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What to do with my leggy Ficus Lyrata?

Sarah Gallagher
last month

Location - GA, 7b.
A little over a month ago I moved this tree from a not so ideal indoor spot to our sunroom. I repotted it in well draining soil in a well draining pot. I have the ceiling fan on high all day and the 3 screens open for circulation and to strengthen the trunk and stems. Since the soil, pot and location changes it immediately perked up and started growing new leaves. A few leaves did however get sunburned as I most likely moved it incrementally too fast.

I know I need to do something to help this tree and the very long bare stems but not sure if I prune or notch or both? Or maybe something else?

Thank you in advance for your feedback!

Comments (8)

  • ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5
    last month

    what is that media... did you make it.. maybe al could give you some ideas on a better mix for the next repotting ...

    otherwise.. thats one of the least leggy plants of this type ive seen in awhile.. and i dont know why you think something needs to be fixed ..

    screw with it at your own risk ... lol

    why do you think the ceiling fan has to be on cyclone high???


    ps: you dont think it may have started leafing out.. because it was spring.. rather than all your machinations??? .. either way... its growing.. so what to fix ...

  • tapla
    last month

    Hi, Sarah. It's not uncommon for growers to believe they're witnessing a 'growth spurt' after a plant is potted up or repotted, two very different processes. What is actually occurring is: The grower will have become so accustomed to their plant growing under the limitations imposed by root congestion (being root-bound) that they will have accepted the plant realizing only a fraction of it's potential in terms of growth rate and vitality, is normal, or its baseline if you prefer. Potting up would normally stimulate an increase in growth and vitality, but rather than witnessing a 'growth spurt', you would be observing the plant's reaction to lifting a portion of the stress caused by root congestion. IOW, what you're seeing is the plant returning a little closer to 'normal' levels of growth and vitality.

    Incidentally, a primary symptom of root congestion is loss of older foliage such that most of the leaves are concentrated more toward the branch apices (growing tips of the branches). I see that in your tree.

    A full repot, OTOH, would completely relieve stress caused by root congestion. Even after potting up, tight roots in the middle of the soil/root mass can rob the plant of up to 75% of it's genetic potential (for growth/ vitality).

    Increasing air movement causes the plant to lose moisture through evapotranspiration, a combination of normal evaporation + the process of transpiration. In order to replace 'extra' water lost, the nutrient stream must move faster, which means the plant gets more nutrients which in turn stimulates back-budding. The added light is also a key element in promoting back-budding.

    Before I make the next suggestion, let me put your mind at ease. I work on a lot of Ficus trees and have 45 (counted this spring) of my own, not counting the 50 or more cuttings I have here and there. Here is one of my trees, a F benjamina, about 25 years from cuttings:

    Below, you see the tree an hour or so later, after it was defoliated to make it easier to prune and style:

    ..... and now it's been wired ind is bouncing back:

    Here is another Ficus (microcarpa), that was pruned very hard. The second image of the same tree was taken 8 weeks after the hard pruning, and the third image was after styling:

    So, what I would do is, cut all the branches back to a single healthy leaf. Removing the growing tip of the branch will force back-budding proximal to (behind) the pruning cut. Moving the plant outdoors after you prune it would be particularly helpful to the plant's level of vitality. With most of the foliage removed, there would be little chance of it blowing over.

    The pot your plant is in should not sit in the effluent (waste water) that exits the drain hole. Set some blocks or other support in the cache pot so water collecting in the cache pot has no pathway by which to make way back into the soil. The salts that collect in the cache pot A) add unnecessarily to the level of salts in the soil solution and B) it skews the ratio of nutrients (in the soil solution) each to the others. These are both key elements in a good nutritional supplementation program. Also, Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 is a very good fertilizer for an extremely high % of potted trees. I use it for all of my trees.

    Finally, it's very important to have control over soil moisture levels. What's happening in the top 2 interest is of little importance. What IS important is how wet it is deep in the pot. That's where it counts and where things get critical. Using a "tell" to "tell" you when to water will give you complete control. More:

    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.


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    Comments (2)
    The vitality level of the plant is low, as you already know. Are you sure the plant was neglected, rather than over-tended? Over-watering is a likely cause of the plant's weak state ....... but let's not dwell on how the plant got to the state it's in. We can tell by the thin stems that the plant has been grown for a long time in light conditions much lower than it would prefer. Light alone would account for its weakened state, and would be very high on the list of cultural conditions needing improvement. In the end, how well your plants grow and your/our/my proficiency as a grower will be determined by how well you identify and eliminate cultural limitations - nothing more. I'll link you to a thread I recently posted that discusses what cultural influences usually cause severe decline & how to reverse it. More light, some outdoor time, a repotting that eases root congestion and repotting into a soil that allows you to water correctly, along with keeping your watering under control and getting a sound nutritional supplementation program in place, are the keys from this grower's perspective, and I try very hard to look at every situation from the plant's POV, not the growers. If you're willing to put a plan in motion & stick to it, you can have the plant turned around by summer's end. If you have interest, follow this link and read the info provided. If you have questions, please ask. Al
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    Dave I'm not having any watering problem with the plant, the pictures above are how the plant came as purchased. The pot that it was originally in was a 10 inch it's now in a 16 inch, it's a black plastic pot like the one in the picture with a watering tray underneath inside a basket. And also it was a complete repot, cleared roots and all new soil. I've been using this soil "recipe" for years and I think my plants enjoy a little compost mixed in occasionally and never had a issue with it.
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    Comments (2)
    you can use stick to straighten the stem, so it doesn't lean. top up the soil and cover the sticking roots. other than that the usual. provide as much light as you can and appropriate watering. provide artificial light for the upcoming winter moths. do that and the stem will fortify and straighten. if you want a bigger intervention you can cut the stem close to the ground and let it branch out and thicken. Your plant actually looks pretty good, not much wrong with it.
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  • Sarah Gallagher
    Original Author
    last month

    @Ken thank you for your comment. Why does it always feel like that when making a decision like this? Lol! As for the fan, I thought it stimulated root and stem growth plus it’s hot in GA.

  • Sarah Gallagher
    Original Author
    last month

    @Tapla - Thank you! I was really hoping you’d respond! Im so grateful that you share your knowledge and experience with us. I’m really excited to see what will happen after pruning this tree.

    Thank you for the pic examples. Your trees are so pretty. That must take a lot of patience but 25 years! Wow!

    My mistake, I did not just repot, I potted up with fresh soil. When I potted up I loosened the roots and tried to remove as much of the old potting soil as I could while still be gentle with the roots. I used a newly purchased bag of Fox Farm Ocean Forest potting soil and I added additional perlite.

    I have it sitting on two cement blocks so it never sits in water. Learned that lesson the hard way! But thank you for explaining why and what may have gone wrong in the past.

    I have the 9-3-6 fertilizer ready to use. Top on the to-do list - pickup a longer wooden dowel!

    Couple of follow up Q’s:

    If I’m understanding the fan and air circulating is a good thing? Keep that going?

    Currently this tree is getting SE morning sun. After pruning, if I put it directly outside of the sunroom, on the deck, it will get direct sun till about 1-1:30pm. Since only 3 lower leaves will be left do I need to be concerned that they will burn?

    Should I have used a different soil mix or can this work for at least this year till next spring?

    When pruning if I make a cut but then a day or so later decide I want to cut lower removing more leaves on a stem from the top, will that come with repercussions? I already pruned my ficus elastica but now after learning more from you and this post I prob should have removed more leaves.

  • Sarah Gallagher
    Original Author
    10 days ago

    Reporting back to thank you for the advice. I was thrilled and shocked at how quickly new stems started growing. Would you suggest that I prune the new stems?

  • tapla
    10 days ago
    last modified: 10 days ago

    Hi, Sarah. It looks like I missed some of your questions last month, so I didn't get to thank you for the kind words.

    If I’m understanding the fan and air circulating is a good thing? Keep that going? There are several benefits to having a fan moving air in areas where there are plants. Air movement disrupts the boundary layer or (still) air surrounding leaves, which increases evapotranspiration, which increases the speed of the nutrient stream, which delivers more nutrients, nutrients that serve as the building blocks plants need to grow normally and keep their systems orderly. It also helps to limit insect and disease pathogen infections, especially fungal and bacterial. Deflection (flexing/bending) of thin stems/branches caused by air movement stimulates production of lignin, a natural polymer that makes plants strong and woody. Air surrounding groups of plants grown indoors in still air can have a higher oxygen concentration than normal. Air movement increases the amount of CO2 plants need to synthesize simple sugars (the 'true' plant food) during photosynthesis. If you grow under lights it helps limit heat build-up in foliage, and limits the amount of dust likely to collect on leaves.

    Currently this tree is getting SE morning sun. After pruning, if I put it directly outside of the sunroom, on the deck, it will get direct sun till about 1-1:30pm. Since only 3 lower leaves will be left do I need to be concerned that they will burn? As long as the plant was reasonably healthy when you pruned it, you needn't worry much about leaves burning. That isn't to say they won't, because they likely will, depending on how much light they're acclimated to. It just won't be that big of a deal because the pruning will force back-budding immediately proximal to the pruning cut(s), and these leaves will come on line perfectly adapted to the photo load wherever the plant is sited. The larger concern is the danger of sunburn on green branch tissues. No need to worry about branches/stems covered with corky bark which is dead and will provide shade/protection for the live bark located between the dead bark and cambium.

    I regularly pinch Ficus branches and skip acclimation of leaves when moving trees from the basement (under LED lights) to their full sun summer location. The increase in light burns the leaves, which are then shed, and new branches grow from the axils of leaves being shed. I end up with lots of back-budding, which includes adventitious buds (buds on internodes or places other than the leaf axil),

    and a new flush of pristine leaves perfectly adjusted to a full light site. This is a pretty big deal if someone is trying to increase their tree's ramification (leaf and branch density).

    Should I have used a different soil mix or can this work for at least this year till next spring? The more water-retentive a medium is, the more care should be taken to get watering intervals right. Ideally, getting to a place where you can trust your mix to hold most of it's water in internal pores of porous media components, on the surface or all media particles, and at the interface where media particles contact each other, leaving all or a very large fraction of the open air spaces between soil particles free of water. Advantages offered by extra sharp (fast) drainage and high air porosity can best be achieved by ensuring a very large fraction of your grow medium would be retained above an 1/8" screen. Examples of what I use:

    When pruning if I make a cut but then a day or so later decide I want to cut lower removing more leaves on a stem from the top, will that come with repercussions? No unless we were talking about a tree that's circling the drain and you're considering removing some of its last few leaves. Cutting any branch back farther, to a leaf closer to the trunk or roots, is not a problem for a reasonably healthy tree, but you have the tree's natural rhythm to consider. It's habit will be to grow long gangly branches in winter, and nice tight growth (shorter internodes) in the summer. You want your pruning strategy to be in sync with the tree's natural rhythm:

    Mid-May - Prune off all lanky winter growth, all the way back to the previous summer's tight growth/ short internodes; this, because when your tree back-buds after your spring pruning, the new branches will come from the leaf axils of last summer's tight growth. So, where last years summer leaves were close together, the next years branches will also be close together because they come from those leaf axils or above the leaf scares where a leaf was once attached.

    Summer - As new branches elongate, wait until the 3rd leaf is about to open, then pinch the branch back to 2 leaves. As you have already seen, this will force new branches to grow in the leaf axils. Keep a close eye on all branches; and, when that 3rd leaf is opening, pinch the branch back to 2 leaves. This is the best way to increase ramification by pruning.

    Fall - Stop pinching around the first wk of Sep and allow the tree to grow unchecked by any additional pruning. IOW, don't prune after the first wk of Sep unless the tree is absolutely growing out of bounds. Even then, only remove the growing tip (apex/ apical meristem) of the offending branch, reason being - if you cut back too far you'll activate the buds you're saving to activate next summer and the branches they produce will have long internodes.

    I was thrilled and shocked at how quickly new stems started growing. Would you suggest that I prune the new stems? What I originally suggested: "So, what I would do is, cut all the branches back to a single healthy leaf. Removing the growing tip of the branch will force back-budding proximal to (behind) the pruning cut." Other than instituting the pinching regimen I suggested, whether or not you should prune depends on what you want to achieve. My plan, to cut back to a single leaf, was meant to force back-budding closer to the trunk, which would allow you to prune back harder next summer. If I thought you would be amenable to cutting the branches all the way back so there were 2-3 leaf scars and no leaves on the branches, I would have had you do that. I figured it would be better to earn credibility step by step that to suggest what you would surely view as a operation too radical and just give up on me.

    So, what is your vision for the tree? - what do you eventually want it to look like?


  • Sarah Gallagher
    Original Author
    9 days ago

    AI - thank you! This is all so helpful.

    It was a bit painful at first cutting the tree back as far as I did but I’m down to take chances, sometimes. Lol

    My vision or hope for the tree is to grow branches lower as the tree still looks very bare. I’m less worried about height than I am with filling in the empty space between the lower parts of the branches.

    So if I’m tracking my next step is to cut back to one leaf on each new branch or should I wait till next may?

    I’d love to consider a new potting mixture but I’m assuming that since I just potted up with fresh soil that I should not disturb the roots till next spring?

  • tapla
    9 days ago

    You've absorbed a large measure of information in a short time, strong work!

    I fully understand how difficult it is to follow suggestions/ instructions of 'someone we run into on the internet', especially when the instructions run to what most would would feel was on the radical side. You can 'chase the foliage back closer to the trunk by pruning back next year to this years last (closest to to trunk) branch that came from back-budding and pruning that branch back as well; or, not that you've seen how reliably your tree will back-bud, you can prune the branches back so there are 2 or 3 nodes on each branch. This will allow you to choose the direction you want the branch to grow.

    The branch above had 3 nodes showing before the pruning cut. As it is now, with the existing pruning cut, the leader of the new branch growing in the leaf axil will grow to the right. If the cut was above the top leaf, the leader would grow to the back right, and if cut above the bottom node the branch leader will grow left. This is called 'directional pruning'.

    If you want branches to grow on the trunk, you might get lucky and have one or more break after you prune hard next spring. I'd be thinking of pruning during Memorial Weekend '23, given where you live. The only sure way to get branches growing from the trunk is by making a pruning cut immediately above where you want branches. This is called a trunk chop by bonsai practitioners.

    So if I’m tracking my next step is to cut back to one leaf on each new branch or should I wait till next May? More likely, you'll be cutting branches back behind the foliage to leaf scars. The tree, if kept reasonably healthy, will reliably back-bud after pruning immediately distal to the most distal branch scars.

    On this Ficus altissima, you can see 3 latent buds showing above 3 leaf scars in a row. Making a pruning cut above the topmost of the 3 leaf scar in summer or late spring would almost certainly activate all 3 buds. Also, pruning the tip of the low branch growing to the right would force branches growing in the axils of ALL the leaves remaining on the branch. It looks like there are 5 leaves, so this species would likely produce 5 new branches given it's cooperative nature when it comes to back-budding. Your tree isn't quite as cooperative, so you would have to cut back closer to where you want new branching.

    I’d love to consider a new potting mixture but I’m assuming that since I just potted up with fresh soil that I should not disturb the roots till next spring? That's true, Trees often need a full year or more, depending on the species and age of the tree, to recover from heavy work like repotting and hard pruning.


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