Should I re-pot?

rickjames(9 Cali)March 20, 2006

Hi everyone,

I am new to figs, and yesterday I bought an Osbourne's Prolific. It's approximarely 5 feet tall including the #5 container that it is planted in; looks nice and sturdy. I am planning to keep it in a container permanently, and I was going to move it into a somewhat larger container as well as change the potting media (was gonna pretty much bare-root it). However, when I went to do this, it looks like that the buds on the tree are starting to swell and break dormancy. Should I just leave it alone at this point?Or should I just move it to the new container intact instead--and then bare-root it next year?

I am concerned because it really seems like such a small container for a tall tree. I don't mind the container, and I know that figs apparently tolerate container confinement well, but I don't think the current soil is top-notch either (I'm always a little concerned about compaction issues).


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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

You are safe to repot now if you choose, so long as tree is not in leaf. The sooner you root-prune, the more manageable your roots will be in the future. I know some do not root-prune, only pot up, but it is much better for continued vitality and development if you get into a 2 or 3 year bare-root/root pruning cycle on deciduous trees. Aside from improved vitality, it also allows you to maintain the tree in much smaller volumes of soil (same container for a good # of years). I can lay out some of the reasons why root-pruning when repotting is the best approach to long term woody plantings if you like.


    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 9:42AM
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girlfromthegarden(z5 Indy metro)

Al, can you describe (in one of your crisp visuals) what the root mass might look like on an unpruned plant that you're planning to renovate this way, and then the "after" desired look? Here's my own dilemma from a novice standpoint:

When I re-potted a few figs this past weekend (several small cuttings started almost exactly one year ago and grown in small cups, maybe ~10 oz-or-less-sized plastic, with drainage holes punched in the bottom), I found a tangled mess of roots that had wound themselves around the bottoms and up onto the sides of the cups. Plenty of roots, but I was hesitant what to do with them as I set the cuttings into their (not too much larger) new containers. What I wanted was to preserve enough needed root mass but spread the roots in a way to encourage growth out and down, not round and round.

Basically I just detangled the roots to straighten them out, attempting not to break off too much in the process because I didn't know how much the cutting needed to stay healthy, but in some cases the roots had really wound themselves into a nest, almost like they were making coiled baskets! I've got quite a few more figs I'm going to repot in the next week or two - can you help us understand how much root to take off, what to do with roots that have grown into themselves and gotten potbound, etc.? pictures would be great, but I know you can create a word picture that'll be more than adequate - thanks :o)!


    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 11:21AM
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gene_washdc(zone 5a)

Hi Sherry! Nice to see you're posting again.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 1:27PM
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girlfromthegarden(z5 Indy metro)

> Hi Sherry! Nice to see you're posting again.

thanks, Gene, it's good having a few extra minutes to emerge from hibernation :). How are things on your end, especially with the new orchard and relocating some of your figs, etc.? I've been out of the flow here quite awhile, this past year was rather challenging with one of my children, along with other high-priority time investments, so I've been only lurking, pretty much. But despite the snow outside my office window at the moment, I'm so very ready for spring and a taste of green to return, hopefully can pop in here when able.

Oh and you'll be glad to know that my Paradiso and Sal's cuttings have shown signs of wakening after their winter nap in the garage, and they were the first to get new containers this weekend. I'm really hoping they might offer a few figs this season, am thinking either the Sal's or Nero tried to last year, though I don't remember if they ripened or not before the weather turned cold. I'm never that certain of how large a container to re-pot up to with the "babies", given that smaller containers force earlier fruiting and are less likely to create root-rot conditions if the soil isn't perfectly aerated or draining decently, but then I also think it precludes the fig gaining some decent growth - a kind of balancing act of growth vs. productivity. I'm thinking to repot most of the junior ones a little on the small side, but then sink the containers into the dirt half-way this spring - what think ye?


    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 4:41PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hi, Sherry. Funny, I just sent you an e-mail a few minutes ago & then found this. ;o)

Young plants, like first and second year cuttings are nearly all dynamic (mass) and will have a much larger ratio of energy:mass than older counterparts. Because of this, you could say that young plants have a tremendous will to live and will tolerate all sorts of indignities being heaped on them, You can be quite radical with the roots of these plants with little fear that o/a development will be much retarded. It's the norm for root-pruned plants to surpass in development, their counterparts left unpruned and root-bound.

Flat, and evenly radiating roots are a big plus in bonsai. They are often achieved by taking first year seedlings and removing ALL roots - right up to the basal transition zone. They are then treated as cuttings. The result of this is the flat and radiating roots alluded to above.

Treat your roots like you would treat the top of the tree. Try to get to where your rootage is only about 2-6 inches deep after pruning, depending on size of plant. Like branches, crossing roots, or those that grow back toward the center get removed, as do those growing horizontally or vertically. Prune out the fat roots - once lignified, they become increasingly ineffective at H20 and nutrient uptake.

For your roots, I would cut off the bottom half, then trim length to fit about 2/3 diam of next container. After roots get woody is when to start selecting the ones that need to go. When you prune back a root, make the cut so a fine root remains just behind it. Always use a sharp pruning tool or scissors. If you secure the tree against movement in the container when repotting, it will establish in a fraction of the time of unsecured trees.

I just started taking digital pics this past year. I will take some shots of the root-prunings I will be starting this week. I'm sure they will help.

It would be a challenge to find a tree that has been containerized for many years, growing with good vitality that has its original soil in its root mass. Trees grown in bonsai culture often live to be hundreds of years old and pass through generation after generation. This longevity and sustained vitality simply CANNOT be maintained without appropriate attention to rootage and removal of old soil. It's easy to learn and your trees will thank you. ;o)



    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 4:56PM
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rickjames(9 Cali)

Thanks for you replies.

I went ahead and transplanted it, and that thing was so darn rootbound it is going to need more work next year. I went ahead and chopped away some roots--had to!!--I think I removed maybe 15-20%. Based on some of your postings that I have read, it sounds like the idea of root-pruning is to stimulate growth of fine feeder roots and remove thickened tough roots that are just taking up space. Nonetheless I hope I didn't kill the poor tree!! I would be less apprehensive if the tree was *fully* dormant, but that's probably my inexperience showing.

However, now I have more questions for you, but they don't really apply to figs. I will post in the container forum...thank you again.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 10:00PM
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girlfromthegarden(z5 Indy metro)

Al, it's always good to get your input - help me out, because I feel like the original Root Rube or something: I need a basic primer on what the roots are going to look like, for pruning purposes. What I observed were three kinds of roots (not vastly different, just gradations if you will):

- finer, hair-or-thread-like roots of a brown color, easily tangled, forming almost a "net" effect. I presume these are the ones that do the most uptake of water and nutrients?

- tougher, thicker-bore (but still not very thick, less than toothpick-diameter) brownish colored roots, kind of the "trunk-line" for the finer roots, if I remember right. They were the ones that tended to coil up and get all basket-weave-y.

- paler but thicker "bean-sprout" looking roots, of a whitish shade, newer looking, but not a fine root, more what I associate with a first root coming off a cutting, though with the soil being still all through the roots, it wasn't possible to see from where they were coming in relation to the other roots. These were more fragile and would snap off if I messed with them, they didn't have much give, were more crisp, guess you could say.

Should I wash all the dirt away from the plant's roots and literally "bare-root" it, to see the root structure in order to prune? can I do this as long as the plant has greenish tips but no leaves unfurled? how do I get the roots in good contact with the potting medium once I've pruned it, just lay them out flat the way you described on the soil and then pile more around/on top of them and anchor the fig with some kind of steadying material (like a lightweight stick or plastic rod)? and how much moisture do the figs need after they've been repotted and root pruned? should I only pre-moisten the potting medium and then refrain from watering the plant until I see it's drying out and/or there are signs of growth (leaves opening, etc.)?
Thanks for more clues to the clueless :).


    Bookmark   March 22, 2006 at 12:16PM
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Looking VERY forward for any pictures of your typical 'root pruning' method. I have never done it and (although you did your best to describe it and its benefits in 'text' format) this whole process is still a complete mystery to me...
George (NJ).

    Bookmark   March 22, 2006 at 1:20PM
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I bare rooted and pruned all of my trees this year (for all intents and purposes the first experience with root pruning for me). Many of my trees seemed to have already sparse root systems, even (dare I say, especially) the larger trees. So I trimmed any root which was longer than the radius of the pot, any root which seemed much thicker than the others and any root which was kinked. Afterwards I soaked in a Superthrive solution and potted them.

Al's comment about it being hard to screw-up must be accurate. Of the trees that I repotted more than 4 weeks ago, all but one have moderate to vigerous growth (the Mystery fig I received from Paradise last year, may remain a mystery forever). I trimmed, soaked and planted more last week and now waiting to see if the rest survived the ordeal as well.

~james (waiving to Sherry)

    Bookmark   March 23, 2006 at 4:47PM
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girlfromthegarden(z5 Indy metro)

Hi James, good on you for taking on what was probably quite a task! now I might have the courage to do similar things (there are a few figs that probably could use the refreshing) - where do people get Superthrive, and do most who use it swear by it? it comes up in the forums here often, and I'm curious what's actually *in* it, given that some research has nullified claims on B-vitamins having any positive effect on plant roots, so maybe it's something else in the solution - ??

Your mystery fig, did it fruit for you last year? mine was definitely one of what Sybil said were the most likely to go out, the Italian Honey figs - it was a yellowish fig, large compared to my Hardy Chicago and EBT, and pale inside, sweet if I let it *really* ripen until it drooped on the tree. I hope yours sets figs for you this year if it didn't last season. Thanks for the encouragement (actually, needed prodding) for tackling the bare-root pruning task and making it less formidable!


    Bookmark   March 23, 2006 at 9:25PM
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I didn't have much of a choice. I bare-rooted the trees earlier this year so they would fit in the fridge. I'll outline my technique partially because it was really quite simple and partially for a critique by those in the know... LOL

Once I trimmed the roots, I soaked them in diluted ST for about 30 mins. While soaking I would put a mound of mix in the bottom of the pot. I then untangled the roots (again) and spread them out as best as I could, placed the tree on the mound and added several cups (I use a 24 oz plastic tumbler) of mix on top of the roots. I would then use a single chopstick to poke around underneath the base of the tree to fill any voids. Then I would push the stick down into the soil near the trunk and gently pull it towards the side of the pot to straighten any roots. If I hit a snag in the root, I would gently work it out. Also, I pulled up any roots which were higher up the base that were partially buried. At this point, I would gently pull up on the tree to see if there was any free play. If there was, I would pull up until I met resistance then poke around underneath the tree to fill the void. Then I would add more mix a little bit at a time while using the stick to make sure the roots were straight until I reached the basal flare. If I remembered, about 2 inches down, I would add a slow released fertilizer. If not, I would add it to the top and work it in with the chopstick. Water well and that was about it.

Superthrive can be found at any of the big stores. Walmart and Lowes are cheaper here than anywhere else for 4 ozs. I haven't done any experimentation with it, and with all the conflicting reports on it, I don't know if there is any difference in using it or not. I had seen Al's report (Superthrive vs. Superjive) that he noticed some difference in rooting and recovery and not much else. I've had the same bottle for over a year now, and at 8 bucks its turning out to be the least expensive part of the growing experience. As I mentioned earlier, all but one of my trees had begun leafing out within three weeks of being replanted.

I didn't get my mystery fig from PN until late August, by the time it drove from VA Beach to NJ then flew to Houston, it had gone into shock and dropped its leaves. It did recover, but no fruit. It is still showing green underneath the bark layer, but the buds seem to be going the wrong way. It's been about 5 weeks since I potted it, so I still have some hope.


    Bookmark   March 24, 2006 at 2:00PM
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girlfromthegarden(z5 Indy metro)

(real quick, from work:)

It did recover, but no fruit. It is still showing green underneath the bark layer, but the buds seem to be going the wrong way.

ohhhhhh, it must be Friday-toast-brain or something, but I started laughing when I read this - all I could picture was a Far Side cartoon, captioned "When fig trees go bad..", and this fig tree with a gun saying to Adam in the Garden "give me the leaf now, and no one will get hurt..."

Okay so my humor is weird ;o). Describe me how the buds look like they're going the wrong way??? And thanks for the pruning/repotting descriptive, especially on the part of getting any air spaces filled in underneath, that was helpful, too. I'll also check for Superthrive at Walmart or Lowes this weekend, and read the label if I find it. I hope your errant fig pulls itself together this year after its road trip havoc!


    Bookmark   March 24, 2006 at 2:48PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hi, Sherry. Not much I could add to James' description of how he did his trees. If I was you, I would bare-root and reduce the root mass height by 1/3 or so & then prune as James did. You, however probably don't need to worry about removing the "largest" until roots start to lignify (harden off). Trim now for length & just make them pretty. Establishing a flat and disk-shaped root system will make future work much easier.

I saved the little thing I wrote about Superthrive. I'll start another thread to post it.

Good luck (with everything).


    Bookmark   March 24, 2006 at 7:52PM
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The buds seemed to have perked up earlier, but now they are not looking so well. I had other trees with similar bud issues, but they broke new buds. This one has yet to do that. Also, the ends of the branches are starting to get a bit of the "dehydrated" look before they get brittle, however, the limbs seem to be more pliable today than before. I haven't given up hope for it, yet. I guess time will tell.

I thought it better to try to eliminate major air space the way I described rather than tamping the pot which might compress too much. Good luck with the label on ST... it is covered (quite literally) with self-promotion, including the cap. LOL.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2006 at 10:39PM
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girlfromthegarden(z5 Indy metro)

A few follow-up questions on the root-pruning scenario:

1.) If in-situ plants mainly need the large fat roots (those not involved in water/nutrient uptake) for stability and anchoring in ground, then what stabilizes the containerized plant against similar forces, like wind? If you have a large fig (over 5') in a pot, must it always be anchored with a pole next to it, if regular root-pruning removes heavier, thicker roots in the pot, and leaves only the fine hair-like ones?

2.) I think someone asked this already, but I didn't see Al answer it - does a root-pruning *require* reduction in the top (above-soil) mass of the plant to match it?

3.) Should a root-pruned fig be kept out of windy conditions (as well as stabilized with something rigid in the pot) for a period of several weeks, to avoid the plant moving at all while the roots re-establish? I'm trying to think how long my one fig is going to need to be "quarantined" from being outside, especially if it's near to leafing out - though maybe the leaves will be delayed because of the root reduction?

I took a pot-bound mystery fig, that had sent thick roots into the ground last season (which I'd had to chop free to bring into the garage last fall), and when I bare-rooted it last night in the sink, the one fat lignified root was huge (thumb-diameter) and coiled like a ram's horn. So I snipped it way back and trimmed out a few other ones that were mainly woody and had next to no hairlike roots on them. I re-potted it and secured it with a tall bamboo stake that had come with one of the fig packages (it is my tallest fig, at between 4-5', pruned by Paradise Nursery to a single stem), but am thinking I will have to go out and buy stakes for all my figs if I'm going to be removing their below-the-soil-line "anchors", or head them back to leave less above-soil mass for the elements to push against.

I think I need further explanations on some of this, Al!

known to be dense,


    Bookmark   March 27, 2006 at 2:15PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

1) In situ plants might have hundreds or thousands of times the biomass to be stabilized against wind and gravity - not nearly the issue in smaller containerized trees. I usually anchor plants to the container with twine, rope or wire (guard against biting into bark) around the trunk until roots are well-enough established to resist wind.

2) No need to reduce canopy of dormant plants (but you can, if you wish) & we shouldn't be doing root work on trees in leaf. Auxin produced in apical meristems & new leaves flows downward and stimulates root growth and division. From this we see - best not to prune. Tree will activate buds its root system can support. Other buds will come on-line as roots recover.

3) Two reasons to keep it out of wind. A) To secure against movement and consequent breakage of fine rootage as it occurs. B) Slows water loss from leaves & branches.

Even when you pot-up, the tree will be less secure in its container & should be secured against toppling or movement. There's no question that root-pruning requires extra effort, both for the undertaking and the subsequent care. Of the 15 or so different genera of deciduous trees I grow in containers, all are on a 1, 2, or 3 year root-pruning schedule (depending on age & stage of development). Having had lots of chances to compare before/after vitality, I have no question about the rejuvenating ability of the root-pruning process.

One last thing about rejuvenation: We tend to think of the age of plants in the same manner we think of age in humans or animals - chronologically. We, like plants, go through several life stages - embryonic, juvenile, adolescent (intermediate in plants), and mature are stages roughly mirrored in plants. Where we vary greatly is in the way our cells age. In animals, body cells all mature at approximately the same speed. Plants grow by consecutive divisions of cells at the growing points (meristems), so their various parts are different ages (the top of the plant is younger than the basal portion, chronologically).

To further confuse you, the more times a cell has to divide to make the tissue, the older it is. This is termed the ontogenetic age and the most recently formed tissue is the oldest, ontogenetically. Plant tissues begin to lose vigor as the ontogenetic age of the part increases. Where am I going? That rootage, or even those stems, that originate from the parts of the plant that were formed first are ontogenetically younger and more vigorous. From this we can see that root-pruning stimulates growth of roots that are ontogenetically younger and genetically more vigorous than older counterparts.


    Bookmark   March 27, 2006 at 5:51PM
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