ficus tree

gw409(6)June 3, 2012


i have a older ficus tree appx 6-7 feet. it was given to me a few years ago. i wanted to re pot to a slightly larger pot,when i did i noticed the bottom third of the root system was severely bound in some plastic and filter fabric type barrier. i removed it as best as i could and freed up the roots and did the re pot with fresh potting mix.

there were a lot of long sparse limbs with growth on top only. i cut those down to a convenient junction to stimulate lateral growth. i noticed a lot of white seepage, should i worry? i put the plant outside as i always put them outside in summer and inside in fall.

i know ficus trees can be finicky, is there anything else i should have done to give it the best shot at good health?

would love to learn more about these trees, any info is appreciated.


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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Do you know which kind of Ficus?

    Bookmark   June 3, 2012 at 9:47AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Don't worry about the seeping latex, it won't hurt the tree. You could have stopped it by spraying the cut ends with plain water from the tap, btw.

This is just me, but I would have completed the root work by keeping after the 'barrier/screen' you described until it was removed & the plant entirely bare-rooted. Leaving the center of the root mass congested and full of problem roots ensures that growth and vitality will always be limited by the condition of the roots.

Also, I would have staggered the repot and pruning by 2-3 weeks. Generally, I prefer to do the repot first, followed by any hard pruning 2-3 weeks after, when the plant has had time to get its feet back under it after the repot.

Long sparse branches only on top can be symptomatic of a number of issues. Poor light, recently reduced light levels or duration of exposure, a deficiency of any of the mobile nutrients, but especially N, tight roots, or a drought response due to a high level of soluble salts in the soil, under-watering, or over-watering, can all cause the loss of lower or interior foliage.

I'm going to leave you 2 links to look over. One is specifically about Ficus in containers, and offers helpful cultural information. The other is more general and covers more broadly the topic of maintaining trees in containers over the long term.

Best luck!


    Bookmark   June 3, 2012 at 11:54AM
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GW409 - I care for dozens of large Ficus benjamina trees in NYC. They are mostly all quite potbound and they thrive. Repotting a large Ficus is a project and not necessary unless you are trying to grow a giant specimen that won't fit inside your home any longer.

The fabric cloth suggests your tree was grown in the ground outside in a FL nursery and later potted up without removing the cloth. But it is really not an issue and did not cause the roots any harm.

The finicky reputation that Ficus trees have is because they are very light-sensitive, meaning that they must have good light at all times and they react to any change in light at all. So, it is usually when they are relocated that they drop lots of leaves. However, once they are allowed to acclimate to their new environment, they do just fine.

Moving a Ficus outside in summer does increase the light and the growth fairly dramatically. However, when the tree has to be moved back inside in the fall, the sun grown leaves no longer receive as much light and the tree starts to shed again. That is probably why yours looks sparse after spending a winter indoors.

My advice is to find a spot close to a sunny window for your Ficus tree, let it acclimate to that light, and leave it there year round. Other than regular watering and occasional pruning, it will be a pretty easy plant to care for and will live for longer tha most indoor plants.


    Bookmark   June 3, 2012 at 5:43PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Every nurseryman/greenhouseman knows and understands that growth and vitality of trees begins to become negatively affected at about the point where the root and soil mass can be lifted from the pot intact. That's why they strive to maintain the vigilance that allows them to bump the plant (to a larger container) before that state of root congestion is reached - because they know if they are lax, growth is permanently affected and the trees offer a reduced return for their effort and outlay.

Ficus trees in NYC are not immune from the effects of root congestion. They react in the same manner as trees of the same species in FL, TX, or SOCAL, or any other provenance. If you have a tree that has only been potted up and the roots are congested, the tree cannot possibly realize its genetic potential.

The suggestion regarding whether or not it's necessary to repot a tree regularly should be qualified. If you don't mind substandard growth and continued decline, there is no need to repot. If you're happy with a tree that just 'lives longer than most other indoor plants', you can probably just continually pot up until you can no longer move the plant and skip the repotting. If you want your tree to have the opportunity to grow to it's genetic potential within the limiting effects of other potentially limiting factors, it's a requirement. If you have any thoughts of keeping a tree indefinitely, or having one to pass down to your kids or grand kids, or one you can point to and say, "This tree is 20 years old - look how healthy it is", you'll need to be thinking about repotting instead of potting up. The difference between the two practices is being stuck with a tree that has the potential to survive vs the potential to thrive.

Repotting a large Ficus, or ANY large plant, can indeed be a project, especially the first time it's repotted and especially if the condition of it's roots has been ignored all its life. The key is to start repotting regularly while the tree is small, eliminating roots that grow back toward the center, encircling/girdling roots, J-hooked roots, and roots growing straight up or down. Then, the next time the repot is undertaken, it's MUCH easier.

Finally, you can grow a healthier tree in a fraction of the soil volume required to sustain a tree that has been continually potted up. The only negative associated with repotting and root pruning is the effort it requires. The positives are numerous and center on growth and health. It's easy to tell people what they don't have to do - everyone is an expert when it comes to that. Guiding people in what it takes to maintain trees in containers in good health over the long haul is another matter.


    Bookmark   June 3, 2012 at 6:43PM
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Growing plants and trees in a nursery is not the same as growing plants in the far from ideal enviroment in most people's homes. Few people are able to provide the environment needed for plants to reach their full potential, so we make adjustments.

I have many beautiful Ficus trees that I have cared for over 20 years and they have never been repotted or root pruned. They have not grown into 20-foot trees as they might outdoors in the grown or in a large nursery, but they fit their indoor space very well, are healthy and highly attractive in appearance.

There is nothing wrong with repotting or root pruning when done properly, and few people know how to do it properly, but it is important to understand in most instances it is not essential to having success with plants.


    Bookmark   June 3, 2012 at 10:15PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Simply saying it's not essential is misleading. It doesn't matter whether or not a tree is grown in a nursery can or in an ornate container on a deck, when roots are congested, growth and vitality ARE affected. There is no getting around that fact. How significantly you wish the effects of the tight roots to bring down your tree before you act or relegate the tree to the compost heap is up to you. Many of us have an attachment to our plants such that it pains us to have to discard them because they're in decline, so we WANT to give them the best care possible.

The pages of this forum are filled with posts by people whose trees were turned around because severe root congestion was causing decline. Fertilizing a containerized plant isn't essential either, but you can bet that if you don't fertilize, the plant will suffer for the inaction - repotting is the same. You may be happy with the limiting effects of tight roots and loss of potential, but not everyone else is. In many cases root congestion is so severe that potting up offers only a slight improvement as the tree struggles to grow a little closer to its potential.

I have closely observed the effects of root pruning and repotting on my own trees for more than 20 years, and I can say without question that root pruning is essential if you wish to maximize growth/vitality/attractiveness of the tree. I'm also a trained bonsai judge, which means that foremost, I'm able to judge the health of a plant critically. Plants with tight roots, in need of repotting, are always apparent because they suffer and it shows in many ways. In many cases, the simple fact that a tree was left to languish w/o proper attention to root work, is what cost the owner a ribbon.

No, we're not all out to win a ribbon, just have fun and enjoy, but part of the enjoyment for sum is seeing how well we can grow a plant, not how much effort we can avoid.

The reason bonsai trees often remain perfectly healthy for generation after generation is due to root work. Root work has a rejuvenating effect on plants because you cut roots back to ontogenetically younger tissue and it relieves the stress of root congestion.

From another of my posts:

"I have spent literally thousands of hours digging around in root-balls of trees (let's allow that trees means any woody plant material with tree-like roots) - tropical/subtropical trees, temperate trees collected from the wild and temperate nursery stock. The wild collected trees are a challenge, usually for their lack of roots close to the trunk, and have stories of their own. The nursery stock is probably the closest examples to what most of your trees are like below the soil line, so I'll offer my thoughts for you to consider or discard as you find fitting.

I've purchased many trees from nurseries that have been containerized for long periods. Our bonsai club, just this summer, invited a visiting artist to conduct a workshop on mugo pines. The nursery (a huge operation) where we have our meetings happened to have purchased several thousand of the mugos somewhere around 10 - 12 years ago and they had been potted-up into continually larger containers ever since. Why relate these uninteresting snippets? In the cases of material that has been progressively potted-up only, large perennial roots occupied nearly the entire volume of the container, plant vitality was in severe decline, and soil in the original root-ball had become so hard that in some cases a chisel was required to remove it.

In plants that are potted-up, rootage becomes entangled. As root diameters increase, portions of roots constrict flow of water and nutrients through other roots, much the same as in the case of girdling or encircling roots on trees grown in-ground. The ratio of fine, feeder roots to more lignified and perennial roots becomes skewed to favor the larger, and practically speaking, useless roots.

Initial symptoms of poor root conditions are progressive diminishing of branch extension and reduced vitality. As rootage becomes continually compressed and restricted, branch extension stops and individual branches might die as water/nutrient translocation is further compromised. Foliage quality may not (important to understand) indicate the tree is struggling until the condition is severe, but if you observe your trees carefully, you will find them increasingly unable to cope with stressful conditions - too much/little water, heat, sun, etc. Trees that are operating under conditions of stress that has progressed to strain, will usually be diagnosed in the end as suffering from attack by insects or other bio-agents while the underlying cause goes unnoticed.

I want to mention that I draw distinct delineation between simply potting up and repotting. Potting up temporarily offers room for fine rootage to grow and do the necessary work of water/nutrient uptake, but these new roots soon lignify, while rootage in the old root mass continues to grow and become increasingly restrictive. The larger and larger containers required for potting-up & the difficulty in handling them also makes us increasingly reluctant to undertake even potting-up, let alone undertake the task of repotting/root-pruning which grows increasingly difficult with each up-potting.

So we are clear on terminology, potting up simply involves moving the plant with its root mass and soil intact, or nearly so, to a larger container and filling in around the root/soil mass with additional soil. Repotting, on the other hand, includes the removal of all or part of the soil and the pruning of roots, with an eye to removing the largest roots, as well as those that would be considered defective. Examples are roots that are dead, those growing back toward the center of the root mass, encircling, girdling or j-hooked roots, and otherwise damaged roots.

I often explain the effects of repotting vs potting up like this:

Let's rate growth/vitality potential on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best. We're going to say that trees in containers can only achieve a growth/vitality rating of 9, due to the somewhat limiting effects of container culture. Lets also imagine that for every year a tree goes w/o repotting or potting up, its measure of growth/vitality slips by 1 number, That is to say you pot a tree and the first year it grows at a level of 9, the next year, an 8, the next year a 7. Lets also imagine we're going to go 3 years between repotting or potting up.

Here's what happens to the tree you repot/root prune:
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
You can see that a full repotting and root pruning returns the plant to its full potential within the limits of other cultural influences for as long as you care to repot/root prune.

Looking now at how woody plants respond to only potting up:
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
pot up
year 1: 8
year 2: 7
year 3: 6
pot up
year 1: 7
year 2: 6
year 3: 5
pot up
year 1: 6
year 2: 5
year 3: 4
pot up
year 1: 5
year 2: 4
year 3: 3
pot up
year 1: 4
year 2: 3
year 3: 2
pot up
year 1: 3
year 2: 2
year 3: 1

This is a fairly accurate illustration of the influence tight roots have on a woody plant's growth/vitality. You might think of it for a moment in the context of the longevity of bonsai trees vs the life expectancy of most trees grown as houseplants, the difference between 4 years and 400 years, lying primarily in how the roots are treated."

"There is nothing wrong with repotting or root pruning when done properly" is quite the understatement. And that ".... few people know how do do it properly ...." is nothing more than good incentive to learn, which is why I'm here trying to help people improve their skills by being proactive rather than passive.

If you admit that root congestion progressively reduces growth and limits vitality, then you must admit that repotting/root-pruning is a good thing and essential to optimizing growth/vitality. If you deny that tight roots has this effect, I'd ask you to support your contention with something other than anecdote.


    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 8:15AM
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I'll have to go else where to find an easy answer to his question, all this talk has confused me !!!!

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 11:49AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

If there was an easy answer, I suppose it would have been given. Unless the same question is asked elsewhere, I wouldn't hold much hope for finding any other answers at all.

If you have a question, Christine, feel free to start a new discussion. The more the merrier!

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 1:02PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

You only asked two questions, Christine. One was specific and got answered directly (the oozing latex). The link that's hi-lited in my first post covers the cultural wants of Ficus in containers fairly thoroughly, your only obligation would be to read it. There, you'll find answers to your general question and an outline that will allow you to keep your trees healthy indefinitely.

Disregard the conversation between Will and I if you wish. Better, would be to ask questions about anything that confused you. We're simply offering our views on the value of root maintenance to your tree, which is a part of maintaining any containerized tree if you wish to keep it healthy for the long term. Did you take a moment to read the links I provided?


    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 2:03PM
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RKWilcox certainly have some good arguments on why one should repot a ficus (or any other plant for that matter), however I would have to agree with Will on the question asked.

The original question was on repotting a 6-7' ficus. If the plant was in at least a 12-14" container I would also say that there was no need in repotting it if it was a houseplant. If it was approaching 10-12 feet I would recommend putting it in a 17-20" pot.

If well maintained with enough light there is no problem keeping a plant like this alive, healthy and lush for say 20 years, especially if in a 17-20" container. It may not win any grand prizes, but could very well look like a well maintained houseplant.

I am making this judgment from the experience of over 45 years of professionally maintaining interior plants and being the third generation owner of one of the largest nurseries producing interior foliage in the US.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2012 at 1:27AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

These pages and my email are filled with reports of remarkable turn arounds in the health and appearance of large trees that had previously only been potted up. The container gardening forum, citrus forum, fig forum, are also filled with reports of the beneficial effects of repotting (which includes root pruning). I have some 200 bonsai trees, many of them ficus (While some interiorscapers may wish to believe that tight roots has no significant effect on potted trees, perhaps because time is money and they would rather replace a tree than repot it, but the evidence that tight roots does have a notable negative effect on potted trees is overwehelming.

As I stated, every nurseryman and greenhouseman recognizes this effect and makes an effort to pot up BEFORE the root/soil mass can be lifted from the current container intact. This is time/money to them, too, but they recognize that the effort is worth the return in growth/vitality. They also recognize that once the plant is left to become root bound to the point mentioned, the plant is permanently limited and the liklihood of problem roots (encircling/girdling) actually killing the tree unless the condition is corrected (root pruning) when it is planted out is greatly incrreased.

You guys conveniently ignore these items when you say there is no need to repot these trees, but I have repotted many dozens of trees in 10-25 gallon containers, and know with great certainty that if you want your tree to grow at even close to its genetic potential, root pruning is mandatory. If it is unnecessary, as you might claim, it is unnecessary in the sense that it's unnecessary to exercise, but if you wish to enjoy the benefits of good health, exercise is mandatory.

There is also potential collateral issues associated with root congestion. The slowed growth and reduced metabolism associated with tight roots also weakens the tree, lowering its resistance to insect predation and disease.


    Bookmark   June 6, 2012 at 7:54AM
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thanks Will,Al and all others for such a detailed and informative reply, i truly do learn a lot from these forums.
i wanted to wait until the growing season was over to report my observations,

first off thank you for explaining the differences between "re-pot" and "pot up". in the spring when i did the re-pot and discovered the root mess i was very apprehensive about the root pruning, most likely doing less than needed for fear of harming the plant. after the re-pot the plant in question spent the summer outdoors and flourished incredibly in spite of the fact that the roots could have used more pruining.

going forward....
in a few weeks i will be moving the plant indoors IFO a sunny window. each year while indoors starting around springtime the ficus trees spit a sticky transparent residue all over it's surrounding area. why? and can this be stopped ? also when is the best time to prune/shape
spring or fall?


    Bookmark   September 16, 2012 at 7:26PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

So glad your tree is doing better!

Limit yourself to only light pruning in the fall - like tip-pruning or removing a wayward small branch or 2. Do your repot in mid-Jun, or maybe a week or so earlier if you live in the South, then do any heavy pruning after your tree starts to grow again after the repot. Your tree needs its foliage to make food over the winter, and leaving foliage intact until after the repot helps to maximize the amount of energy the tree can devote to making new (fine) roots.

Your tree probably has an ongoing scale infestation. I would treat it before you bring it in with a horticultural oil that has 'light, summer, perfect, or all-season' in its name. I would probably try to get 2 neem oil treatments in before you bring it in - at 2 week intervals if possible. Make sure you cover the plant completely with the applications. Use pure cold-pressed neem oil such as that packaged by Dyna-Gro.


    Bookmark   September 16, 2012 at 9:12PM
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So aside of repoting it's advisable to do any heavier pruning for ficus in the spring rather than fall?

Also could the spitting sticky liquid be caused by the scale infection you had mentioned?

do ficus trees have a specific growing season?
I do notice they become more lush when put outdoors but what about plants that stay inside year round?

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 6:20PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Where they naturally occur, most Ficus grow close enough to the equator that there is no recognizable growing season except that which might be determined by moisture availability. Ficus often defoliate partially or completely during periods of drought, and go into an environmental or situational dormancy until adequate moisture is available. As their home moves further from the equator, day length has increasing influence over growth rate. Unless your zone is determined by altitude, your tree will slow down considerably in the winter, unless you provide good supplemental lighting.

Trees rebound from any significant pruning above or below the soil line when their energy levels are high and they are able to take advantage of their ability to maximize current photosynthate (food/energy). Left to their own devices,their highest level of reserve energy would normally be in August, and their ability to make food is highest in June with the tree having as much foliage as possible. To work in sync with the trees energy flow/cycle, you would avoid any serious pruning until after you do your repotting in June. This maximizes the amount of energy the tree can direct toward rebuilding roots after the root pruning. Once the roots have recovered and top growth resumed, you can prune the top almost as hard as you wish. What you can get away with depends on where you live and how robust the tree is growing, but a healthy tree will tolerate some pretty severe work if it's required.

Your trees will always respond favorably to outdoor conditions that mimic those where they are commonly found as closely ass possible. Bright light and air movement favor lateral breaks, and a full flush of healthy foliage, and the higher metabolism this creates means the tree's natural defenses against predation and disease will be high.

The sticky liquid, honeydew, is the excrement of any of a number of insects. Most common is scale, but mealybug and aphids can also leave a sticky mess. Your tree should be treated asap after discovering an infestation with an insecticide known to be effective against the pest you have positively identified. For scale, applications of light/summer/perfect horticultural oils and or neem oil can be effective if you're persistent. For extreme cases, there are other effective remedies, but you should always try those least noxious first.

This is a link that gives a basic overview of growing in containers that should help you avoid all of the most common pitfalls.

This link specifically addresses growing Ficus tees in containers.

If you decide to read the links and want more information about the long term care of trees in containers, which includes repotting and how to manage roots, let me know and I'll provide that link as well.

All the best ....


    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 7:03PM
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