Help with first-year trees - nutrient deficiency?

Hi everybody,

I’m hoping to get some help with some apple bench grafts that we planted out this spring. Things started out generally ok, but about a month ago the growth seemed to be kind of stalling out, and I started seeing leaves curling and getting crispy. This crisping appeared primarily on the new growth, and especially at the tips and edges of leaves, though in the worst instances it seemed to be destroying new leaves before they could fully form. With the help of a link posted by @mamuang, I concluded that what I was seeing was a nutrient deficiency, probably potassium and possibly calcium as well.

Going with that, I dosed the trees with a fertilizer that my wife had picked up for her potted Meyer lemon (Espoma Organic Bloom, a 1-3-1 plus 1% CA formulation marketed for use with fruiting plants as well as ornamentals). I imagine that there are things that might have been more effective, but that was what I had on hand, and in the short term it seemed to do the trick, because I saw a good flush of new, undamaged growth following the application.

About a month out, however, I’m starting to see signs of the crisping coming back on the tips and edges of new growth. So, while things are still doing fairly decently, I figured I would ask for some help in coming up with a longer term solution.

A couple of more details about our situation: the trees are on G41 planted in an area of former lawn that I’ve turned into a temporary “nursery.” They are currently top dressed with aged compost around the trees and mulched with wood chips spread over newspaper between rows. Next year I’m hoping to plant them out to start forming a Belgian fence along the perimeter of our yard and garden. According to the USDA soil survey, the soil type is Hinckley loamy sand, which is described as being sharply draining (especially in the subsoil) and moderately to strongly acidic.

So, here are my questions:

  1. Does the diagnosis of potassium/calcium deficiency make sense? If so, what, if anything, would people suggest that I do to help the trees out either in the short term (this year in the nursery) or in the longer term (preparing/caring for the soil where they will be going in the future)?

  2. Does it seem likely that the other characteristics of our soil (acid, sharply draining) are contributing to the problems that I’m seeing? If so, what steps would you suggest taking to remedy the situation?

I am very new to doing this, so your suggestions are very much appreciated!


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I think it would be worthwhile to have a soil test done. If your soil is particularly acidic your plants may have trouble taking up potassium and calcium which would explain the brief success with the calcium formulation. The RockDust would at least temporarily help balance the pH and I would think the effect would last at least a season, probably more. I doubt the problem is any particular mineral’s absence- rather a question of bio-availability- and powdered lime would also work and be more readily available and cheap.

That the soil drains so well can be problematic in making water soluble amendments stick. They need ample organic matter to stick to, so the compost and wood chips should help that way once it’s turned in. Nutrients tend to wash right through, and I hope somebody discussed foliar feeding as a possible solution, but I haven’t done much of that.

Just my two-bits worth.


I’d second a soil test. Excessively low pH could be your major issue. For that you’d need limestone not rock dust. The minerals in rock dust are nearly inert.

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Yes, probably even more so if soil pH and low organic matter is holding down the microbial activity happening in the soil.

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Thanks, guys, you’ve been tremendously helpful. It sounds like low pH/organic matter is likely the underlying culprit, so that’s what I’ll focus on addressing. (I’ll get a soil test done, as you’ve suggested, but based on observation and the info from the soil survey, this is making a lot of sense to me.)

At this point, I’m thinking it’s probably a little late to give the trees another shot of fertilizer this year. (Am I right about that?) But I can start preparing the planting area for next year with mulch and some lime to build up organic matter and moderate pH. (Is there a particular form of lime that people would recommend for this purpose?) Then, when I transplant the trees in the spring, I think I may give them a little fertilizer again to try and head off acute nutrient deficiencies while they’re adjusting. (On the assumption that the top-dressing from the fall will take a while to work its way in and become available.) And then try to work out a suitable mulch-and-lime maintenance routine going forward. (Alan has warned me that excessive levels of organic matter can become a problem for fruit trees, but it’s sounding like that may be comparatively less of an issue in my particular situation - dwarf trees, closely planted, quickly draining soil and sub-soil.)

Thanks again - the help is much appreciated!

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Adding some finely ground limestone would be a good idea. But keep track of how much you add or better get a soil test recommendation first. Common rates are 2-4 tons per acre. So that’s 4-8,000 lbs on 43560 sq ft or roughly 10-20 lbs per 100 sq ft.

The question of type of limestone is discussed here

Avoid the quick lime. It’s too toxic.


fertilizer is like giving a kid sugar. Sure they will have short burst of energy but they burn it out quickly. In the case of trees, you need to judge your growing season too. You dont want to create a lot of new growth that wont have a time to harden off before winter, so no more nitrogen. Roots wont be growing now during the middle of summer, but when fall hits they will be happy to get phosphorus. as for mulch the only mulch your going to want to use is compost. Wood chips take up nitrogen during decomposition.


Rock dust is a means for quarries to sell “rock flour” leftover from their crushers – which they would otherwise have to pay to transport and bury elsewhere. Although the sellers make many claims about its benefits there is no horticulture reason to use it other than soil texture. Specifically, plants and soil biology have no mechanism to utilize the metamorphic and igneous minerals in “rock dust” over periods shorter than 10 million years.


You may be right, that it is getting a little late to be putting new fertilizer down on your trees this close to fall.

However if it is just K and Ca that they are missing, you might be able to give them some without the N which would stimulate more growth, via a foliar spray. Off the top of my head I don’t know what I I would mix to get just those two (perhaps pot sulfate or pot bicarbonate and lime or even quick lime, and of course you’d have to balance the pH). In the foliar stuff I mix up, I use potassium bicarbonate and quick lime, like 2t/gal for the pot bicarb and 1/2t for the quick lime. BUT I also add other nutrients (the N and P) which will balance the pH. I suspect with just those two it would be quite alkaline, maybe too much so to spray on leaves.

For just Ca, you could use the commercial sprays made for stopping blossom end rot on tomatoes.

Anyway I think they could be supplied without causing a growth spurt, but you may have to do some digging to find the right stuff and proportions to spray.


Thanks for the additional information, its very much appreciated. I know that some of what I’m trying to figure out is very, very basic stuff for some of you (no pun intended), so I’m grateful that you’ve taken the time to help me out.

Thanks for the link about the different types of lime, Fruitnut, that cleared things up quite a bit. Looks like agricultural lime would probably be the better choice for my situation.

And thanks for the helpful tip about avoiding late applications of nitrogen, Lord Kiwi. But am I right in remembering that there are different schools of thought about mulching with wood chips? I feel like I’ve seen a number of people talk about doing that here. Just to be clear, I’ve been putting down the chips on top of the soil, not digging them in or anything.

Richard, I really appreciate your checking in - I’m aware that this touches on (one of) your particular areas of expertise.

So, doing the math, it should kick in right around the time when my Magness starts fruiting?


Looks like agricultural lime would probably be the better choice for my situation.

Maybe, although it will likely depend upon how sandy your soil is and its current levels of Ca and Mg. In general, dolomitic limestone (eg with higher levels of Mg) are recommended for sandy soils. I’d get a soil test first, then decide which type of “agricultural” lime to be using.


LOL. ROTF. Thanks so much!!

Yes. Especially in @JinMA 's location.


OK, next step, soil test!



My hunch is your problem is not related to nutrient deficiency but leafhoppers. If any small white insects fly out when you disturb the growing shoots my hunch has hit paydirt. Without photos or proximity, guessing is all we have, but leafhoppers are a constant problem in the S NY region where I tend fruit trees.


Thanks for sharing that hunch, Alan. I definitely value your experience in this area. Trying to remember, but I don’t think I’ve noticed any small white insects on or around the affected leaves. A few tiny yellow/green roundish bugs mostly earlier in the spring, occasional tiny bright green vaguely grasshopper shaped insects now and then, a couple of caterpillars which I squished, a couple of Japanese beetles ditto, and the aphids we discussed on another thread, but no tiny white insects that I remember. And fortunately not too much of anything yet, fingers crossed. But I will definitely be keeping an eye out.

Would the insect damage hypothesis be consistent with the way the problem temporarily cleared up after I put on the fertilizer? That’s part of what led me to conclude that I was right about the nutrient deficiency, but I could certainly be wrong about that - and of course, why not both? (Just to be clear, the trees are still looking way better now than they were before.)

By the way, here is the link regarding nutrient deficiencies that @mamuang posted in another thread - I would have put it up before, but I had a little trouble tracking it down again. When I looked at the pictures of potassium-deficient apple leaves, it was like looking at a picture of my own trees (though there were also a couple of “it might also be’s”).

And you’re right, it might be helpful to give you guys a look at what I’ve been seeing, so here are a couple of pictures. (Apologies for not doing this sooner - I am very far from being a tech whiz, so it took me a while to figure out how this worked. Should have asked my four-year old, probably…)

Both pictures are of my Gray Pearmain. The top photo shows the kind of damage I was seeing before the fertilizer, with the crisping and curling leaves. If you notice, though, there’s a leaf near the bottom that looks pretty good, and that’s been kind of the pattern: the initial flush of spring growth was mostly healthy, and it was only with the summer growth that problems started showing up. It seemed almost as if the top growth were outrunning the roots somehow, if that makes any sense.

The bottom photo shows the more recent growth. Here you can see the damage is not quite as bad: most of the leaves are unfolding more or less fully, but there’s still some noticeable crumpling and yellowing around the edges, though the crisping effect seems to be showing up more at the tips than along the edges.

Putting this in context, the Gray Pearmain has been one of my more vigorous varieties so far, and also one of my more affected, but the overall pattern is pretty representative.


Thanks again!

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That does look like leafhopper damage, and they are only present during active growth- terminal bud looks set (its finished with annual growth) on shoot in photo, so hoppers would not be active. However, it could easily be something else- if you have actively growing shoots without the insects I suspect mine was an empty hunch.


I think Jim meant the leaves that have discolored from the outside in. I have those on several apple trees this year. I suspect nutrient deficiency bou can’t be sure what it is. I need to send my soil in for testing. That will take a few weeks.

At this point, I suspect Manganese and/ or boron. I treated all my trees with Epsom salt and need to figure out boron treatment. It appears one needs to be very cautious boron application so it won’t be toxic.


@JinMA, I’ve got the same condition on a crabapple. The crabapple was top worked in the spring. Three shoots are growing. Two were bark grafted on and the third is a new shoot from the original tree. Most of the leaves are dark green except the top 6 inches. I have now cut off the top 6 inches and will see how the tree progresses. I did have some small bugs on the tips but did not look at them closely. Just sprayed with permethrin.
I took a closer look at one of the leaves with a magnifier and saw what looked like dead mites. Also, possibly white leafhoppers but they were only slightly larger than the mites. I’ll spray a few times with soap as a precaution.


@mamuang just for the record, epsom salts is Magnesium Sulfate, no manganese. Manganese Sulfate is available and that’s what you need to use if it is more manganese you want. Or you could find a general micro nutrient brew that contains manganese.

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