Dwarf Meyer Lemon tree stuck in a rut

swrobelSeptember 28, 2011

My Dwarf Meyer Lemon tree seems to be stuck in a rut. It is growing lemons, but they aren't ripening. The larger ones have been stuck at about the same size for what seems like months. I'm right near the beach in LA, so we have a lot of gray days, but it's usually in the 60s or 70s and sun is definitely plentiful and it never freezes. I fertilize with both compost and a citrus fertilizer and keep the soil moist. Any theories on what the problem could be? Most of the leaves grow curled or deformed and tend to get yellow in the middle and fall off very easily. I've attached some images below (you can click them to see them full size)

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Simple questions... is LA Los Angeles, Louisiana, or maybe Latin America?... Second... do you have dirt, as in garden area where you could plant it?
Third.. .the leaves show serious nutrient deficiencies... most probably manganese or zinc...Most of the leaves look good, the new growth looks good... you are likely starving it for some minerals and/or poisoning it with too much of some... try repotting it in a larger container, or putting it in the ground. Needs good fertilizer 3 times per year in the ground and up to 5 times per year in container...if you have to or wish to keep it in container, you need a bigger container; and you have to get advice/look for advice from MeyerMike on this site.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 12:41AM
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Same nutritional needs must be met for a citrus tree whether in a container or ground, and the symptoms of deficiency are also the same. Therefore I know John is a pro for understanding this and pointing it out since his thousands of trees look fantastic.

I must say though that trying to determine the cause,root problem behind the deficiency can be a bit challenging more so for the one trying to help you in containers, verses the one caring for the tree. Only you can determine what your cultural habits are unless you provide a very detailed post on this.

The cause can be as simple as an 'inappropriate mix', over watering, severe flucuations in temps, bad pH, poor lighting, or over fertilizing to under fertilizing or using a poor fertilizer.

When you say you fertilize with 'compost', what do you mean? Is it something you add to the soil? What kind of soil did you provide? What is the composition of it?
What kind of fertilizer do you offer and how often?
When you say"'you keep the soil moist", what does that mean? Do you let it dry out between waterings or water in sips?

I am tending to lean towards root rot issues or better yet,'fine root cyclic death' which happens from to many extremes within the confines of a container, and regeneration of those roots.

Your tree might too expending its energies trying to repairing itself under the soil line, while the top growth is suffering, sort of like just hanging on. If you don't allow those fine roots to develop and 'stay healthy', your tree will lack the ability to sustain itself without good nutrients because the 'fine roots' are the workers and a lack of them will prevent that fruit from growing while it eventually declines in vigor.
If your soil is not appropriate, then it is possible that water and nutrient uptake are compromised by lack of air in the root zone and other causes.

I would address the variables preventing your tree from staying healthy and knock off each possibility at a time, starting with your mix and watering habits.

Please let us know what you have determined to be the cause and then we can go from there.


    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 6:03AM
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mksmth zone 6b Tulsa Oklahoma(6b)

"and keep the soil moist"

this jumped out at me. Citrus like to dry out a bit between waterings, not completely dry though. You could be over watering in addition to poor soil.


    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 9:17AM
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Not to take away from what others have said, but if you look closely at your picture, it really appears as though your tree is planted too deeply in the soil. This will cause it to struggle below the soil line as Mike suggests. It appears as though the branching is actually buried.


    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 9:48AM
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Great observation Barb.


    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 11:48AM
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Apologies for the silence - I thought I was going to get emails when I got replies, but apparently not.

Let me try to answer the questions out there:
1) LA = Los Angeles, sorry about the confusion

2) Container: I bought the tree because at the garden shop I was told I could keep it in a container and not need to plant it in the ground. There is a shared yard, but it's a rental property and I want to be able to keep the tree when I move.

3) Watering: I water it probably twice a week and pretty thoroughly, so it runs through. I have a water meter, and though I'm not sure how much these things should be trusted, it always reads moist or wet (top 2 levels). I've never let it get to dry (bottom level).

4) Fertilizer: I fertilize about every 6 weeks by mixing fertilizer in with some compost from my bin (kitchen scraps + worms kept out in the yard) and spreading that on top. I was previously using Romeo highly concentrated 24-14-14 but it seems like such serious stuff that I switched as of last fertilizing, which, now that I think about it, was about 2 months ago, to Carl Pool Citrus Food slow release 10-10-5.

5) Soil level: When I bought it, the soil level was really high like that. I just put some mulch on top to help keep the water from evaporating, but maybe that is compounding the problem.

All of that said, Root Rot is what I was afraid of. The guy at the garden shop said to water the heck out of it, so I did when I first bought it before going online and finding out about deep watering and trying to let it dry out a bit. I've been much better about toning down the watering but I guess perhaps the damage is done.

Any new thoughts based on the info I've provided?

Thank you so much John, Mike and Barb! I want to cure my poor little Meyer!


    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 7:20PM
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you can keep it potted.

watering twice a week and the compost/mulch on top and low temps(60s-70s) = excessive moisture. i water mine twice a week plus mulch b/c we've been having 100' temps the past two months and have been in excessive drought conditions all summer.

the slow release seems ok, ag organics lists it as having 5 essential micro nutrients.

the fruits look about the right size, mine have started to swell/plump up a bit. still green. once we get some cold weather they'll start changing to yellow. citrus fruits dont necessarily have to turn colors when its ripe. its mainly b/c of cold temps that they change colors. or sprayed with ethelyne gas by the produce ppl.

for now, i would just keep an eye on it, and not water for atlast a week. maybe pull it out of the pot, get rid of the excess potting material/mulch on the top, check the visible roots (take some pics of roots).

    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 12:52AM
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1: No problem. It seems like you live in Citrus heaven/country to me. Lucky you!

2: I can't blame you for choosing containers, which can be just as fun. You can place them anywhere you desire and be in full control of their your trees. It can have many advantages.

3: Water meters have never been accurate for many others including I. Wooden dowels, well now we are talking. Very accurate!
The ideal mix would dry out evenly all the way to the bottom. It would hold a very little 'PWT' if any at all. My goal is to use mixes that do not allow a 'PWT'.

4: I would question the compost thing. Anything added to your mix will clog vital air spaces need for good root generation and oxygen exchange. It will create an ever further 'Perched Water Table' and impeed proper drainage over time by encouraging compaction in a hostile enviroment.
This process can also draw 'fungus gnats'.
Also,the kind of organic compost or fertilizers you speak of have never been reliabe for me causing all kind of bad issues with my container plants.
Now 'Romeo' fertilizer on the other hand will do wonders for your trees if used correctly. The slow release will also do well if it meets Citrus nutrient needs.
5: I would remove that mulch unless you are using a mix, such as the gritty one that can dry out very fast on top.

Root rot can be a very common problem amoung us container Citrus growers and must not be taken lightly.
It is imperative that we do all we can to discourage it from happening in our containers and you are well on your way to accomplishing that.


    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 8:46AM
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Thanks again houstontexas and Mike.

Do either of you think it would be helpful to take the tree out of the pot and take some pictures of the roots and post them here? I'm not quite sure what it will look like or how to determine if there's a problem.

Also, if I take it out of the pot, should I try to re-pot it with better soil mix? I have no idea what the company that produced the tree put it in but it does seem very compacted. What should I be aiming for with the new soil? From reading about PWT it seems that I want loose-ish soil and no layer of rocks or perlite on the bottom, as that doesn't lower the PWT.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 12:10PM
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If Houstontexas suggested it, I would. I can't see any harm in that:-)
It is a great idea.

Righto about the 'PWT'.

The only thing that rocks do on the bottom of a pot is raise the PWT even higher in the container which offers less breathing room for healthy root growth. They occupy space where otherwise roots could roam even further.

If you are convinced that your mix may be holding water/moisture far too long, especially towards the bottom of your container, you could always use a wick pushed through the a botton drainage hole right up into the root ball and trick the moisture into leaving the container as long as the wick is dangling. Using a wick would be a vast improvement.


    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 1:31PM
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Your tree does not have a zinc or manganese deficiency. Neither leaf that you pictured is consistent with those deficiencies. Further none of the other leaves on the tree demonstrate a similar problem. The tree might be slow but is certainly not stuck. I can see that the tree has recently had a small flush of new leaves(not many but a few can be seen in the picture). When was the last time that the container has been flushed with clear water? A container should be flushed at least twice a year. Citrus absorb nutrients in a 5-1-3 ratio. The two fertilizers that you have been using is no where close to that ratio. For every 5 unites of nitrogen that a citrus tree absorbs it will only absorb 1 unit of phosphorus. As you can see both of your fertilizers are supplying way to much phosphorus, which will are of course piling up in the container with each fertilizer application. You need to flush the container and start using a proper fertilizer for citrus. The two pictured leaves just look like old leaves that have come to their end.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 6:07PM
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Silica - thanks for the advice.

I think I flushed maybe 8 months ago. The tree seems to be doing better lately but I recall trying that thinking it would help and being disappointed it didn't work.

Two questions for you:

1) Any idea why the fruit is so slow to mature? Is that problematic, or like houstontexas said, does it just take some cooler weather to get them to turn yellow? I feel like the biggest ones have been the same size for months.

2) Do you have a citrus fertilizer recommendation? Both of the ones I tried were marketed as citrus fertilizers, but as you said, perhaps do not have the right ratio. It seems that 2-1-1 are the proportions I keep coming across for citrus though (when shopping).

    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 6:12PM
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Silica (or any other knowledgeable person)-
Can you explain the container flush a little more? I have had my tree for 6 months now and changed the potting mix about a month and a half after I got it with the 4-1-1 mix (bark-perlite-peat moss). TIA

    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 7:05PM
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NPK of 5-1-3 is the conventional religion for citrus; I have found it to be completely inadequate for Meyer lemons which are outrageously heavy bloomers and producers. For producing Meyers you have to bump up the P and K... Unless you just want to grow pretty green plants.
I recommend and use myself for garden citrus, Vigoro Citrus and Avocado Fert... it approaches the 5-1-3 ratio and includes essential elements for Citrus and Avocado... which by the way have very similar production needs.
For my field trees, I can hardly afford something like Vigoro, so I use various mixes...15-15-15; 20-20-0; straight Urea (N); and I supplement with chelated minerals once a year (in the middle of the rainy season here in Guatemala).

    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 8:08PM
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flush is basically running water through the potting medium for several minutes to flush out salt build up from fertilizers.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2011 at 4:00AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

I've heard some folks recommend flushing seven times the volume of the container....
for example, you would pass seven gallons of water through a one gallon container.


    Bookmark   October 1, 2011 at 12:27PM
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What greenman recommends would certainly work. Commercially most follow the 4X rule. Flush the container with clear water in the amount of 4 times the volume of the container.

Swrobel, houstontexas is correct. It is the cold/cool fall temperature that is the cause of a citrus fruit to turn orange. As the chlorophyll diminishes due to the cool temperatures, the fruit turns orange. In the tropics where the temperature never cools enough to cause color change, citrus constantly stay green. This, of course, makes it difficult to distinguish the ready to pick mature fruit, from the fruit that is still immature.

As to fertilizer, many growers use Jack's 25-5-15 w/trace minerals. 25-5-15 is the perfect 5-1-3 ratio for citrus, even Meyer lemons.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2011 at 2:09PM
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Ok, I took the plant out of the container today and I'm happy to say that I think the roots looked good, although I've attached pictures for anyone to weigh in on (you can click them to see full-resolution versions).

The soil was very compacted and so we repotted it with the potting mix we use for our other plants and there should be more air room in there, as well as some worms from the compost to hopefully keep things aerated.

Thanks again everyone for your help!

    Bookmark   October 1, 2011 at 5:35PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

I admit I grow my Meyers in the ground, not in pots. But that looks like a whole lot of roots for a small pot!

Citrus can hang on the plant for months before finally falling off. You can tell when they're ripe - give a light tug, and if it comes off, it's ripe no matter what color it is.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2011 at 10:05PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Worms actually cause compaction in container mixes.

It's almost impossible to keep worms out of containers that rest on the ground,
but it's probably best not to add them intentionally.


    Bookmark   October 2, 2011 at 12:03PM
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