I was gifted this lemon seedling two months ago and re-potted it using soil from an old raised bed, and it seemed to be happy:

Seedling with three healthy leaves

It grew two new leaves, one being quite large compared to all the previous leaves.

Then I re-potted it using some cheap potting soil from Amazon and a quarter cup of 6-3-3 citrus fertilizer. I think I overwatered it and probably packed the potting soil too tight, because it started wilting. I've been careful about not overwatering it since, and last week I re-potted using the soil from the raised bed again (keeping it very loose), but with fertilizer. The leaves have continued to wither, from the bottom up. At this point I only have one green leaf left:

Seedling with three dead brown leaves and one drooping green leaf

It could be root rot... the roots didn't look terrible but I didn't inspect them closely. Should I re-pot without the fertilizer? Or is this plant just done for?

  • Your plant will revive, but each repotting shocks the plant, not root rot. I'd cut off but one leaf to give the baby a chance to recuperate. Outside soil is a worse bet than potting soil. Do not fertilize until the plant grows again. What is 1/4 cup of fertilizer? Liquid? Powder? Diluted? Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 19:50
  • You have overpotted it. A 3-4" pot is plenty. A big pot with few roots stays wet too long after watering. Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 19:50
  • Fertilizer is Down to Earth powder/meal, mixed into the soil. Understand that the pot is too large but it is the only one I have available at the moment. It seemed okay in that pot for the first month—withering started after the first repotting. Should I keep it in the shade instead of full sun until it starts looking healthier? (Frustrating that brown leaves can be a sign of both over- and under-watering.)
    – randomhead
    Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 20:52
  • Full sun? Get that struggling plant into the shade to catch its breath. A quarter cup of powder is exactly 12 times more than I'd use. Flush it out with running water. Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 21:23
  • 1
    You never fertilise a sick plant - one of the basics of plant care. You do not say where the seeding came from but if as seems likely, someone put a load of pips from a shop-bought lemon, there is no guarantee that such pips are viable long term. Trying to grow from any fruit pip is fun for the kids but pointless as a long term objective to grow proper fruit trees since those fruits have only a slim chance of being as viable as the original trees the pollen and unfertilised seed came from. if you want to grow a lemon tree, buy an established tree that has been grafted onto a hardy rootstock.
    – Nikki
    Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 16:05

1 Answer 1


As you say, it's hard to tell the difference between overwatering and underwatering, as the symptoms can look the same. But it sounds like you fertilized twice in a month or two, with 1/4 cup of powdered fertilizer each time. As Yosef Baskin says, that's a lot of fertilizer, which can be like salting the soil.

Salt burn can kill leaves like yours, but it usually starts by turning color just around the edges. Did these leaves die off from the edges? Did they first turn yellow?

Does it look like there is a chemical residue on the surface, that looks like salt? If so, I'd suspect overfertilizing, which can burn leaves and cause root rot. I wouldn't give up on the plant yet, but there isn't much left, is there?

So I would first cut off the dead leaves. Then, assuming your pot has good drainage I would leach out the fertilizer by running water through it (as Yosef Baskin suggests) for a few minutes and then letting the soil dry out for a few days until the soil is dry for an inch or so down. Then I would cycle through again: soak and let dry.

Again as Yosef Baskin says, you want to pamper your plant. It's near death, so go easy on everything: sun, water and especially, fertilizer (which you should cut out completely).

  • 1
    No more fertilizer, got it. Very frustrating to think that I was trying to help it and caused harm instead... there's probably a metaphor somewhere in there. The leaves didn't die off from the edges so much as from the tips. Also, for a brief time that large leaf in the second picture still had a tinge of green in the middle where the curling tip shielded it from the sun a little. They didn't seem to turn yellow so much as straight to brown, I think.
    – randomhead
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 3:28
  • @Daanii - Your attributions were too generous. Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 4:53

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