Leggy Ficus

JustinP

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Greetings y’all. I’ve been muddling through this bonsai hobby for a number of years, and I’ve got a question about this ficus microcarpa. I’ve had it for fifteen years or so, slowly working on a banyan style and as you can see, it’s way too leggy. I want to prune it waaay back, but am frankly afraid to do it. I tried defoliating it eight years ago. I was nervous about doing it and read that one could do half the tree at a time. I did and that half of the tree completely died.

I don’t want it to look like a bush, but don’t want to kill it. Should I prune it way back and force it to regrow?

46C0E90B-140D-458D-9CFE-B423FEBD1839.jpegB00130A1-FA4F-4C21-92BB-6B7D93A34538.jpeg
 

MHBonsai

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More questions, does it live outside? If so just the summertime? Full sun?

When was last time it was repotted?
 

JustinP

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Yes, outside in the summer. It’s been outside for two weeks. Last repotted two years ago.
 

Ali Raza

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You can prune it in the summer. When pruning always leave some leaves on the branches so it won't die. Once the more leaves appears on the branches, prune it further to your desired height. For banyan style, start working on growing aerial roots. This could be achieved by increasing humidity around the tree. You could use humidity tray. Feed it well.
 

thomas22

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I wouldn't cut back until the tree is really growing strong. Why your tree is not growing strong is what you need to figure out. My guess is the soil is not ideal. I would change soil and give lots of fertilizer.
 

MHBonsai

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I wouldn't cut back until the tree is really growing strong. Why your tree is not growing strong is what you need to figure out. My guess is the soil is not ideal. I would change soil and give lots of fertilizer.
This. If they are cranking out growth like crazy you can do all kinds of work to it and it won't die back. I'd work on getting it in good soil and happy before doing major cutbacks.
 

JustinP

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Thanks all. Right now it's a bit sad looking because it was indoors over the winter. I keep my tropicals in a large south facing window, but they still drop quite a few leaves over the few months they are inside.

Every summer once this particular one starts looking happy again I prune it back to the last set of leaves on each branch, but it doesn't back bud. The new interior growth just happened last year.

I'll try a different soil mix and fertilizer and see if it'll wake up this summer.
 

Gustavo Martins

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Check what I did here. It came out strong. So yes, you can cut these as much as you like, provided that they are strong.
 

JustinP

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Check what I did here. It came out strong. So yes, you can cut these as much as you like, provided that they are strong.
Very nice! According to Google, we have similar humidity, but it looks like it gets hotter here in Texas so that gives me hope. I'm going to feed it for a while and then CHOP! :)
 

Forsoothe!

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I see 4 trees co-mingled and the stub remains of a 5th. They are grafted by association, but not so completely as to be a perfect resource substitutes for each other. As above, major work only while growing vigorously, like early summer and outdoors in full sun, watered every sunny day. Defoliating would be best done in mid-June when there are mature buds in the axils and plenty of growing season left to grow a new canopy and mature buds for the next round of growth.

Defoliate by cutting off all leaves at the base of the leaf, leaving the petiole in place to guard the bud in the axil. It will look stupid for awhile. Normally, don't do major work on the canopy and roots in the same season, except you can repot in early spring and defoliate ~two months later in mid June. Defoliating more than every-other-year is not necessary.

You won't grow banyon roots unless and until it is growing in very high humidity. If you can find a container just bigger than the outer edge of the canopy, and set the tree in it up on bricks (or whatever) so that the whole trunk is in the container up to the lower edges of the canopy, and keep water in the container just up to the feet on the pot, that will increase humidity greatly under the canopy. Dark colors will be warmer/more humid than light colors.
 

JustinP

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I see 4 trees co-mingled and the stub remains of a 5th. They are grafted by association, but not so completely as to be a perfect resource substitutes for each other. As above, major work only while growing vigorously, like early summer and outdoors in full sun, watered every sunny day. Defoliating would be best done in mid-June when there are mature buds in the axils and plenty of growing season left to grow a new canopy and mature buds for the next round of growth.

Defoliate by cutting off all leaves at the base of the leaf, leaving the petiole in place to guard the bud in the axil. It will look stupid for awhile. Normally, don't do major work on the canopy and roots in the same season, except you can repot in early spring and defoliate ~two months later in mid June. Defoliating more than every-other-year is not necessary.

You won't grow banyon roots unless and until it is growing in very high humidity. If you can find a container just bigger than the outer edge of the canopy, and set the tree in it up on bricks (or whatever) so that the whole trunk is in the container up to the lower edges of the canopy, and keep water in the container just up to the feet on the pot, that will increase humidity greatly under the canopy. Dark colors will be warmer/more humid than light colors.
Good eye. When I defoliated it last time and half died, I reintroduced some cuttings I had been growing separately. So it's all the "same tree", but actually still three trees sharing the same space. That is a good thing to keep in mind so I don't kill all of them this time.
 

JustinP

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Update. I defoliated this tree in mid June. A month later and it's full of leaves, but all on the ends of the branches again! Three or four new shoots popped out on the interior, but the bulk of the leaves went right back to where they were. I'm going to build a humidity enclosure and chop it back. Each of the main "trunks" have a live branch fairly close to the center so I will leave those and see what happens. Bonsai on!
 

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leatherback

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IME If you want back bud you need to trim the apical area of the shoot. Defoliation on its own does little else other than decreasing leaf size. That’s been my experience with ficus
Exactly. Every branch tip needs to be pruned off for backbudding.

Personally, I would have waited longer; Your pictures do NOT show a strong growing tree. There were only a few leaves on each branch ending, and they were close to eachother, hardly any branch extension. Strong growing means.. The plant is pushing leaves all over, some branches might add a few inches in a week. Branches become thick, shiny, putting the wintergrowth to shame. You have internodes the side of pencils.

Like this:
figStrong.jpgfigGoingForIt.jpg
Then you trim back towithin the desired canopy profile. (Hedge it?).
 

JustinP

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Thank you for the input!

I've struggled with this tree in particular. Over the years I've tried different soil compositions, different fertilizers, and different pot sizes. Even after all that (with a very few exceptions) it only puts out new growth at the ends of the branches. I am happy with the way the main trunk is progressing, but the branch structure is no good. We still have a good three months of summer left so hopefully this one shapes up before I have to take it inside.
 

leatherback

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How long since repotting? Maybe consider a larger pot for a while. And water, fertilizer and sun..

All indicates your plant is not happy in the current pot to me. Ficus need frequent repotting
 

JustinP

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How long since repotting? Maybe consider a larger pot for a while. And water, fertilizer and sun..

All indicates your plant is not happy in the current pot to me. Ficus need frequent repotting
I repotted this one in April. I currently have four other ficus (Benjamina) that are growing great in the same soil and sun light so maybe a larger pot is what it this one is asking for.
 

JustinP

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Update. Finally some progress! I decided to gamble and pruned it back a fair amount. I have never tried this before so I left at least one branch with leaves on each trunk just in case. I built a plastic enclosure to trap humidity and held my breath. One month later and here's how it looks. Quite a lot of new growth - branches and aerial roots. Now that I have some growth closer in, I will let it recover until next year and then prune off the remaining leggy branches.

IMG_5053.jpgIMG_5124.jpgIMG_5125.jpgIMG_5126.jpg
 

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