Why is my ficus tree dying?

kath85February 15, 2011


Perhaps someone with a better green thumb than I can give me some advice about saving my poor ficus tree. I bought it the beginning of last winter and was told not to repot it until spring so it is currently in it's plastic pot inside a larger clay pot. It is sitting in the brightest room in the house which isn't saying much in Ohio, but at a temp of 65-70 degrees. I water it faithfully once a week when the top is dry with about a cup if water and try to make sure there is a little moisture throughout the bottom layers of soil. It is probably three to four feet tall.any of the leaves are turning completely brown, curling at the edges and falling off. Some leaves get spots first and many of the branches appear to be dead. It's been a slow process over the past several months, but every week I find a good handful of fallen leaves on the carpet. How can I save it? I realize that direct sunlight in Cleveland is virtually impossible in the winter, but the greenhouse where I bought it insisted that a ficus could still survive. What do you think?

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Update: just lifted up the plant to clean out some old leaves and discovered what looks like pill bugs and centipedes. Ugh. I don't know if that's the issue, but it sure can't help. We've never had those bugs in the house so I imagine they came along in the soil. How do I go about getting rid of those guys?

    Bookmark   February 15, 2011 at 2:40PM
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What ficus tree?
There are hundreds+ of ficus species.
This FF is intended for the general ficus genus,
but it turns out that it is mostly focused towards the
F.carica kind (the common edible fig).
Please specify or show a picture, and I am sure that
some expert (not me) will come to your help.
Good luck...

    Bookmark   February 15, 2011 at 3:43PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hi, Kath. I can help you get your tree back on track if it's not too far gone. First - what species (benjamina, lyrata, elastica....?), then let me ask if your container has drain holes?, then tell me about your fertilizing - if you've done any. Do you have a water softener for your water supply? ion exchange or RO if you do?

There is an active thread I just replied to that you might like to read - just click on this embedded link. I'm almost sure I'm going to be telling you pretty much what I told Sketchybird, but we'll see what you have to say.

I also wrote a long post about the care of tropical Ficus in containers that should be very helpful. I'll link you to it below. At least we have a start - ball's in your court. ;o)


Here is a link that might be useful: More about Ficus care

    Bookmark   February 15, 2011 at 5:30PM
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Al, thank you for the links! A lot of excellent, concise information there that I wasn't able to find elsewhere online.

To answer your questions, I think it is a benjamina. The trunk is braided if that helps. There is one center drainage hole in each of the pots and a clear plastic tray beneath to protect the carpet. No fertilizing and no water softener - just plain (city) tap water.

I did rotate the tree a bit as I noticed it was leaning slightly toward the window and somewhat leafier on the window side. I would like to think that all it needs is just such a simple solution as that, but I have a feeling it's going to be a little more complicated.

I so appreciate you taking the time to help!


    Bookmark   February 15, 2011 at 9:11PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I see I can get to you by email. If I send you a short note, you'll have my addy so you can send me a picture (of your tree) lol. Can you do that?

What I think we need to do is get you on track in the watering fertilizing areas for the moment. First, I think we/you should get your soil flushed thoroughly, as I described in the link to Sketchybird. I'll copy paste it so you don't need to go looking for it:

Here's what I would do. Move the tree to where you can flush the pot thoroughly - in the tub or shower is great. Saturate the soil with room temperature water and wait 10 minutes. Then, flush the soil with a volume of water at least equal to the volume of the container it's in 5-10 times - the more the better. This removes accumulating solubles (salt build-up) from the soil. After it stops draining, remove the tree from the pot & set it on newspaper over night. The paper will 'pull' excess water from the soil. Return it to the same pot next day.
Wait to water until a wood dowel stuck deep into the soil comes out clean & dry. When it needs it's first watering after the flush, fertilize with a 1/2 recommended strength of MG 24-8-16 or 12-4-8, or Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 (my favorite).

I'll have you add a wick to the pot for now. The wick will help excess water drain & allow you to water properly. You'll need to arrange for the pot to be ABOVE a collection saucer when you water, with the wick dangling below the bot 2-3", but NOT touching the effluent that collects in the saucer. When you water - use enough water so at least 10-15% of the total volume of water you apply exits the drain or drips off the wick. This keeps solubles from accumulating in the soil. You can learn more about why how water behaves in container soils here
. If you absorb the information in this thread, it will stay with you and help you with your container gardening from now on.

Any questions you have before you flush the soil and fertilize are welcome. If you're still interested - I'll help you get set up so you can water properly until you can repot. Repotting is different from potting up, in that repotting includes bare-rooting, a soil change, and root pruning.

.... apprehensive, or excited to be taking a big step forward? ;o)


    Bookmark   February 16, 2011 at 2:24PM
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Thanks so much for the detailed instructions! Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, but your post was very helpful and appreciated! And yes, if you think it will help I can certainly email you a photo.

Actually, I've had a lot of fun watching my ficus lately. Ever since I cleared out the dead leaves in the pot, killed those few bugs and rotated the plant, there have been no more dropped brown leaves and brand new shoots are even growing from branches that I had previously thought were dead! So now I'm kind of afraid to do anything else lest I jinx it.

I think that the flushing and wicking part is simple enough though and will likely give that a go when the weather settles down a bit and I can let it dry out in the basement or garage without fear of extreme cold getting to it.

But about the fertilizer. I try not to use any chemicals in/around the house. Do you think that fertilizer is necessary or are there organic mixes

So excited to be learning all of this from a pro!

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 8:24AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I understand if you're self-limited by an all organic ideology, but I also believe you make it more difficult to achieve success. First - fertilizing is always necessary to maintain your plants in good vitality in container culture. You cannot depend on the decomposition of the soil to release enough nutrients to fill the plant's needs. Organic fertilizers are probably more accurately referred to as soil amendments, and depend on the activity of soil micro-organisms to break the 'fertilizer' molecules down into elemental form. Since populations of these micro-organisms go through boom/bust cycles in containers, delivery of nutrients from organic sources are usually unreliable and erratic. You have little idea what you're actually supplying or even when it might become available. Once these elements DO become available in a form plants can assimilate, they are in exactly the same form supplied by soluble fertilizers like Miracle-Gro, Peter's, Foliage-Pro ...... With soluble fertilizers you know exactly how much of any nutrient is available, and it becomes available the moment it is applied. From this, you can see how much easier and more efficient it is to maintain plants in containers using soluble fertilizers with favorable ratios.

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being growing in the garden and 10 being hydroponics, container culture is probably a 7 or 8, and requires different approaches to managing moisture levels and nutrition for best results. If you follow the following embedded link, you may find the info about fertilizing containerized plants more detailed & helpful.

I'll leave the ball in your court insofar as how you'd like to proceed, but before I take my leave, I would urge you to flush the soil asap (use sink/shower/tub) and look into getting your plant into a more appropriate soil when the timing is more appropriate. I have helped many hundreds of struggling growers take giant steps forward in their ability to maintain healthy plants by simply helping them to understand how important TO that success, a soil that allows you to water and fertilize properly is.

Take care - best luck.


    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 7:52PM
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It may be that the fig tree needs to go dormant for the winter. In the spring it should grow new leaves.
I started putting my potted fig tee in my unheated basement for the winter, on the advice of other members. It gets great new leaves in the spring when I put it outside.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2011 at 3:48AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Katherine is talking about a tropical tree, Terry. Prolly Ficus benjamina, aka weeping fig. ;o)


    Bookmark   March 2, 2011 at 4:51PM
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There seems to be a good comparison of organic vs inorganic fertilizers at wikipedia. It was helpful for me.

Here is a link that might be useful: wikipedia Fert. page

    Bookmark   March 5, 2011 at 12:25PM
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I wonder if anyone might be able to help me as well. I have what was a beautiful ficus tree -- it was potted for about 10 years in a very large pot -- 2 ft. high by 30" wide at the mouth. It lived happily outdoors and grew to be about 10 feet tall with beautiful green leaves. It was the star of the garden. About 2 months ago, it started losing leaves -- I watered and fed it to no avail. Finally I realized that it was probably root bound, and had my gardner take it out of the pot and plant it in the ground. It continued to die -- and now all that is left are the very large trunk and branches without leaves at all. I noticed a green film on some of the branches -- and in some spots it looks like it has developed knotty holes -- dead wood is falling off and leaving the interior branch. Some of the higher branches have snapped off -- dead.

Is there anything I can to do save it -- I am really at a loss.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 9:30PM
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