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Ficus Trees in Containers IV

tapla
7 years ago

Previous threads about how to approach long term care of Ficus in containers have reached the limit of 150 posts 3 times. I have been tending to more than 30 of my own Ficus trees covering at least 8 species in containers for more than 20 years, and teaching others in the community how to manage their containerized trees for the long term for 12-15 years. I'm also called on regularly to repot/rejuvenate large trees owned by others, so my experience with the genus is extensive, even to the inclusion of Ficus carica - the hardy fig.

The information I am supplying comes from knowledge gleaned from diligent pursuit of the physiology of woody plants, and in many cases from the pursuit of information specific to various Ficus species. In order that I might be proficient at maintaining trees in containers over the very long term, I have also spent a considerable amount of time and effort gaining a command of other plant sciences, with soil science, soil/water relationships, and nutrition getting special attention. My habit is to share information, particularly information I have verified via my own practical experience and observations, which run to more than 20 years of maintaining healthy Ficus specimens in containers, as previously mentioned.

In short, I'm not here to reinforce what you don't have to do; rather, I'm here to help you get more from your container gardening experience by helping you learn how to give your trees the best shot at growing to their potential by helping you reduce or eliminate factors that are limiting to growth and vitality.

From the family: Moracea (relative of mulberry)

Native: India, other tropical - subtropical regions

The Ficus genus

with more than 800 known species, is undoubtedly an extremely popular choice as a containerized tree. It tolerates the "dryer than desert" conditions actually found in many or most centrally heated homes reasonably well, and is endowed with a natural genetic vigor that makes it easy to grow. There is however, much myth and misconception regarding the care of this plant and the reasons it reacts as it does to certain cultural conditions. I would like to talk a little about the plant and then offer some specific information regarding its culture. I will primarily address Ficus benjamina - the 'weeping fig', but the commonly grown Ficus elastica - rubber tree, has the same cultural preferences. In fact, we can virtually lump all the Ficus species commonly grown as houseplants into a single group in all areas except light preferences. We need to make allowances for some of the fig species that won't tolerate direct sun as well as benjamina and elastica, and we may as well expand that exception to the variegated cultivars of benjamina and elastica as well.

Ficus benjamina

is one of the species of Ficus commonly referred to as a strangler fig. It often begins its life in duff, in the crotch of a tree, or high on a branch as a seed deposited in the droppings of a bird or other tree-dwelling animal. After the seed germinates and as it grows, it produces thin aerial roots that often dangle in the moist air or attach themselves to the host trunk, while gaining nutrients and moisture from the air, leaf litter, and the bark of the supporting tree. It does not actually parasitize the plant it grows on, it only uses it as support. This relationship is termed epiphytic, or the tree an epiphyte. Those familiar with the culture of orchids and bromeliads will recognize this term.

After the aerial roots have formed and extended, and when they finally reach the ground, the tree begins a tremendous growth spurt, sending out more roots and developing a dense canopy that eventually shades out the supporting tree at the same time the roots are competing for nutrients in the soil and compressing the trunk and branches of the support tree to the point of stopping sap flow. Eventually the supporting tree dies and all that is left where it once stood, is a hollow cavity in the dangling Ficus roots that have now thickened and self-grafted to become the trunk. It is easy to see how many of the trees in the Ficus genus have come to be called by the name 'strangler figs'.

Roots and soil

The roots of some Ficus species are so powerful they can destroy concrete buildings or buckle roads, and can be measured in miles as they extend underground in search of water. When we consider the young tree and its ability to obtain sufficient moisture from just the surrounding air and bark surface of the support tree by way of aerial roots, we can draw an important conclusion: All species of Ficus prefer well-aerated and fast draining soils. In this regard, they are actually no different than any other tree you would endeavor to grow in a container, so try always to use a soil that guarantees an ample volume of air in the soil and excellent drainage for the intended interval between repots. This can be accomplished by using a soil whose primary fraction is comprised of large particles (like pine bark) combined with ample volumes of perlite or other inorganic ingredients like Turface, pumice, Haydite, crushed granite, or others. I grow all my Ficus in a soil mix consisting of equal parts of pine or fir bark, Turface (a calcined clay product), and Gran-I-Grit (crushed and screened granite). To be fair, I will add a qualifier here: the cost of the potential for superior growth and added vitality when using these fast (draining) well-aerated soils comes in the form of you needing to be prepared to water more frequently as the soil particle size increases. Roots are the heart of the plant, and the rest of the plant can do nothing without the roots' OK - the top just THINKS it's in control. Take care of the roots, and if your other cultural conditions are favorable, your plants will thrive.

Before I go on

I would like to say there is a very important relationship between your choice of soil, your watering habits, and a very common and serious problem that too often goes completely undiagnosed. That problem is a high level of soluble salts in the soil. When we choose soils that hold water for extended periods, we put our trees at risk for the fungal infections that cause root rot. Reasoning tells us that to avoid the root rot issue, we should not water to the point of soil saturation; rather, we often feel that watering in sips to avoid the specter of root rot is the wise alternative. This strategy though, puts us squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If we don't/can't water copiously on a regular basis, the soluble salts, i.e.,all the dissolved solids in our tap water and fertilizer solution accumulate in the soil. As the level of salts in the soil increases, the plant finds it increasingly difficult to absorb water and the nutrients dissolved in water. If the salt level gets too high, it can actually 'pull' water OUT of cells in exactly the same fashion that curing salt 'pulls' moisture from ham or bacon. This 'reverse osmosis' causes plasma to be torn from the walls of cells as they collapse, killing cells and tissue. The technical term for this is plasmolysis, but we more commonly refer to it as fertilizer burn. Fertilizer burn can occur whether or not we use fertilizer. The salts in our tap water alone, can/will eventually build to the point where water uptake is impossible, unless we actively take precautions.

Your soil is the foundation of every conventional container planting, and your choice of soils probably has a greater impact on your effort:reward quotient than any other single factor. Please take a moment to learn more about soils. My experience has shown that understanding how soils work and how to tell the difference between a good and a not so good soil is probably the single largest step forward a container gardener can take at any one time. Find more about soils here.

Watering

Ficus b. will tolerate dry soil quite well. Allowing the soil to completely dry; however, will result in undue drought stress and accompanying leaf loss, an expensive affair, considering the plant will call heavily upon energy reserves to replace lost foliage - reserves that might better have been directed to other functions and growth. If you wait just until the soil feels dry to the touch at the drain hole before watering, your tree will be free from the effects of drought stress. Soils feel dry to the touch when their moisture content is somewhere between 40-45%, but Ficus can still extract water from soils until moisture content drops to about 25-30%, giving you a 10-15% cush AFTER the soil feels dry. Use a finger or a sharpened wooden dowel stuck deep into the soil to check for moisture content. A wooden skewer or chopstick used in similar fashion is also a useful tool, and feeling the soil at the drain hole and withholding water until it feels dry there, is also a good way to judge. Water meters are rather ineffective, They actually measure EC (electrical conductivity). To illustrate: Insert a clean probe into a cup of distilled water. It will read 'DRY'. Add a little table salt of fertilizer, it will read 'WET'.

Though I try never to water my Ficus with cold water, I have never been able to verify that cold water has any negative impact on our houseplants ..... and I've asked a good number of horticulture's upper crust about any potentially negative effects, always receiving a shrug. The best way to water your Ficus it to apply water slowly until you estimate the soil is almost wet enough that water is about to appear at the drain hole. Wait a few minutes and water again so at least 10-15% of the total volume of water applied exits the drain. The first watering dissolves accumulated salts in the soil and allows them to go into solution. The second watering carries them out of the container. We already illustrated the importance of using a soil that allows us to water in such a manner without having to worry abut root rot. If you feel you cannot water in this manner without risking lengthy soil saturation and the possibility of root rot, your soil is probably inappropriate for the plant. Lest anyone complain at that observation, I would point out there is a difference between the growth and vitality of plants that are only tolerating a soil vs. the same traits in plants that appreciate (thrive in) a medium with superior properties.

More about soils as questions arise .... please ask!

Light

Although many Ficus begin life as an understory tree and are generally quite shade tolerant, most actually spend their life struggling through the shaded understory until they eventually reach the forest canopy, where they finally find full sun and can begin to come into their own. We should give Ficus all the sun they will tolerate. I grow all varieties of Ficus b. in full sun, and they tolerate it well - even some of the newer cultivars that are supposed to be extremely shade-tolerant.

I have often read anecdotal assertions that Ficus b defoliates at the slightest change in light levels (or temperature). I have found this to be only partly true. Any trees I have moved from a location with a lower light level to a brighter location have not suffered leaf loss (abscission). Instead, they have rewarded me with more robust growth and back-budding. If the change is reversed, so the tree is moved from high irradiance levels to a dimmer location, leaf loss is probable, but even then it depends on both the suddenness of the change and the difference between the two light levels. It might be interesting to note that trees that are being grown out, or allowed to grow unpruned, are most likely to suffer loss of interior leaves when light levels are reduced. Trees in bonsai culture, or properly pruned trees where thinning has occurred to allow more light to the trees interior are less affected.

Indoor supplemental lighting is a broad subject, but if you have the ability to provide it, your trees will definitely show their appreciation. Brighter light = smaller leaf size, shorter internodes, and superior ramification (finer branching), not to mention a marked increase in overall mass.

Temperature

Expect the most robust growth characteristics when the plant is kept in a temperature range between 60-80* F. Actual root temperatures above 90-95* should be avoided because they impair root function/metabolism and slow or stop growth. Temperatures below 55* should also be avoided for several reasons. They slow photosynthesis to the degree that the plant will necessarily call on stored energy reserves to power metabolism and keep its systems orderly. This essentially puts the tree on 'battery power' - running on its energy reserves. After exposure to chill and subsequent return to more favorable temperatures, the plant does not quickly recover the ability to carry on normal photosynthesis. The time needed for the plant to recover its normal photosynthesizing ability is more appropriately measured in days, than hours. Leaf loss can also occur as a result of exposure to chill, particularly sudden chill.

It is prudent to select a location free from cold breezes for your tree. Even short exposure to very cold draughts can cause leaves to abscise (fall/shed). The cool temperatures slow or halt the flow of auxin (a growth regulator - hormone) across the abscission zone at the base of each leaf petiole (stem) which allows an abscission layer to form and causes leaves to fall. Chill also stimulates an increase in abscissic acid (also a growth regulator - hormone) which is also a player in leaf loss.

Benjamina can tolerate temperatures as low as the mid-30s for brief periods if the exposure to chill is gradual, but it should be noted that even though there may not be any readily visible impact on the tree, the tree will always be in decline at temperatures below about 55* because of the impact on the tree's inability to carry on efficient photosynthesis. Sudden and large temperature drops can cause varying degrees of chill injury in the plant, caused by phenolic compounds leaking from cells, which shows up looking much like freeze damage. Severe injury could occur in plants that were growing at 80-85* and were subjected to sudden chilling to temperatures as high as 45-50*

Humidity

Benjamina's thick, leathery leaves with waxy cuticles help to limit moisture loss, making the plant suitable to a wide range of indoor humidity levels, even though it prefers humidity levels above 50%. When humidity levels are blamed for leaf loss or necrotic leaf tips and margins, it is likely the blame has been misplaced. Those pesky high salt levels in soils, most common in late winter, can make it difficult and in extreme cases impossible for the plant to absorb water to replace that being lost to the air through transpiration. The fast soils that allow copious watering, which flushes the soil of salts regularly are actually much more important/beneficial than maintaining ultra high humidity levels. Misting is very effective ..... For about 30 seconds. Forget the misting please, it is ineffective. For small plants, a humidity tray may marginally effective.

Fertilizer

I prefer any 3:1:2 ratio soluble fertilizer like Miracle-Gro 24-8-16 or 12-4-8, and I especially like Dyna-Gro's Foliage-Pro 9-3-6, because it provides all the essential nutrients in the approximate ratio the plant will use and in favorable ratios to each other. Alternately, a 1:1:1 ratio fertilizer like MG 20-20-20 is suitable. Because I use fast soils, I can fertilize at very low doses, every time I water. How YOU can/should fertilize is something we should discuss. It can change by season, and also varies based on soil choice and watering habits.

There is no question that in addition to offering greater potential for growth and vitality within the limits of other cultural factors, fast draining, well-aerated soils also get the nod for greatly increasing the grower�s margin for error in the areas of watering and fertilizing.

Defoliating

Leaf loss in Ficus is probably the cause of more conjecture than any other aspect of its culture, so even though I have mentioned it above, I will reiterate. Even though it is widely held that Ficus b. defoliates at virtually any cultural change, with changes in light and temperature most often cited, it is not so. The plant tends to defoliate when there is a fairly abrupt change in light levels - from bright to dim, or after exposure to sudden chill, but the plant does not tend to defoliate when the cultural conditions of light and temperature move from unfavorable to favorable, i.e. from dim to bright or from cool to warm/appropriate - unless the change is markedly radical.

Repotting

First, I draw a major distinction between potting-up and repotting. Potting up can be undertaken at any time. It involves moving the plant to a slightly larger pot and back-filling with fresh soil, with a minimal amount of root disturbance. Much to be preferred to potting-up, is repotting. Repotting, which has a substantial rejuvenating effect, includes removing all or almost all of the old (spent) soil and selective root-pruning. It is by far the preferred method and probably the most important step in insuring your trees always grow at as close to their potential genetic vigor as possible. Repotting as opposed to potting-up is the primary reason bonsai trees are able to live in small containers for hundreds of years while the vast majority of trees grown as houseplants are lucky to survive more than 5 years without root work

It is pretty much universally accepted among nurserymen, that you should pot up at or before the time where the condition of the roots/soil mass is such that the roots and soil can be lifted from the container intact. Much testing has been done to show that trees left to languish beyond this point will have growth and vitality permanently affected. Even when planted out, growth and longevity of trees allowed to progress beyond this point is shown to be reduced.

The ideal time to repot a Ficus, is when the plant has good vitality and in the month prior to its most robust growth. June and July are prime months for most of the US. HOW to properly repot is beyond the scope of the initial post, but I am sure the subject will be covered in detail as questions arise.

Remember - potting up a root bound plant is a stopgap fix, and ensures the plant has no opportunity to grow to its genetic potential within the limits of other cultural factors; while fully repotting, which includes a change of soil and root pruning, ensures the plant WILL have the opportunity within the limits of other cultural factors. Strong words, but to repeat the illustration: the bonsai tree is capable of living in a tiny pot, perfectly happy for hundreds of years, while we struggle to squeeze 5 years of good vitality from a root bound plant - root work being the difference.

Pests

Ficus trees suffer from some pests. Most common are scale, followed closely by mites and mealies. I have always had good luck with neem oil as a preventative and fixative. We can discuss infestations and treatment as it arises, but so it gets included in the original post, I use only pure, cold-pressed neem oil, such as that packaged by Dyna-Gro in the black and white container. The beneficial active ingredient in neem is azadirachtin, the effectiveness of which is greatly reduced by steam and alcohol extraction methods, which brings us full circle to why I use the cold-pressed product.

Oedema can sometimes be an issue as well;. Suspect it if you see corky patches on the leaves, usually preceded by wet, bumpy patches that usually go unnoticed.

This is a long post, and took a long time to compose. I hope it answers most of your questions, but somehow, I cannot help but hope there are a few lingering that you would like to ask or points you would like to have clarified. It is great fun visiting and helping people who are devoted about improving their abilities to provide for their trees.

Best luck.

Al

Here is a link to the previous thread, which is packed with good information.

Additionally, you can find more detailed information about tending trees in containers for the long term here.

I'll leave the link to more information about container soils again - because it's soo important.

I truly hope you have found some value in this offering. Thanks for reading to the end.

Al

Comments (299)

  • tropicofcancer (6b SW-PA)

    Hi Lyrata: keeping roots moist when out of soil is minimum requirement. You can have them dripping wet too. Many times I run out of time when it is late in the evening/night and I leave the bare rooted plant in a bucket of water overnight. In fact when I bare root I have a bucket of water ready and dunk the roots in it while bare rooting. With bigger plants with larger root balls this can be a pain. In those cases I use the hose at gentle spray (or spread mode as you say) or mist setting.

    Trying to crush akadama is a pain. A lot will turn to dust since it is quite soft compared to other harder ingredients. But most often the bagged akadama is approximately the right size - may be a tad bit bigger.

    tapla thanked tropicofcancer (6b SW-PA)
  • PRO
    Lyrata

    Hi guys :)

    Dave and Tropico thank you so much for your help! Just on time ;) I will do as you say, I'm actually on my probably 40th hour of work non stop, 4.30 A.M. here, so I'm still mentally getting ready. Tomorrow is the big day :)

    Trying to crush akadama is a pain. A lot will turn to dust since it is quite soft compared to other harder ingredients. Ah! Cool, I'm not the only one thinking of that hehe. Well, gotta go with the full akadama then.

    "See" you in a few hours... Thank you all for your kindness. Never thought a forum could be this giving ;)

    tapla thanked Lyrata
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  • mar9en

    I've been posting in this thread for the past 2 years about my Home Depot FLF... starting Oct 7, 2015, and then through a bad sunburn and repotting/root-pruning around mid-July 2016. I wanted to post an update and get advice!

    Here it is now (search my name in this thread to see photos from previous years):


    It's been on this south-facing balcony since it warmed up last spring. It hasn't grown as much as I'd expected from previous years - the new leaves have been smaller, dull, and have stayed light green. It gets direct sun for a few hours in the morning, but an overhang and the tree beside it shade it as shown for the rest of the day.

    You can see the weak growth here - one earlier leaf started to grow and then the tip died:

    You can also see the yellowish pallor of the leaves. This has become more pronounced over the last few weeks, and some previously sun-damaged leaves that have been shaded at the bottom of the plant have been dying and falling off. We have had some colder nights in the 50s recently, so I'm wondering if this could be a reason?


    You can see here that the taller tree's leaves have been shading the top of the smaller tree, though it has also had some growth. Neither tree looks like it's ready to grow anymore in the near term, judging from how the top buds look. The smaller tree's bud is visible under the leaves in the lower half of the photo below.


    I'm just wondering what it needs to start growing those big, shiny, dark green leaves again. :( I know it probably won't be until next year, because I'll be bringing it inside for the season in the next month, but I'd appreciate any advice!

    Things I could do:

    • Clean all the leaves - they've got a coating of dust
    • Check for pests - there are some cobweb-looking things around some of the leaf stems, but seem like just some abandoned webs rather than anything active
    • Move to the opposite side of the balcony, where it will get morning sun for longer
    • ????

    Thanks!

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    I think you have spider mites. They're so tiny that many of us need a magnifying glass to be sure they're there, but the scraps of web, the weak new growth and dying growth tip, and pallid dusty-looking leaves all suggest mites.

    I suggest spraying the plant with a mixture of half water and half 70% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Spray thoroughly, wetting the tops and bottoms of the leaves and all stems and branches. Do the same on any other plants in the house. Repeat 3-4 days later to kill newly hatched mites.

    When I did this last fall I repeated it almost daily for about two weeks because I didn't want to take any chances, but in theory you could eliminate the mites after two rounds of spraying. Afterwards I cleaned the tops and bottoms of the leaves with a soft cloth dipped in the same solution. I haven't seen any mites since then, but I still check every once in a while with a lighted magnifier.

    Do you fertilize, and if so, what do you use?

  • mar9en

    Thank you, I will do this tomorrow! I don't have any other plants outside at the moment except a pot of succulents on the opposite side of the balcony. I do have a bunch of succulents, a ric rac cactus, a Sansevieria, and a staghorn fern inside at the moment. I'm treating one of the succulents for mealy bugs with rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab. Should all of these plants be sprayed or are just the ones outdoors at risk right now?

    I fertilize the FLF very sporadically with Foliage Pro 9-3-6. It hasn't gotten much consistent fertilizer this year, and it's in gritty mix. So maybe it's lacking some nutrition as well. I'm really not sure what the schedule should be for watering and fertilizing. :/ I water it about once a week.

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    Unless your gritty mix wasn't screened well you're underwatering. Conventional potting mix and 5:1:1 should be watered when the mix at the very bottom of the pot is dry, at which point you water thoroughly, but gritty mix is another animal altogether. It's designed to drain fast and hold much less water, virtually eliminating that pesky PWT, which is why you can water more often. I don't have a plant in gritty mix yet, but Al talks about watering every day or two during the growing season, and a little less often the rest of the year. If you're unsure, push a sharpened dowel through the mix to the very bottom of the pot, leave it there for a few seconds, pull it out, and see how dry it is. Chances are you'll see that it's moist but not wet within a day, and because it's still aerated AND fast draining even when it's moist, you don't have to wait until the bottom is dry before watering.

    What do you use for fertilizer? Al recommends Dyna-Gro Foliage Pro, which has a NPK ratio of 3:6:9, and fertilizes "weakly, weekly" using one tsp per gallon of water during the growing season. I find it much easier to fertilize weekly than to try to remember to do it now and then. I'm not sure, but I think Al has said to reduce the FP to half a teaspoon in winter. Some people will insist that you shouldn't fertilize plants in the winter, but not Al, and adding fertilizer last winter definitely helped my sick plants get stronger and even put out some new growth well during the winter.

    If you can't find Foliage Pro, Miracle Gro all purpose fertilizer has the same NPK ratio, though it lacks the minerals and other nutrients that FP provides.

    Definitely treat any plant that's been on the porch with the ficus, but if it were me I'd treat all the plants for mites. It's possible that they infested the ficus after you moved it outside, but at the very least you should inspect the indoor plants with a magnifying glass, unless you wouldn't mind having to deal with them this winter if you're wrong.

    OTOH, I'm pretty risk-averse when it comes to things I feel responsible for, and I hate the idea of bugs reversing everything I've done to make my plants healthy by sucking the very life out of them.

  • mar9en

    Thank you! I'll treat all of my plants with the alcohol spray just to be safe, and up the FLF's water schedule to every 2-3 days. I'll probably be bringing it inside in the next month, so hopefully I can get it healthier (and pest-free) before that shock.

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    I believe that the belief that ficuses freak out at the least little change in their environment is based on the fact that the changes people talk about involves ficuses that are already compromised or changes like low light or overwatering by new owners who are told to keep the soil moist or to water on a schedule.

    Given that even a bad mite infestation and not quite enough fertilizer hasn't made your pretty plant lose leaves, I strongly doubt that's going to happen to you. Give it as much light as you can, fertilize lightly for the winter with a 9, and make sure it doesn't go dry, and I'll bet five dollars that it will stay healthy!

  • mar9en

    Will the current leaves ever green up, or once yellow(ish), always yellow, and it's the new growth that would be green?

  • Dave

    Yellow leaves will drop from the tree eventually. They won’t turn green again, unfortunately.

  • tapla

    Actually, unless the leaf is turning yellow because an abscission layer is isolating the leaf from the plant proper and said leaf is in the process of being shed, chlorosis is reversible.

    Al

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    The pale leaves that grew on my schefflera during the long period it spent with very low light did green up after its sunny summer vacation on the porch. They're still not as dark as the new summer growth, but they don't stand out the way they did.

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    Al, a funny thing happened to my scheffleras when I first started following your advice last fall. The leaves on both plants had been dropping at even a light touch, but just a week or so after flushing and fertilizing them and moving them from a dim corner to a window they abruptly stopped (I'd been giving them hard water in sips and bottom watering for years and rarely fertilized). I examined the leaves and saw what I thought were different levels of abscission layers at the bases of most of the leaves, but they never dropped. I'm not sure they weren't there before it started to decline, but the leaves that have grown since then don't have the same brown layer across their bases.

    Is it possible for a plant to prepare to drop a leaf by starting to form an abscission layer and then stop the process when conditions improve? Or do all schefflera leaves get the same kind of lines as they age?

  • mar9en

    Would spider mite infestation and/or undernourishment cause a reversible chlorosis? Despite the light water schedule, the ficus has never appeared droopy nor had the leaves look/appear thirsty (warmer/thinner/softer), but maybe underwatering wouldn't necessarily show these signs unless it had gotten severe?

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    Paging Al again...

    New growth that dies right after it appears combined with the scraps of webs on leaves or stems are telltale signs of spider mites, but chlorosis can be caused by at least a few different things.

    It's not underwatering. Underwatering and overwatering both cause a drought response, not chlorosis, because both conditions kill fine roots that take up water, causing the plant to get rid of foliage it can no longer support. In Lyratas this starts with brown patches, usually near the edges of the lower/oldest leaves, after which the leaves go yellow, die, and drop off. Normal Lyrata leaves reach upward like the upper leaves on your lyrata, and they droop like the bottom leaves on your plant and don't return to their previous position if the plant has been underwatered at some point.

    A few hours of direct light and indirect light the rest of the day is enough for ficuses to have normal color, and it looks to me like all of the existing leaves are pale, which tells me we can exclude insufficient light.

    The chlorosis could be caused by something else that I don't know about because I'm still pretty new at this, but a previously healthy plant getting sick. after you started fertilizing very rarely makes a lack of nutrients the most obvious thing to look into next. You have Foliage Pro, so why not use it as directed (1 tsp/gallon once a week until winter) for three or four weeks to see if the plant responds with darker healthier new growth?

  • Dave

    I didn’t look at the photos (didn’t scroll up enough) and just figured the yellow leaf meantioned was just being dropped by the plant. My mistake.

  • Madeleine Reinstein

    Hey there,

    I made a post separately to the houseplants forum, but was hoping I might get more traction in this thread. My FLF put out significant growth this summer after re-potting earlier this year in tapla's 5:1:1 mix; however, it greatly favored one of the three main branches. I was hoping for some suggestions on pruning for next year. Should I prune the new growth from this year? Thanks!


  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    Please forgive me for my wordy post; I can rarely keep myself from adding details if there's a chance they might be useful.

    Was the branch with more new growth reaching toward a light source? That's a very dim spot for a light loving plant like a ficus, and the sideways-reaching branch and the etiolated grow (long distances between the leaf nodes at the top of the tree compared with leaves near the bottom) are a natural response to insufficient light.

    What seems like bright indoor light to us is not usually bright enough or high frequency enough for plants that need light, so the best spot for your lyrata is directly in front an unobstructed window where of sunlight will fall directly on its leaves, preferably one that faces southwest or south. The right kind of supplemental light should help; ask if you want more info about that.

    The bottom line on pruning is that although chopping the plant now won't kill or damage your lyrata, you'll be a lot happier with the results and it'll look much nicer if you do it between mid-June and August (if you're in the northern hemisphere). That's when your plant will be pumping out lots of energy from all that light and is inclined to grow new foliage anyway. At that point pruning will stimulate plenty of branching and backbudding (new growth from dormant buds) that make the plant fuller. In contrast, removing growing tips and energy-producing leaves now, when the plant is inclined to store energy, will produce much less new growth and any winter growth will be as leggy as the top of the tree is now. The right kind of supplemental light could help at least a little, so ask if you want more info on it.

    Some folks with lots of experience do prune their tropicals in the fall, but I don't know how they decide to do that instead of pruning in the summer. Hopefully someone who's smarter than me will stop by to explain how that works.

    tapla thanked litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)
  • Madeleine Reinstein

    Thank you litterbuggy, I mentioned in my post that I was asking for pruning suggestions for next year as I had not intended to cut anything back until the growing season. Also, I pulled the FLF back from where it normally sits about a foot away from my east facing windows so I could get a picture of it. I was really more inquiring into how I should shape the tree for a future look.

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    Well, I kind of missed the point, didn't I!!

  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    I really dont get an idea of the 3D branching structure, especially near the bottom. Brightly lit photos from several sides and angles against a light colored bacground might show the branching better.

    Do you have any idea of what general shape you're going for? Tree? Bush? Inverted cone? Hopefully you've scanned this thread and other pruning posts for ideas.

    Anyway, I'm more of an F. benjamina gal, so I'll leave the suggestions to others; hopefully bumping your post will draw someone's attention. Meanwhile, entering things like "pruning lyrata" or "shaping lyrata" in the search box at the top of this page and choosing "search gardenweb" from the drop-down will bring up many threads that might give you ideas and techniques to consider.


  • Madeleine Reinstein

    Thank you for the suggestion :)


  • tapla

    Madeline - First, tip prune (pinch) the subordinate leaders, but make sure they're different heights. The thicker of the subordinates should be the taller and the thinnest the shortest. After you prune the subordinate leaders, reduce the ht of the dominant leader so it's about 2 leaves taller than the tallest of the subordinates. You don't think you mentioned where you live, so I help you with the timing, other than to say timing is important. Try to move them outdoors at least a month before you prune. If you let me know where you live, I can offer a suggestion re when to do the pruning.

    Al

  • Madeleine Reinstein

    Hey Al, thanks so much for commenting. I'm in Maryland and live in an apartment so getting him outside at all is unfortunately impossible. When do you pinch the growth off? Do you wait for the bud to start opening or just when you notice a fullness forming?

  • tapla

    If you're just pinching out the growing tips and maybe one leaf, you can pinch any time; but you will certainly get a much more enthusiastic response from the plant if you prune or pinch in the early summer months (late Jun, Jul, or Aug). I'm not sure what you meant by: "Do you wait for the bud to start opening or just when you notice a fullness forming?"

    Al

  • Madeleine Reinstein

    Sorry I wasn't clear. I meant when you start to see a roundness to the bud (pic 1)or when it actually opens (pic 2) or am I just way over thinking it and it doesn't matter.

    1.

    2.





  • tapla

    'Proximal' means toward the root/shoot transition zone at the base of the plant from a reference point. 'Distal' means away from the root/shoot transition zone at the base of the plant from a reference point.

    Pinching, at a minimum, is the removal of the terminal bud from the growing tip of a branch. Pinching permanently stops extension of the branch being pinched, and causes activation of dormant buds in the axils (crotches) of leaves immediately proximal to the pinch. If you can see an internode immediately proximal to the terminal bud, you can pinch by cutting through the internode to remove the bud. If there is no conspicuous internode, it might be necessary to remove the terminal bud AND the leaf immediately proximal to the terminal bud. You can pinch a branch any time, no matter what state the terminal bud is in, but the timing of your pinch has a significant impact on the enthusiasm with which the rest of the plant responds.

    Al

  • Elizabeth Maloy

    Hello hello to this amazing community.

    I ignorantly bought this plant today thinking it looked overall "pretty okay"—and after researching how to care for it (clearly very out of order, in hindsight), I am equally overwhelmed, excited about the challenge, and wondering what I got myself into it.

    Firstly, this thread (and the previous ones) are amazing. Al, you've helped so many people in so many places, and I hope you hear the sincere gratitude that I'm sure everyone else has also tried to express as well. Thank you.

    Can I show you the current state? The roots were very moist to the touch and I feared root-rot (but also, if I'm being honest, don't know how to truly tell if that's the case), so that's why it's sitting out of its pot.



    What I think (?) is happening based off what I've read:

    • He's overwatered. Use recommended dowel approach moving forward.
    • Because I can easily slip him out of the pot, he should be potted-up. And then repotted in the summertime? We live in Boston Massachusetts. He'll always be an indoor plant. Should I learn how to flush the roots and then go for it when it's time to do that?
    • There isn't proper drainage happening. I should dig in more to your recommended soil threads and threads like this one: http://forums2.gardenweb.com/discussions/3323530/als-gritty-mix-screening-and-particulate-size. ...but does this need to happen immediately?

    Any advice or help with how to make him a healthy, happy plant would be so appreciated.

    Note: We are SUCH newbs. But we're also really good at following instructions.

    Thanks so much,

    Elizabeth

  • Alex (5 - Nebraska)

    "Firstly, this thread (and the previous ones) are amazing. Al, you've helped so many people in so many places, and I hope you hear the sincere gratitude that I'm sure everyone else has also tried to express as well. Thank you."

    Good post and a good day to echo these thoughts. I'm very thankful for all the time spent by Al and the other resident experts here who freely share their knowledge. I'm also thankful for the number of others who, like me, have utilized it by sharing their own experiences, successes and especially failures. Plants took over my brain this year as I moved into a big old house, and this place is bar-none the most informative and accessible out there.

    tapla thanked Alex (5 - Nebraska)
  • litterbuggy (z7b, Utah)

    Elizabeth, is the rootball sopping wet? Roots need access to moisture, so don't leave them exposed so long that the outside dries up. Just use the dowel method to monitor moisture and water when the soil at the bottom is dry.

    Your plant doesn't actually look bad at all. True, it has been overwatered, but you've caught this so early that it hasn't lost many leaves, if any. The fact that it's rootbound probably helped because the roots displace some soil, so long as most of them are alive and the there are still enough fine roots that actually take up water.

    The immediate solution is to do everything you can to maximize the amount of time the roots spend in the presence of both air and moisture. That includes watering only when the plant needs it, and watering properly. Water thoroughly when you do, wetting the entire surface of the soil, until 10-15% of the volume of the pot has drained out. After it stops draining tilt it at 45 degrees for 15-20 minutes. If the drain holes are at the edge you'll see excess water coming out while it's tilted, and if the hole is in the middle the excess water will come out when you set it upright. Repeat until no more water drains out.

    Rotted roots smell bad (rotten) when you pull the plant out of the pot; just trim off all the soft rotten roots with sterilized shears or scissors. Don't remove any fine white or very pale roots.

    Don't pot up an already overwatered plant; the last thing it needs is for a bunch of soil that hasn't been colonized by roots to keep the root ball saturated even longer than it already is, suffocating the roots even more of the time.

    Also, your drainage problems are caused by the soil, not by how many holes are in the pot.

    Here's the definitive thread on water behavior in container soils:

    Container soils: water movement and retention

    It's long, but you've already figured out a lot of the practical stuff, so you can skip down to the whys and wherefores, including the info on perched water tables (PWTs). Once you've read that you'll understand why your drainage problem are caused by the soil, not by how many holes there are in the pot (so long as it has at least one). Don't worry if your head starts to spin; there's a lot to digest, but the principles will make more and more sense as you put them into practice. And if you really don't have the patience for it, be assured that it is completely possible to improve growing conditions without understanding all the science.

    Feel free to ask more questions!

  • tapla

    Thanks for the kind words, Alex and Elizabeth.


    Al

  • bernard_kauffman

    Hey Al, and all the others that have contributed to this thread - I want to thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge with the internet, these posts are a tremendous resource as I learn to become a better container gardener!

    I purchased a large fiddle leaf fig in early October, after a couple of weeks of growth (two new leaves) it began a pattern of rapid defoliation that's been driving me crazy. I want to get this plant healthy - so that it can spend next spring and summer recovering foliage and then begin to grow it according to my designs the following year.

    The defoliation starts with brown splocthes that appear at the tips of leaves. These brown splotches then spread, causing veins to die before the leaf drops:


    This has caused my fig, originally a bush from the top of the pot to become a little spindly:


    For what it's worth, the most defoliation appears to be on the side closest to the window (east facing):


    My theory is that this is cause by overwatering, that the defoliation has started from the bottom and worked its way up. I felt the drainage holes and they felt damp after watering more than a week ago, so this lends further evidence to the theory. My plan is to reduce watering to roughly a quart per week (in a seventeen inch pot) and only when the drainage holes feel dry to the touch.

    Oh, and to top it all off - I found some spidermites.

    I purchased some neem oil and plan on spraying a diluted sample on a leaf, waiting a couple of days to make sure my plant can handle it and then spraying the whole plant in the bathroom.

    Is my fiddle leaf fig healthy enough to handle a spray with neem oil? Is over watering indeed the cause of the defoliation? Any advice greatly appreciated!!

  • tapla

    I know we're all grateful for your expression of appreciation, Bernard. Thanks for the kind words.

    Root congestion can cause defoliation, but usually the leaves that fall are still green as the congestion increases. If you know the soil hasn't been allowed to go completely dry, it's a good bet that over-watering and/or a high level of dissolved solids (salts) in the soil solution is causing the plant to have difficulty taking up water. Very often the high level of salts and over-watering go hand in hand; this, because growers often recognize they are potentially over-watering, ant to compensate they water in small sips to prevent total soil saturation. This, of course, causes ALL dissolved solids from fertilizer solutions and tap water to accumulate in the soil. This is especially problematic if you're using a fertilizer, the NPK %s of which do not closely mimic the %s at which the plant actually uses the nutrients.

    I would use a 48" x 5/16" wooden dowel rod, cut in half, and all 4 ends sharpened in a pencil sharpener as a tell. Stuck deep into the soil, you'll better be able to assess moisture levels by examining the tip of the dowel rod. Withhold water until just before it comes out completely dry. Also, I would water to beyond saturation, so you're flushing the soil when you water, and use some of the methods described HERE to help you limit how much water the soil can hold.

    If you use neem oil, buy the pure, cold-pressed product. Neem oil is most often used in an aqueous (water) suspension as a foliar spray or soil drench. Commonly, it is diluted to about a .5 to 2% solution, but the suggested ratio for use in container plant culture is 1 tsp. per quart of warm water. A drop or two of dish soap (castile or olive oil soap is best) helps keep the oil emulsified. The mixture is then applied as a mist to all leaf and bark surfaces and as a soil drench to the tree's root system. It should not be applied as a foliar spray on hot days or in bright sun as leaf burn may occur. Remember to agitate the container frequently as you apply and do not mix anymore than you will use in one day. Neem breaks down rapidly in water and/ or sunlight.

    Some users of insecticides feel the need to observe the instant results of their efforts in order to be convinced of the effectiveness of what they are using. The application of neem derivatives does not provide this immediate gratification. There is virtually no knockdown (instant death) factor associated with its use. Insects ingesting or contacting neem usually take about 3 - 14 days to die. Its greatest benefit; however, is in preventing the occurrence of future generations. It is also interesting to note that in studies it was found that when doses were given, purposefully insufficient to cause death or complete disruption of the metamorphic cycle, up to 30 surviving generations showed virtually no resistance/ immunity to normal lethal doses, so it appears that insects build no ‘resistance’ to azadiractin.

    pH is based on a logarithmic scale from 1 to 14. Where a pH of 7 is neutral, a pH of 6 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7. Many insecticides are sensitive to pH levels because of something called hydrolysis, which is a chemical process whereby larger molecule with insecticidal properties are broken (cleaved) into smaller (ionic) particles that may lack any insecticidal properties when they recombine with other smaller particles. How much effect hydrolysis has insecticides depends on the insecticide's chemistry, water pH and purity, water temp, exposure to sunlight, and how long the mixture has been in the spray container.

    Neem oil is susceptible to alkaline hydrolysis, which means that a pH greater than 7.0 causes degradation, so adjusting your spray water to a pH from 5.5 - 6.5 for neem products is beneficial; whereas some pesticides are affected by acid hydrolysis at pH levels below 7.0, so they should be mixed with water adjusted to pH levels from 7.5 - 8. In either case, the sooner you use the spray mixture, the more effective it will be. White vinegar or citric acid (from a wine-making supply store) are very effective at reducing water's pH, and starting with distilled or otherwise deionized water (as from a reverse osmosis filtration system) water in your spritzer is a VERY good idea.

    Al

  • bernard_kauffman

    Al, thank you for the very specific and detailed advice. I used some purified water mixed with a dash of dish soap, and a small amount of white vinegar to lower the pH. I bought some wooden dowels, they feel slightly damp after staying in the soil for a couple of minutes, with a small amount of moist soil on the tip (none on the rest of the dowel) so I plan on waiting a day and checking again.

  • tapla

    I would urge you to forgo the dishsoap in favor of a vegetable fatty acid soap like Castile's or Murphy's Oil Soap. but everything else you mentioned sounds like a good path to follow.


    Al

  • Kelly Montgomery

    Hi there,

    I'm hoping to get some help saving my fiddle leaf fig tree. It is certainly not seeming very happy right now. :(

    I've had it for at least a couple years now, and in retrospect I don't think it was very healthy when I initially bought it. It was a little droopy and had some large brown spots on some of the leaves. Sadly I didn't know better!

    It seemed to do fine for a while, growing new leaves, but last april I realized something was wrong with it, so I took some photos to a local nursery to ask about it. I learned that I was definitely overwatering it, the soil was growing a mold and was way too wet, and that it also had spider mites, as well as root congestion. I treated it for spider mites, potted up (I got rid of as much of the old soil that I could, but didn't actually bare root it or trim anything) and cut way back on my watering (with help from a moisture meter stick) and it seemed to perk up a bit over the summer and grew quite a few new leaves.

    It has always leaned a bit, but I've tried to rotate a little here and there to prevent it from getting too bad. Well, a couple months ago (fall) I realized that it was leaning much more dramatically than it should. I rotated it to lean away from the light, hoping that it would straighten back up, but it doesn't seem like it's budged at all and is now looking very sad.

    April (over-watering + spider mites causing issues)


    Now (leaning dramatically, very droopy)


    It has continued to grow new leaves, which do look healthy, but obviously it's not looking very good overall. It has two trunks and one of them (the front one in above photo) has always seemed healthier than the other. The front one grows leaves more often and the little brown tip of the trunk (sorry I don't know what it's called) looks healthy. The other trunk grows a new leaf only occasionally and the top bit looks much more dry and crispy.

    SO I would really like to get this plant back into better shape! I have read the Good Growing Practices overview (very helpful!) and some threads about FLFs, so I have some ideas of what I should do, but the amount of information and knowledge here is a bit overwhelming for an amateur like myself. I would love any help with a plan that will get this guy back into healthy shape.

    I suspect that....

    It's not getting enough light - it is currently about 8 feet from a very large south-facing window, but I can move it next to the window for more light.

    I may still be over-watering - I've been using the moisture meter stick to avoid watering until it reads dry, but I can start using the wooden dowel method instead.

    It needs new soil - I just used a bag of whatever the nursery recommended, but based on my reading I think it is much too fine of a soil and is probably causing some problems. If I can figure out how to do the "gritty mix" or the "5:1:1" mix I keep seeing :) (and which would be better?) I can repot with that mix, but probably not until late spring?

    It needs to be pruned - When I potted up in late April, I did not do any pruning for fear of hurting the plant. It was definitely congested (most of the soil and roots came out together) so it sounds like it probably needs a good pruning when I repot with new soil?

    It's my (correct me if I'm wrong) understanding that repotting it and pruning the roots would probably be best done in maybe, May? (I live in the PNW) So are there other things that I can do in the meantime to improve the health of my plant?

    Should I move the plant closer to the window now, or also wait until late spring/early summer?

    Should I stake the plant to encourage it to straighten up, or is it best to just move it closer to the light source and wait for it to do so on its own?

    Any help is much appreciated. I see from reading just a few threads that I am SO new to all of this and have a lot of learning to do, but I am willing to try! Thank you.

  • bernard_kauffman

    Hey all, update on the fig post I made about ten days ago. I've adjusted my watering to be more frequent, with less amount of water. I've been using purified water from the store. I've noticed fewer leave abscissions and have had a slower rate of leaves falling off. I understand that it may take a few more weeks / months before I know for sure if my ficus lyrata now has favorable cultural conditions. I've noticed that the trunk not exposed to light has begun to shrivel up.

    The leaves on the other trunks are still healthy, with the exception of a few brown spots caused by the couple of months I overwatered the poor thing. This trunk on contrast is drying up. I've noticed that even the fleshy part at the top of the trunk is yellowing and withering, the leaves look like this

    It's important to state that this is the trunk that has gotten the least light the past month or so. Based on my research, it seems like the plant has determined that this trunk is taking in more nutrients and energy than it is producing, so the plant has begun a slow process of absorbing nutrients from the trunk with little light back into the rest of the plant. My gut tells me this is a normal process and not one for concern.

    I wanted to check in with the experts before I continue down this path. Should I be giving my ficus more light? Or rotating it every couple of weeks or so?


    Thanks!


    P.S: Thanks for the tip on the spidermites. I haven't noticed any new growth in ten days I'll check in a week or so from now to see if the little buggers are dead for good!


    PPS: Just how dry should the 5/16" wooden dowel be before it's time to water? I don't want the soil to completely dry out, and don't want to overwater. Should I wait until very litle soil comes off the dowel, and the dowel feels slightly damp to the touch - or completely

  • tapla

    Kelly & Bernard:

    Kelly says about her F lyrata: "...... last april I realized something was wrong with it, so I took some photos to a local nursery to ask about it. I learned that I was definitely overwatering it, the soil was growing a mold and was way too wet, and that it also had spider mites, as well as root congestion. I treated it for spider mites, potted up (I got rid of as much of the old soil that I could, but didn't actually bare root it or trim anything) and cut way back on my watering (with help from a moisture meter stick) and it seemed to perk up a bit over the summer and grew quite a few new leaves." The heading of all those actions is definitely the right direction. Note that potting up is only marginally effective when it comes to eliminating the limitations caused by root congestion. The only thing that relieves it entirely is actually getting a pair of hands into the middle of the root mass and cutting out offensive roots, then reducing the volume of large roots that offer little in the way of water/nutrient uptake. It's not uncommon for me to remove 90% of the roots of a Ficus tree in one sitting. That would have, at the same time, been accompanied by a severe reduction in the plant's top mass to prevent a total collapse. I'm not suggesting that other growers not intimately familiar with root work should follow suit, but I am suggesting that regular root work (like every 2-3 years) will make a very large impact on growth rate, o/a vitality, and appearance if accompanied by the use of an appropriate medium at repot time. An appropriate medium is one that allows you to water to beyond the saturation point whenever you wish; this, without cause to worry about the soil remaining saturated so long it negatively affects root health/function.

    That your tree grew quite a few new leaves during the summer months is a normal occurrence, even for stressed plants. How much more energy a plant makes vs what it uses is the measure of how it prospers. All else equal, plants stressed for one reason or another will always do better in the summer when the potential for making food is far greater. The further you are from the equator, the easier it is to see the truth in that fact. What I'm saying, condensed, is that the credit for improved summer growth might rightly belong to the plants natural growth rhythm as opposed to other reasons. I didn't say that to diminish your efforts, just to establish the fact that plants do have rhythms that we either work with or against. Since you said you were willing to try, I'm thinking that we'll soon be discussing ways we work with the plant to right its course, rather than against it where with both plant and grower suffering the unnecessary stress.


    "It has always leaned a bit, but I've tried to rotate a little here and there to prevent it from getting too bad. Well, a couple months ago (fall) I realized that it was leaning much more dramatically than it should. I rotated it to lean away from the light, hoping that it would
    straighten back up, but it doesn't seem like it's budged at all and is
    now looking very sad."
    'Leaning' is almost always a product of light levels too low when the topic involves a plant with a normally upright growth habit. The fix is A) give it more light, or B) prune back the ht regularly. When you shorten a flexible stick, it becomes less flexible (or seams to). The same is true if you shorten a trunk. WHEN you shorten, you should shorten to a point immediately distal to a leaf pointing in the direction you want the new trunk to grow.

    You can see the new branch growing in the leaf axil (crotch) just below the cut. That new branch will grow to the right, (though it might change direction due to phototropic effect [grow toward the light]). If you were to cut just distal to the lowest leaf, the branch that WILL occur in its axil will grow left. This is the basis for 'directional pruning' and we should all become familiar with it because it is an important tool we can use to keep our plants spiffy.

    "It has continued to grow new leaves, which do look healthy, but
    obviously it's not looking very good overall. It has two trunks and one of them (the front one in above photo) has always seemed healthier than the other. The front one grows leaves more often and the little brown tip of the trunk (sorry I don't know what it's called) looks healthy. The other trunk grows a new leaf only occasionally and the top bit looks much more dry and crispy".
    When you change the cultural conditions that limit your plant, the vitality of both plants will improve. In bonsai, we try never to have trees of equal proportions in the same pot. It's simply a fact that it looks more natural for one tree to be thicker and taller than the other. When you prune (a discussion for later), just remember thin/short and thick/tall go together for a more natural look.

    "SO I would really like to get this plant back into better shape! I have read the Good Growing Practices overview (very helpful!) and some
    threads about FLFs, so I have some ideas of what I should do, but the amount of information and knowledge here is a bit overwhelming for an amateur like myself. I would love any help with a plan that will get this guy back into healthy shape".
    I don't expect that you'll understand what do do just because I made a list, so ask questions about whatever you haven't read about to the point where you understand.

    1) Better light

    2) Get/keep watering under control

    3) Flush soil thoroughly next time it needs watering. If you're concerned about soil saturation ..... there are ways to deal with it.

    4) Start fertilizing regularly. We'll need to work out what's appropriate based on how the soil you chose dictates what your watering habits should be.

    5) If at all possible, get the plant outdoors for the summer. Do this as soon as night temps allow.

    6) Plan a full repot around the summer solstice (Jun 21). It would be distinctly to your and your plants advantage if you were repotting into a soil that allows you to water appropriately w/o those concerns about prolonged soil saturation.

    7) Once the plant has recovered from the repot (it will begin pushing new growth, you can prune it.

    Don't think you need to retain all growth the plant puts on. Being a good grower doesn't mean only that you know how to maximize growth rates. You need to know how to keep plants looking good, too. That means you need to be able to modify their growth habit to make them grow as you wish, not as they 'wish'.

    "Should I stake the plant to encourage it to straighten up, or is it
    best to just move it closer to the light source and wait for it to do so
    on its own?"
    It's not my intent to offend when I say 'staking is for growers who don't know how to deal with their plant's growth habit. If your plant needs staking: (A it needs more light, and B) it needs to be pruned. But, because it needs pruning isn't a strong enough impetus to move you to action NOW.

    ***************************************************************

    Bernard mentions: "I've noticed that the trunk not exposed to light has begun to shrivel up." .... not a good sign. It means the roots aren't able to supply water to the top. This might be a symptom of diseased roots or one of the damping off diseases that have compromised the cambium. While green tissues on trunks and branches are capable of SOME photosynthetic activity, it's no where near that of the leaves, which leads to the observation that it's highly unlikely that the amount of light striking the trunk has delivered the tree beyond the life/death tipping point.

    "Should I be giving my ficus more light? Or rotating it every couple of weeks or so?" Both would be good ideas. but won't matter much if there are other severe limitations in play. Soggy soil and nutritional issues are always a significant concern for most hobby growers in the winter.

    "Just how dry should the 5/16" wooden dowel be before it's time to water? I don't want the soil to completely dry out, and don't want to
    overwater. Should I wait until very litle soil comes off the dowel, and
    the dowel feels slightly damp to the touch - or completely."
    It should be almost but not quite dry. You can try experimenting with your tell. If your pot is 10" deep and there is moisture 5" down into the soil - don't water - wait until you first encounter moisture at or near the bottom of the pot before you add more water.

    Al

  • Kelly Montgomery

    Thank you so much for your very thorough and informative response! No offense taken to anything at all. :)


    So it sounds like the best thing I can do asap is get it into a spot with brighter light. That shouldn't be a problem. I have big south-facing windows so I will put it next to the window instead of toward the middle of the room as it is now.


    In terms of flushing the soil thoroughly, I'm definitely concerned about over-saturating it. The pot does have drainage holes and water will come out if I water it thoroughly, but I'm afraid it will hold on to it too long since I'm clearly not using the best soil for this plant. Should I do it anyway, and then just be sure to wait after that until the soil is dry enough to water again? Or should I give the plant a shower?


    I am currently fertilizing about once a month with Dyna Gro Pro Foliage 9-3-6. Should I continue with that for now?


    I will definitely plan to do a repot around the summer solstice and use a better medium like the mixes I've seen suggested here. It sounds like I would not prune any roots when I do that, but instead after it's adjusted to its new soil and started growing? Could you clarify when I should plan to prune the roots, and when I should plan to prune the top?


    I have a tiny little porch that I could bring the plant out to in the summer, but it gets less light than an indoor spot by the window.


    Thanks again for your help! It is so appreciated.

  • katrynacrabbe

    Please help FLF community! I'm an inexperienced gardener - but I want to do right by this plant!

    I recently acquired this fiddle leaf fig, within a week it has gone from a lush tree to this sad state. Is there any saving it?

    The leaves are curling up, brown, dry and crunchy. It has only been watered once since I gained ownership - unsure if it is root rot or sunburn.

    Suggestions?

    Thanks in advance!

  • Elizabeth Maloy

    Hi gang,

    I’ve been using the dowel method for watering and have been waiting until the bottom roots are dry, using the 45-degree angle and tenth worth of the pot drain that was recommended. Our plant has gotten considerably worse over the last month and a half. The top leaves had no spots before whereas now they are mostly brown. Al—I’m wondering if a soil flush is needed or really what we should be doing differently. As a reminder, our plant is root-bound but there wasn’t any root rot that we noticed. (Note: We were going to make your recommended soil mix and pot up in the spring, but should we do that sooner??). Please advise. Poor Franklin.

    Thanks so much,

    elizabeth

  • tapla

    Kelly - Kat - Elizabeth

    Kelly says:

    In terms of flushing the soil thoroughly, I'm definitely concerned about over-saturating it. The pot does have drainage holes and water will come out if I water it thoroughly, but I'm afraid it will hold on to it too long since I'm clearly not using the best soil for this plant. Should I do it anyway, and then just be sure to wait after that until the soil is dry enough to water again? Or should I give the plant a shower? Do it anyway, but take steps to minimize the amount of water the soil holds. These images will go a long way to explaining how to reduce water retention using physics:

    If you compare B to A, you can see that tipping the pot when the soil is saturated forces a lot of excess water from the pot. Additionally, if you added a wick through the bottom of the pot at the sidewall and tilt the pot so the wick is exiting the pot at the lowest point, even more water will exit the pot.

    The shaded areas in the images above represents 'perched water' Water sticks to itself (cohesion) and to soil particles and pot walls (adhesion). The sum of adhesion + cohesion in almost all off the shelf container media is stronger than gravity, which is why soil stays in the soil and creates a soggy/saturated layer of soil at the bottom of the pot, which is referred to as perched water (PW) or a perched water table (PWT). The finer the particles that make up the soil - the taller the PWT will be when the soil is holding it's maximum amount of water.

    In the image above, you can see that by adding bricks (or other material that doesn't hold water) as ballast, you can very significantly reduce the volume of soil that can hold PW. In the first image I posted, the over-turned pot in figure D acts as a type of ballast to reduce PW. It's important to realize that there must be an uninterrupted column of soil from the top of the soil line to the bottom of the pot in order for ballast to be effective. You can easily eliminate almost all PW, even in soils that are extremely water-retentive, if you use ballast efficiently.
    I am currently fertilizing about once a month with Dyna Gro Pro Foliage 9-3-6. Should I continue with that for now? Yes, but let me know how often you plan on flushing the soil. Your watering habits dictate how often you should fertilize and at what strength.

    I will definitely plan to do a repot around the summer solstice and use a better medium like the mixes I've seen suggested here. It sounds like I would not prune any roots when I do that, but instead after it's adjusted to its new soil and started growing? Could you clarify when I should plan to prune the roots, and when I should plan to prune the top? You prune roots when you repot. Ideally, you would repot your plant while it's still healthy and just starting to show the effects of tight roots. Look for loss of lower leaves and leaves most proximal to apices (apices are the growing tips of branches and stems), and a decrease in internode length (the distance between leaves). I suggest that you repot trees grown as houseplants every 2-3 years until they are 20-25 years old, then add a year's time. Some woody plants, like brugs, datura, hibiscus, should be repotted annually (in spring) for best health and bloom profusion.

    ************************************************************

    Kat - is it winter where you live and did the tree get exposed to very cold temps on the trip home? Sunburn IS a potentiality, but only if it had been in very dim light for a very long while before being exposed to extremely bright sun - like outdoor direct sun or indoor direct sun in summer. Symptoms of root rot would not have occurred so quickly under any circumstances a hobby grower would normally encounter. Did you add anything to the soil? Does your home utilize an ionic exchange water softener (one that uses salt)?

    *************************************************************

    Elizabeth - where do you live? I think flushing the soil is a very good idea. You can read what I wrote upthread about it in this post, above. Are you using a dowel/skewer to check for when it's appropriate to water?

    I think I would resign myself to the idea the plant is going to look shabby for a while. If you're bold, you can move the plant outdoors into full sun when night temps allow. The leaves will burn, drop off, and be replaced with a new flush of growth that will be perfectly conditioned to the amount of sun they're getting in their outdoor setting. Once the first new leaves are nearly mature, you can do a full repot. Alternately, you can watch for improving vitality, then do your heavy root work and prune the top at the same time.

    Al

  • katrynacrabbe

    Hi Al,
    Yes - cold appears to be the culprit. Coming from PEI Canada, the weather was an unforgiving -21c when I was transporting my poor FLF to the car from the store. There are still a few fleshy leaves at the bottom so I am hoping it will be able to recover, eventually. I've been reading a lot of your posts - very helpful, thank you for taking the time to share your expertise!

    tapla thanked katrynacrabbe
  • tapla

    In almost all cases, a healthy tree that loses all of its foliage or has all of its foliage severely compromised by something like chill, sunburn, dry soil that doesn't kill the roots, and other reasons, will push a new flush of growth and recover completely. Your main concern now is providing adequate light, warm temps, seeing that insects don't become more than the plant can handle, and making sure your plant's moisture needs are met w/o over-watering. The last one (watering) is really important as water usage will drop significantly due to all of the dead leaf tissue.

    Funny that the temp was -21c when I got up this AM - not good weather for transporting house plants ...... brrrrrr! I'm having a little inter-holiday vacation this week and I haven't ventured outdoors (since Christmas Day) other than to shovel snow and feed the critters.

    I wish you good luck with your fig and a prosperous/healthy New Year! I'm looking forward to getting a new start on my old habits ....... except perhaps for one resolution. I think I'll start a new thread about that one.


    Al

  • ksaterbrg

    Al..thank you for all of your advice. Our Triangularis is struggling right now with yellowing leaves and ongoing crispy spots on many leaves. We will try rhe dowel method and change the soil when weather warms but if you have thoughts please share.

  • Olivia Statham

    Hi Al and others-

    To preface- I live in the northwest corner of WA state :)

    I've spent the last few hours ready a lot of treads you have posted as well as comments etc. It's a lot of information that I'm quite curious about and am trying to understand- as a lot of new verbiage is used that I'm not familiar with.

    I recently purchased a small FLF and I'm trying to learn as much as I can as to how to take care of it. I'm curious about re-potting vs potting up. My main question is that if I want to grow my tree taller- is it ok to pot-up as the time goes on? I know you mentioned it limits growth but I want to grow this to be big.

    My other question is should I repot now? I only bought it from the nursery a week or so ago, and I just watered it today. I couldn't stick a wooden skewer in it anywhere- it was too firm but now I can after watering. The water seemed to run straight through the pot when I watered it. I think I need to water again, correct?

    I don't think this plant is in the best condition after looking at other photos but I am excited to nurse it and grow it. It also has these little brown seeds (or eggs not sure) on it. Do you know what it could be?

    Thank you for all information you can help me with! I very much respect what you have to say and the knowledge you are passing on. I really want to take a horticulture class and learn more about plants! Very intriguing.

    I look forward to your response.

  • tapla

    My main question is that if I want to grow my tree taller- is it ok to
    pot-up as the time goes on? I know you mentioned it limits growth but I
    want to grow this to be big.
    Congested roots, the condition, limits growth and vitality. The impact is observable about the time the root/soil mass can be lifted from the pot intact. Once this occurs, the limitations remain until the point in time that a person actually gets into the roots with their hands/tools and corrects the root issues. I put together a simple numerical comparison of the effects of potting up vs repotting:

    Repotting vs Potting Up

    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
    9. Let's 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. Let's 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

    repot

    year 1: 9

    year 2: 8

    year 3: 7

    repot

    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.

    The very temporary limitations that accompany repotting are very minor compared to the long term effects of potting up. A repotted tree might sulk for a couple of weeks before it refinds its groove; whereas, a tree impacted by root congestion will remain in continual decline, sacrificing huge fractions of its potential, until it finally dies.

    When you repot or pot up, the result is what 99.99% of growers would call a "growth spurt", but it's no growth spurt at all. What it is is a clearly observable return of the tree to a growth rate and vitality level closer to the genetic potential with which Mother Nature infixed it. What you see when the tree/plant doubles/ triples. quadruples, ...... it's growth rate and level of vitality is how much potential has been lost, never to be regained.

    Can't finish - chores are calling.

    Al

  • tiffanygartnerbouffard

    Hi Al,


    First, please let me say just how much I appreciate you and the advice you offer to help people care for their beloved plants. The gift of your time and expertise is truly amazing. Thank you SO much for your generosity.


    I have a dear fiddle leaf fig that I can really use some help with. I'll try to give what I think is necessary background in a detailed but concise way.


    - My FLF's name is Figgy. He has two stems of the same height. I've had Figgy for about 3.5 years.

    - Over this timeframe, he's grown from about 3 feet tall, to the whopping height of 8.5 feet where he is now.

    - From the time I bought him, I potted him up twice.

    - Late December 2017, I discovered your wonderful blog and belatedly realized that potting up had been the wrong strategy: Figgy now needed some serious root work. His lower leaves had been starting to fade for awhile to an anemic, yellowy-green, and he'd stopped spitting out new leaves on top. Given the season, I figured it would be a bad idea to re-pot him then, and decided to wait until the beginning of May. In the meantime, I potted him up one final time to buy his congested roots some extra space hoping that this would put the brakes on further colour loss from his lower leaves.

    - On May 5, 2018, I bare-rooted Figgy, and changed his soil to the gritty mix. His roots were kept misted the whole time. For the first couple of days, he looked OK, but then he started to droop badly. This worsened, which made me think that I'd messed up the gritty mix proportions. So, I did an emergency re-re-pot with the correct mix, and that's the soil he's been in since.

    - Before undertaking the whole re-potting exercise, I knew from previous posts of yours that plants may shed older leaves as a result of stress from a re-pot, and also because they may no longer have sufficient roots to support the full canopy. As a result, I faced a tough choice: should I trim Figgy back to his lackluster older leaves, or leave him with all of his leaves and hope for the best? I opted for the second choice, and didn't trim him back since his newest leaves were his healthiest.

    - You might guess what happened: He dropped his lower leaves. Nearly 2/3 of them, in fact. Eeeeee! Poor Figgy.

    - His current state: his roots are now growing well. I've gently dug in his soil to find new white roots throughout. His roots are even starting to show in the drainage holes at the base. :) Also, in the past two-three weeks, he's been showing vigorous new growth on top of both stems.

    - The problem: At this point, Figgy is two, tall, spindly sticks with big pom-poms of growth on top.

    - My question to you: How do I help him achieve a healthier, stronger shape while not killing him? I now know/think that I should have been checking his growth and trimming him back to prevent the spindliness he now has. Argh. If only hindsight were 20/20!

    - I've attached four pictures for you:

    * Front_view and Side_view: These are pretty self-explanatory.

    * New_growth: This is a shot of new growth on Figgy's right-side stem in the Front-view photo.

    * Stems_soil: These are Figgy's two stems, with a tea-light candle for scale (sorry, I didn't have a quarter!), and his soil mix. I thought I'd include this just in case it's helpful in any way.

    - Given the fact that this is where we are, my ideas have been:

    1. Pinch his tops. If so, my understanding is that this will only result in side-branching from where I pinched which doesn't address the fact that he has 5 feet of bare trunk. Will this alone stimulate the necessary back-budding, or do I need a different approach?

    2. Cut him right back. Options would be to 1-2 feet above soil line, or 3-4 feet above soil line. I have no idea what would happen if I did this. Would he die with no leaves? Would he start growing new leaves like mad? I honestly loved his full towers of leaves, although I now know that the internodal distances were too big (again, wisdom gleaned from your posts).

    Honestly Al, I just want to get Figgy back on the path to good health. He is a cherished member of the family.

    If you could share with me your thoughts and advice, I would be most grateful!

    Tiffany


  • Seanie B

    Hey everyone!

    I’m hoping to receive some guidance. What might the next steps be in caring for my recently saddened FLF?

    A few days ago, I moved it from the center of the room to beside this east-facing window. As you can see, it gets a few hours of morning sun on its leaves now. I’m not sure if this sudden change is contributing to its droopy, sad state or if, more likely, its condition is due to the repotting process I put it through at the time of the aforementioned location change.

    While repotting, I noticed it didn’t have many roots at all (nothing like what I’ve seen on these forums) so I didn’t prune any of them but I did take some time to remove most of the dirt from around them. However, I didn’t spray the roots thoroughly with a hose, as I have now learned others have suggested. Not sure if that is an issue? I repotted in a terra cotta pot, used some large rocks as ballast in the bottom of the pot, and mixed MG potting mix with a “fast-draining” cactus/succulent mix (what I had on hand thinking it might be fine since I’m now utilizing ballast) - all to help with saturated soil issues. I then fully saturated the FLF after repotting (mostly to see how well the soil can now drain all the water) when before I was giving it sips.

    A few days later and now it’s looking SAD. The leaves are drooping significantly and the lower leaves are splitting and crisping up. The soil is still rather wet and compacted.





    Yesterday, I set it out in 55-65 degree weather for up to 5 late morning-to-afternoon hours in the sun (and partial shade) thinking it might help dry out the soil (as well as benefit from fresh air and brighter sunlight) but have now read I may have burned it in the process. No signs of sunburn yet but it may be a matter of time?

    My question:

    Should I repot again now (It’s Apr - I now know I should have waited til Jun or Jul), spray off the roots, and use a 5-1-1 mix to save it from root rot? Or is it better to wait til summer and allow it to slowly dry out and maybe recover (hopefully with leaves in tact)?

    Thank you for the help! I appreciate it greatly.

    tapla thanked Seanie B
  • tapla

    It's good you've already done some reading, and recognize your choice of media makes a very significant difference in how much of its potential your plant is likely to realize. Ballast can eliminate almost all of a planting's ability to hold perched water, a meaningful benefit, and it can even improve air porosity at container capacity; but, it can't guarantee that the medium you're using provides adequate porosity. Even though it represents a major improvement if all or nearly all of the medium in a pot is free of perched water, it might not be enough if the medium, absent perched water is poorly aerated. That's why using media that holds little to no perched water is the better option. Because water retention is closely linked to the size of the particles with which a medium is made, when there is no/little perched water in a medium, it's well-aerated by default. The larger the particles, the more aeration there is.

    Over the years, I've had the most success with the least effort (after the medium was made) with media made with an extremely high % of chunky material, like pine bark, perlite, and an assortment of inert mineral materials like Turface, crushed granite or quartzite, haydite, pumice, lava rock, ......

    Too, it's important to know a grower can start with a list of ingredients (s)he might combine to build a superlative medium, but end up combining them in a way that produces something you'd be hard pressed to even call usable. So how you put a soil together is approximately as important as what it's made from. I know this - if your soil doesn't need watering after 5-7 days, your plants' are not realizing a fraction of potential so large it would certainly give you pause if you had a control plant by its side that was not subjected to limitations faithfully provided by a medium bent on working against you. Even if a plant appears healthy in a 'marginal' medium, one that holds too much water to be called "good" but not enough to be called "bad", The difference between that plant (growth/ vitality/ appearance) and a control w/o the limitations inherent in a marginal medium would literally shock you.

    I have plants from cuttings with much thicker trunks (species for species) after 5 years of growth than plants other growers say they have enjoyed more than 10 years in their custody, and the only credit I can take lies in the fact that I know how to tell the difference between a medium it wouldn't be wise to waste time trying to grow in, and one that is certain to offer little in the way of limitations to root health/function. Other than how I manipulate plants physically to achieve an end, I do nothing that any other average grower can't do if they are growing in a high quality medium. A healthy plant isn't but a dream unless you can keep the root system healthy.

    A few days ago, I moved it from the center of the room to beside this east-facing window. As you can see, it gets a few hours of morning sun on its leaves now. I’m not sure if this sudden change is contributing to its droopy, sad state or if, more likely, its condition is due to the repotting process I put it through at the time of the aforementioned location change. The loss of turgidity (roughly - internal water pressure) can't be attributed to a change in light over so short a duration, but it could and very probably is attributable to the repot.


    While repotting, I noticed it didn’t have many roots at all (nothing like what I’ve seen on these forums) That would almost certainly be from chronic over-watering. so I didn’t prune any of them but I did take some time to remove most of the dirt from around them.


    However, I didn’t spray the roots thoroughly with a hose, as I have now learned others have suggested. It's not mandatory to use water pressure and the hose to remove soil - it's often helpful when roots are in very bad shape from years w/o repotting. Not an issue.


    A few days later and now it’s looking SAD. The leaves are drooping significantly and the lower leaves are splitting and crisping up. The soil is still rather wet and compacted.

    Yesterday, I set it out in 55-65 degree weather for up to 5 late morning-to-afternoon hours in the sun (and partial shade) thinking it might help dry out the soil (as well as benefit from fresh air and brighter sunlight) but have now read I may have burned it in the process. No signs of sunburn yet but it may be a matter of time? Sunburn occurs some time after exposure to a photo overload. As molecules in the plant's dermis are returning to a normal state, toxic effects occur by way of the production of hydrogen peroxide (same stuff that bleaches hair and kills organic invaders at wound sites), hydroxyl radicals, and O- radicals, all of which damage all components of the cell.

    My question:

    Should I repot again now (It’s Apr - I now know I should have waited til Jun or Jul), spray off the roots, and use a 5-1-1 mix to save it from root rot? Or is it better to wait til summer and allow it to slowly dry out and maybe recover (hopefully with leaves in tact)?

    Thank you for the help! I appreciate it greatly. For the most part, I heavily favor waiting to repot until the timing is such that the plant's stored energy AND it's ability to turn sunlight into food are at or approaching peak. That means that for all of the continental US, other than the deep south, the last 2 weeks of June are best for heavy work on the plant (repotting and hard pruning). In fact, you should plan on removing all long winter growth from your plants, cutting every branch (except for brand new branches that occurred over winter) back to the short internodes that the tree produced in the previous summer. This means that growth subsequent to an annual summer pruning will be adding new short internodes to old short internodes. Short internodes are a requirement if you're aiming for a tree that is full and compact. Is there anyone who isn't? I generally prune my trees after they have been outdoors for 2-3 weeks because outdoor conditions (more light and air movement) will have the tree itching to back-bud; so, the response when I prune is much more enthusiastic than it would have been had I pruned even 2 weeks earlier. Learning to work with your plants' natural rhythms by planning ahead to take advantage of the most robust part of the growth cycle, while avoiding unnecessary stress when the plant is low on stored energy and sunlight is hard to come by (autumn, winter and early spring) is a winning strategy, as you'll find out once you pick up the rhythm.

    Al

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