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Ficus Trees in Containers

tapla
11 years ago

The previous thread about ficus culture has reached the limit of 150 posts twice. The last thread was hurriedly put together, and addressed issues as they arose. Hopefully, this will cover most of the areas where questions arise regarding how to best maintain Ficus in containers.

The information I am supplying comes from knowledge gleaned from diligent pursuit of the physiology of woody plants, and in many cases from the pursuit of information specific to various Ficus species. In order that I might be proficient at maintaining trees in containers over the very long term, I have also spent a considerable amount of time and effort gaining a command of other plant sciences, with soil science, soil/water relationships, and nutrition getting special attention. My habit is to share information, particularly information I have verified via my own practical experience and observations, my experience running to more than 20 years of maintaining healthy Ficus specimens in containers. I�m also called upon frequently to share in the surrounding communities, teaching other gardeners and bonsai practitioners how to maintain healthy containerized trees; and in general, how to get more from their container gardening experience.

From the family: Moracea (relative of mulberry)

Native: India, other tropical - subtropical regions

The Ficus genus

with more than 800 known species, is undoubtedly an extremely popular choice as a containerized tree. It tolerates the "dryer than desert" conditions actually found in many or most centrally heated homes reasonably well, and is endowed with a natural genetic vigor that makes it easy to grow. There is however, much myth and misconception regarding the care of this plant and the reasons it reacts as it does to certain cultural conditions. I would like to talk a little about the plant and then offer some specific information regarding its culture. I will primarily address Ficus benjamina - the 'weeping fig', but the commonly grown Ficus elastica - rubber tree, has the same cultural preferences. In fact, we can virtually lump all the Ficus species commonly grown as houseplants into a single group in all areas except light preferences. We need to make allowances for some of the fig species that won't tolerate direct sun as well as benjamina and elastica, and we may as well expand that exception to the variegated cultivars of benjamina and elastica as well.

Ficus benjamina

is one of the species of Ficus commonly referred to as a strangler fig. It often begins its life in duff, in the crotch of a tree, or high on a branch as a seed deposited in the droppings of a bird or other tree-dwelling animal. After the seed germinates and as it grows, it produces thin aerial roots that often dangle in the moist air or attach themselves to the host trunk, while gaining nutrients and moisture from the air, leaf litter, and the bark of the supporting tree. It does not actually parasitize the plant it grows on, it only uses it as support. This relationship is termed epiphytic, or the tree an epiphyte. Those familiar with the culture of orchids and bromeliads will recognize this term.

After the aerial roots have formed and extended, and when they finally reach the ground, the tree begins a tremendous growth spurt, sending out more roots and developing a dense canopy that eventually shades out the supporting tree at the same time the roots are competing for nutrients in the soil and compressing the trunk and branches of the support tree to the point of stopping sap flow. Eventually the supporting tree dies and all that is left where it once stood, is a hollow cavity in the dangling Ficus roots that have now thickened and self-grafted to become the trunk. It is easy to see how many of the trees in the Ficus genus have come to be called by the name 'strangler figs'.

Roots and soil

The roots of some Ficus species are so powerful they can destroy concrete buildings or buckle roads, and can be measured in miles as they extend underground in search of water. When we consider the young tree and its ability to obtain sufficient moisture from just the surrounding air and bark surface of the support tree by way of aerial roots, we can draw an important conclusion: All species of Ficus prefer well-aerated and fast draining soils. In this regard, they are actually no different than any other tree you would endeavor to grow in a container, so try always to use a soil that guarantees an ample volume of air in the soil and excellent drainage for the intended interval between repots. This can be accomplished by using a soil whose primary fraction is comprised of large particles (like pine bark) combined with ample volumes of perlite or other inorganic ingredients like Turface, pumice, Haydite, crushed granite, or others. I grow all my Ficus in a soil mix consisting of equal parts of pine or fir bark, Turface (a calcined clay product), and Gran-I-Grit (crushed and screened granite). To be fair, I will add a qualifier here: the cost of the potential for superior growth and added vitality when using these fast (draining) well-aerated soils comes in the form of you needing to be prepared to water more frequently as the soil particle size increases. Roots are the heart of the plant, and the rest of the plant can do nothing without the roots� OK - the top just THINKS it's in control. Take care of the roots, and if your other cultural conditions are favorable, your plants will thrive.

Before I go on

I would like to say there is a very important relationship between your choice of soil, your watering habits, and a very common and serious problem that too often goes completely undiagnosed. That problem is a high level of soluble salts in the soil. When we choose soils that hold water for extended periods, we put our trees at risk for the fungal infections that cause root rot. Reasoning tells us that to avoid the root rot issue, we should not water to the point of soil saturation; rather, we often feel that watering in sips to avoid the specter of root rot is the wise alternative. This strategy though, puts us squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If we don't/can't water copiously on a regular basis, the soluble salts, i.e.,all the dissolved solids in our tap water and fertilizer solution accumulate in the soil. As the level of salts in the soil increases, the plant finds it increasingly difficult to absorb water and the nutrients dissolved in water. If the salt level gets too high, it can actually 'pull' water OUT of cells in exactly the same fashion that curing salt 'pulls' moisture from ham or bacon. This 'reverse osmosis' causes plasma to be torn from the walls of cells as they collapse, killing cells and tissue. The technical term for this is plasmolysis, but we more commonly refer to it as fertilizer burn. Fertilizer burn can occur whether or not we use fertilizer. The salts in our tap water alone, can/will eventually build to the point where water uptake is impossible, unless we actively take precautions.

Watering

Ficus b. will tolerate dry soil quite well. Allowing the soil to completely dry; however, will result in undue drought stress and accompanying leaf loss, an expensive affair, considering the plant will call heavily upon energy reserves to replace lost foliage - reserves that might better have been directed to other functions and growth. If you wait just until the soil feels dry to the touch at the drain hole before watering, your tree will be free from the effects of drought stress. Soils feel dry to the touch when their moisture content is somewhere between 40-45%, but Ficus can still extract water from soils until moisture content drops to about 25-30%, giving you a 10-15% cush AFTER the soil feels dry. Use a finger or a sharpened wooden dowel stuck deep into the soil to check for moisture content. A wooden skewer or chopstick used in similar fashion is also a useful tool, and feeling the soil at the drain hole and withholding water until it feels dry there, is also a good way to judge. Water meters are rather ineffective, They actually measure EC (electrical conductivity). To illustrate: Insert a clean probe into a cup of distilled water. It will read 'DRY'. Add a little table salt of fertilizer, it will read 'WET'.

I try never to water my Ficus with cold water, opting for room water or ambient temperature water. The best way to water your Ficus it to apply water slowly until you estimate the soil is almost wet enough that water is about to appear at the drain hole. Wait a few minutes and water again so at least 10-15% of the total volume of water applied exits the drain. The first watering dissolves accumulated salts in the soil and allows them to go into solution. The second watering carries them out of the container. We already illustrated the importance of using a soil that allows us to water in such a manner without having to worry abut root rot. If you feel you cannot water in this manner without risking lengthy soil saturation and the possibility of root rot, your soil is probably inappropriate for the plant. Lest anyone complain at that observation, I would point out there is a difference between the growth and vitality of plants that are only tolerating a soil vs. the same traits in plants that appreciate (thrive in) a medium with superior properties.

More about soils as questions arise ....

Light

Although many Ficus begin life as an understory tree and are generally quite shade tolerant, most actually spend their life struggling through the shaded understory until they eventually reach the forest canopy, where they finally find full sun and can begin to come into their own. We should give Ficus all the sun they will tolerate. I grow all varieties of Ficus b. in full sun, and they tolerate it well - even some of the newer cultivars that are supposed to be extremely shade-tolerant.

I have often read anecdotal assertions that Ficus b defoliates at the slightest change in light levels (or temperature). I have found this to be only partly true. Any trees I have moved from a location with a lower light level to a brighter location have not suffered leaf loss (abscission). Instead, they have rewarded me with more robust growth and back-budding. If the change is reversed, so the tree is moved from high irradiance levels to a dimmer location, leaf loss is probable, but even then it depends on both the suddenness of the change and the difference between the two light levels. It might be interesting to note that trees that are being grown out, or allowed to grow unpruned, are most likely to suffer loss of interior leaves when light levels are reduced. Trees in bonsai culture, or properly pruned trees where thinning has occurred to allow more light to the trees interior are less affected.

Indoor supplemental lighting is a broad subject, but if you have the ability to provide it, your trees will definitely show their appreciation. Brighter light = smaller leaf size, shorter internodes, and superior ramification (finer branching), not to mention a marked increase in overall mass.

Temperature

Expect the most robust growth characteristics when the plant is kept in a temperature range between 60-80* F. Actual root temperatures above 90-95* should be avoided because they impair root function/metabolism and slow or stop growth. Temperatures below 55* should also be avoided for several reasons. They slow photosynthesis to the degree that the plant will necessarily call on stored energy reserves to power metabolism and keep its systems orderly. This essentially puts the tree on 'battery power' - running on its energy reserves. After exposure to chill and subsequent return to more favorable temperatures, the plant does not quickly recover the ability to carry on normal photosynthesis. The time needed for the plant to recover its normal photosynthesizing ability is more appropriately measured in days, than hours. Leaf loss can also occur as a result of exposure to chill, particularly sudden chill.

It is prudent to select a location free from cold breezes for your tree. Even short exposure to very cold draughts can cause leaves to abscise (fall/shed). The cool temperatures slow or halt the flow of auxin (a growth regulator - hormone) across the abscission zone at the base of each leaf petiole (stem) which allows an abscission layer to form and causes leaves to fall. Chill also stimulates an increase in abscissic acid (also a growth regulator - hormone) which is also a player in leaf loss.

Benjamina can tolerate temperatures as low as the mid-30s for brief periods if the exposure to chill is gradual, but it should be noted that even though there may not be any readily visible impact on the tree, the tree will always be in decline at temperatures below about 55* because of the impact on the tree's inability to carry on efficient photosynthesis. Sudden and large temperature drops can cause varying degrees of chill injury in the plant, caused by phenolic compounds leaking from cells, which shows up looking much like freeze damage. Severe injury could occur in plants that were growing at 80-85* and were subjected to sudden chilling to temperatures as high as 45-50*

Humidity

Benjamina's thick, leathery leaves with waxy cuticles help to limit moisture loss, making the plant suitable to a wide range of indoor humidity levels, even though it prefers humidity levels above 50%. When humidity levels are blamed for leaf loss or necrotic leaf tips and margins, it is likely the blame has been misplaced. Those pesky high salt levels in soils, most common in late winter, can make it difficult and in extreme cases impossible for the plant to absorb water to replace that being lost to the air through transpiration. The fast soils that allow copious watering, which flushes the soil of salts regularly are actually much more important/beneficial than maintaining ultra high humidity levels. Misting is very effective ..... For about 30 seconds. Forget the misting please, it is ineffective. For small plants, a humidity tray may marginally effective.

Fertilizer

I prefer any 3:1:2 ratio soluble fertilizer like Miracle-Gro 24-8-16 or 12-4-8, and I especially like Dyna-Gro's Foliage-Pro 9-3-6, because it provides all the essential nutrients in the approximate ratio the plant will use and in favorable ratios to each other. Alternately, a 1:1:1 ratio fertilizer like MG 20-20-20 is suitable. Because I use fast soils, I can fertilize at very low doses, every time I water. How YOU can/should fertilize is something we should discuss. It can change by season, and also varies based on soil choice and watering habits.

There is no question that in addition to offering greater potential for growth and vitality within the limits of other cultural factors, fast draining, well-aerated soils also get the nod for greatly increasing the grower�s margin for error in the areas of watering and fertilizing.

Defoliating

Leaf loss in Ficus is probably the cause of more conjecture than any other aspect of its culture, so even though I have mentioned it above, I will reiterate. Even though it is widely held that Ficus b. defoliates at virtually any cultural change, with changes in light and temperature most often cited, it is not so. The plant tends to defoliate when there is a fairly abrupt change in light levels - from bright to dim, or after exposure to sudden chill, but the plant does not tend to defoliate when the cultural conditions of light and temperature move from unfavorable to favorable, i.e. from dim to bright or from cool to warm/appropriate - unless the change is markedly radical.

Repotting

First, I draw a major distinction between potting-up and repotting. Potting up can be undertaken at any time. It involves moving the plant to a slightly larger pot and back-filling with fresh soil, with a minimal amount of root disturbance. Much to be preferred to potting-up, is repotting. Repotting, which has a substantial rejuvenating effect, includes removing all or almost all of the old (spent) soil and selective root-pruning. It is by far the preferred method and probably the most important step in insuring your trees always grow at as close to their potential genetic vigor as possible. Repotting as opposed to potting-up is the primary reason bonsai trees are able to live in small containers for hundreds of years while the vast majority of trees grown as houseplants are lucky to survive more than 5 years without root work

It is pretty much universally accepted among nurserymen, that you should pot up at or before the time where the condition of the roots/soil mass is such that the roots and soil can be lifted from the container intact. Much testing has been done to show that trees left to languish beyond this point will have growth and vitality permanently affected. Even when planted out, growth and longevity of trees allowed to progress beyond this point is shown to be reduced.

The ideal time to repot a Ficus, is when the plant has good vitality and in the month prior to its most robust growth. June and July are prime months for most of the US. HOW to properly repot is beyond the scope of the initial post, but I am sure the subject will be covered in detail as questions arise.

Remember - potting up a root bound plant is a stopgap fix, and ensures the plant has no opportunity to grow to its genetic potential within the limits of other cultural factors; while fully repotting, which includes a change of soil and root pruning, ensures the plant WILL have the opportunity within the limits of other cultural factors. Strong words, but to repeat the illustration: the bonsai tree is capable of living in a tiny pot, perfectly happy for hundreds of years, while we struggle to squeeze 5 years of good vitality from a root bound plant - root work being the difference.

Pests

Ficus trees suffer from some pests. Most common are scale, followed closely by mites and mealies. I have always had good luck with neem oil as a preventative and fixative. We can discuss infestations and treatment as it arises, but so it gets included in the original post, I use only pure, cold-pressed neem oil, such as that packaged by Dyna-Gro in the black and white container. The beneficial active ingredient in neem is azadirachtin, the effectiveness of which is greatly reduced by steam and alcohol extraction methods, which brings us full circle to why I use the cold-pressed product.

Oedema can sometimes be an issue as well;. Suspect it if you see corky patches on the leaves, usually preceded by wet, bumpy patches that usually go unnoticed.

This is a long post, and took a long time to compose. I hope it answers most of your questions, but somehow, I cannot help but hope there are a few lingering that you would like to ask or points you would like to have clarified. It is great fun visiting and helping people who are devoted about improving their abilities to provide for their trees.

Best luck.

Al

Here is a link that might be useful: Link to the previous thread

Comments (168)

  • andersons21
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    So, a couple weeks after my last update...I left my tree in the bathroom (which is very warm). I am amazed at how much it has grown just in the last 2 weeks! The branches are about 18-24 inches longer now, and there are tons of new leaves. Pretty soon it will be hard to walk by to get to the shower or toilet. I experimented with watering frequency, and every 2-3 days seems about right. I am giving it a little bit of FP each watering, and sucking up with a towel the bit that drains into the saucer.

  • tapla
    Original Author
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Wow - that's great! I went back upthread to refresh my memory .... you said you had a lot of growth concentrated near apices (branch tips). Is that changing now - getting a lot of back-budding?

    Also - I can't remember if we discussed getting the tree outside to really put it into overdrive? ;-) I'm really glad for you. I don't know if you're excited about the progress ...... but I am! ;-)

    Be careful about the fertilizer. More isn't always better - especially if you're not flushing the soil so at least 15-20% of the total volume of water applied exits the pot. AND, I would check with a skewer to see if the plant really does need watering that often. If it doesn't, it's best to wait.

    Good job - strong work! Keep us updated, please?

    Al

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  • andersons21
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    There are now some new leaves appearing further down the tree, not just at the tips (that's back-budding, right)? It is too cold to put outside now. We're getting another cold spell. In fact, last night is among the coldest I have ever felt living here.

    Some water definitely exits the pot each watering. I really cannot afford to water liberally, even with the saucer, because the bathroom is carpeted. So, I water carefully, wait a bit, and water more until some water exits, then stuff a towel in to soak it up.

    I'm using between 1/4-1/2 tsp of FP every 2-3 days for this tree which is now over 8 feet tall. The room is about 75*. Does that seem like too much? not enough? It seems to be doing well with all the new growth, and I'm not seeing any browning leaf tips.

  • tapla
    Original Author
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Yes, much too much. You'll have problems very soon. If you're not flushing the soil well when you water, you should probably cut back to 1/2 tsp/gallon every 2 weeks, & make it a point to figure out a way to flush the soil thoroughly every 2-3 months. Remember, you're not 'feeding' your plant, just supplying the building blocks the plant needs to make its own food and keep its systems orderly. More isn't always better. ;o)

    Al

  • GinnySue
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

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  • tapla
    Original Author
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Hi, Ginny - I was trying to think of something clever to say, but nothing came to mind immediately, so let's work on your fig. ;-)

    It looks pretty sick - sick enough that I think you need to depot so you can inspect the roots and let the plant dry down. If you have mushy/rotted/acrid smelling or otherwise stinky roots that don't smell 'earthy', you'll probably need to do an emergency repot. If the roots look ok, leave the plant sit on newspaper or an old towel until the soil dries down to a 'damp' state.

    It sounds like you're assuming that the problem is resultant of over-watering, but if you fertilized recently, you should consider it might have been an issue related to a high concentration of salts in the soil. What about that? The flushing would have rendered that issue a reduced threat though, hopefully.

    Why don't you let me know what the roots are like before we go any further?

    I'm not saying this as chastisement or any reason other than to make a straightforward observation, which is, it's very unlikely you would be having this issue if the plant was in a fast-draining, well-aerated soil. They make it soo much easier to avoid problems related to over-watering and saturated soil conditions or accumulations of salts. That was offered as much for the benefit of anyone following the thread as it was for you. There are ways you can better deal with a water-retentive soil, if yours deserves that appellation, and we can talk more about that as we work on getting your friend back on track if you like.

    Al


  • Smurfishy
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I ended up getting sick and not getting out when I said I would. Just finally got everything although neither lowes or home depot had pine bark fines. I was going to call my local florists tomorrow about it. Should I repot with out it? How much of each thing should I put in the mix? Can i just throw it all together in a bin? I also got the miracle grow 12-4-8 Should I use there instructions or would you have another suggestion?

    BTW, my ferrets dug up my ficus. wasn't sure what to do, I put some of the dirt back in it but didn't want to do a thorough repotting until after I got all the supplies. i am thinking of using that one persons advice of fitting chicken wire on top of it and, I don't know, using a glue gun to glue it to the top of the pot maybe. I was hoping to keep them in their spot because its the only place with a large enough ledge next to a window.

  • rina_Ontario,Canada 5a
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Hi;

    I use the chicken wire as I mentioned before; I usually staple it to the pot (I use plastic pots-obviously it can't be glass/terracota). I still use it outside to protect some bulbs and even hellebore (!) from darn squirrels...I read long time ago that after you plant bulbs in your garden beds (and I guess could be other plants) it is good idea to lay a piece of chicken wire less than 1" under top of the soil to prevet digging. I did that too, it saved bulbs from being dug out, but the fresh leaves and buds were still chewed off...

  • Smurfishy
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Well, my ceramic pots I would have to glue it, which is like all of them, LOL, although I just bought some large magestic palms that I was planning on using plastic for. I wonder though, I would need to cut into it to get it around the plant, I'm thinking this would likely ruin the structural integrity and I would have to find a way to close it back up or the ferrets would exploit it. I'm thinking maybe I can get a plastic material instead to do the same trick. Good idea in the garden, but I wonder, if it would rust and if the rust or metal is ok for the soil?

    Also, non ficus related, but now that I bought this big bag of lime, if I have extra, would this help my garden?

  • rina_Ontario,Canada 5a
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I don't think chicken wire rusts (never noticed & I use it all the time - for tomatoes, for clematis - to climb on etc. I think it is galvanized.) And tiny bit of iron probably wouldn' hurt? - read somewhere to put old nails around certain plants to supply extra iron - BUT I don't know if that is only folklore, how much iron would there be from a nail?
    To put it around plant you would have to cut out large circle to fit inside of pot, than small one to accomodate trunk & cut across to be able to "slip it on". You can kind of sew that seam together with wire...I know, maybe too much fuss. Maybe ferrets are too smart anyway to figure out how to undo it?! I am not sure about plastic, plants may not be able to breathe. How about sprinkling of something (not sure what would deter ferrets - maybe cinnamon?) on top of the soil. Some folks use chilli pepper powder, but that could be pretty bad if it gets into their eyes...I like animals enough not to do that.

    You can get plastic screen mesh material (for screens on doors/windows), that would be much easier to work with. I would cut large square so it hangs over the edge of pot, and attach something heavyier (like rocks) around perimeter & the corners of it to keep it down...I am getting too crafty here!
    Rina

  • julia_c
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Im looking for advice for my ficus elastica which is about 6 years old now. Originally bought him when i lived in an apartment and after I brought him home he almost immediately dropped all his lower leaves. As the years passed he struggled on, getting taller and taller, but remained leafless except for some leaves at the top of his branches. I now have a front porch that receives daylight all day long and a back patio that receives full sun in the mornings and early afternoons and is shaded the rest of the day. Id like to move my plant outdoors. Which option do you think is best. And could anyone advise on how to get him to stop growing taller and maybe encourage some lower leave growth? All suggestions are appreciated. Going to try to include some pictures now...hopefully this works!

    {{gwi:110382}}

    {{gwi:110383}}

  • tapla
    Original Author
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    First observation is the pot looks large for the plant mass you have, which will probably make watering properly difficult.

    You don't say where you live, but if temps are reliably above 55*, I'd keep the plant outdoors, but I wouldn't immediately expose it to direct sun. This will cause sunburn (photo-oxidation).

    If I was going to write a plan for you, it would go like this:

    Now - flush the soil thoroughly to get rid of accumulating salts. Use a wick or at least tilt the pot at a steep angle until drainage stops - to help drain additional water (it works - check it out). Fertilize with the recommended dose of any soluble fertilizer with a 3:1:2 ratio (different from NPK %s - ask if you don't understand my meaning. The easiest to find would be Miracle-Gro 12-4-8, but I prefer Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 [better, but not easy to find]). At the same time, tip prune all the stems by removing the top leaf and the growing tip of the stem. This truncates the stem and terminates its ability to grow. It also forces back-budding because it forces the tree to spend it's energy on activating latent buds in the leaf axils (crotches). Eventually, we'll be able to have branches growing from just above the soil line if you'd like.

    Then - wait until the tree builds up some energy reserves. I'd repot it between Father's Day & Independence Day. Between now & then, if you have interest in houseplants and want to understand some of the influences things like soil choice, fertility levels, watering habits, light, ..... have on your plant, I'll offer a couple of links to some things I think will really help you. If not - if you'd just rather follow directions (or not), that's ok too. I have no doubt the planting could be showing off its new look and vitality by summer's end.

    Al

  • julia_c
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Thanks so much for getting back to me. I'm in zone 6 and we're having some odd weather right now. I plan on keeping him outside, but I will move him closer to the house where it is shaded all day long to let him acclimate to being outside and I'll just bring him inside when the temps drop below 55 at night. I had recently mixed some plant food into the soil. It's the hard round pellet stuff called Scott's Osmocote for houseplants where you only do it every 3 months. Should I still fertizlize with the soluble fertilizer or wait until I repot him and get rid of the other stuff?

    Honestly, I'm much better at following directions! I've read most of your earlier posts and knew you were the guy to listen to. One question, you talk about energy reserves a lot...how can you tell if the plant has built engergy reserves? Just curious.

  • tapla
    Original Author
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Good questions ....

    How recently did you mix in the CRF (Osmocote)? How much CRF used; and how much soil would you estimate there to be in the container?

    What you can see above ground in trees with low energy levels will include the tendency to shed lower & interior foliage & concentrate growth very near apices (the growing tips of branches & stems). Growth is often stalled or thin/weak, and there will be nearly no lateral breaks (side-branching or back-budding).

    Low energy reserves can be attributed to something as simple as where the plant is in its growth cycle (time of year) or the plant operation or having recently been operating under stress/strain (at or below the limits it was genetically programmed to tolerate). Usually the later is a result of poor cultural conditions.

    I'll keep an eye on the thread in case you need more help.

    Al

  • julia_c
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I put in the CRF (learning the terms as I go!) Easter weekend...same time as I when I moved him outdoors. I just sprinkled it on and mixed in with the top 3 inches of soil as the instructions directed, but if I had to guess, I would say about 3 to 4 teaspoons went in. The bottom 1/3 of the pot has a drainage layer (which I now know is ineffective after reading your article on container soils), so I would say there is still a good 9 inches of potting soil in there. Do you think I should hold off on the soluble fertilizer or maybe begin fertilizing at only half strength?

    I already did do the flush and tip pruned the growing stem based on what I had read in your previous posts. I will go back and remove the top leaf as well. Would removing more of the top leaves assist in the back-budding? I'm so worried that the back-budding won't happen at all that I would be willing to remove more leaves if this will benefit the plant in the long run. Between "now" and "then" I am going to work on assembling the different materials for the soil mix you recommend: pine bark, turface, and crushed granite.

    I'd also like to get your thoughts on a new pot. You say the one I have looks large..are we talking width or depth? For some perspective, the plant in the pictures is just over 3 feet tall from soil line to top leaf. The pot is about 15 inches deep and just as wide at the top. My long-term goal for this plant is to not have it grow any taller but wider would be fine with me.

    I must say after reading about your fertilization techniques and soil mixes, the thing I like most about your advice, is that the information is applicable to all plants in containers. As a beginner, it makes me feel more confident when the things I'm learning or trying for the first time can be applied to more than just one species. So, if I see a new plant and want to bring it home, I won't have to worry so much about whether I'll be able to keep it alive or not. And knowing that makes all the difference!

  • tapla
    Original Author
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I think I'd hold off on the soluble fertilizer now until after you repot - it sounds like you have enough to keep the plant's needs met with the CRF you incorporated.

    Tip pruning gets the back-budding process started. It's a hormonal thing. Removing the tip removes the source of a growth regulator (auxin) that suppresses the growth of dormant buds. When auxin no longer flows toward roots in a volume sufficient to suppress another growth regulator (cytokinin), the other growth regulator becomes dominant & stimulates back-budding.

    The leaves are where the plant makes its food. Keep in mind that fertilizer is not plant food - it provides the building blocks plants use to make their own food (sugar) and keep their systems orderly. So, cutting off more leaves will put the plant at a disadvantage because it would be making less food and storing less energy. We want to build up energy reserves so when you DO repot and prune, the plant can respond in a robust manner, instead of languishing while it decides if it wants to live or die. As a grower, you can control the way the plant responds with good timing, to a large degree.

    Once the plant has a lot of vitality, you'll first root prune, then cut the plant back hard a few weeks later, after the roots have recovered. This will promote profuse back-budding & get the stems to break low on the stem - just what you're after.

    How large the pot can/should be depends on your soil choice. The more water retentive your soil is, the more critical pot size is. When you choose a soil that is well-aerated and holds little or no perched water, you can plant a single seed in a 55 gallon drum of soil and expect rampant growth with no worry about root issues. It's the perched water that causes all the problems - do away with it and you've relieved yourself of a lot of potential problems that keep us busy on the forums giving advice. I can tell you how to fix things, but I know that in the end you'll appreciate it a lot more if I tell you how to prevent problems so you don't have anything TO fix. So, the pot size will be fine if you choose a fast soil, or you'll be able to go smaller if you'd like - your call.

    Most growers think that most of the plants they grow require different treatment. Well, to some degree, that's true. Some like more or less light, and cacti like to go dry at certain times of the year; but surprisingly, almost all the plants we commonly grow, including succulents, like the same thing. Give them a soil that's damp & not wet, the right ratio and level of fertilizer in the soil, room for their roots to run, and temps in the 60s-upper 80s, and you've got it knocked.

    Take care.

    Al


  • julia_c
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    While this may be unrelated to this thread, I had to tell SOMEONE. I made up some gritty mix in anticipation of repotting my ficus e. You all know that after sifting and rinsing I had tons of smaller particles leftover. I couldn't bring myself to just throw it all away and then this weekend I decided to perform an experiment. I sowed half my annuals in the standard coir pellets and half in the gritty mix leftover fines. It's been two days and I have sprouts! I'm speechless. Not a sign yet of the seeds in the coir. I'm sure they'll sprout eventually, but what is it about the gritty mix that would encourage faster germination?

  • tapla
    Original Author
    10 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Aeration.

    Good job!

    Al

  • anne_g
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Hello Al and All,

    Al, wonderful information you are providing. I'm making a database!

    I've got a situation similar to Julia_c--mine has four main trunks/stems that are way too spindly with only growth at the top. Two trunks/spindles have short growth off of them, from below the soil level. I want to shorten these tall, langley creatures into a thick bush-like tree. I have followed your advice and have pruned the top-most leaves/growth. I will wait until late June/early July to dismantle it and take a look at the roots.

    I'm using a home-made soil--parts Succulent Miracle-Gro mix, perlite, and "Hydro-Balls", an expanded clay matter.

    I started last year, and watered when the soil was dry at the pot hole. Life got crazy, and watering intervals became long in-between. Some of my plants have suffered--my jade are fine but my Ficus are hurting.

    Any suggestions you have will be appreciated. I'll keep tabs on this for your responses to Julia_C, as my plants look like hers right now!

  • tapla
    Original Author
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Thanks for the kind words, Anne.

    If a Ficus E won't support its own weight, it's not getting enough light. That's something that can be dealt with through selective pruning w/o staking, but more light would be better.

    Too little light, lack of air movement, and N deficiencies, can all contribute to growth that is concentrated very near to apices (the growing tips of branches), but the most common cause is root congestion. This can occur even if you're potting up regularly. It's the congestion at the center of the root mass that is responsible for poor root function and the impediment of the polar flow of water and nutrients as well as photosynthate (food - from the foliage). Tight roots can dramatically slow growth, reduce vitality, decrease internode length, and cause a significant reduction in leaf size, as well as inhibit lateral breaks (back-budding). Usually, I can tell if a tree is root-bound at a glance by looking for the 'poodle/pom pom look', or by observing internode length or the distance between leaf bundle scars.

    So, you've tip-pruned so far and are just in a holding pattern, waiting to repot? My suggestion would be to keep your eyes peeled for a pine bark product you can use to make a soil that drains well and allows you to water with no fear of root issues resulting from the soil remaining soggy for extended periods. Then, when it comes time to repot you'll be able to move your plant to a root-healthy medium, which should make a significant difference.

    If the hydro-balls you are using are approximately the size of marbles, their inclusion in the mix probably has no significant impact on its performance. If anything, they might slightly reduce water retention, but their impact on drainage (flo-thru rates), aeration, and the ht of the PWT are probably of no significance. I think you'll benefit from a soil BASED on larger particles like pine bark, instead of a finely textured soil you're attempting to amend with a small fraction of large particles.

    Hopefully, Julia will be back soon with a report. It's getting close to the ideal time for repotting houseplants & tropical trees.

    Al


  • anne_g
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Okay, thanks, Al.

    I'll be on the look-out for pine bark--is this something I could find at my local nursery?

  • tapla
    Original Author
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Pine bark is where you find it .... and I'm not trying to be smart or evasive. It's packaged under a wide variety of names, like pine bark mulch, soil conditioner, clay soil conditioner, premium landscape mulch ...... and so on. What's important isn't what it says on the bag, as long as it's pine bark and the size is appropriate. There in's the rub. It's usually easy to find pine bark, but not always easy to find it in a size that's appropriate.

    I have no problem getting the right size any time I need it from one of at least a half dozen fairly reliable and nearby sources, but I've had a lot of years of scouting to make note of where it's available. May I ask what city you live in, or what large city you live near? Do you ever get to Chicago?

    Ideally, you would like a bark product with pieces from dust size to about 1/2", with most of the pieces concentrated in the 1/8-3/8" size range.
    {{gwi:2389}}
    What you see @ 6:00 above is about ideal to make the soil you see in the middle. If you're lucky enough to have a Fafard distributor near you, they make several soils that would be appropriate for potting trees. What I consider 'appropriate', is a soil you can water freely. One that you can completely saturate and then flush accumulating salts from the soil without concern that the soil will remain soggy so long that root function is significantly impaired, or worse - root rot sets in.

    It won't help you now, but if you wanted to plan around it, I'll be traveling through northern IN as I skirt the big lake on my way to Chicago in Aug. I'd be happy to bring a few bags of bark, or even make the soil for you if you have a way to get it or somewhere I can drop it that doesn't take me too far off my route. Lol - references furnished on request. ;-)

    Al

  • julia_c
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    OK Al,

    I'm thinking it's that time. Not only has my ficus stopped dropping leaves since I've put him outside. But there are new leaves just breaking through all up and down the bare woody stems! This is pretty exciting since it has never happened before.

    So I'll probably do the root prune this weekend and into the gritty mix he'll go unless you think there is any reason to wait longer.

    One thing I still haven`t quite figured out is how I`m going to stabilize the four trunks post surgery. I haven`t been able to find any pot clips like you had in the picture. Plus I don`t have any horizontal branches to tie the string to like you did. The skinny trunks move a lot in the wind now, so I think it`s going to be important to secure them. I'm thinking plant stakes...what do you think?

  • tapla
    Original Author
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Lol - it's easy to get pumped when you discover a new skill or different approach to things, isn't it? ;-)

    There seems to be ongoing disagreement regarding the value of repotting/root pruning as opposed to simply potting up, I'd appreciate it if you would offer an assessment about the growth rate and o/a vitality of your tree at something like a regular interval after you do the work. Fall & next spring (or whenever you think of it) would be great.

    You should be able to repot any time now, but I would take a look at the long range forecast and make sure your day temps are going to be in the upper 70s or higher, and that the night lows aren't expected to drop much below 60*.

    I would normally be gearing up to start on the tropical repots, but our day temps have been upper 60s/low 70s and our nights often see mid - upper 40s, and that's too cool, so I'm in a holding pattern.

    I don't think stakes are the answer. If your pot is tapered, you can tie a rope or wire around it half way up the side of the pot or just under the rim, if it has one, then tie your guide lines (3-4) to that.
    {{gwi:104497}}

    You could also make a hook on a length of coat hanger & hook it in a drain hole and bend it up toward the container rim. If you bend a hook/loop in the upper end, you can tie to it. Trees that are secured to the container reestablish firm footing MUCH faster than those left to sway in the breeze. It doesn't matter HOW you secure the plant, but it's to your advantage to secure it - you surely don't want it to topple from the pot.

    You can use a strip of cloth tied in a loop & then looped around the trunk to tie the lines to, or just tie the rope to the trunk - that will be fine, as long as you don't forget about them.

    Al

  • gravyboots
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Hiya Al!

    In anticipation of root pruning this F. elastica whose planting angle will be dramatically changed (see this thread, Oct 9, 2011) I am seeking your advice.

    This is a picture of the roots last year: {{gwi:110384}}From 9 Lives Ficus elastica

    I am at a loss about how to prune it... #5 will be in the acute portion of the new angle and therefore pointing into the pot, not becoming more exposed. One one hand, it might be in the way; on the other, it might provide some additional support for a top-heavy and about-to-be-very-awkward tree.

    The awkwardness won't last, because I'm going to prune nearly everything off and create a new apical shoot: {{gwi:110385}}From 9 Lives Ficus elastica

    The root portion labeled as #6 is analogous to a tap root in size and shape. What percentage of the root mass should I remove? There are a few more leaves now, but the lower pic is a pretty good representation of how the tree is doing at this point in time.

    I very much appreciate your help,
    GB

  • tapla
    Original Author
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    You don't need to be in a rush to accomplish it, but you should shoot for a fairly flat root system that radiates horizontally from the trunk,
    {{gwi:2314}}
    {{gwi:10873}}
    with no roots growing on an upward plane and nothing growing straight down. It's much easier to maintain a root system like this.

    I would be thinking about shortening the #6 root some. Sever it just below a cluster of larger roots. None of the roots on the plant now is necessary (individually), but collectively you need to leave enough fine rootage to provide water/nutrients to the canopy, so you're going to have to make a judgment call. The largest and highest root (#5) would be on my hit list & probably removed flush to the trunk at this or the next repotting. You can remove more roots if you remove the large branch you're considering removing, but make sure you don't jeopardize the tree by over-committing. Over the years, I've developed a good sense of how far I can go, and in some cases it's extreme, but I'd tend to be more cautious with a highly valued tree or your tree. If your tree in in good health and you do remove the large branch when you repot, you could easily remove 50% of the fine roots.

    As you observe the present condition of the roots, remove any problem roots first. Envision the plant as it will be oriented in the pot, and first remove roots growing back toward the center of the root mass & any roots growing on an upward plane, above horizontal. After that, if you think you're still safe removing more, look for areas where the roots are congested, and remove the largest root(s) from the congested area.

    If you want more roots to form, drill some shallow holes into the cambium where you wish them.
    {{gwi:10879}}
    and use IBA rooting hormone in the holes.

    That's about it. Work the soil into any pockets in the roots with a chopstick or similar, and keep the roots moistened at all times while working on them. Work in the shade & out of the wind. Secure the tree to the pot so it can't move, and wait about 2 weeks to fertilize after you repot. For gritty mix: If all of your roots end up being in the upper 1.3 of the pot, water often, even if the soil deeper in the pot is still moist. That's all I can think of right off the top. Obviously you've been through it before, so it should be easier this time.

    Al

  • gravyboots
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Thank You for the advice!

    I will reduce/remove roots 5 & 6 as you advise; should 1-4 be trimmed back some?

    Just to make sure we are on the same page: {{gwi:88880}}From 9 Lives Ficus elastica

    The branch I'm planning to keep to reshape the tree has 9 leaves + 1 coming on; the 3 small shoots above it have 6, 7 & 9 leaves on them, respectively. Should I reduce leaves by cutting in half or just leave them alone? (I don't want to remove the growth tips).

    I want those 3 cuttings to strike, so I'm fine if they stay attached until the end of summer so the roots bounce back...

    Nice pics, by the way Al! I will take pics & post in a couple weeks. I think after this, that tree will get left alone for a couple years :)

    GB

  • tapla
    Original Author
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    You don't know what you're going to find when you look at the roots. The picture of the root mass above isn't representative of a badly congested root system; rather, it shows a root system that had been previously limited, most probably by the soil/watering habits. If you have a large volume of fine roots, you can probably remove up to half of the large roots w/o much concern, but it's difficult to say with certainty which roots would best be removed/shortened w/o seeing their current condition.

    I talk to a LOT of people about their trees, so please forgive me for not remembering, but didn't you recently repot? If so, what is the motivation for doing it again so soon?

    Al

  • tapla
    Original Author
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I was hoping I would catch this thread when it topped out so I could leave a link to the continuation. Thanks for participating and contributing. Your continued questions & contributions helps to get the info passed around!

    {{gwi:2595}} Al

    Here is a link that might be useful: Follow me to the new thread .........

  • tapla
    Original Author
    9 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    I was hoping I would catch this thread when it topped out so I could leave a link to the continuation. Thanks for participating and contributing. Your continued questions & contributions helps to get the info passed around!

    {{gwi:2595}} Al

    Here is a link that might be useful: Follow me to the new thread .........

  • Tiffany, purpleinopp Z8b Opp, AL
    9 years ago

    This calls for a really futile and stupid gesture... (- Animal House)

    testing

  • pimpette95
    8 years ago
    last modified: 7 years ago

    Help! I got this 14" pot tree from a nursery and have been really excited with my first indoor tree. I got it 3 weeks ago and the soil looked really dry. So I watered it once it got home with a whole pitcher of water. The saucer that we got was a little too small for the ceramic decorative potter, except we used it anyways so that water did not spill onto the floor. After seeing the black edges on the leaves, I think I may have created an airtight environment for mold or fungus?

    Then, it has these black edges on about half of the leaves. It's in a 14 pot and I'm not sure if it's from overwatering or from when I wiped down the leaves with a cloth when it first came home. I really want to save this as it's a gorgeous 5' beauty.

    I recently moved it to the patio so it can get more indirect sunshine and plus it's summer here.

    Please help! Any suggestions would be helpful, thank you.

  • Lisa Susin
    5 years ago
    last modified: 5 years ago

    tapla, Thank You for expelling how you pruned that ficus!!! I live in Southern Ontario and have one that is approximately 24 years old know (wow!!) it is a tree about 6' tall and I have it in a large kinda of Bulbous pot. I just brought it in from being out side since Mid may ( yearly routine ).

    Anyway, I repotted it and even an older Hibiscus ( that was my Grandfathers ) last summer, as the pots they were in were baff'd out, as I didn't want to put them in a larger pot as they are already rather heavy for me to maneuver, I got two pots that were about the same size as what they were already in - which is about 14" high and about 16" across. I had to cut the old pots off then I pruned as much of the roots from both plants as I dared ( I have done it before ), But after seeing how much you took away, I think I will remove much more next time!! The trunk of these plants are 9" on the Ficus and I think the Hibiscus is about 16", they take up much of our living room in an 1100 sq foot house and I still have about 13 other plants to squeeze in. :) Oh, I give mine left over coffee and coffee grounds.

  • Dave
    5 years ago

    And you don't even post pics?? :(

    6 feet is small for a tree that age. Do you keep it pruned back hard every year?

  • tapla
    Original Author
    5 years ago
    last modified: 5 years ago

    Hi, Lisa. Thanks for 'following' me - I appreciate it. Was there a question I missed in your post or was it just a way of saying HI and joining in the conversation? You're certainly welcome here.

    FWIW - I'd skip coffee, tea, or used grounds in anything potted. Something I wrote a while back:

    Forum
    discussions frequently center on the question of adding dilute
    coffee/tea or grounds to plants as a 'tonic', but Arabica (coffee)
    and Camellia (tea) are known for their toxic alkaloid (caffeine)
    content and their allelopathic affect on plants as well as autotoxic
    (poison to their own seedlings) effects on future generations.
    Caffeine interferes with root development by impairing protein
    metabolism. This affects activity of an important bio-compound (PPO)
    and lignification (the process of becoming woody), crucial steps for
    root formation.


    We
    also know that the tannins in both coffee and tea are known
    allelopaths (growth inhibitors). There are ongoing experiments to
    develop herbicides using extracts from both coffee and tea that cause
    me to want to say they might serve better as a nonselective herbicide
    than as a tonic. I would not use either (stale coffee or tea) by
    applying directly to my plants - especially containerized plants; nor
    would I add tea bags/coffee grounds to my container soils.



    Al

  • Lisa Susin
    5 years ago

    Tapla, I don't know how I fell on this site, but found your post very interesting and wanted to thank and share. :) Never new that about the coffee, my guy's seem to like it. :/ The Hibiscus leaves are small know since being in the full sunlight for about 5-6 months, they will get bigger again by Dec/Jan. I'm hoping the Ficus doesn't go into shock, from bringing back indoors and loose it's leaves - last year it didn't which was great. Here are a few pic's I just took - trying to show their size.

    Trunk of the ficus, It has some grass's growing in from the bird seed my cat Orion will enjoy that. :)


    Thats a very old Violet beside the Hibiscus.

    and last is the trunk of the Hibiscus.


    Down stairs in our family room I just put the Ficus Elastica, which gets buy in poorer lighting conditions.


    Thank You again for the root pruning info. :)

  • tapla
    Original Author
    5 years ago

    Thanks for sharing the images & your thoughts. Hava good wknd! And do let me know if you have questions you think I might be able to help with. It's not an imposition - I enjoy helping people get all they can from their growing experience.

    Al

  • Shawnee Penner
    5 years ago

    Hi! I just inherited a Rubber tree from a friend who said she couldn't give it enough light and the leaves were falling off. My house is quite dark, but I put it by the only window we have that gives a lot of light (indirect). Still the leaves are falling off, one each day! Yet there is new growth. The leaves are green when they fall and look healthy besides not being on the tree. They don't brown or anything. A lot of the leaves on the plant are curled/are curling! I don't know anything about the soil as she got it from someone else too, so the soil type is lost. The container is big, but has no drainage, so as soon as it's a bit warmer outside (freezing cold currently) we will take it outside and drill some holes into the bottom. I don't want to overwater because of root rot. But I don't know what to do! I love the look of rubber plants and really want to keep this guy alive!

  • Dave
    5 years ago
    last modified: 5 years ago

    It's likely been over watered for a long time due to lack of drainage. There's also probably a high concentration of salt build up from tap water and fertilizer since it has no hole and can't be flushed.

    Photos would help.

  • Humphrey Walker
    4 years ago

    this blog is so interesting, thank you! QUESTION: I am trying to
    create a privacy hedge on a balcony and have purchased 3 ficus trees
    that are apx 6 feet tall. I'm wondering what the best sort of planter
    to purchase would be? Is it better to have one long planter or three
    separate pots? and is the

    Conrad
    Fafard 4000102 Professional Pot Mix the best choice for these
    planters? I'm in California where water is very expensive (and scarce)
    so I'm wondering if slightly less drainage would also be ok? THANKS

  • Ittai Baratz
    2 years ago

    This is such a great post! I wish I'd read it sooner but I guess better later than never.


    I am really curious about the 55F mark. I have started a collection of Ficuses which are in my patio. I have no room for them indoors. I live next to San Francisco, where there is not much heat, but no frost either (Zone 10a). Our coldest months are Dec-Jan with avg. lows of 43F and highs of 57F. When you say it takes days for the plant to recover from a cold spell, how many days would it be? What is the impact of cold roots vs. cold leaves? I believe the temp of the soil is higher than the temp of the air, and I read I can also bury the containers in the ground to keep them even warmer, or place them next to walls. Would love some advise here. Where I live I've seen Ficus Elastica, Watkinsiana, Benjamina, Macrophylla and Microcarpa growing in the ground pretty well (Though with little to no aerial roots as we have dry summers).

  • Sophie Phillips
    2 years ago

    Thank you! I have a ficus Audrey, still small. It was under my skylight but grew out of that space so I positioned it lower, still under the skylight and added a grow light. Also repotted it in my aroid mix, (bark, soil, perlite, charcoal). While it keeps growing, the leaves are smaller but also not flat, they kind of curl inward. They look like they are not reaching full growth compared to the bottom leaves but somehow keeps pushing new leaves out and very quickly too. Any ideas what might be going on?

  • tapla
    Original Author
    2 years ago

    Part of the natural growth habit of all plants in the mulberry family (Moraceae), which includes the genus Ficus, is the genetic tendency toward a successive increase in leaf size on each branch as the leaves appear. IOW, at maturity, the leaves toward the ends of branches will be larger than leaves closer to the trunk or the next lower order branch; this, not withstanding the effects of other cultural factors that tend to decrease leaf size. Among the things that cause smaller leaves are very bright light, root congestion, poor root health, and nutritional limitations. Curled/wavy leaf margins in plants recently acquired are usually the result of too much light during the finishing stages (at the nursery) before the plants reach market. If the wavy margins are currently appearing in new growth, it's likely something nutritional; however, nutritional deficiencies can be caused by cultural influences. Common issues include - saturated soil can lead to the plant's inability to take up enough Ca(lcium), an excess of Fe (iron) can cause a Mn (manganese) (antagonistic) deficiency, and a soil solution with a pH too high/low can cause either deficiencies or toxicities of certain nutrients that can cause malformation of leaves.

    In cases where it's unlikely anyone will be able to accurately diagnose what you have going on, it's almost always helpful to review the basic cultural conditions you're providing to make sure you're not asking the plant to deal with cultural conditions at/near the limits it's genetically programmed to tolerate. A very large fraction (>85%) of the plants we most commonly grow as houseplants all want pretty much the same thing in terms of cultural conditions with very little variation. A fast draining, well-aerated medium (a key element); plenty of light, but not too much; temps in the 68-78* range; no cold drafts; a damp medium (never wet or soggy); and a fertilizer program that doesn't vary much in the ratio at which the nutrients are provided, but does vary somewhat in the concentration of the nutrient solution. Getting the soil right makes nutritional supplementation a snap, and maintaining the plant's root system in a high state of vitality, which is, of course, a prerequisite to maintaining the entire organism in good health.

    The link takes you to a Basic Overview of growing houseplants in containers. I wrote it to help others avoid all of the pitfalls that commonly befall all hobby growers at some point on the path to green thumb status. If you contrast what it suggests against what you're currently doing, some things might jump out at you and be useful in formulating questions, the answers to which might ultimately provide resolution.


    Al

  • Salle Bayer-Carney
    3 months ago


    Perplexed!? Repotted my ficus into a cobalt glazed pot. Was doing ok, but not when watering leaves are falling off & turning brown. Could the glazed pot be toxic, meaning the glazed seeping into root system.. I don't over water.. please advise..

    T

    T

    hanks

  • tapla
    Original Author
    3 months ago

    There is potential that phytotoxic (poison to plants) materials have leached into the grow medium, especially if the pot was made in China (read comments, this thread), but that isn't the most likely cause for the shedding of leaves. If you answer some questions, perhaps we can get to the heart of the matter and determine what adjustments should be made. How long have you had the plant? When did you repot it? Did you really repot (includes bare-rooting, root-pruning, and a change of grow medium) or only pot up? What did you use for a grow medium? For most of the N hemisphere, June is decidedly the best time to repot. I repot all of my ficus (except Ficus carica [hardy fig]) and other tropical trees in mid-June just before the summer solstice (21 June). Have you fertilized the plant? How much larger is the new pot than the former one?

    Al

  • Salle Bayer-Carney
    3 months ago

    I've had the plant for 6 years. Replanted 2 months ago from a plastic pot into ceramic cobalt blue glazed pot, 1 1/2 times bigger than prior plastic pot. Haven't fertilized because ficus it's doing well. Used miracle grow potting soil, glass pebbles for base/drainage. Did not trim roots, light trimming of branches. My ficus is continuing to loose leaves at an extreme rate. Should I try replanting into to a Plastic pot? Seems like it's dying on me day by day & getting worse..

    ;(

  • tapla
    Original Author
    3 months ago
    last modified: 3 months ago

    So, are you depending on the gravel for drainage; or, is there a drain hole in the bottom of the pot? If there is no drain hole in the pot, that is almost certainly the source of your plant's decline.

    What is likely occurring: If you live in the northern hemisphere, repotting should be avoided whenever possible from late fall through mid-spring. For almost all of the US, the best time to repot is during the 2 weeks before the summer solstice (occurs 21 June). In a glazed pot, only a minor amount of moisture is lost to evaporation. Since your plant would normally be growing very slowly during late fall through mid-spring, roots are slow to colonize the new soil. This means the soil is prone to retaining unhealthy (to roots) amounts of water for an extended period. The excess water limits the soil's ability to hold oxygen, and oxygen is essential to the roots ability to absorb water and the nutrients it contains. The plant, when unable to absorb enough water to satisfy the leaves' moisture requirements, acts as though it is suffering drought conditions. IOW, your plant reacts as though it is dying of thirst, even though its roots are awash in a sea of plenty. As a survival mechanism, the plant is programmed to shed leaves in order to limit water loss. Now, this can occur whether or not there is a drain hole in the pot, but no drain hole dramatically increases the likelihood of poor root function or fungal infection of roots due to the airless/saturated condition of the soil.

    The gravel is counterproductive to geed drainage as water will perch (suspend) in the medium above the "drainage layer". The shaded area marked PWT (perched water table) is soil that will not drain when acted upon by the force of gravity alone. It "perches" in the pot like a bird on a wire and refuses to drain. Note where the PWT is in the middle image compared to the left image. It resides in the soil above the "drainage layer". This is highly undesirable for reasons already outlined.

    Also, how much larger a pot can be when repotting or potting up depends on how water retentive the soil is. With some soils, you can take a tiny plant from a cell pack and plant it in a 55 barrel drum w/o issue, but all Miracle-Gro products I've seen, including media labeled for use with cacti/succulents, is very water-retentive, so you're almost certainly going to be battling your grow medium for control of your plant(s) vitality.

    Let's see what additional input you have, including whether or not the pot has a drain hole, and then we can form a plan that will help you turn things around.

    Al

  • Salle Bayer-Carney
    3 months ago

    Ceramic pot have multiple drainage holes.

  • Salle Bayer-Carney
    3 months ago

    I live in the hi desert, Victorville, California. My ficus has always been in doors for 6 years. Temperatures indoors are in the hi 60° to mid 70°.

  • tapla
    Original Author
    3 months ago

    Insofar as how it would impact root health, there is no difference between plastic and high-fired clay/ceramic. If you can see no crazing (myriad small cracks reminiscent of a fish net with small holes) in the glaze, you can eliminate anything toxic making its way from the pot to the grow medium. If you haven't fertilized or used any type of tonics, insecticides, leaf shine, detergents, etc., it's a very good bet you have unwittingly over-watered due to the fact there is no way for water to evaporate or be used by the plant as the new medium is not colonized by roots and remains a hostile environment to roots due to lack of oxygen.

    My suggestion would be to lift the plant from the pot to see it the lower reaches of the soil column are saturated. If so, see figure D below. Remove the soil from the new pot, place an over-turned pot in the bottom of the pot so it fits snugly, and cover the drain hole of the over-turned pot with something that won't rot (it does not need to allow water to drain through the hole in the over-turned pot, but it's ok to use a screen if you wish). Mix enough of the soil that falls away from the roots or remains in the large pot with an equal measure of perlite and fill to the top of the over-turned pot, then reposition your plant on top of the pot. and back-fill with the remaining soil w/o the extra perlite.

    The shaded areas in the images above represents perched water. By comparing D to A, you can see the over-turned pot significantly reduces the amount of excess (perched) water your soil will b e able to hold, so air will return the the soil much faster. The operational words for the moisture level of a grow medium is damp/moist, never wet/soggy.

    After having put the pot to work as ballast, start checking moisture levels with a "tell" you can make from a wooden dowel rod. It is far superior to a finger or a "moisture meter". More about using a 'tell':

    Using a 'tell'

    Over-watering saps vitality and is one of the most common plant assassins, so learning to avoid it is worth the small effort. Plants make and store their own energy source – photosynthate - (sugar/glucose). Functioning roots need energy to drive their metabolic processes, and in order to get it, they use oxygen to burn (oxidize) their food. From this, we can see that terrestrial plants need plenty of air (oxygen) in the soil to drive root function. Many off-the-shelf soils hold too much water and not enough air to support the kind of root health most growers would like to see; and, a healthy root system is a prerequisite to a healthy plant.

    Watering in small sips leads to avoid over-watering leads to a residual build-up of dissolved solids (salts) in the soil from tapwater and fertilizer solutions, which limits a plant's ability to absorb water – so watering in sips simply moves us to the other horn of a dilemma. It creates another problem that requires resolution. Better, would be to simply adopt a soil that drains well enough to allow watering to beyond the saturation point, so we're flushing the soil of accumulating dissolved solids whenever we water; this, w/o the plant being forced to pay a tax in the form of reduced vitality, due to prolong periods of soil saturation. Sometimes, though, that's not a course we can immediately steer, which makes controlling how often we water a very important factor.

    In many cases, we can judge whether or not a planting needs watering by hefting the pot. This is especially true if the pot is made from light material, like plastic, but doesn't work (as) well when the pot is made from heavier material, like clay, or when the size/weight of the pot precludes grabbing it with one hand to judge its weight and gauge the need for water.

    Fingers stuck an inch or two into the soil work ok for shallow pots, but not for deep pots. Deep pots might have 3 or more inches of soil that feels totally dry, while the lower several inches of the soil is 100% saturated. Obviously, the lack of oxygen in the root zone situation can wreak havoc with root health and cause the loss of a very notable measure of your plant's potential. Inexpensive watering meters don't even measure moisture levels, they measure electrical conductivity. Clean the tip and insert it into a cup of distilled water and witness the fact it reads 'DRY'.

    One of the most reliable methods of checking a planting's need for water is using a 'tell'. You can use a bamboo skewer in a pinch, but a wooden dowel rod of about 5/16” (75-85mm) would work better. They usually come 48” (120cm) long and can usually be cut in half and serve as a pair. Sharpen all 4 ends in a pencil sharpener and slightly blunt the tip so it's about the diameter of the head on a straight pin. Push the wooden tell deep into the soil. Don't worry, it won't harm the root system. If the plant is quite root-bound, you might need to try several places until you find one where you can push it all the way to the pot's bottom. Leave it a few seconds, then withdraw it and inspect the tip for moisture. For most plantings, withhold water until the tell comes out dry or nearly so. If you see signs of wilting, adjust the interval between waterings so drought stress isn't a recurring issue.

    Questions?

    Al