In April I ordered a "Pre Bonsai Ficus Midnight Bonsai Tree (benjamina 'midnight')" from bonsaiboy.com. I am new to gardening and while so inexperienced I've decided to keep plant size and investment small at least until I know more. This "pre-bonsai" plant fulfilled the requirements and also my desire to grow a ficus benjamina which I've always loved but killed indoors while living in California (now in Arkansas). Despite the reputation of losing its leaves after being moved just inside a house, this plant has only lost about 5-6 leaves and I'm amazed after being shipped across the country. I keep it in my kitchen window (sort of NW facing) and bought a small humidifier placed next to the window and run when I'm home to increase humidity. It's a little warmer than the rest of the house, but I keep house fairly cool, so I don't think this is a factor. The plant is supposedly 5 years old, but being pre-bonsai has not been "trained." It came in a regular 3" pot. The entire plant including the pot is about 12".
My question is with root pruning, and when to place in a more "bonsai"-like container. I've waited and not done anything, wanting to let it get used to this environment. It has numerous new leaves that haven't opened, but other than that does not have much new growth since arrival. When should I trim the roots (by 1/3?) and place in a different (flatter) container? Any other advice would be greatly appreciated. I am immensely enjoying my growing collection of small plants, but am pretty clueless on details.
The best time to repot tropicals or do anything major to them is when they are healthy & possessed of plenty of energy reserves in the month prior to their most robust growth. Since they'll grow like crazzy all summer long for you, late May or early Jun would be best, but the window of opportunity is still open for you. You can repot now if you like, or just pot-up and let it put on some mass - your call. I'm just finishing (today, hopefully) repotting at least 25 ficus and around another 30-40 asstd tropicals & subtropicals - the stuff that over-winters indoors under lights. I'm behind schedule though. I prefer to have all my summer repotting (except pines) done by the 4th.
FWIW - your plant would probably be much happier outdoors, getting some sun (with the pot shaded though - to keep soil temps down. I'm actually planning on photographing a repot of a tree no one wanted, leftover from a workshop I conducted about 3-4 years ago. I'll see how that goes - maybe it will help you.
Al - you're all over the place! Yesterday I was reading a long thread you had about soil - I think it started out with an umbrella tree that wasn't doing well. It's great to have someone with your experience here. I'm hesitant about taking the ficus out of its original container, but I guess it's time to remember it's not a $50 or $100 purchase and be brave.
Ok - I took the pics and completed the work. I'll kind of narrate what I was thinking and describe what I did. I probably won't get done posting before dinner (I have marinated flank steak in the smoker - oink), so if you'll hold your questions or comments until I'm done with the pics, it will be less confusing for anyone else following along.
Three or four years ago, I conducted a workshop with Ficus b 'Too Little' as the subject material. This tree was exceptionally ugly, and no one wanted it, so I took it home & set it on the grow bench. I probably cut it back hard to establish some sort of future canopy shape. I know I repotted it because it's in the gritty mix, but I didn't remember anything in particular about the tree because I only looked at the roots once & regarded it as pre-bonsai material.
The pots are by Sarah Rayner, and I intended to put the plant in one of them after the work, but it took more than I thought it would to straighten out the root nightmare, so I wanted a larger pot with a greater soil volume to allow the plant a year to recover. As you'll see, I ended up putting it in an 8" Tokoname training pot.
The roots are still a mess, but you can see that I really whacked them hard. I didn't leave much in the way of roots. Normally, I don't cut the top back at the same time I work on roots, but the tree had so much foliage that the remaining roots could never support it. This means that the tree would have shed weak branches that might be important to the end composition. By cutting the tree back hard, it should prevent random die-back because I selected the branches to be 'shed'. Treatment this harsh should only be undertaken on healthy trees with plenty of reserve energy.
You can see how large some of the roots I removed were.
Notice the dead branch above the two that emerge side by side. Many cultivars of benjamina have a tendency to produce new branches from adventitious buds at the base of established branches. They sap strength from the larger branches and can cause die-back if not removed promptly.
After the top is cut back hard and the tree secured to the container. I often prefer this method of securing pre-bonsai instead of wiring them into the pot. It IS important though, to secure the tree so it can't move in relation to the pot. Jostling the tree or wind breaks many tiny roots and greatly extends recovery time. The wound has been dressed. The tree actually looks much better than the picture shows because you can't get any perspective on how the branches are positioned. Branching looks messy in the photo, but it doesn't when you're in front of the tree. A few days in the shade & then back on the bench until night temps start dropping below 50*. It comes in at that time after a couple of applications of neem oil about 2 weeks apart.
That's about it - can't think of anything else at the moment. I hope it was helpful and hope even more that it bolstered your courage. ;o)
Great demo Al, thank you. Question on your post
July 18, 2010
did you plan the dieback on that branch?
When you trimmed the dead branch did you leave anything interesting like a hole or a knob to preserve?
I guess that's 2 questions.
The die-back occurred because I was inattentive and missed the fact that the newly emerged branches growing immediately under the larger branch were robbing nutrients from the large branch, which is what caused the decline/death of the larger branch. This is something you MUST take into account when working with F. benjamina 'Too Little'.
I don't worry much about small scars like the one in the picture ... unless the subject species is hornbeam or others known to be notoriously slow healers. The small scars heal quickly after only a few years, usually leaving little or no evidence that they even existed. There are a lot of considerations that go into deciding how to treat knobs, hollows, deadwood, and other features that may or may not be something that realistically mimics nature. The two main considerations are the age of the tree and how long I think it will be before the tree will actually be a believable bonsai.
I have a "Too Little" that I'm scared to cut back. It's gotten rather tall, and leggy, and I'd like to cut it back. It's pot broke during our move, about 5 months ago, and I have removed it from it's pot, done a little root pruning, and don't know whether to wait until spring, when it can go back outside, or go ahead and prune hard now. Any advice?
Mmhmm - I do ALL major work on my Ficus trees in late Jun - early Jul. I would suggest you wait until around Memorial Day. Get your tree outdoors as soon as you can, to build energy reserves. This, when temps are reliably above 55* ... or you can move the plant in and out, but try to avoid temps below 55*. 'Too Little' back-buds extremely aggressively, so you can do almost anything to them you'd like, as long as they have some reserve energy and the days are long enough to ensure enough sun for an adequate recovery period. We can look at some pics when it's time to reduce your tree if you want help deciding on a suitable path.
You saw how aggressively I attacked the roots in the pic above? The plant sulked for a week & then started to grow. It's 5 months later & you wouldn't even know I reduced the top & roots by over 75%.
Thanks for the information. It's inside until at least late March here, and we will have reliable temps above 55 probably earlier than that, but I just don't want to take the chance. That's about when my orchids go back outside. And I did get the roots cleaned up, but I don't have a (bonsai) pot large enough for it to go back into, so it's just in a plastic pot for now, anyway. I'll get back to you when the weather is right. Thanks again for your help.
I've found this thread to be so invaluable to us gardeners that are interested in Bonsai and its art. So I've asked admin. to re-post it here. Thanks go to Melody for moving the thread here, thanks to Al and many others who contributed to this subject. Let's talk bonsai.
Absolutely out of this world! Wow, now I'm on a quest to find some of those acorns to figure out how tiny the POT for the creative 'bonsai' actually is. Thank you Al for sharing such creative- project idea.
I'm still looking for the White Oak acorn for the sake of curriousity. At the mean time, I've this ficus (unsure of the species) that I recently transplanted into a driftwood hollow. Since the ficus maybe a tropical perennial I'll have to give it winter protection here. Al, I know the ficus leaves are large and isn't suitable for an ideal 'bonsai'. But it could be a focal point in the garden?
The second one is a contoneaster that I potted up this early spring...contoneasters are hardy here. But with the small pot do you think it may need some frost protection while left outdoor? I'm well aware of our zonal differences. Down here we rarely get snow at any duration, if we do at all. But temp. occassionally dips down to the 20F. degrees. Where the plant situated is near a large water body (a lake) where temp. is buffered by the water vapor.
With the Cotoneaster, my question is this; what are the chances of frost damage having situated in such shallow decorative pot? Last Fall when I purchased the draft plant from the nursery. It was full of berries, I left it outdoor and it did fine. Early spring, I pruned the roots (severely pruned) and repotted it into the glazed pot, it responded happily by rewarding me with lots of flowers. Currently the berries are nearly ripe. I'd like to leave them berries for the birds to enjoy over the winter. What's your thought please.
Yes - your ficus would make a nice POI in your garden or on a deck. I think you're right, that the foliage is coarse, & won't likely reduce enough to make it a believable bonsai, but still, it would make a very interesting focal piece.
I find myself pretty uninterested in 'just growing things' for the sake of growing them. Houseplants, for example, hold little interest for me beyond determining that I'm able to grow them well. Once I have done that, I'll give the plant away & go on to the next 'difficult to grow' houseplant. The plants I AM interested in growing are the ones that offer the added opportunity of being able to be manipulated into being something unusual or even strikingly beautiful - which is why I'm so interested in bonsai. Even if your ficus isn't a good candidate for bonsai, it still offers the opportunity of being able to be manipulated into something unique and beautiful, so it has that added element that so many other plants lack.
Your cotoneaster would appreciate a FULL repot in the spring before it wakes up, which means it will respond well to completely bare-rooting, root pruning, and a change of soil to something appropriate for bonsai. Once it starts growing, it needs a HARD pruning of the top to bring branch length back in line. It's hard to tell, for lack of perspective, but I think the planting angle could be changed radically to make a better tree, too.
Your tree will tolerate actual soil temps down to about 25*. This means that if it's 20* and your plant is directly ON THE GROUND, it should be ok; but, if it's on a deck or a stand as in the picture, 20* is too low. The difference is, when the plant is on the ground or garage floor, it takes advantage of the buffering effect of geothermal heat rising from the ground. If it got REALLY cold, you could temporarily cover it with a cardboard box or plastic tub turned upside down, but all things considered, it won't need much protection, if any..