(u)Keeping(/u) Them Looking Good .......

tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)November 9, 2011

About a week ago I was asked to write something about what drives a plant's reaction to pruning, and how we can use the plant's predictable response to pruning to help us keep our plants attractive and establish control over their growth habit. I'm not really sure where to start, so I'm going to muse a little about 'goals', hopefully to help establish some (of your) priorities, with the confidence that there will be a 'lead-in' to the pruning discussion as that topic winds down.

How many of us actually work toward an established goal when it comes to our plant's appearance? Probably only a few. Most of us water when we think the plant needs it, fertilize using the same method, give our plants the best light we can, and maybe pot up now & then. We want our plants to grow fast, stay nice and green, and look attractive at all times.

Growing fast doesn't necessarily equate to good health, and surprisingly .... neither does a plant's being vividly green. In both cases, we can manipulate nutrition to the plant's disadvantage in order to achieve faster growth or greener color, so when the advice to add Epsom salts or ferrous sulfate (Ironite) to plants to 'green them up' comes along, remember that the advice is usually coming from someone who really doesn't understand nutrition .... or they would be suggesting an approach with less potential to be limiting; or would understand that the odds of there being actual magnesium or iron deficiencies based on a scarcity of the elements in the soil are in most cases very remote.

The first aspect to consider when it comes to keeping our plants attractive is their health, that is, their vitality. A plant's vitality is measured in how well it is able to function within the limiting effects of its cultural surroundings. While the word "health" covers a LOT of territory, the 3 primary cultural influences that most affect the appearance of the plant are soil choice and watering habits, light, and nutrition.

Root health is key to an attractive plant. There is no chance for a healthy plant unless the root system is healthy, so find a thread that addresses how water and soils interact & gain an understanding of that relationship so you can consistently provide a healthy root environment. Learn to do full repots instead of potting up. Find a good thread about nutrition and establish a GOOD nutritional supplementation program that ensures your plants are getting all they require. Resist adding a little extra this and that - TRUST your program once you're sure it's supplying all nutrients in a favorable ratio. Light is very important, but not something we can change much. You either have good light or you don't. Many of us supplement lighting where we can. It's important to understand that lack of light can be extremely limiting. Do the best you can. Ask, if you want referrals to threads that cover soils & nutrition.

Note that all issues so far relate to health/vitality. If you maintain the considered effort to ensure your plant's good health, keeping it as your focus, the rest will take care of itself - until it comes to controlling your plant's growth habit in order to keep it looking attractive. If you think a 25 ft long vining plant that winds around itself half a dozen times before it strikes out across the mantel and back, or perhaps that Ficus that has hit the ceiling 3 feet ago, or even the Aeonium stalk bearing that single rosette on the end of a 2 ft stalk you have lashed to a stake illustrates growing prowess, there's no need to read on. ;-)

The growth habit of some plants is such that they offer little opportunity for guidance toward a more attractive appearance, but many plants DO. In fact, many plants require regular intervention if the grower has any sort of vision of how they want that plant appear, or they require intervention to return them to something you feel is appealing to the eye - rejuvenation. We all approach growing differently, but if I have a plant that doesn't look good - that doesn't have eye appeal - you can bet I have a plan in place to change that. For me, because I'm able to maintain a high level of vitality in practically everything I grow, it mostly comes down to pruning and understanding how to manipulate plants so the will of the grower instead of their growth habit prevails.

There are two hormones (growth regulators) that control how a plant grows and how it responds to pruning. Understanding the relationship between these hormones forms the basis for all intelligent pruning; that is, all pruning with a plan. First though, I want to touch on something that is an important consideration that has to do with vigor.

The most vigorous part of your plants is and remains the tissues closest to where the stem transitions to roots - the basal part of the plant. Plants do not age like people, they age ontogenetically as opposed to chronologically, like us. W/o getting complicated, this means that a plant's tissues tend to retain their ontogenetic age. The tissues nearest the base will always be youngest (ontogenetically) so they retain their juvenile vigor. That is why when you cut many plants back to the ground, they virtually explode with juvenile growth. It's no accident that this type of pruning is called rejuvenation pruning and can be applied to a significant % of house plants.

Note too, that pruning roots back closer to the junction between roots and shoots has the same rejuvenating effect on both roots AND shoots. Many think it's utterly taboo to fuss with a plant's roots, but they couldn't be more wrong. Root pruning and full repots, including removal of all soil as opposed to simply potting up, have a rejuvenating effect and are an important part of long term maintenance - a far superior approach to potting up. We can talk more about that if there is interest - especially about timing repots.

I mentioned that there are 2 growth regulators that primarily determine how a plant grows. Auxin, is produced primarily in apical meristems (the growing tip of a stem or branch), but is also produced in leaves. Its movement in plants is 'polar', which means that it moves downward toward roots. As it moves downward, it prevents buds proximal (closer to the roots) to the growing tip of the branch from becoming active.

Cytokinin is the other hormone we need to consider. It is produced in the roots, its movement is also polar - upward. It tends to stimulate growth of dormant buds. It's easiest to understand the relationship between these two hormones as an antagonistic one. Think of them as always fighting against each other for control of how the plant grows. If auxin is dominant, the plant grows long as it suppresses the buds that turn into lateral growth and make the plant bushy. If cytokinin is dominant, we get a bushier plant with more lateral branching. In most plants, auxin is the dominant growth regulator ...... but it doesn't HAVE to be.

As the grower, WE can take control and tip the balance in favor of more lateral branching and a fuller, bushier plant by reducing the downward flow of auxin that suppresses back-budding and allows cytokinin to stimulate buds to grow. We do this by pruning or pinching. In the case of very vigorous material, we can also even go as far as partially or completely defoliating to eliminate nearly all auxin flow and maximize back-budding. This is an important trick in the tool box of bonsai practitioners who use it to increase 'ramification' - the number of leaves and branches. Pruning and pinching simply removes the apical meristem where most of the auxin is produced, which forces back-budding.

Pruning and pinching permanently truncates growth of each branch pruned or pinched. That branch can never extend again. Usually, the first bud proximal to the pruning cut becomes the new branch leader. This is an important consideration because we can use the information to determine the direction of the branch. If we want the branch to grow left, we truncate it just distal (further from the roots) to a left facing bud or leaf - the opposite for right. When you're pruning your branching plants, try to prune back to a downward facing bud. Upward facing buds tend to produce vertical growth and can spoil appearances if allowed to become the new leader.

These practices can be applied to most of the vining or branching plants we grow. Pruning and pinching isn't difficult, and the response is very predictable. The grower just needs to understand the options and be confident enough in how the plant will respond to make a plan and take the leap.

Here are just a few plants with growth habits and appearance were dramatically altered by selective pruning or pinching:


Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks AL.
"Learn to do full repots instead of potting up."
Can you recommend good tutorials for the proper way to repot and pot up?

    Bookmark   November 9, 2011 at 11:45PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I'm going to link you to a thread on the Container Gardening Forum that goes into some detail about repotting vs potting up. It is aimed primarily at growing trees in containers, buy most of the information in the thread can be applied to virtually any plant you might choose to grow in a container - especially the parts about root pruning and repotting vs potting up. If you still have questions, I'll be glad to answer them.


Here is a link that might be useful: This covers it

    Bookmark   November 10, 2011 at 2:35PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thank you so much Al!

I couldn't stop reading this even while at work. Bad me.lol

I am one of those that has taken away a LOT of gems from you and still continue to do so reading this thread. I never looked at my plants this way, although in some ways I have always wanted them to look attractive. Now I am better suited to make them even more so.

By the way, I have always thought the plants you share with us here are flawless. I have a couple of favorites here, but the colors of those blue flowers against those rich green leaves are beautiful in the 7th picture down.


    Bookmark   November 11, 2011 at 9:48AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Mike, that's Streptocarpella. One of my FAVS!

Al, thanks for sharing such cool info. I stick up for that pothos snaking around the room but I admit that tucking it behind the teddy bear and wrapping it around the lamp isn't really a skill... When you reach the end of the mantle, where else are you supposed to go but back to the beginning to start over again? LOL!!

    Bookmark   November 11, 2011 at 12:23PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

Al: I have followed your many generous offerings on GW concerning container gardening, water retention and root pruning. I learn something new and worthwhile every time I read your posts. You are like a plant whisperer! Thank you so much.

I would love to take a detailed course in proper pruning for both health and beauty from you. I have a reputation among my friends for always having healthy plants. But few people realize this is because I have learned to mercilessly groom my plants and to discard them when they become unhealthy or unkempt. I am fairly comfortable with pinching and pruning for immediate results, but I haven't been so good at making long range plans for my plants.

I recently acquired an eight-year-old "Teenie Genie" (eugenia myrtifolia) bonsai that I think holds promise for becoming a treasured friend. Could you comment on how you would approach a long-range plan for pruning and shaping this plant?

Here's a front view:

Here's a closeup of the base:

Right side view:

Left side view:

Back view:

    Bookmark   November 11, 2011 at 3:21PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Awwww - thank you all (Mike, Purple..., Robin) soo much for your kindness. I'm always glad to help when I can.

Robin - it's always difficult to judge exactly what would look best by looking at 2D pictures, but when it comes to bonsai, you're always safe starting with removing what will never be a part of the composition. If you don't mind doing this in stages, I think that what you need to concentrate on first are the areas that give rise to multiple branches within a very short distance. E.g., if you look at the first picture in your post, you'll note that there are many branches emanating from the first (trunk) curve on the left. There should be 1 branch there. Pick the strongest branch closest to horizontal & remove the rest. Similarly, go through the entire tree and remove all but one branch from each spot supporting branches. Don't worry about the fact it will make your tree look bare for now - it's important to the tree's future appearance to correct the congestion asap. When that is completed, inspect the tree for any conjunctions that have 3 or more branches originating from the same place. There should always be only two branches 'BI'furcating from any one point - avoid trifurcation.

After that is corrected, let's see what you're left with. It will probably be best to wait until summer to do anything additional once, that chore has been attended to.

That's going to let some light in so you can get some back-budding started. Your branches are already starting to get 'the poodle look', with foliage only at the ends of branches. That's probably from the branch congestion and perhaps from root congestion, so plan on a repot in late May - earlier if the plant is doing really well come spring.

I plan on attending a bonsai event in Rochester, NY in June, and I'll be driving into OH to get there. If you're not too far off the trail, I could stop & prune/wire it for you, and even drop off any supplies you find hard to get ....... just a thought.


    Bookmark   November 11, 2011 at 9:21PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't turn her into a bonsai artist! I have trimmed off about 80 percent of the braches and twigs, trying to open up the tree as you suggested. The poor thing looks a little like my golden retriever did when we had to shave him due to a close encounter with a burr bush.

I may not have removed as much as you suggested, but it is a start. I am afraid I may have encouraged the "poodle look" by removing whole branches without removing the tips of those that remain. Should I do more, or should I let it rest for a while?

Here's a view of what I considered the back:

I hope someone else will jump in. This is a thread worth maintaining.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2011 at 9:25AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

You did a wonderful job. It looks soo much better to my bonsai eye. Eventually, your goal will be to 'chase' the foliage back closer to the trunk through your pruning/pinching efforts. Fortunately, this plant is shrubby and back-buds very easily. You now have a very good basic structure, so put yourself on tree time & wait for it to recover. ;-) The tree will fill in to the point that almost all of the branching that now supports foliage can be removed in your branch shortening efforts. A little wiring would make a significant difference in the immediate, but I wouldn't bother wiring tips because the branches are going to be (able to be) shortened considerably by mid-summer.


    Bookmark   November 15, 2011 at 9:46AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

Thanks for your encouragement and support. This kind of learning is so much fun. I will work on "putting myself on tree time" as you suggest.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2011 at 5:51PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Loveplants2 8b Virginia Beach, Virginia

Hello Everyone,

Thanks Al for another informative thread. It's always interesting to learn the reasoning behind why and how we need to prune.

I am always looking to learn different things and i really have enjoyed seeing the before and after pics that Ohiofern has posted.


You did a great job pruning your tree. I did have to go back several times to even imagine where you started and to see and enjoy the transformation that was made.

The after picture is truly amazing and im very impressed with what you have done. Great Job!!!

I wish that we could have the pic of the before and after side by side so we could really study where you went in and started pruning.


I agree with you, great thread here and it is one to save onto the clippings board!!

Thanks Al for all the wonderful information that you share with us..

Take Care,

Laura in VB

    Bookmark   November 15, 2011 at 8:36PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Al, I have been following this forum for several years and LOVE your posts! You pack so much information into them and I have learned an enormous amount from you. I am starting to feel brave about pruning, and I'm starting to clean up some of my older (10-12 year old) plants. Definitely not as bold as I could be, but I'll keep pushing myself! Thanks!


    Bookmark   November 15, 2011 at 9:24PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

You guys are so kind - I really don't know what to say. I truly enjoy interacting with people interested in increasing their skills and the satisfaction they get from growing by way of advancing their knowledge and putting forth a little extra effort.

I took a little more time for myself this summer because I felt my trees & landscape was not all it could be because of attentions spent elsewhere, but now that the garden is put to bed and all I have to take care of are the plants I over-winter indoors, I can spend more time on the forums. I enjoy that because of the great folks here, and because I often go to the effort of looking things up to confirm anything technical I say is accurate. When I do that, I make sure I understand the context in which the offering I'm reading resides, so I end up learning things along the way, which to me is a big plus because I know I'll get to use the info to some one's advantage somewhere down the line, even if not to my own. PLUS, that YOU guys are sometimes enthusiastic about my offerings is very gratifying. ;-)

Every time I write something like this thread, I worry that no one (or few) will be interested, or that people will think I'm acting like a know-it-all. I never intend to come off that way, but I do understand that when you take it upon yourself to assume the role of teacher, there will be people who misread my confidence in what I offer as arrogance. I hope their numbers are few, but in the end, it's not them I'm trying to reach. It's people like everyone that has contributed to the thread so far that I'm interested in. All of you are what puts the 'fun' in hanging around. Thanks again for your very kind comments.


    Bookmark   November 16, 2011 at 10:16AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
whip1 Zone 5 NE Ohio

Al, I look forward to the day that my Jades are big enough to need pruning, and I can ask for your advice. Your plants are spectacular, and I hope to some day get some that merely resemble what you have.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2011 at 6:58PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

What a nice compliment - thank you ..... and I'd be happy to help any way I can.

We're all our own worst enemy when it comes to keeping houseplants healthy and looking good, and I mean that literally. All our plants have the genetic capacity to grow well and look good. How close they come to achieving that potential depends on how effective and diligent we are at identifying and eliminating the factors that limit growth. The broader your base of knowledge, and to a lesser degree the amount of experience you have with a particular plant, the better you will become at being able to reduce or eliminate limiting influences. Often, the key is to eliminate one limiting influence w/o introducing another.

This is a copy/paste job taken from something I left on another thread that delineates between vigor and vitality - two distinctly different concepts:

There are many potentially limiting factors that affect a plant's ability to grow to its genetic potential. You might notice my regular use of the terms 'vigor and vitality' when I write. It is actually a plant's vitality that we hold any sway over, not its vigor. 'Vigor' is constant. Mother Nature provides every plant its own, predetermined level of vigor by programming it into each plant .... each CELL, actually. Vigor is the genetic potential every plant is encoded with, and the measure of vigor is the plant's ability to resist stress and strain. Vitality, in contrast, is variable - a dynamic condition that is the measure of a plant's ability to cope with the hand it's dealt, culturally speaking (light, water, pH, nutrition, temperature ......). A good way to look at the difference between vigor and vitality is to look to genetics for the level of vigor and to things cultural for the plant's vitality. It's up to us to provide the cultural conditions that will ensure our plants' good vitality. Vigor and vitality are distinctly different, and a good case could be made that they are unrelated, but there is no need to delve deeper into that point. A plant can be very vigorous and still be dying because of poor vitality. Far more often than not the term 'vigor' or 'vigorous' is misapplied, where in their stead the terms 'vital' or 'vitality' would have been more appropriate. Reduced vitality is what we witness when our plants are growing under stress or strain and in decline - under the effects of limiting factors.


    Bookmark   November 17, 2011 at 9:50AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Loveplants2 8b Virginia Beach, Virginia

Hello Everyone,

I also forgot to mention that the pics of the pruned plants/trees are beautiful!!

Great pictures Al!!!

This thread really encourages me to get out the shears and start pruning. I will admit to being one who is nervous about pruning, but after I pruned some of my Desert Roses and other trees the difference is truly amazing.

I do have some other trees that need pruning, so i will take small steps and get busy!!!

Pruning just a little now will be ok? I know it is best to probably do the majority of hard pruning in the early spring/summer?

Thanks for your help Al!!!

Laura in VB

    Bookmark   November 19, 2011 at 9:06PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Thank you, Laura ..... and you're welcome!

Anything that's dormant right now (I know you have many dormant trees) can usually be pruned with abandon. The only qualifier I would add is, that applies to plants that were in reasonably good health and were growing well when they went to sleep. In most cases, plants that are in leaf now & won't be going dormant should be left alone to grow until next summer when their energy reserves will be replenished & they will spring back quickly from the work.

Robin's Eugenia is something of an exception because it is endowed with tremendous genetic vigor, was in good health, and will rebound quickly from her ministrations. In most cases, work on houseplants from Late Aug or early Sep until after Memorial Day should be limited to light pruning or pinching; this, to preserve the maximum amount of photosynthesizing surface to help the plant through the winter.

Many people think that a bonsai practitioner's trees look like perfect bonsai specimens all the time. That may be true for a while, and of the trees of the more inexperienced practitioners, but not of the trees of the more experienced. They understand how to manage and manipulate a plant's energy flow. Often, a tree is left to grow untouched for a year or more before it is pruned back to something very pleasing to the eye. This allows the plant to recover from the last round of work before the next begins.

Our houseplants are like that, too. We have an interest in keeping our plants healthy at all times so they CAN resist insects, and diseases like fungal infections & root rot. Letting them grow wild soon results in plants growing out of bounds. Over-working them or working them at inappropriate times can result in a weakened plant that takes a long time to recover. A little planning ahead so the timing of our pruning and repotting is most appropriate works WITH the natural energy flow of our plants instead of against it.

Understanding, isolating, and avoiding potentially limiting conditions and practices is the stuff green thumbs are made of.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2011 at 12:35PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Loveplants2 8b Virginia Beach, Virginia

Hello Everyone,

Thanks AL...

I thought i responded to this thread earlier, but i must have missed this one...

This is an important thread to keep on top!!!

Lots of information that we all can take in and apply later in the spring. I cant wait until spring to get busy!!!

The trees that are dormant right now can wait to be pruned (Plumeria). It is easier to prune and root the cuttings once the temps warm up. They have always done well for me when i select prune in April. The success rate for rooting Plumeria cuttings are much better in the early summer. My other trees that need attention can wait until spring when i repot.

Thank you for all of the great info...

I keep looking at some of the trees and can already tell where i want to go in and start!!! It is going to be a long winter, especially for the person with the shears in their hand!!! : )

Take care everyone!!!


    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 9:23PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
deburn(6 - Boston MA)

Hi Al, what would you advise for this schleffera in terms of pruning and pinching?


    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 12:49PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

It looks pretty good! I tend to like shorter & bushier plants, like the scheffs I included in the photos in my opening post, so what I would do is probably a little more than the tolerance level of the average grower would allow, but I'll share .... ;-)

If it was my tree, I wouldn't do anything until after Memorial Day; then, I would cut it back to just above the second (from the bottom) healthy leaf - maybe even lower if I had the tree in hand, depending on how robust it seemed. More than 20 years of practice at and study of the art of bonsai has left me with the tendency to always be looking far into a plant's future. It's not unusual for me to have plans for my trees that I know will be 10 years in the making. I tend to look at all plants with an eye that asks, "What can I do now that will allow this plant to some day be exceptional?"

Many growers are only concerned about what the plant looks like NOW. They don't understand that by doing something to a plant that might detract from it's present appearance, they could well be providing the opportunity for the plant to be something much more beautiful after some time has passed, had they not taken a hand in denying the plant its own course.

I don't think anyone buys a plant with the idea they're going to just let it grow until it gets ugly and then throw it away, so the tendency to allow plants to grow as they see fit rather than as we see fit comes from one of two places. One is a lack of understanding of HOW to proceed. I think this lack of understanding is usually accompanied with a certain ambivalence resultant of the idea that "if I mess with it, it's going to die". The other reason we might not plan too far into a plant's future is because we're not sure it HAS a future. If a grower lacks the ability to keep the long-lived perennials we grow as houseplants alive and healthy for more than a few years, there isn't much reason to devise a long term plan that ensures the grower an attractive plant for years to come.

I know I'm straying far and wide from your question, but I have hope that someone will find my musings to be of interest. I enjoy sharing what I know about plants, and it's always in the hope that if taken to heart it will help improve the growing experience of anyone with the inclination to put the information to work.

At any rate, Deburn, my impression is if you shorten the tree by at least 1/3 to 1/2, the plant will actually look older than it looks right now - just by virtue of the fact that you'll have changed the ratio of the trunk diameter to the height. That's what makes bonsai trees look old and beautiful - fat trunks & short trees. There is no reason we can't borrow a little timeless wisdom from the art, and apply it to our houseplants to help them in areas related to health and appearance. If you wait until after Memorial Day to cut the plant back hard, you can expect it to back-bud profusely.

Here is a photo sequence of a scheff I worked on. I've told the story before, but the BF of the lady in the picture killed her scheff. He wrote me in a panic, wanting to know how to revive it. I replied there is only one degree of dead, and offered to send the plant to him/her in Boston or NY (I forget). You can see the indignity a healthy plant will readily tolerate and bounce back ....... and you didn't even see what I did to the roots. Notice that the plant has back-budded beautifully in the last picture and is well on the way to becoming as attractive as those in the pics at the top of the thread. I hope the plant is still doing well.


    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 5:25PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
deburn(6 - Boston MA)

Thanks Al. I've read a lot of your recommendations from when I was active on the forum a year ago, or so. for some reason, my interest diminished and I stopped coming to the forum.

I'm glad to say I'm back now and have spent the last several days rereading many of your threads and my notes from before. You had generously sent me a few plants, two of which remain my favorites.

Back to the scheff: so don't do anything till Memorial Day? I intend to follow your recommendations and just want to confirm that there's nothing I can or should do in the meantime.

My plant actually looks a little worse in real life :-) And I feel it's got no character - just one trunk or stem and all these very small branches sticking out. Shouldn't I be doing some pinching or something??

Also it sounds like this plant might be an inexpensive way for me to learn about bonsai.


    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 9:51PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

DB - Yes - I was doing some research and ended up at one of the longer threads over on the container gardening forum last night & your name appeared many times, so I know you at least WERE an active participant. It's so nice to see you posting again! Your story isn't altogether unique. Over the years, I've seen many members who temporarily lost interest, or had to rearrange their priorities in such a way that left little time for regular visits here. It's always good to renew old acquaintances, so welcome back; and of course I'm happy you're enjoying the plants.

There's more than a little truth in the thought that sometimes it's more difficult for a grower to maintain his patience than his plants. I just posted the well known quote from Ecclesiastes 3:1

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven ..."

on another thread, because it is a good reminder to growers that there are good times to subject a plant to certain procedures and there are bad times. Part of the reason my plants are always so healthy is because I understand when it's a good idea to do something and when that something is a poor idea. I take into account what effect the things I do will have on the organism, and I don't operate under the premise that if it doesn't kill the plant, then it must be ok. It makes no sense to subject a plant to unnecessary stress & hardship when it can be avoided with a little patience or planning. Understanding the ebb and flow of the plant's energy cycle and working WITH it, instead of against it is simply a far superior way of getting the most out of our growing experience.

What I said isn't necessarily aimed at you, DB - it's for anyone to consider. Ask yourself if it's better to approach growing with a little knowledge and something of a plan that, together, allows us to take into consideration the best interest of the plant, or is it better to approach growing with the idea that it doesn't matter when or what or to what degree I undertake something that portends a hardship for the plant.

The worn argument that growing is supposed to be fun and not technical, doesn't hold water. The more you know, the easier it is to squeeze extra fun, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment out of the growing experience. I think we ALL care for houseplants because we find it fun, but the fun comes from the sense of accomplishment we get when we see how plentiful the fruits of our nurturing efforts are. We're all practicing at growing houseplants, just as all Drs are practicing at medicine. The difference is, Drs. are required to continue their education to keep their license. ;-)

You mentioned your plant has no character. It doesn't (YET - it's young), and that you recognize that and want to change it says a lot for you. I share that feeling with you - that I want my plants to have character - that I want them to be apart from others of their kind in some way. It may be as simple as the quality of the foliage or profusion of blooms, or, an example of how full a plant pinched repeatedly can be, in a radically altered growth habit, even in the choice of pot. There are a lot of things we can DO to plants to make them special. Some, are related to cultural conditions, but other things we can do go deeper than just health.

Making a plant grow, or making a plant grow fast, is actually the goal of a very large % of houseplant growers. It's only a small fraction of the growers that want to acquire the skills and level of understanding that allow them to keep their plants looking good and to provide them with character. In my opening post, I included 14 or 15 pictures of plants. I just reviewed those pictures, and every plant has character. I didn't offer that as a boast, just an observation. I never have had much interest in growing those plants to which it is difficult to impart character.

I see your plant 10 years from now with a 2-3" thick trunk that has some attractive movement (as opposed to almost straight), or several trunks (clump), nice & full, healthy and vibrant. It's as tall as you wanted it to be, and it has plenty of character. Much of the lower trunk is exposed so you can more fully appreciate how you've guided the tree to whatever its state of development is.


    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 3:00PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
deburn(6 - Boston MA)

Thanks Al! It's nice to be back. I was smiling reading your words on patience - not my strongest suit (but I'm getting better :-) And the first thing I did when you said Memorial Day was to count off how many months away that was :-) [never mind 10 years!!]

I am in agreement with what you say about learning and I've learned a lot from this forum and especially from you. It's tough for me to fully comprehend some of the stuff you've written - partly because it's new information, but mostly because I'm impatient and want to get to the "good stuff" now *grinning*

I've been reading up a little about bonsai and the amount of knowledge it seems to require seems daunting right now - I guess that's where the 10 years comes in :D

    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 4:20PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


I have about 20 plants waiting in the wings for Bonsai and many more that I have been afraid to do anything with, and this thread thanks to YOU has given me a great place to start and more confidence.

I have learned so much from you, especially on soil and how it relates to plants. I have also learned how to use fertilizer correctly and everything I grow has done well thus far!

Now I am about to embark on a very new voyage, and I hope that trimming my plants in ways I never once knew and cutting the roots to my plants I have always been scared to do will be less stressful for me with your guidance as always.

I have taken a look into the 'future' for my plants and it scares me, and I can't afford to let them all grow as tall as they want. I would never have the room for them and they would never have the character I wish they would keep as they are when younger,and boy can they grow fast in just one year, especially if you vacation them outdoors!

I will surely be reading these types of threads over and over again until I get it, build my confidence and really understand what is being said so I am prepared come this spring.

Thank you my friend. Sissy says hello!


    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 6:06PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Deburn - Thanks for the kind words! If you ever need a more complete explanation, or something put in a context that makes it easier to absorb, just say so. Don't be afraid to ask questions - you can bet that any question you have will be in the minds of other readers as well. I am very careful about protecting my credibility by not operating at beyond the limits of my knowledge, so you can rely on the fact that anything I offer is rooted in sound science and confirmed to the greatest degree possible by practical experience.

Bonsai has the potential to be either tremendously rewarding or tremendously frustrating. It is much more difficult than simply growing houseplants because of the added difficulty of smaller pots/soil volumes, and the fact we are constantly manipulating plants to bend them to our will. It's BECAUSE it's so much more difficult that the potential for both reward and frustration are multiplied.

Anyone can play at bonsai, just as they can play at tending houseplants. To separate yourself from the pack and become truly proficient at either, you have to have at least a fair working knowledge of soil science and plant physiology. If you can operate in those arenas with fair comfort, there isn't much you can't grow capably in a container.

I think it's fortunate that the soil science part is easiest to learn, yet most important. Even if all you first understand is how container soils work and how to put that knowledge to work for you and your plants, that alone can buy you the time you need to absorb the physiology part. Another way of looking at it is, if you get the soil science under your belt so you can keep your plants alive/well, you won't have to suffer the frustration attached to being unable to maintain a plant in good health (or alive) for more than a year or two. It's difficult to make much progress bringing a plant to bonsai status when you regularly discover it's circling the drain in jeopardy of becoming an addition to the compost pile. ;-) Oh - and join a bonsai club if you're serious!

Hi, Mike. I read your post late Fri night & meant to remember to reply Sat, but I must have been pretty tired because I forgot until now. Thank you very much for the credit you give. I'm always pleased when someone acknowledges my efforts, and get a lot of satisfaction from the thought that I might have helped you grow in your hobby. I think you know that's why I spend time here.

There really is no reason to think that some of the techniques we use regularly on our bonsai can't, or shouldn't, be used on houseplants. Easily, 90% of what applies to one plant applies to others. It's easy to see by looking at a beautiful bonsai tree, that what it took to make that tree special applied to our houseplants has the potential to make them much more attractive than if we'd left them to their own devices.

There are plenty of threads I started where you can get help when you need it; and you're no stranger to starting your own, so it's likely that I'd see any you start if they're in my regular haunts - so don't worry, you won't be left on your own. ;-)

Hugs to sissy for me, please?


    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 1:53PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
deburn(6 - Boston MA)

Thanks Al. I will definitely be asking lots of questions :-)

For now, I'll just stick to your last post in this thread. When you say soil science, are you referring to your threads about Soils in Containers, perched water table etc?

What are you referring to when you say plant physiology?


    Bookmark   January 23, 2012 at 9:48PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

There is much more to soil science than what I touched on in the thread over at the Container Gardening forum, but to include the aspects that involve soil chemistry would have been pretty overwhelming for beginners. I stuck to the basic physical aspects of soil science because that is what is most important in container culture. I recognize that every aspect that affects growth has the potential to be equally important, but the soil:water:air relationship has, by far, the most potential to move the hobby grower forward.

If nothing else, acquiring the information infuses the grower with the kind of enthusiasm that comes with recognition of having made a large advance, and the added success that brings. I think there is probably a group of people who think it presumptuous to speak in terms like this. Several years ago it might have been presumptuous, even though I had already realized what potential the information had to increase grower satisfaction and success; but after literally thousands of growers here at GW alone had put it to practical use and witnessed to how it changed how they look at growing in containers, I can allow myself to feel comfortable in not only that the information has the potential to make anyone who embraces it a better grower, but also in the fact that the practical experience of so many proves it.

Physiology is the study that deals with the physical and chemical activities and processes of living organisms. It's much more detailed than soil science, but the hobby grower that understands the basics has much greater potential to become proficient.

As often as possible, I try to include explanations as to how some of the physiologic influences play a part in the things I offer here, and why they make perfect sense from a physiologic perspective. I think it serves all the forums well when we can support our observations and advice with sound science and logic, and poorly when we offer advice rooted in the stubborn belief that because I've always done it THIS way, it must then be right and best.

I hope you stay curious & keep asking questions. If you do, you'll soon find your ability increasing well beyond those who rely only on their experience to guide them. The more you know, the more you CAN know. ;-)


    Bookmark   January 24, 2012 at 10:05AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
deburn(6 - Boston MA)

Btw I did look up bonsai clubs, but unfortunately the ones listed are too far to make it possible to attend on a regular basis - for now at least

    Bookmark   January 24, 2012 at 9:45PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Then nothing here works for you?

Cape Cod Bonsai Club. Meets every 2nd Monday 7:00PM at the Yarmouth Senior Center, on Forest Rd. Contact Andy Amault at email: A.Amault@comcast.net for directions to meetings and for exhibition schedules.
Northeast Bonsai Association. Meets at Hamilton Community House, 284 Bay Rd (Rt 1A) So.Hamilton, MA. The meetings are usually held on the second Sunday of the month at 1:30. The contact person is Charles Paraskevas (Act Cleaning), 37 Central St., Beverly, MA 01915, (978) 921-0286 or email: CEPHAS35@aol.com
The Bonsai Society of Greater Springfield Meets at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) at 7:15 pm on every 3rd Tuesday of the month (excluding July and August) in room 316 in the Putnam Hall building (Bldg. 17) located at 1 Armory Square. Contact: Sandy Saffer E-mail. Members of the group learn the art of bonsai, through instruction, hands-on activities and in preparation for bonsai display in local areas and events.
Bonsai Study Group of Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Meetings on the first Sunday of each month can be hands-on workshops, lectures, or demonstrations. We encourage shared learning as members work on their trees. Newcomers are welcome - E-mail BonsaiStudyGroup@comcast.net for subject matter and meeting location - generally New England Bonsai Gardens (914 South Main Street /Rte. 126 Bellingham, MA 02019) or Royal Bonsai Gardens (1297 Park St., Stoughton, MA). - Anne Karshis, a.karshis@comcast.net. Workshops, lectures, demonstrations. Members encouraged to bring a tree to each meeting to work on. Newcomers are welcome.
MASSACHUSETTS - Martha's Vineyard
Martha's Vineyard Bonsai Club. Meets at the Polly Hill Arboretum, 809 State Road, West Tisbury, MA,on the second Tuesday of the month at 7 PM no meetings Dec. and Jan. The contact person is Dan Harnen, P.O. Box 4919, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, Phone: (508) 693-9788. E-mail: Tashmoodan@AOL.Com


    Bookmark   January 24, 2012 at 10:02PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
deburn(6 - Boston MA)

Those are the same clubs that I found. I live in Boston and those are all in suburbs that are pretty far. Not impossible to get to, but far enough that I can't commit to getting there on a regular basis right now

    Bookmark   January 25, 2012 at 6:44PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

OK - just wanted to be sure we had all the bases covered. Take good care. Don't hesitate if you have questions.


    Bookmark   January 25, 2012 at 9:15PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
deburn(6 - Boston MA)

Thanks Al. I'll definitely have questions!

Need to get started on repotting that bonsai from HD I picked up. You were spot on btw abou the original pot breaking and the tree just being stuffed into what was around

    Bookmark   January 25, 2012 at 9:28PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lol - how's THAT for an eye?


    Bookmark   January 25, 2012 at 10:46PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Hi Al and anyone else...

I have another schefflera question. Here's a pic of mine that I inherited from a friend at work.

The entire plant is almost 3 feet tall from the soil line and the 2 branches break off at about 20 inches. I know that I want to get this outside this summer, prune (maybe hard), and repot. I think my goal would be to create a more full bushy plant, but I would like to still be able to see the trunk. If I cut this back in late July to maybe a foot tall would it survive and grow back. There would be no green left on the plant at all. If I do that, should I repot at the same time, before, or after chopping the trunk?

Thanks, Dan

    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 8:14PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

If you think the roots are badly congested, pot up slightly now, without disturbing roots other than to make a few vertical slits in the root mass and cutting an 'X' on the bottom of the root mass.

If roots aren't badly congested, just wait. Get the plant outdoors and acclimated to full sun asap in May - as early as you can, as long as you're conscientious about moving the plant indoors when temps under 50-55* are predicted. The plant will respond extremely well to outdoor conditions.

I would repot just after Father's Day. Let the plant recover until after the 4th of July, then cut it back as hard as you want to. The plant will back-bud vigorously, and you'll have up to around mid-Oct outdoors for the plant to recover .... again, if you watch temps.

It's best not to cut back hard AND repot at the same time. If a plant needs both, I prefer to repot first, which leaves all the photosynthesizing machinery intact. After roots have recovered and have a good amount of stored energy, THEN you can pretty much cut back at will. Attempting stressful operations like a full repot or hard pruning are best avoided in winter and early spring for houseplants. Planning your repots so they take place between Father's Day and July 4th pretty much ensures a plant with good energy reserves that is better able to withstand stress than at any other period in the growth cycle. This, combined with maximum photo-period and photo-intensity, makes for the fastest recovery time and lowest vulnerability to insects, disease, or other complications related to low energy or slow recoveries.


    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 9:43PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks, Al.

I probably should have given more info about this plant in my original post. When I received it, it was potted in peat-based potting soil. I kept it as is until last summer when I decided to bareroot and repot it in gritty mix. I found many soft, rotten roots which I cut off before repotting and the plant has responded well. A couple months ago the top of the pot broke (you can see in the picture). I removed some of the soil exposing some of the roots because of the break in the pot. I can't imagine it's incredibly rootbound having only been in this pot since last summer. My main reason for repotting was because the pot is broken. Would it be better to cut the trunk back this summer and then wait to repot until next summer if it's not rootbound?


    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 10:02PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

An old thread, but someone (Matt) just wrote me, looking for it, then found it w/o my help. I'd forgotten I wrote it.

Dan would have been served best by getting his scheff outdoors early in the season. If it wasn't root bound, he should allow the plant to gain some strength, and then gut it back hard, somewhere between Father's Day and Independence Day. If the plant was root bound, he should do a full repot around father's day w/o having pruned the plant. Then, when the plant has started to push new growth (after roots have recovered - usually about 2 weeks) he can cut the plant back hard. It would be best to make sure any hard pruning is timed so it can be done before the period Independence Day - Aug 1 if you live N of the Mason/Dixon. A couple of weeks latitude in either direction is fine S of that line.

This isn't meant to say that if you don't follow these guidelines your plant will die or come to irreparable harm; it's just better for the plant if you cater to it's strengths by working in harmony with the plant's periods of strong and weak performance, and timing any significant work so it's done when the plant is certain to be able to best tolerate it and when factors favor the shortest recovery.


    Bookmark   December 30, 2012 at 11:58AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)


    Bookmark   Thanked by tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)    May 13, 2014 at 8:35AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Hard to find this in a search now. Bump.

1 Like    Bookmark   February 10, 2015 at 6:20AM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
I believe this is a corn plant... it's blooming and very frangrant!
I recently acquired this house plant from someone that...
A lighter gritty mix and a 5-1-1 question
Hey, So I love gritty mix and only have a few plants...
Can anyone ID this tree?
It's about 8' tall, a normal 'tree shape'. We got it...
Satus Update!
It was 52 degrees yesterday, and in my yard I found...
Pachira browning
Hi, all! My Pachira needs help. The trunk is not soft...
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™