Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
December, 2010
Regional Report

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Air layering this dracaena will make it fit the room better and create more new plants too.

Reclaiming Overgrown Houseplants

I get the "new houseplant fever" sometime every winter, perhaps due to the limited opportunities for outdoor growing and the fact that they arrive en masse in local garden centers and big box stores. These economical "starter size" plants look rather small when placed in a large room, but with some good light and reasonable care they reach a perfect size soon enough.

However, they keep growing and before long I have a ficus rubbing the ceiling or a dracaena looking like a professional basketball player looming over the living room! My houseplants often spend a good part of their spring to fall season outdoors in shaded areas where they get a lot more light than indoors and can thrive better.

When winter comes they make the move indoors-- okay I move them indoors. That's when I notice that my ceilings seem much lower that last winter. The tall plants will soon end up getting rather spindly since their foliage towers above most of the light from the windows.

I could toss them, or better yet, find them a new home with a giant atrium well lit by numerous skylights. But there is another option, which is making them smaller. Ficus trees can be pruned back considerably and will regrow to a nice attractive form even after a significant cutting back.

If you plan on doing this to your ficus keep in mind that their white sap is sticky and will stain carpet, clothing and other fabrics, so either move them outside for the trimming, or place a plastic sheet below them and leave it in place until you are sure the wounds are not going to drip any more sap.

Another thing to keep in mind is that simply chopping a large ficus back creates quite an ugly victim of your shears. Try to remove branches back to where they join another branch. In the case of a major size reduction this may not leave a lot of foliage, but with some leaves on the branches, the plant will recover in time and be back in top form again. Such pruning is better done in spring prior to the move outdoors so recovery can be faster.

Another option is to "air layer" the plant to create a smaller one, or in fact several smaller ones. Air layering is the process of wounding the stem of a plant and then wrapping the wound area with a fist-sized mass of moist sphagnum moss or potting soil, which is covered with plastic to hold it all together. Sphagnum moss is much easier to work with than potting soil but either will do. Applying rooting hormone to the wound prior to covering it will increase the speed and amount of root formation.

This works great because the area above the air layer is still receiving moisture and nutrients during the rooting process. Even "brown thumbs" find encouraging success with most of their attempts at air layering! There are many online resources to provide more detail on how to air layer a plant..

This year we had a dracaena that had become a lanky creature fit for a Dr. Seuse movie! We have done several air layers on some of the tall stems. When roots form we'll cut the tops off below the rooted area and repot them to start new plants.

Dracaenas are pretty good about sprouting one or two new shoots from the area near the end of the cut stem. We cut each stem back to a different height so that as the new shoots form at different levels the result will be a fuller, more attractive plant in months to come.

For more information check out the following video clip I posted online showing how to air layer a rubber tree using potting soil:

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