.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2014 at 11:38AM
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Hi brooklyn oranges, I really think you have a root problem. I had a similar problem last summer with a Meyer lemon tree. It put out a tremendous amount of blooms , with not much new leaf growth. Soon after , leaves started falling as well as twig and branch die back. I never changed the soil it came with , and when I finally checked the roots they were saturated and dying. After rinsing off the old soil I repotted it in a light , fast draining mix. It is still alive and making a comeback as the roots regrow. In your picture, the soil looks very wet. When you water, does your pot drain excess water?

    Bookmark   September 8, 2014 at 12:07PM
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