Gardening Houseplants Watering

Rolled Up Leaves on a Citrus

By Larry Hodgson

Question: I bought a small calamondin orange tree with cute orange fruits a few weeks ago, but it’s not doing very well. The leaves are rolling up and starting to drop off. However, I have been following the advice that they gave me at the nursery, that is, to give it a location where it enjoys the sun for a few hours a day and to water it regularly when the soil is dry to the touch, but only a little bit at a time. So, since the soil is always dry, I give it a teaspoon or two of water every day. What do you think is wrong with my plant?


Answer: I think you misunderstood the instructions for watering your calamondin (Citrus mitis, syn. × Citrofortunella mitis).

Calamondin being watered with a spoon.
Few plants have such tiny root systems that you could water them a teaspoonful at a time. Photo: & Elena Schweitzer, depositphotos

You should never water any plant “only a little bit at a time.” You always need to water it copiously, enough to thoroughly wet the entire root ball, not only moistening the soil at the top of the pot, but also right through to the bottom. This applies not only to typical houseplants like your calamondin orange that like moderately moist potting soil at all times, but even to succulents adapted to dry soils (cacti, for example). Yes, even a cactus needs a good soaking once it’s fully dry, not just a few spoonfuls!

If you only give tiny amounts of water to a plant at a time, the roots—and especially the lower roots—will dry up and start to die. And when the roots die, the whole plant suffers! That the leaves of your plant are rolling up and falling off shows that its root ball has dried out far too much and that the superficial watering you’re giving it is insufficient. It’s essentially dying of thirst!

The golden rule of watering (which applies to essentially all plants grown in pots) is to wait until the soil is dry to the touch (stick a finger into the soil to check), then water thoroughly, enough to soak the whole root ball. After 10 to 20 minutes, discard any excess water that collects in the saucer.

Emergency Watering 

Unfortunately, leaves rolling up in this fashion show a plant that is seriously dehydrated. It may be too late to save it, but still, I encourage you to try. The following emergency watering technique may be able to revive it:

Helpful Hint: When a potting soil is completely dry, it’s time to give it a good soaking!

As the soil is nearly dust dry, normal watering probably won’t suffice. That’s because, when soil is extremely dry, rather than absorbing water immediately as it should, it initially repels it. So most of the water you pour onto the plant’s soil will likely just flow right through without helping it. It will therefore be necessary to rehydrate the soil particles so they can start to act normally.

Plant being watered by soaking it in a bucket of water.
To rehydrate a potting soil that is bone dry, let it soak in water for 20 minutes or more. Photo:

To do this, place the pot in a large recipient—a bucket, large bowl, sink, etc.—and fill the tank with water up to the top of the potting mix. You may need to put weights on the pot to hold it in place; otherwise it may start to float! Let the pot soak in water for 20 to 40 minutes to allow the root ball—and any roots still alive—to completely rehydrate. Then, remove the pot from the container and let it drain well.

From then on, water normally, watering (thoroughly) when the soil is dry to the touch again. And you may not need to do so for quite some time, as the plant now has fewer roots than it did before, so it likely won’t need very frequent watering for a while. 

But don’t give up hope: as long as there is a little green on a plant, it is usually possible for it to recover.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

2 comments on “Rolled Up Leaves on a Citrus

  1. Calamodin, which is distinct from orange, can recover from defoliation and rather severe dehydration. If the leaves are tan and clinging to the stems, well, that would not be good. If they are more greenish, and break away when touched, that is a good indication that tree had a chance to react before desiccating.

  2. Arlene Grant

    Great timing as I just brought a citrus inside and it has the same problem. Thanks, fingers crossed it makes it as it was grown from seeds that I found in my mom’s house after she passed.

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