Ficus in a Pot - How to Prune to grow tall?

JohyJuly 21, 2014


First of all thanks for accepting me in this wonderful forum!

I found information here about how to prune a ficus tree and sometime ago I tried a method that was to prune it by thirds (upper 1/3, middle 1/3, lower 1/3) but the results weren't the expected.

What I would like is to encourage the tree to grow taller instead of wider (develop the two main stems).

Could you tell me how to prune it in order to achieve that?

Thanks in advance! :)

This post was edited by Johy on Mon, Jul 21, 14 at 9:48

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In order to get a taller tree, it must be pretty much trained that way from the start. You need to pick/have a central leader, much like a tree in your yard, and encourage growth in the upright direction. You will most likely need to stake and tie it, if you want symmetrical upright growth. You can pinch the growth out on the lower branches to divert energy to the main leader, but you'll need to allow some lower growth to develop a solid trunk, and prevent leggy growth. Think of it like a miniature tree in a yard, where the main leader goes up, and as it gets taller, you trim the bottom out. Typically you prune out the bottom 1/3 and keep the top 2/3 full. Just remember, it's a loooong process to create a nice tree from a small plant, so unless you intend to work on this for many many years, you may want to buy one that suits your needs.

Just a quick side note: search your local plant shops for deals, particularly "dead" or "dying" plants. I scooped up a nice ficus alii straight from a plant shop dump cart, on its way to the dumpster outside, for free. It was 4 feet tall, and about a 1.5" trunk, just what I wanted. I rehabbed it, and after about 3 years of work, it looks like a plant you'd find for $50 or more.


    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 9:13PM
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Hi and thanks for the advice!

I had this tree since it was very little and yes I plan to keep it permanently. It is growing strong but in every direction and I'd like it to grow taller instead of wider (like it is doing now).

I tried what you recommend at the beginning of spring (pruned lower 1/3, middle 1/3 just a bit and didn't touch upper 1/3) but it just started growing again in every direction instead of developing the main two branches.

Anyone else could share they experiences?


    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 6:16PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Don't be in too much of a hurry to prune lower branches - you can ALWAYS take them off, but putting them back on isn't so easy. Think of your trunk as a river that flows toward the roots. The more tributaries the river has (branches) the wider it becomes, which means a fatter and stronger trunk, with more taper that serves to make your tree look older than it is.

There is no reason you need to let your plant get out of bounds. If a branch is getting too wide, prune it - just don't do it haphazardly, do it with purpose. I can help with that.

It's hard to tell, but it looks like your plant has 2 heads. When I look at it, my eye is confused because I don't know which of the competing leaders is the apex (top). You need to resolve that issue and do some pruning that will help balance the tree's energy flow.

Logically, you would choose the fatter of the codominant leaders as your singular leader. You can do that by eliminating the subordinate leader entirely or truncating it just above an outward growing branch that compliments the composition.

What questions do you have?


    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 1:38PM
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Sorry for the late reply, I've been having some personal issues that needed attention.

Thanks a lot for your reply, yes, there are two main stems, almost the same size, I'm uploading a new picture where hopefully it would be easier to see.

Would it be possible to separate them (sawing in half through the root ball or something similar) instead of "killing" one of them?

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   August 2, 2014 at 9:10AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

OK - now I can see it's a 2-trunk planting instead of a single tree with co-dominant leaders. You can separate the trees (I'm pretty sure they're individual trees instead of 2 halves of a bifurcated (like a deer antler or sling shot) trunk; or you can treat the 2 trunk arrangement as a single tree, like this maple,

in which case you would choose a main trunk and treat the other as subordinate.

First decision is whether you're going to separate and repot or leave as is? If you keep the twin trunk arrangement, you'll want to bring the trees closer together at the next repot. You might even entertain the idea of starting a new cutting and planting a third tree when you repot. Tree compositions look best when there are 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, or 9 trees. Somewhere around 7, the eye loses track of whether the number of trees is odd or even. Obviously, odd numbers are favored by the eye, except for the number 2, for some reason.


    Bookmark   August 2, 2014 at 12:31PM
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Wow, that's such a beautiful maple tree!

I'm not sure what would be best for these ones, I kind of like the idea of the two growing together if it's not detrimental for them.

I re-potted last summer (trimmed about half the root ball) so I can do it again and bring them closer. And yes, I'll plant the cutting for sure (that's what I do each time I prune it, now it has like ten little sons in ten little pots :) I thought it was healthier for them to have their own space).

So, I guess I should cut one of them about half of it's size and the cutting would be the third tree, right? How close together should I place them ? Any other advice is more than welcome!


    Bookmark   August 2, 2014 at 6:53PM
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Jason J

You need to just give the tree time, the variegated ficus is a bit slower growing then the normal green variety. I have a green ficus, that was over 15 years old that was the perfect height and had multiple branches. I lost all my house plants in a fire. I am now starting over, with a small variegated variety that I hope to become a full size tree. But I don't see it getting to a size that I can prune for at least 5 years. My advice would be to give it time to grow and just let it grow, if you want a tree now....look for an older tree in a 5gal or bigger container, look at estate sales for ones that are very old. Its going to take time, a tree won't grow to a 6 footer in a year. I think your tree is doing very well and getting to a nice height, but remember the variegated variety is much slower growing into a tree.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 9:43PM
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Thanks for your advice, and sorry for your loss :(

I'll try to do what tapla suggested, I think that could be great. I'm just not sure on how to proceed though, specially about putting them closer together, so I'm waiting for a bit more of advice from tapla. :)

This post was edited by Johy on Thu, Aug 7, 14 at 22:19

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 10:13PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I didn't realize you were waiting on me - sorry. ;-)

The tree on the left appears to be the biggest, so cut that back to an upward growing branch that will work for the new leader. the other, subordinate tree will be cut back smaller. Note that in my maple photo, the subordinaste tree doesn't culminate in an apex. The top of the subordinate tree will actually serve as a branch, so arrange the trees so they are very close together and so the branches when viewed as part of a single composition all radiate outward like branches would on a single tree. I'm sure you'll need to remove a branch or two or three to make it work, but you have lots of time - no need to rush things. Just happily resign yourself to the fact that it's going to take time to get to where you're intending to go. I have dozens of trees I've been working on for up to 20 years, some I'm happy with and some are still 'under construction'.

Your cutting should be 5-6 nodes long. Strip it so 2-3 leaves remain and 3-4 nodes get buried under the soil. If there seems to be a LOT of leaf surface left, cut the leaves in half against venation and site the planting outdoors in dappled or open shade and out of the wind, if possible. I weould stick the cutting very close to the base of the other 2 trees so it is part of a 'clump'.

Like this:

This is a grove of 5 trees, but yours can be arranged like the 3 trees on the right. Don't lay them out in a perfect triangle. Put the 2 large trees very close, and the 3rd tree a little apart from the other 2. Rarely, in nature, would you find 3 trees growing in a symmetrical arrangement, so try to mimic something Mother Nature might come up with instead of something perfectly ordered and obviously laid out in a symmetrical arrangement.


    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 11:38PM
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Hello again and thanks for your answer!

OK, I think I have most of it clear, but I'm just not sure on how to put the two bigger stems closer together. Should I just tie them up? Or move them closer at the root-ball when re-potting?

About trimming the bigger tree (new leader):

I thought that trimming the top would make it grow to the sides so I thought I wouldn't touch that one. Could you tell me where should I cut? Here's a picture with possible places near the top:


    Bookmark   August 8, 2014 at 11:11AM
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Bump! :)

    Bookmark   August 13, 2014 at 6:51PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

When you root prune next June, simply look at what position offers the best branch arrangement, then prune the roots to allow you to plant the trunks very close together - maybe an inch apart. If you need to, you can use some yarn or sisal twine to loosely hold the trees together for a year or so until their position is fixed.

I'd probably select the yellow or green branch as the new leader, but don't cut off the main trunk. Instead, strip all the branches off of it (and the bark if you want to) and use it as a stake to tie the new leader to. If you don't remove the bark, rub off all new buds as they start to grow on the main trunk above your new leader.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2014 at 6:59PM
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Hi again, and thanks for your answer!

Just one more doubt, if you'd be so kind:

The last picture is off the bigger tree (leader?) and you said before:

"cut that back to an upward growing branch that will work for the new leader"

So, the leader it's a branch from the tree, not the top of the tree trunk itself, right?

If i understand correctly, what you say now is to bend and tie one of the top branches to the trunk in a vertical position (bending it at a 90 degree angle)? So, the "leader" will be that branch, not the actual trunk of the tree?

Sorry, I'm just a bit new to all this.

Thanks again!

This post was edited by Johy on Thu, Aug 14, 14 at 17:01

    Bookmark   August 14, 2014 at 5:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Sorry for the tardy reply. I spent a long but very enjoyable weekend at the Midwest Bonsai Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden - just returned a a bit ago.

The maple directly below is essentially the same set-up as you have. The plan is, formerly almost horizontal branch with the wire on it is to be pressed into servicer as the new leader. any time you fix a branch on a tree that's apically dominant (like your ficus) in the upright position, the tree recognizes it as a potential leader and sends much more energy to that branch than one growing horizontally.

You can see that my tree has already been chopped off once, and will be chopped off again just above the new leader. That's a technigue bonsai artists use to build taper into their trees. I might chop a 10 ft tall tree back to a ht of only 3 inches, then let a branch as the new leader grow to 10 ft and cut that back only 3 inches from the first cut. If you look at the tree below, you can see that I could easily have tied the new branch cum leader to the existing leader until it it's position is set before chopping back the larger leader. That's fine for your application, but for bonsai-related reasons I need to follow a slightly different path.

The 2 pics below are the same tree. The first is this spring after a repot and trunk chop. You can see I'm doing the same thing, but have already removed the main leader. I'll let the new leader grow until the wound is completely healed over, then chop back the existing secondary leader a few inches above the first cut. You can probably see the callus tissue is starting to roll over the wound. I expect even THAT wound will be fully healed in 3-4 years.

Notice how much the tree has grown in the gritty mix since just this spring. The secondary trunk is about 3X as thick as it was (even in view of the fact the first root work after digging the tree was harsh and the tree took several weeks to recover. If the tree was in MG soil, I'd expect that it would only have put on about 1/3 of the growth it did.

You can also see a hornbeam that has been chopped in the left foreground in the middle picture, and another branch put to work as the new leader.

That cover it? I don't mind answering questions.

An interesting note. Rodney Clemons, one of the bonsai masters I saw this weekend told a little story. He said John Naka (who he apprenticed under) was the Elvis of bonsai, which is true. Rodney was young when he started, and very enthusiastic, which John took note of. After taking several of John's workshops, Rodney asked John what he could do to increase his proficiency and build his ability, and john replied, "Rodney, learn to teach." And he does that very well. His teaching improved his growing experience in a number of ways, and that never would have happened if he hadn't learned to teach.

People often mention they think I must be bored, because the answers I give are often repetitious, but I learn a lot from the interactions on various threads. Sometimes it's about plants, sometimes about human nature, but the bottom line is, I enjoy helping others learn become more proficient so they can get more satisfaction from the growing experience, so don't be bashful about asking questions, or think I'll think they're trite. I've never laughed at someone or criticized them for something they didn't know: first, because it's decidedly discouraging, and second, even the simple questions offer room for me to expand, always with the hope that if I repeat things, what I'm saying will start to make sense to those who sometimes find themselves suffering from information overload.

The more questions you ask, the more answers you'll get.


    Bookmark   August 17, 2014 at 6:39PM
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