ficus Benjamina leaves and branches turning brown

ellenarOctober 10, 2010

I bought a ficus tree about 5'3' tall in August. It started loosing leaves at first turning them yellow and I thought it would be cause of the acclimatization so I did not re-pot it until the leaves stopped from falling. It originally came in a 2 gallon pot.

Now the problem is that the middle branches completely dried out and this is continuing. I thought I did not water it enough (once a week or 10 days) so I watered again thoroughly and by draining the excessive water. The leaves still continue to completely dry out in that specific part, first they are not as strong and they look droopy, then they start turning brown and eventually they completely turn brown and crispy. I don't even know what to do with those branches that have no leaves and that seem to have dried out (they are very thick). The humidity is 50% as I bought a humidifier but I did not use it as it shows a normal rate of humidity. The funny thing is that the part of the tree that has less light is still growing and doing better than that part closer to the light (there is no direct sunlight though).

The pot I put it in is a big clay one, had one big hole at the bottom. I put a layer of plebe stones at the bottom before I added all purpose soil, bought at Lowes. The soil is kind of wet when I put my finger into it, close to the root ball so I am not sure what is happening or if I should water my ficus more often. The temperature inside the room is 80 F and outside is around 90F (until today). I put only once in these two months, some coffee as I was told it is a good way to get nitrogen, but I did not fertilize it. At some parts I see new leaves coming out but not many. Please help me to take care of my dying plant and maybe there is something I can do to make it come back. Thanks

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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

It sounds like the issue is almost certainly severe over-watering. Tell me a little more about the soil you used. Was it all purpose POTTING soil, or did the bag specify it was to be used primarily for 'outdoor' purposes in the yard/garden?


    Bookmark   October 10, 2010 at 3:35PM
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When I did the last watering of the pot the dirt was completely dry. The leaves do not turn yellow anymore like in the case of over-watering (I was told that is what to look for and not to water more.)
The leaves turn completely brown and this is only in one specific area of the plant. The rest is normal and green but the dryness is advancing, taking over more and more branches. They look normal and then start looking droopy and then turn brown but do not fall. No new leaves in that area have grown anymore.

The potting was bought in two small bags and they looked colorful but other then this, I do not remember anything else. If it is too important I will go by the store and take a look, let me know what exactly to look for.
Thanks for all your help

    Bookmark   October 10, 2010 at 4:47PM
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Look what I got from the horticulturist web

It sounds like the tree did not get enough water in the beginning. I can't tell if there is a saucer under the container that would hold excess water, but that would be a good idea. Also, it would help taking the plant outside or putting it in the shower or bathtub to give it a good thorough watering once a week. Perhaps it will need to be watered every 3 or 4 days. You will have to observe the tree and the soil and water the plant at the first indication of droopy leaves or arid soil. It will take a little time to figure out what the needs of the plant are inside your home.
Best of luck,
Martha Kent
Staff Horticulturist

    Bookmark   October 10, 2010 at 5:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

When you said "The pot I put it in is a big clay one, had one big hole at the bottom. I put a layer of plebe stones at the bottom before I added all purpose soil, bought at Lowe's. The soil is kind of wet when I put my finger into it, close to the root ball so I am not sure what is happening or if I should water my ficus more often", it threw up warning flags. The leaves turning yellow & dropping soon after you brought the plant home was most likely the plants normal response to decreasing light levels. Ficus b is notorious for doing that. How long does the soil currently remain wet after you water, and are you watering when the soil is still moist? How are you checking for moisture? I'll wait for your answers, but from what you said, it still sounds like a problem related to watering habits, possibly exacerbated by a problem soil (excessively water-retentive), but I'll wait to see what you have to say.

BTW - do you have a cat, or a water softener?


    Bookmark   October 10, 2010 at 8:23PM
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ellenar Al is the best person I know of to talk about soil for potted trees and plants. We live in an extreme environment here though and the soil mix you would be using inside would be much different than what you would use outdoors.

Outdoors in Arizona I recommend 15-25 gallon pots. In part because a potted plant can lose a lot of water very fast during the summer when its 115 degrees in the shade with under 10% humidity. The larger pot not only helps protect from drying out but also against the roots over heating.

I will leave Al to talk to you about soil and watering. However if you move it outdoors in the sun. The tree will likely need to be watered a little every day in the summer if for nothing else to keep the roots cool. This is why you need a well draining soil. If you can't water every day to keep the roots cool the trees will suffer. If the trees are dieing from the roots over heating putting cool water on soggy soil is only going to make matters worse.

There is another problem that can cause the issue you are having beside what Al has suggested. In Arizona we have spider mites. They often start in one part of a tree and spread over the tree. With time and can kill it. We also have scale here that can affect fig trees but you would see scale if you had it.

    Bookmark   October 10, 2010 at 8:50PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Good catch on the scale & mites - thank you! I'm talking to 5 or 6 people right now about their benjaminas & it's hard to remember who I said what to.


    Bookmark   October 10, 2010 at 9:21PM
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Thank you to all of you that were so nice to write down a little advice.
The way I watered the tree was:
in the beginning I put like 1.5liters of water when I saw that the container was dry at the bottom. After the leaves did not turn yellow anymore, I moved the tree into the pot and I cannot see the bottom as it is so heavy to lift it. Therefore I would stick my fingers and touch the root-ball and when I saw it was dry, I would water. I watered only twice since I potted my tree into the clay pot and it was a thorough watering with soft water as I have a softener. I watered then I waited for it to drain and watered again. I did this in the balcony and I moved the tree inside the next day, early morning. It has been two weeks since the last time I watered and the soil is still moist. I removed the dead branches but today I noticed that one more branch holding 3 leaves is looking droopy and this is on the side where there is a noticeable growth of the plant and the leaves are healthy. All of a sudden the leaves, and these are new ones, are looking droopy and I am afraid, they are dying. They go from green, directly to brown.
As per spider mites or other insects, I am not good at recognizing them, however I have noticed around the soil little flies that resemble fruit flies. I thought actually they were fruit flies until yesterday when removing the branches, I noticed the flies around the soil....Any idea what they are (actually they could not have been fruit flies as I do not leave any fruit or food outside...)
Thank you again

    Bookmark   October 11, 2010 at 7:39PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The buzzabouts are fungus gnats, and a reliable indicator that the plant is being over-watered, something usually helped along by an overly water-retentive soil.

I'm also talking to another Ficus owner (over on the houseplants forum) about the effects of her water softener. Is yours by any chance a RO system, or is it an ionic exchange system you have to load up with salt regularly. If so, it's a major negative issue.

Any chance you could arrange for an alternate water supply for watering your plants - a friend with a RO filtering system, perhaps?


    Bookmark   October 11, 2010 at 9:57PM
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I do not have a general filtering system, just in the shower I have a filter and a water softener-all in one. The filter is a KDF one and the softener needs to be regenerated using table salt, so I guess it is that kind of system you think damages plants. All I can do is to use tap water, the softener is the only type for shower I can find as I cannot have one for the whole apartment.

Yesterday evening I took the plant out of the potting soil and I actually noticed that the dirt was somehow moist, not tremendously moist though as it did not even leave any coloring on my hands. The root ball was more moist and that is because the roots had bond with the soil in the container I bought the tree with. I did not want to "disturb" the plant and therefore I just put my fingers through the dirt and roots but did not "undo" the root-ball. The bond is too strong anyway.
I put the plant in a different pot, without adding anymore dirt, so it can have more air and dry a bit, but as I mentioned, the moisture level is not so high and the roots are fine.
One little branch is dying still (I noticed yesterday)...
Is there anything I can do to get rid of the gnats? They are really disturbing in the house and also I am afraid they will damage my tree.
Thanks again

    Bookmark   October 12, 2010 at 12:35PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

You can start using a sharpened dowel to test for moisture. Stick it deep into the root mass (don't worry about the roots). If it comes out wet or damp - no need to water. Allowing the soil to dry almost completely between waterings will lay low the gnats.

I would suggest that you flush the soil VERY thoroughly (to eliminate salts) and pot-up. Let me know if you're up for it and want guidance.


    Bookmark   October 12, 2010 at 2:58PM
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first of all thank you for your patience and all the good advice.
I am up to try anything to improve my plants' conditions. I also read another of your postings re potting mixture and so I will try to mix the soil the way you advice.
Sorry my ignorance but what is a dowel?
What kind of water should I use? The one coming from the shower or the one directly from the tap? One thing I can tell you about salts is that I have a jade plant and I water it directly from the tap. Well, the surface of the pot has white residues which are salt accumulations but the soil of the ficus does not reveal the same, at list on the surface as I have used the water from the shower (which you suspect might still be bad..). Also, yesterday I went at AJ foods and I noticed that they have a ficus outside and same had happened to it, on one side it was completely drying out, no leaves and the branches were lifeless...I have no idea why is this...
so, let me know what to do and I will.

    Bookmark   October 13, 2010 at 1:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

A dowel rod is a round piece of wood - like a pencil. You can get one at a hdwe store & sharpen it in a pencil sharpener. Alternately, us a 12" wooden skewer - they come pre-sharpened.

* Move the plant to a spot where you can repeatedly and thoroughly flush the soil with water that hasn't passed through the softener.

* Flush the soil up to 10 times with at least as much water as the volume of the container the plant is in. You cannot overdo it.

* After flushing, tilt the container at a 45* angle and wait for the container to stop draining. This drains a considerable amount more water than allowing the container to rest on its bottom.

* After draining has stopped, remove the plant from it's pot and set on newspapers to drain. If the plant is small, a few hours is fine - if large, allow it to rest on the papers over night.

* With a utility knife, slash deep vertical cuts into the root mass and an 'X' on the bottom. Alternately, you can remove an inch or two of the roots/soil from the bottom.

* Pot up into a slightly larger pot and fill in around the roots with a soil similar to what you currently have in the root mass. Use a wick in the bottom of the pot if you are going to be able to lift the pot above the collection saucer (best). Ideally, the wick will dancle 2-3" below the bottom of the pot w/o contacting the water in the collection saucer. (I know - a lot to ask) ;o) This wick will 'fool' the water into 'thinking' the pot is deeper than it is. Water will move down the wick 'looking' for the bottom of the pot, and droip off the end. This will go a long way toward eliminating the specter of root rot and allowing you to water copiously enough to flush the soil each time you water to help gurad against salt accumulation.

* A few days after you've repotted, fertilize with 1/2 the recommended strength of Miracle-Gro 24-8-16 (granular/box), Miracle-Gro 12-4-8 (liquid/yellow jug), or Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 (best, but you'd probably need to order online)

* Give it all the light you can, and try to keep soil temps @ 65-75*

That's the standard plan for bringing Ficus back from the brink. I'm not sure how many it's worked for, but I know it's more than I can guess at .... lots. ;o)

Best luck!! I'll be around if you still have questions.


    Bookmark   October 13, 2010 at 2:37PM
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I put a toothpick (for the moment) into the root ball and it looks kind of wet (came out a bit darker wood in color). I think I should wait before I flush and re-pot.
Today I don't have another branch dying :)
Should I mix the soil before potting with bark and turface(if I spelled right)?
The wick is a piece of cord, right? I am not sure I know how to do this though, is the wick going out of the pot like a kind of pipe or is it just going in a circle around the perimeter of the pot bottom, just to lift it from the saucer?
if it is going out of the draining hole as a pipe, how can I put the pot in a higher level above saucer (my pot is on the floor), maybe you know any tricks :)
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your advice. I am willing to do all of this to save my plant (I love plants and I usually have been told to have a green thumb...)

    Bookmark   October 13, 2010 at 9:28PM
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Hi there,I was wondering if you managed to save your tree as the exact same thing has happened with my tree and I really don't know what to do ?Did you find out what the problem was?

    Bookmark   November 6, 2012 at 11:33PM
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