Ficus- Any advice for a beginner?

KP45

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Hi, so I've owned this tree for about five years now, and I think it's about ten years old (said it was a 5 year old bonsai on the tag when purchased). At first it was just a nice little addition for the kitchen windowsill- but I've grown attached to it and would like to be able to shape it and look after it properly now.

It's currently placed in a south facing window in the kitchen year round. (I'm in the UK)

Last summer I tried my hand at pruning the roots back as the pot was pretty tightly packed. Shortly after a lot of leaves started to drop off easily, and a few small branches dried up too and could be snapped off easily by hand. Luckily it's bounced back to life and is looking much less barren than it did last autumn and has a lot of new growth and small buds coming through. I've been pinching out the tips of some of the growth on the ends of branches (shown in the final photo) if someone could confirm that is the right thing to be doing.

I think the things I'd like to work on next are:

-replanting in proper bonsai soil mix (it's currently just in some kind of regular potting soil)
-the smaller branches are quite long and bare except at the tips since it died back (any advice here would be great)
-the pot may be too small?
-wiring for shape

If anybody has any advice it'd be appreciated. Thanks!


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Bonsai Nut

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Welcome to the site!

Considering you have kept this tree alive an well in the UK, you are doing awesome!

Your suggestions are correct:

(1) The pot is too small. Repot into a larger pot with better soil. It is less important for the pot to be deeper, and more important that it greater surface area.

(2) Ficus foliage density is to a great degree determined by light intensity. With healthy roots (from the repotting) make sure to give your tree extremely bright light. Once the tree is growing strongly, you can trim back leggy growth and it will rebud almost everywhere.

(3) The tree as it now stands has a pleasing informal look to it. Yes, you can wire for a design, but make sure you aren't wiring your ficus to look like an oak :) I would recommend you Google search for some pleasing photos of huge ficus in nature, and choose one photo as your "inspiration" as you style your tree. It doesn't have to be a literal interpretation, but try to make your tree look like a tree in nature... just in small size. An early mistake many people make is to try to make their tree look like a bonsai... instead of a tree.
 

KP45

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Welcome to the site!
Thank you!

Okay, that's great- looks like I have some shopping to do. On the plus side I suppose the old pot will be empty... which I'm sure is how the collection starts haha.

Right, I do sort of like the look as is, but saw a few videos about separating layers and things so I wasn't sure if it was 'technically' a good looking tree or not. I think I'll hold off on the wiring for now having seen some photos for reference and focus on making sure the tree is healthy and happy.

Thanks again for your feedback
 

Bonsai Nut

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but saw a few videos about separating layers and things so I wasn't sure if it was 'technically' a good looking tree or not. I think I'll hold off on the wiring for now having seen some photos for reference and focus on making sure the tree is healthy and happy.
When a ficus is large and growing strongly, it has a tendency to quickly look like a mop. I defoliate my ficus completely in the early spring, and then once more in the summer. This keeps the leaves small and increases ramification. However even with small leaves and fine ramification, the tendency is to grow dense, almost hedge-like growth. When you get to this stage of development, you want to prune the foliage into pads of leaves that open the interior of the foliage mass to air and light.
 

KP45

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When a ficus is large and growing strongly, it has a tendency to quickly look like a mop. I defoliate my ficus completely in the early spring, and then once more in the summer. This keeps the leaves small and increases ramification. However even with small leaves and fine ramification, the tendency is to grow dense, almost hedge-like growth. When you get to this stage of development, you want to prune the foliage into pads of leaves that open the interior of the foliage mass to air and light.
Ah okay. That makes sense, this one seems a little way away from having such a high leaf density yet but hopefully that won't be too far around the corner after it's been repotted etc. When you defoliate your tree do you leave the little branches and just remove the leaves? or cut the thinner branches down?

There are some really great videos on YouTube on so many different aspects of bonsai but they're always being performed by really experienced growers (naturally) I feel like if I tried them I'd kill it. So it's reassuring to know the conditions under which techniques like defoliation can be employed. Thanks!
 

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it's reassuring to know the conditions under which techniques like defoliation can be employed. Thanks!
Defoliation is very stressful for a tree. It works well when (1) the tree is extremely healthy and (2) it is the right season, when the tree is growing strongly.

If the tree is weak, if you defoliate you may kill the tree, or you may cause die-back and reduction in branch density - the exact opposite of what you are attempting to achieve. So the first step is to make your tree as strong as possible. Defoliation is also not the method you want to use to balance strength in the different parts of a tree, since you are treating the entire tree with the same method. Sometimes with tropicals like ficus, you will hear people using "partial defoliation" where they might defoliate all exterior branches, or only branches on the top half of the tree. In one case, I have a ficus cascade I am working on - when I defoliate in the spring I defoliate the entire tree with the exception of the descending branch, so that the descending branch may continue to strengthen and lengthen. It all depends on the stage of development of the tree, and what you are trying to do with it.
 

KP45

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Defoliation is very stressful for a tree. It works well when (1) the tree is extremely healthy and (2) it is the right season, when the tree is growing strongly.

If the tree is weak, if you defoliate you may kill the tree, or you may cause die-back and reduction in branch density - the exact opposite of what you are attempting to achieve. So the first step is to make your tree as strong as possible. Defoliation is also not the method you want to use to balance strength in the different parts of a tree, since you are treating the entire tree with the same method. Sometimes with tropicals like ficus, you will hear people using "partial defoliation" where they might defoliate all exterior branches, or only branches on the top half of the tree. In one case, I have a ficus cascade I am working on - when I defoliate in the spring I defoliate the entire tree with the exception of the descending branch, so that the descending branch may continue to strengthen and lengthen. It all depends on the stage of development of the tree, and what you are trying to do with it.
I just bought a wider pot and a couple of bags of bonsai potting mix today, so I can make a start on getting that sorted now that the days are getting longer and brighter. I think I'll hold off on defoliation for a long while anyway. I'd rather not stress it, and from what you say there's a chance it might not survive/thrive, it's still probably recovering from last year. I'll just focus on one thing at a time for now.

Thank you for your help and for demystifying the process. Maybe I could use the extra pots to experiment with some of the different techniques I've read about on here with new trees I'm not too attached to.
 

KP45

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Just thought I'd sort of close up the thread with an update.

Here's the tree in a new larger pot with bonsai potting soil for the first time. The pot was a little deeper perhaps than I'd have liked, but there was only one local store that sold any bonsai pots and this size was my only real option (not frost-proof either, I don't think). In the future I'll plan further ahead and order online or plan a trip further out to have a closer look at higher quality supplies. Still- this one was just £7 so I'll be okay to part with it in the future.

I've covered the top with moss (it's smoother than it actually looks in the photo, the light play off the leaves makes it look really bumpy) so the soil won't run all over the place and I've left a wooden skewer in the soil so I can check how dry it is if I need to. (I charred the end to hide it a bit so it's a little difficult to see)

Again, thank you for all of your help. Hopefully this'll be a much happier tree in years to come.
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