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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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

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.