Weeping Fig, Growth in Check

My little fig tree put on a lot of new growth this year. Let me qualify this statement. By “fig,” in this case, I mean my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). It’s a relative of edible fig, also edible (but rarely eaten), and a common houseplant, valued for its relaxed appearance, its small, glossy green leaves, and its tolerance for indoor environments. By “a lot of new growth,” I mean a half an inch or so.Bonsai fig

Despite that meager growth, the plant has grown too large. Nothing like it would have grown outdoors in open ground in the tropics, where this trees’ branches quickly soar skyward and sideways to the size of our sugar maples. From those branches drip aerial roots which anchor themselves in the ground, the ones nearest the trunk eventually merging together to become part of a fattening trunk.Weeping fig in Puerto Rico

My little fig, you probably guessed by now, is a bonsai. The tree, if I may call a four-inch-high plant a “tree,” began life here as one of a clump of what evidently were rooted cuttings in a small, plastic pot I purchased on impulse from a big box store. 

Back here at the farmden, I got to work on it, first teasing the plants apart from each other, selecting one as keeper. The road to bonsai-dom began as I trimmed back the roots to be able to fit the plant into its new home, a 3 by 4-1/2 inch shallow pot about an inch deep. There was little to prune aboveground, but I made any cuts necessary, with the future in mind.

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A Wizening Little Tree

Now, in its tenth year, my weeping fig is just waking up. (This plant is not one of my edible figs weeping from sadness, but a species of fig — Ficus benjamina — with naturally drooping branches.) As a tropical tree, its sleep was not natural, but induced, by me.

Bonsai fig

In its native habitat in the tropics, weeping fig grows to become a very large tree that rivals, in size, our maples. The effect is all the more dramatic due to thin aerial roots that drip from the branches, eventually fusing to create a massive, striated trunk. Because the tree tolerates low humidity, it’s often grown as a houseplant. Growth is rapid but with regular pruning the plant can be restrained below ceiling height.

At ten years old, my weeping fig is about four inches tall with a trunk about 5/8 inch in diameter and no aerial roots. Four inches was about the height of the plant when I purchased it in the houseplant section of a local lumberyard. Actually, four of these plants were growing in a 4 inch square pot. I separated them and potted one up with the idea of creating a bonsai.

The bonsai has been a success. Each year the trunk and stems have thickened to create the wizened appearance of a venerable old tree, in miniature. The soil beneath the spreading (if only 3 inch) limbs is soft with moss which has crept slowly up the lower portion of the trunk.

To Sleep, My Little Tree

Even after ten years the plant is in the same pot in which I originally planted it, a 4 by 6 inch bonsai tray only about an inch deep. Biannual repotting and pruning has been necessary to keep the stems and roots to size, and to refresh the potting soil to provide nutrients and room for roots to run (albeit very little room for a tree with such size potential).

Bonsai at one-year old
Bonsai at one-year old

Back to my tree’s sleep: A few weeks ago, the sun dipping lower in the sky for a shorter time each day seemed to me like a good time to give the plant a rest, which it surely would be taking following my operation. 

I began with the roots. After tipping the plant out of its pot, I used a fork to tease soil away from the bottom of the root ball. Roots left dangling down in mid air as I held the plant aloft were easy to trim back. I was careful to leave the top portion of the roots and soil undisturbed in order to keep the mossy blanket intact.

Root pruning bonsai

With enough fresh potting soil added to the pot so the tree (despite its size, I think I can call it a “tree”) would sit at the same height in the pot as previous to pruning, the tree was ready to return to its home. I firmed it in place.

Next, I turned to the above ground portions of the plant, beginning by pruning stems so the tree would look in proportion to the size of its container and to maintain the increasingly rugged look of a tree, in miniature, beyond its actual years.

Finally, I clipped each and every leaf from the plant. This shocks the plant to sleep and reduces water loss, important for a plant from which a fair share of its roots have been sheared off. Clipping off leaves also induces more diminutive growth in the next flush of leaves, so they are more in proportion to the size of the whole plant.

Bonsai, fig, clipping leaves, '18

After a thorough watering, the tree was back in its sunny window. And there it sat, leafless, until a few days ago, when small, new leaves emerged.

Bonsai, fig, '18, new leaves

Pruning Moves Outdoors, Prematurely Perhaps

Pruning and repotting the bonsai wasn’t enough gardening for me. A couple of sunny days couldn’t help but drive me outdoors. A pile of wood chip mulch delivered a few months ago beckoned me; I spread it in the paths between my vegetable beds, a pre-emptive move to smother next season’s weeds.

I don’t usually prune this time of year (The Pruning Book, by me, recommends against it!), but couldn’t restrain myself. I started with the gooseberries and currants, both of which are super cold hardy plants so are unlikely to suffer any damage from pruning now. Plus, they start growth very early in spring.

Any of this gardening could be postponed until late winter or early spring. But why wait? 

Happy Birthday Ficus


Another Year, Another Pruning and Re-potting

I’d like to say it was the birthday of my baby ficus except I don’t know when it was actually born. And since it was propagated by a cutting, not by me, and not from a seed, I’m not sure what “born” would actually mean. No matter, I’m having its biannual celebration marking its age and its growth.

Just for reference, baby ficus is a weeping fig tree (Ficus benjamina), a tree that with age and tropical growing conditions rapidly soars to similar majestic proportions as our sugar maples. That is, if unrestrained in its development.

Baby ficus (FIGH-kus) began life here as one of three small plants rooted together in a 3 inch pot and purchased from a discount store. (Weeping figs are common houseplants because of their beauty and ability to tolerate dry air and low light indoors.) Eight years later, it’s about 4 inches tall with a wizened trunk and side branches that belie its youth. Bonsai, Ficus, at 8 yearsMoss carpeting the soil beneath it and creeping up the trunk complete the picture. I’ve made and am making baby ficus into a bonsai.

The biannual celebration begins with my clipping all the leaves from the plant. Baby ficus’ diminutive proportions keep this job from being tedious.Lear pruning Clipping the leaves accomplishes two goals. First, plants lose water through their leaves so removing leaves reduces water loss (important in consideration of the next celebratory step).

And second, clipping the leaves reduces the size of leaves in the next flush of growth, keeping the in proportion to the size of the plant. Leaves on an unrestrained weeping fig grow anywhere from 2 to 5 inches long, which would look top heavy on a plant 4 inches tall.

The next step is to tip the plant out of its pot so I can get to work on its roots. The pot is only an inch deep and 4 inches long by 3 inches wide, so obviously can’t hold much soil. Bonsai root pruningBaby ficus gets all water and its nourishment from this amount of soil. Within 6 months or so, roots thoroughly fill the pot of soil and have extracted much of the nourishment contained within.

So the roots need new soil to explore, and space has to be made for that new soil. That space is made by cutting back the roots. (Less roots means less water up into the plant, which is why I began by reducing water loss by clipping off all the leaves). I tease old soil out from between the roots and with a scissors shear some of them back.

Next, I put new potting mix into the bottom of the pot, just enough so the plant can sit at the same height as it did previously. Any space near the edges of the pot gets soil packed in place with a blunt stick. Throughout this repotting, I manage to preserve more or less intact the moss growing at the base of the plant.

Now the plant needs its stems pruned. After all, I don’t want the plant growing larger each year, just more decorative as the trunk and stems thicken and age. Pruning involves some melding of art and science. As far as art, I’m aiming for the look of a mature, picturesque tree. Bonsai stem pruningAs far as science, I shorten stems where I want branching, usually just below the cut. Where I don’t want branching but want to decongest stems, I remove a stem or stems right to their base. I also remove any broken, dead, or crossing branches unless, of course, leaving them would be picturesque.

Finally, a thorough watering settles the plant into its refurbished home. Until new leaves unfold and new roots begin to explore new ground, water needs for baby ficus are minimal.

Oh, one more step. I stand back and take an admiringly look at baby ficus in its eighth year.Bonsai ready for another year

Farmden Health Club & Basil

Rei-King, an Ancient Exercise?

Among the many benefits of gardening is the opportunity it offers for enjoyable, productive exercise in the great outdoors. And now we can add an exercise called rei-king to boot camp, pilates, zumba, kick boxing, cardiofunk, and other ways modern humans build and maintain sleek, fit bodies. Or so I told my wife, Deb.

Deb rakes mown hay.

Rei-King by Deborah as Sammy looks on.

As with some of those other exercise routines, equipment is needed, simple equipment in the case of rei-king. Basically, the equipment is a pole, perpendicular to and at the end of which is a length of wood or metal, attached in its middle to the pole. From the lower side of the length of wood or metal are teeth, each a couple of inches apart and a couple of inches long.

Now for the exercise. You lift the pole just enough to bring the head off the ground, reach forward, and pull it towards you. For balanced exercise, it’s advised to occasionally switch which arm is most forward.

Resistance is the way to build up muscle and endurance. That resistance comes in the form of friction from material lying on the ground. This time of year, that material might conveniently be mown long grass or hay.

And Sie-Thing

I sometimes practice rei-king; more often I choose another exercise that complements Deb’s rei-king. I practice sie-thing (pronounced “sigh-thing”).

Like rei-king, sie-thing entails using one piece of equipment, a sie. The sie also has a single pole, in this case with two handles attached, one at the upper end and one about halfway down. A metal weight is attached at the bottom of the sie. The metal is a couple of feet long, curved, and sharpened on its inside edge. Muscle tone and strength is created by putting the left hand on the upper handle, the right hand on the lower handle, flexing the spine to the right and then unwinding it to the left while trailing the metal weight just above ground level.

Scything the meadow.

Here I practice the ancient art of Sie-Thing.

Again, sei-thing can be made more rigorous, in this case by passing the sharp metal through tall grass or meadow plants. The taller the plants, the denser the plants, and the older plants, the more the resistance.

A side benefit of all this sie-thing is that grass or meadow plants get mown during the exercise. The fallen material drops right in place, providing an opportunity — for me or, more usually, Deb — to then practice rei-king.

By the way, either exercise is most enjoyable early in the morning. At that time, plants are turgid so the sharpened metal of the sie pops plant cells as it is drawn along. And the fallen plants, best for rei-king after lying on the ground a day or two to wilt, cling together nicely when  heavy with dew. The cool morning air is also conducive to exercise.

Basil for Winter?

Many years ago I grew the few varieties of basil that were available and then wrote about them. My conclusion, at the time, was that taste differences between the varieties were minor, so the choice of what to grow should perhaps be on the fun of saying their names, which put Genova Profumatissima, Syracusa, and Fino Verde Compatto at the top of the list. What fun to wave my arms and speak their names!

Or, a variety could be chosen for the size or color of its leaf, whether for decoration or culinary use. “Spicy Globe basil, planted close together, makes soft, green mounds resembling a miniature boxwood hedge,” I wrote. Now we have yet another decorative form: Bonsai Basil.Bonsai basil plants in pots.

To create a bonsai basil, a variety such as Spicy Globe — perfect, with its diminutive, closely spaced leaves — is grafted onto a special rootstock. That rootstock is another variety of basil, one chosen, in perfect world, to impart to the grafted plant vigor, disease resistance, and hardiness. Periodically shearing such a plant keeps up appearances even as it provides basil for flavoring. Over time, the trunk even turn woody.

Even better, carry on the fun and the flavor through winter. Basil is perennial in the tropics but generally does not fare well in the cool, dry air, and relatively dark conditions of a northern home in winter. All of which calls out for a vigorous, disease-resistant, hardy plant. A grafted basil. Grafted basil, even more than grafted tomatoes, are very much the new kid on the (grafted) block.

A few weeks ago I was given a couple of grafted bonsai basil plants and I’m planning to grow them as perennials. It turns out that my plants are on a rootstock called Nufar which is resistant to fusarium disease. My soil doesn’t harbor basil fusarium disease, so that rootstock is of no benefit in that department. Perhaps it will help get the plant through the long, dark winter indoors anyway.

New rootstocks that could impart vigor and hardiness to help get a bonsai basil through winter — indoors, of course, around here — are on the horizon.


Ah, fusarium. Reminds me of last week’s patting myself on my back about my conquest of pea fusarium, which has plagued me for years. Well, between last week and this week, fusarium has again reared its ugly head and the vines have yellowed. I did get a decent crop, however. Looks like management rather than conquest will be the key to annual harvests of peas.

Book Giveaway, and Trees Large and Small

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Reply to this post with what fruits are most and least successful in your garden or farmden. Also tell us what state you are in (as in NY, OH, CA, etc., not happiness, wistfulness, etc.). I’ll choose a winner randomly from all replies received by March 23rd.
A coming bout of colder weather notwithstanding, my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) knows and shows that spring is around the corner. Buds along and at the tips of stems are stretching and showing some green of new leaves beneath their folds. I’m called to action.
The reason for this call is that my weeping fig, although it could soar to 75 feet outdoors in tropical climates, is in a small pot being trained as a bonsai. Now that the plant is just about ready to grow is the time to cut it back so that new growth remains proportional to the size of the pot, the roots, and the dictates of design.
At three and a half years old, my tree is only 6 inches high — and I want to keep it that small. Its pot, after all is only 4 inches long by 3 inches wide, and an inch deep.
Before I even get to the stems, I cut off all the leaves. True, this is not good for a plant, but my plant is healthy so can tolerate the stress. I go through the trouble of snipping off each leaf because that dwarfs, to some degree, new leaves that are about to emerge, keeping them more in proportion to the size of the plant.

Whoops, I just checked a book (The Pruning Book by Lee Reich) which states that the leaf pruning is best done after new leaves fully emerge. Oh well, I’ll leaf prune again as soon as the next flush of growth finishes. (Tropical plants, in contrast to plants of cold climates, typically have multiple growth flushes each year.)
With leaves pruned off, time to move on to the roots. Since the plant was last re-potted, a year ago, roots have thoroughly filled the soil in the small pot. There’s little or no room for new root growth, and new roots are the ones that drink in water and what few nutrients are left in the old soil.

The only way to make room for new soil and root growth is to get rid of some old soil and roots. I tease out old soil from among the roots and then prune away about a third of the old roots. With that done, I pack new soil into the pot, just enough to put the plant, with its surface mat of moss still in tow, sitting at the same level as before the root pruning.
The stems need little pruning. I snip off a crossing stem here, one reaching too far over the edge of the pot there, and another that threatens to extend too far skyward. Although stems made little growth over the past year, they, and especially the trunk, did thicken, helping to give the little tree an appearance venerable beyond its years.
I haven’t looked, but my guess is that my fruit trees are also beginning to feel the effects of impending spring. Bouts of warm weather are the driving force in this case. One week we have highs in the ‘teens or twenties, another week highs are in the 40s or 50s. Back and forth through winter.
Plants went into winter well able to resist enticements of warm weather. That’s because until they’ve experienced a certain number of hours at chilly, not frigid, temperatures, they remain dormant and unwilling to grow. Once reaching about 1,000 hours total accumulated exposure to temperatures between 30 and 45°F., they begin to de-harden, that is, become less resistant to cold and more ready to grow.
Plants vary in the number of hours they need to fill their “chilling” bank, some needing a couple of hundred hours, others needing over 1,000 hours. The gut reaction would be to surmise that plants from colder climates would naturally require more chilling hours before they would begin to grow. That’s generally

true, but it ain’t necessarily so. In some very cold regions, spring comes on quickly without looking back, and the growing season is short. Fruit plants adapted to such regions must be ready to grow at the first breath of spring if they’re going to have time to ripen their fruits within the growing season. Just a little chilling at the beginning and/or end of the season is all they need.

With most fruit trees, flowers are the first evidence of awakened growth. But if they open too early, subsequent cold turns their colorful petals to brown mush. Dead flowers also cannot go on to become fruits.
I admit to being somewhat foolish for planting an apricot tree, a tree native to Manchuria, a region that experiences those cold winters and quick, steadily warming springs. The climate here in the Hudson Valley (and over most of continental U.S.), and especially at my less than perfect site for fruit-growing, has a good chance of fooling apricot trees into acting as if cold weather is past long before it actually is. My foolishness won’t be in evidence this year, though, because the tree is still too young to flower.

The Tipping Point, Passed

We’re now at the tipping point. No, not the global climate one after which our climate permanently veers off in a new direction. Nor a sociological tipping point that describes, for example, how many instigators are needed to create a mob action. Nor the biodiversity tipping point, the threshold after which biodiversity irreversibly plummets. This tipping point is more down-to-earth and not open to debate: buds on houseplant stems are poised to grow, seeds are ordered, and the sun is slowly rising higher in the sky and lingering longer each day.
I feel it and act accordingly. As soon as buds start to open on indoor plants, I’ll put a little fertilizer in with the water when I water them. Not the tablespoon per gallon per week that’s recommended on the packet label. The plants can’t use that much yet; any extra is wasted and contributes to salt buildup in the potting soil. I’ll start with only a teaspoon per gallon and offer it every other week, gradually increasing it commensurate with growth.
Generally, I don’t use soluble fertilizers. Outside, nutrients locked up within the compost and other organic materials I add to the soil is gradually solubilized by soil microorganisms. But compost and other organic materials are bulky so there’s no room to keep adding them in sufficient amounts for feeding plants growing within the confines of flower pots. Compost added to my potting soils provides sufficient food for seedlings and small plants that spend little time in pots, but houseplants spend their life in pots. Hence the soluble fertilizers that I’ll soon start adding to their water.
As we’ve crossed the threshold to having longer days and brighter sunshine, some potted plants need more than just nutrients. Their roots have run out of space in which to grow. They need either to be moved to bigger pots or to have their roots hacked back to make room for fresh potting soil in the space that’s been freed up in their existing pots.
My weeping fig is the first candidate for re-potting. In its native, tropical haunts this tree grows a hundred feet high. As a familiar houseplant, it’s easily held in check at six feet high. My bonsai weeping fig tops out at only six inches high, and grows in an index-card sized, shallow pot an inch deep.
Every year the weeping fig gets its soil refreshed. Once I ease the plant out of its pot, taking care not to disturb the mossy mat that now covers the soil surface, I tease soil out from among the roots at the bottom of the root ball. After snipping back some roots and laying some new potting soil at the bottom of the pot, I return the plant to its home.
Larger, potted plants get more brutal treatment, especially my potted, edible figs, now in twelve to eighteen inch diameter pots. I’ll slice a couple of inches of soil from all around their root balls. But no need to do that yet; those plants are still dormant in the cold, dark basement
New seeds on their way by mail to welcome in the New Year provide an incentive to discard old seeds. Seeds are living entities, albeit quiescent, and eventually peter out. How long a seed stays viable depends on the kind of seed and the storage conditions, the ideal conditions being cool and dry (around 45°F. and 10% humidity). Consistent temperatures are better for storage than variable temperatures.
I used to store my seeds with a silica dessicant in airtight, plastic tubs in the refrigerator — perfect, but no longer feasible. These days, I have too many seeds so they have to make do in rodent-proof tubs in the garage.
Today I’m checking the date on each packet of seed, either written there by me or already stamped on the packet. The onion family has least longevity; I order new onion and leek seeds every year. Next in longevity comes the carrot family, which includes parsley, celery, fennel, parsnip, and, of course, carrot. Because my storage conditions are less than ideal, I also replenish these seeds every year. Under good conditions, these seeds, along with non-family members okra, beet, chard, pepper, and corn, would stay viable for 2 or 3 years. Seeds of tomato and eggplant, and cabbage and its kin, keep well for about 4 years, as do lettuce and legumes (beans and peas).
If there’s ever a doubt about seed viability, it’s easy to test germination by counting out, say, 20 seeds to put between the folds of a moist, paper towel. If the towel is kept moist on a plate covered with an upturned plate, any viable seeds should germinate within a week or so.
Seeds readied and plants re-potted or fertilized, as needed, take advantage of the change in our planet’s orientation. We’re off to another year of gardening. This season’s tipping point is thankfully repeated every year.