Ficus pruning

sus5n.1ynn(5)July 10, 2012

I have inherited a 3' ficus from my son. It has not been well cared for. It is scraggly, with lots of thin branches with leaves only at the end. How can I prune it to make it grow fuller? And what else can I do to make it feel better?



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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven ..." ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1

Sometimes what the plant tells you can dictate the best course to follow in bringing the plant back to a state of good vitality. While pruning can force back-budding and chase foliage back closer to the trunk, I don't think your tree is a good candidate for pruning, yet. While a N deficiency or very bad light can tend to force the plant to show the greatest concentration of growth near meristematic regions (branch tips), most often it's an indication of root congestion. Tight roots decrease root growth, but more importantly, it inhibits the growth of fine roots, those that do all the heavy lifting. This makes it more difficult for the plant to take up nutrients, the end result of which is the plant harvesting the nutrients it needs to fuel new growth from older tissues, then shedding those tissues. IOW, the plant robs Peter to pay Paul, and while it APPEARS the plant is growing, the actual net gain in mass is very minimal because parts are being shed at the same time new growth appears. Pruning now will rob the tree of a notable fraction of its ability to make food, at a time it probably can't afford the luxury.

To correct, it's probably a good idea to do a full repot. This includes sawing off the bottom 1/3-1/2 of the root mass, bare-rooting the plant, correcting any root problems you find, and repotting into a fast draining soil that allows you to water profusely at will, with no concern that the soil will remain saturated so long it impedes root function, or worse, causes root rot.

I'll link you to a thread that I started specifically to help those working with Ficus in containers. Read through it if you are interested. If you're serious about wanting to get your plant back on track, I'll help you through it with instructions and answers to questions. When plants are declining, it's rare for them to reverse course w/o the grower adopting a proactive stance. Let me know what you think after perusing the thread.

FWIW - the best time to repot Ficus in containers is mid-late Jun through early Jul, so if you do decide to go ahead with the work, it would be to your plant's advantage to do it asap.


Here is a link that might be useful: More about Ficus in containers if you click me!

    Bookmark   July 10, 2012 at 9:01PM
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Thank you, thank you! Will have my tree re-potted in the next few days. This is SO helpful!

    Bookmark   July 11, 2012 at 6:35AM
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Can you go into a little detail about "correcting any root problems"?

And what kind of soil? Doubt if I can find ingredients for the griity mix.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2012 at 6:38AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

As far as the soil goes the truth of the matter is, if you can find pine bark of a suitable size you're in good shape. If you can't, there are ways to make do and to work with soils that are more water retentive, and we can talk about that. Adding a large fraction of coarse perlite is one way, but the primary benefit of that is it reduces water retention. The perlite particles don't hold water internally, so they take up space that would otherwise be occupied by water in the soil you started with. Perlite in fractions below 75% of the whole, doesn't increase aeration notably, and unless it's that large fraction of the soil, the height of the PWT remains essentially unchanged. Still, the reduction in water retention is a step in the right direction. Those are reasons why a soil based on larger particles are better for plants; and pine bark is a logical choice as the base of the soil. The gritty mix is the next step because it ensures great aeration/drainage/little-no perched water for the life of the planting, which makes growing soo much easier, but I'll leave your soil choice to you. It doesn't matter to me what you choose, other than I know things would be much easier for you with a quality soil. You already know you have options and there are significant differences between good and not so good soils.
I'll link you to another thread on the container forum that goes into more depth about repotting. When you prune roots, you remove the bottom half (or so) of the root mass, then bare-root, then remove roots growing straight up or straight down and any grossly deformed roots or roots growing back toward the center of the root mass. Basically, you work toward creating a root mass that will fit nicely over the top of an overturned dinner plate or shallow bowl. If you keep your roots wet the entire time you're working on them, your tree will tolerate it well - if it's reasonably healthy. If it's in really bad shape, it might be better to do less root work and pot up until the plant recovers. I haven't seen the tree, so I can't judge. Can you provide a picture?

Where do you live? It would be helpful if you added that info to what shows when you post - like my "tapla z5b-6a mid-MI". Do you know the species?

Ok - so the link is below, and I'll be watching to see if there are any other questions. I think you'll be quite surprised at the rejuvenating effect what you're about to do will have on the tree if you decide to carry through.


Here is a link that might be useful: Trees in containers & root pruning ....

    Bookmark   July 11, 2012 at 7:48AM
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Ok, repot accomplished.

Now what?

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 11:46AM
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sus5n(Z5 Central IL)

Think I managed a photo

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 12:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Sooo - you bare-rooted and pruned the larger & offensive roots back?

That's a tree that looks as though it was struggling, but not circling the drain, so it should recover quickly. I would wait 2 weeks, then fertilize with a full recommended dose of any soluble 3:1:2 ratio fertilizer. I'm partial to Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 because it has everything (all the nutrients essential for normal growth), including Ca & Mg. If your soil was limed, any of the widely available 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers available in NPK %s of 24-8-16, or Miracle-Gro 12-4-8 are good choices. Try to avoid any fertilizer with the middle number higher than the 1st or 3rd numbers (N or K).

I can't tell if your plant is variegated or it's a trick of the light. I'd start the plant out outdoors ion open or dappled shade, and move it to full sun within 10 days if it's not variegated. If it is, I'd leave it in open or dappled shade.

The only other concern is watering appropriately. I don't know what you used for soil. If you used a fast draining soil that holds little perched water, leaving you free to flush the soil when you water, you're in good shape. If you used a bagged soil that you feel is too water retentive to allow you to flush the soil at will, we should talk about how to best deal with that issue. There's no sense in going through it until I know more about the soil. It's not the earth's end if you used a heavy soil, but dealing with it appropriately can make a big difference in how your plant fares.
Congratulations on taking the leap. I admire your pluck. ;-)

Any comments on how difficult/easy the root work/repot was?


    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 2:11PM
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The repotting wasn't bad at all. I felt a little ruthless as I sawed off half the root ball and washed the rest of the roots bare, but it was kind of fun too.

I did use a bagged soil, but also used a huge amount of perlite - water runs through pretty quickly.

This is a varigated plant and it has been living in the open shade on my back porch.

I think it already looks better, being out of the drainless bucket it was originally planted in!

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 3:32PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Good luck then - now you get to watch its vitality grow day by day.

If you're interested, you'll find some tips that might help you with the watering part at the link below.


Here is a link that might be useful: If you find your soil stays too wet ......

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 3:36PM
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