Houseplants forum→How to treat this fiddle leaf tree

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Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jun 10, 2020 9:37 AM CST
Hi guys!

I bought this fiddle leaf tree about a month ago and I'm afraid it is now dying...
Thumb of 2020-06-10/Philz/a5652d

Black spots were already present when I bought it, but it's now a lot worse.
Thumb of 2020-06-10/Philz/1db7cc
Leaves have also fallen since the brown spots have increased.

After troubleshooting a bit, I figured those brown spots are due to root rots.
What may have caused it :
- When I received it, the soil was really packed and roots seemed not to have enough room, so I repoted it, but in a pot 3" larger. Both times I watered it, the new soil seemed to stay moist. --> Should I repot in a smaller pot ? I'd rather not...
- To this day, we can still clearly see the distinction between the old soil and the new. The old soil, where most of the roots are, is still very compressed --> Is there something I can do to aerate it without damaging the roots ?
- The tree might have not received enough light, so I moved it to a brighter spot (with still indirect light). --> Could this be enough ?

I have also raised the pot to let air get to the bottom more easly and have ventilated the pot with a fan for a day.
Thumb of 2020-06-10/Philz/ed4620
What should I do next ?

Thank's in advance, I really love this tree and it was quite expensive, so I really hope it is going to be ok !


Name: Will Creed
NYC
Prof. plant consultant & educator
Image
WillC
Jun 10, 2020 2:42 PM CST
If the soil you added is not well integrated with the original rootball, then that outer soil is probably wicking the water away from the rootball and dehydrating the roots. It did not need repotting so it might be best to simply undo the repotting you did by removing the added soil around the rootball and putting the original rootball back into its original nursery pot or one that is the same size. Then give the soil and roots a good soak.

Root rot is almost unheard of with FLF's. However, lack of direct sunlight is a common problem and excessive dryness also causes leaf spotting. Try to improve both.
Will Creed
Horticultural Help, NYC
www.HorticulturalHelp.com
Contact me directly at [email protected]
I now have a book available on indoor plant care
Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jun 10, 2020 7:31 PM CST
Hi , Thanks for the awnser !
What you say about the outer soil wicking the water away makes a tone of sens. But is it normal the soil is so compressed and packed ? It's the main reason (that and a couple of roots comming out of the rootball) why I repotted.

On a sidenote, I'm suprised you said root rot is rare, because every web site I visited said root rot is the main reason for dark spots. From what I've seen in my case, it dosen't seem to be the problem, so I guess you are right. Any thoughs on why this idea is so widespread ?
Name: Will Creed
NYC
Prof. plant consultant & educator
Image
WillC
Jun 11, 2020 8:36 AM CST
A healthy, mature Ficus will have a dense root system and compacted soil. It may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it is normal for a potted FLF. Some roots that wander out of the drain holes or are exposed on the surface are also common and not a good reason to repot.

Perhaps I should have written that root rot is rare with this plant when it is properly potted. If it is moved into an overly large pot filled with dense soil and watered too frequently, then root suffocation can occur. When left in its nursery pot there is not sufficient excess soil to retain water for long enough for root suffocation to occur unless the pot sits in water for weeks on end.

Many websites report information gleaned from greenhouse growers who raise plants in very different greenhouse environments. Those greenhouse conditions are not duplicated in our homes where adjustments have to be made. The internet is very effective at passing along incorrect information. Unfortunately, it is hard to correct that posted information.
Will Creed
Horticultural Help, NYC
www.HorticulturalHelp.com
Contact me directly at [email protected]
I now have a book available on indoor plant care
Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jun 11, 2020 9:20 AM CST
Alright, thanks for the good info. I will make sure to put it back in a smaller pot.
Thanks alot Will !
Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jul 22, 2020 8:54 AM CST
Hi !

It's been a couple of weeks now since I've place the plant back to it's original pot, and things didn't become better. I'm pretty desperate now...
Thumb of 2020-07-22/Philz/8fb276
Thumb of 2020-07-22/Philz/dd1e0c
Thumb of 2020-07-22/Philz/7d6040
Thumb of 2020-07-22/Philz/f00e1d

Does anybody have any idea what might be the problem, and how to fix it ?
Name: Al
5b-6a MI
Image
tapla
Jul 22, 2020 9:54 AM CST
There should be no surprise that things got worse. First, root rot is anything but rare in potted Ficus. It's common but not ubiquitous; and, the only people who will tell you rootbound plants don't need a full repot are those who have never performed a full repot or went about it in ham-handed fashion. I have fully repotted more than 5,000 trees and maybe 8-900 of those were Ficus. Repotting includes bare-rooting, root pruning, and a change of soil. Potting up, on the other hand, is a half measure that maybe sorta kinda relieves a little of the limitations imposed by root congestion, but ensures that most of the limitations remain with the plant. Repotting entirely removes the limitations of root congestion AND rejuvenates the plant; this, because tissues closest to the root to shoot transition zone retain their octogenetic age and therefore are the plant's most vigorous.

Does the pot have a drain hole? Do you water to beyond the point of soil saturation - so the entire soil mass gets wet and at least 20-30% of the total volume of water applied exits the drain hole? Do you allow the pot to sit in and reabsorb the effluent that exits the drain hole? Do you have any idea if you have pine bark mulch or soil conditioner available where you live?
Thumb of 2020-07-22/tapla/42854c .... like what you see at 3, 6, and 9 o'clock?

Do not follow advice that sounds anything like "water when the top inch or two of soil is dry". That is a recipe for over-watering. We don't give a whit about how dry the top of the soil is as the roots there are all plumbing and anchorage - very few if any of the microscopically fine roots that do all the work. What IS important is what moisture conditions are at the BOTTOM of the pot. Use a 'TELL' to tell you when to water. I'm sure we can get your plant to reverse course. The decline it's in now is obviously unsustainable.
Al


Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jul 24, 2020 7:59 AM CST
Hi,

Thanks a lot for this response. To answer your questions: yes, it has drain holes, yes I water to the point of saturation, and no I don't let the plant sit in the excess water. I'm pretty sure I can find soil conditioner, although I've never bought any.

The pot has big holes on the "outer-circle", so it's actually very easy to feel the moisture from the bottom. Are you suggesting I water when the bottom has low humidity or when it's completely dry?

From what you say at the beginning of your post, I understand that merely potting up like I did at first was a half measure. Are you suggesting I try to repot more thoroughly? This worries me a bit. I'm not entirely sure of what it implies and I'm afraid it will be too much for my tree to endure.
Name: Al
5b-6a MI
Image
tapla
Jul 24, 2020 10:47 AM CST
"..... yes, it has drain holes, yes I water to the point of saturation, and no I don't let the plant sit in the excess water. I'm pretty sure I can find soil conditioner, although I've never bought any." Good, on all counts.

"The pot has big holes on the "outer-circle", so it's actually very easy to feel the moisture from the bottom. Are you suggesting I water when the bottom has low humidity or when it's completely dry?" If you are able to find the pine bark, you can make a soil that is very difficult to water and is very conducive to extremely healthy root systems, a prerequisite to a healthy plant. If that doesn't pan out, there are other ways of addressing excess water retention, and we can discuss that if you like. Don't let anyone tell you excess water in the soil is OK or it's not a big deal. It is a very big deal because as long as it exists, it's limiting root function and killing fine roots. It can literally sap all growth potential from a plant. The reason: Root growth always proceeds top growth. When fine roots die, chemical messengers tell the plant to stop top growth until enough new roots are regenerated to support new top growth. About the time enough air has returned to the soil so new roots CAN grow, the grower is watering and starting the cycle over again.

From what you say at the beginning of your post, I understand that merely potting up like I did at first was a half measure. Are you suggesting I try to repot more thoroughly? This worries me a bit. I'm not entirely sure of what it implies and I'm afraid it will be too much for my tree to endure. Allow me to walk you through a couple of repots. My trees are always in a high state of vitality and I have a lot of repotting experience, so I can judge how extensive rootwork can be by looking at the plant. What you'll see me doing in the images is much more radicle than necessary for houseplants, but it will give you a sense of how wrong the "you can't mess with the roots or you'll kill it" crowd is. You'll never hear someone who knows their business when it comes to repotting, tell you it's bad for the plant or you'll probably kill it. Only those who have never done it or have gone about it ham-handedly will suggest you shouldn't repot regularly. If you can lift the root/soil mass from the pot intact, the plant will benefit from a repot; and, after a 1-2 week period when new roots are growing, the repotted plant will easily grow/develop 5X faster than plants languishing under root-bound conditions.


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/699d3a ficus benjamina


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/5fc13b soil partially removed


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/7b5ac9 extremely healthy root system


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/640b65 bare-rooted/ root-pruning completed


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/6e2a57 repotting session completed - plant secured to pot to avoid breaking fine roots if the plant is moved by wind or jostled. The canopy has also been reduced because of how extensive the rootwork was. Many roots thicker than my thumb were removed. The plant was as thick as a pencil when I bought it in 1994.


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/8745e3 Nursery stock boxwood after it's first hard pruning


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/21ed81


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/7b7bf5 another extremely healthy root system after bare-rooting


Thumb of 2020-07-24/tapla/c32fee rootwork complete - ready for the pot.

I do about 175 repots per year. More than half of my trees are older than 10 years old, about a quarter are older than 20 years, and I have many over 30 years old, and all have been repotted every 1-3 years, depending on the plant's genetic vigor age. Older, grumpy trees are treated a bit differently than young trees (less than 25 years old), which are nearly all dynamic mass.

If you want to do a full repot w/o radical rootwork, I'll guide you. Basically it would entail sawing off the bottom 1/3 of the root mass, correcting any potentially problem roots (circling, girdling, crossing, growing straight up/down, or growing back toward the center of the root mass). If you'd rather not - that's fine too. I don't repot because I like doing it, and I wouldn't bother unless I knew with certainty it is an essential part of maximizing the plant's opportunity to realize as much of its genetic potential as possible.

If you want to know if I really have interest in helping you get more from your growing experience, search Al 5-1-1


Al

Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jul 28, 2020 11:57 AM CST
Hi tapla,

Thanks again for the detailed answer, and by the way, sorry for the delay, I was out of town and couldn't deal with the tree before now. Considering I basically gave up on this tree, I will gladly try this one last resort and would be very grateful for your guidance.
From what I understand, I will have to take the tree out of its pot, lay it on the ground, chop a fair amount of roots (this part would need some clarifications) and then put it back in a pot.
So, my questions would be:
• How do I decide which roots to cut?

• What kind of soil should I in the pot after? Would an all-purpose mix work?

• Do I put the tree back in its original pot or do I use a larger one? The current pot is nursing pot of 10-inch. The only bigger pot I have is 13-inch terracotta pot.

• How should I deal with the water during the process?

Thank you for your help,
Philippe
Name: Al
5b-6a MI
Image
tapla
Jul 28, 2020 8:04 PM CST
From what I understand, I will have to take the tree out of its pot, lay it on the ground, chop a fair amount of roots (this part would need some clarifications) and then put it back in a pot. That's pretty much it. I generally start a repot by cutting the bottom half of the root mass off, but why don't you remove the bottom 1/3. I use a pruning saw with changeable blades. Actually, I have 2 saws - 1 for actual pruning, the other for root work. When my rootwork blade gets dull, I move the blade on the pruning saw to the root saw and a new one goes on the pruning saw. Onct that's done, I bare-root the tree. I try to work in shade, out of the wind, and I am VERY careful to ensure the roots remain wet the entire time they are exposed (not in moist soil).
So, my questions would be:
• How do I decide which roots to cut? Once the bare rooting is complete, I remove problem roots. These are roots NOT attached to the base of the tree. I remove crossing roots, roots growing upward or straight down, roots growing back toward the center of the root mass. If roots are j-shaped or circling, I prune them back so they are straight. In all, you can remove about 1/2 - 2/3 of the root mass.

• What kind of soil should I in the pot after? Would an all-purpose mix work? I'm not sure you have the luxury of the time it might take to put together the kind of soil that allows you to water to beyond the point of soil saturation, so you're flushing the soil as you water, without any need to be concerned the soil will remain saturated so long it seriously limits root function and potentially wrecks root health. If you can find pine bark (often sold as mulch or clay soil conditioner or just soil conditioner) you can make a medium that looks like this:
Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/399a17
If you can't find it quickly, it really is a goal worth working toward if you're serious about keeping plants healthy over the long term. I haven't used anything commercially prepared in well over 20 years. It's a snap to make, less than half the price, and the results are as different as night and day - no comparison to media based on all find components.


• Do I put the tree back in its original pot or do I use a larger one? The current pot is nursing pot of 10-inch. The only bigger pot I have is 13-inch terracotta pot. If you happen to find the bark, the pot can go back into the original pot or a smaller one. If you can't find the bark, do this:
Find some items to use as ballast.
Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/7873f1 These pots are full of soil and the shaded area is 100% saturated soil The ht of that soil saturation will be the same after every thorough watering. Note how the bricks displace soil that would otherwise be saturated? If you added 2 bricks to the pot on the right and turned the bricks on their edge, you will have eliminated about 90% of the soil in that planting that would be capable of holding excess water. The idea is to displace as much of the soil in that shaded area as possible with ballast. You can use empty soda bottles with the cap on if you like. The only proviso is, there has to be an unbroken soil column from the top of the soil to the bottom of the pot. Ballast is a passive way to eliminate excess water, and it works great. It will allow a grower to use media (s)he would otherwise have to fight tooth and nail against for control of the plant's vitality. I can explain the science or link you to something that does if you're interested.

So, once the ballast is in place, mix up enough soil made of 1 part perlite to 1 part potting soil and fill in the bottom 6" of the pot. The ballast shouldn't be taller than 6". Set the plant on top of the bottom layer of soil, the n fill in the rest of the way with a mix of 2 parts potting soil:1 part perlite. Use a piece of dowel rod or a thin piece of wood to work the soil into the roots as you back-fill around the roots. Then, moisten the medium.

• How should I deal with the water during the process? I use a tub or a hose with a mist fitting on the end
Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/78a1ea Fogg-It fitting.
You should plan on doing this outdoors. If you have everything ready to go, it should take about 2 hours the first time you do a repot. I find it helpful to secure the tree so it can't move in relation to the pot. This prevents breakage of hair roots from even slight jostling as the tree is reestablishing.</i></b>
Al
Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jul 29, 2020 10:19 AM CST
Hi AI,

I intend to go on with the process this afternoon or tomorrow. I just want to make a couple of details clear before that:

• How do I ensure the roots remain wet? I mist them often?

• "If you can't find the bark, do this: … "
Do you mean that if I get pine bark, I don't need to make all the ballast system you describe with the perlite and all? If that's the case, then what should be the mix of pine bark and potting mix?

I'm pretty sure you didn't mean to not do this system, so here are some questions related to that …

• My pot is only 10" high. Should my ballast then really be 6" high? From the proportions of your drawings, it feels like it should be something like 3" high.

• If 6" is really the way to go, then it feels a bit odd to put as much perlite as potting mix there. That's a lot of perlite Sticking tongue out ! I guess it's to ensure the excess water is absorbed as much as possible ?

• Again, if I have pine bark, and I do this system, how should I mix it with the rest? (Or you really meant it's either the ballast system OR the pine bark, but NOT both?)

• The tree is quite heavy. Do you have any suggestions on how to secure the tree relative to the pot?

Thanks !
Philippe
Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jul 29, 2020 11:04 AM CST
So I've verified, and I know someone who could actually give me black mulch (the kind that is used on top of outside plants). Is this good ?
Name: Al
5b-6a MI
Image
tapla
Jul 29, 2020 12:49 PM CST
• How do I ensure the roots remain wet? I mist them often? Work in a tub or use a hose end fitting capable of producing a mist.

• "If you can't find the bark, do this: … "
Do you mean that if I get pine bark, I don't need to make all the ballast system you describe with the perlite and all? If that's the case, then what should be the mix of pine bark and potting mix? If you can make a medium that doesn't hold a lot of excess water, no need for ballast ...... and it will change how you look at growing in pots - you'll never look back.. The soil would consist of 5 measures of appropriate size pine bark, 1 part sphagnum peat, and 1 part perlite - preferably medium or coarse, but not the super coarse grade, plus a measure of dolomitic (garden lime) appropriate for the batch size.

I'm pretty sure you didn't mean to not do this system, so here are some questions related to that …

• My pot is only 10" high. Should my ballast then really be 6" high? From the proportions of your drawings, it feels like it should be something like 3" high. Ballast works best when it's as high as the level of perched water when the soil is saturated. All you need is 2 clear plastic cups to determine how tall the water table is. Or, you can use a larger pot and stick with the 6" ht. If you're removing 90% of the excess water by way of ballast - it's pretty hard to over-pot, so you can use a larger pot than normal with impunity.

• If 6" is really the way to go, then it feels a bit odd to put as much perlite as potting mix there. That's a lot of perlite Sticking tongue out ! I guess it's to ensure the excess water is absorbed as much as possible? The perlite is really another form of ballast in media. It takes up space that would otherwise be occupied by soggy soil after a thorough watering. It doesn't do anywhere near as much for aeration as you think. It is not internally porous, so it's almost like dropping a marble in the soil. The soil volume increases but the o/a air porosity remains about the same, so there is a net decrease in the air porosity % when you add a perlite particle to media.

• Again, if I have pine bark, and I do this system, how should I mix it with the rest? (Or you really meant it's either the ballast system OR the pine bark, but NOT both?) One or the other. The better quality soil (less water-retentive) will make your life as a grower much easier and more rewarding - been there and helped literally thousands of others get there, too. The only price you pay is having to water every few days instead of every few weeks, but long watering intervals are proof of the limitations being levied by soil saturation.

• The tree is quite heavy. Do you have any suggestions on how to secure the tree relative to the pot? You might have to put your imagination to work, but these are 2 ways I commonly use. I use a lot of training pots, so I just drill holes in those and fasten the ties through those.

Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/62ac3a Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii'


Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/2f989b Ficus benjamina


Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/1445c3 Ficus benjamina sp./ inosculated (approach grafted) intentionally


Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/32bb38 Same tree, defoliated to facilitate work it needs


Thumb of 2020-07-29/tapla/52958a Work completed until next time.


Al

Montreal, Canada
Philz
Jul 30, 2020 11:25 AM CST
Hello Tapla !

I'm currently cutting the roots and just realized the soil the plant presently has ressembles the one you described as optimal. I also realized the center part of the soil was really dry. Is it possible that I was simply not doing the proper watering for this kind of soil and that this was the only major problem ?

In any case, should I use back the soil that was previously in there ?

Like I said, I'm currently in the process, so I don't necessarily expect an answer in time ... Whistling

So If I have no news, I will proceed with the original ballast plan, but if you happend to see I would much appreciate to know what you think.

Thanks !
Philippe
Name: Al
5b-6a MI
Image
tapla
Jul 30, 2020 4:57 PM CST
Sorry, but I wouldn't be able to make a judgement call w/o a peak at the medium.

Al
Montreal, Canada
Philz
Aug 3, 2020 7:44 AM CST
Hi Tapla,


Thumb of 2020-08-03/Philz/30a4b2
Thumb of 2020-08-03/Philz/ce73a4
Thumb of 2020-08-03/Philz/12af5f
Thumb of 2020-08-03/Philz/3ffd4c
Thumb of 2020-08-03/Philz/07cd4f

Montreal, Canada
Philz
Aug 3, 2020 7:47 AM CST
These were pictures of the process, if you are interested in how it went. Thanks again for your guidance, now we just have to wait and see.

Would you have any idea about how to deal with the leaves now ? Should I take out the damaged ones ? Is there any tricks to promote new growth on the lower part ?

Philippe
Name: Al
5b-6a MI
Image
tapla
Aug 3, 2020 12:36 PM CST
I am interested. I look at helping others get more from the growing experience as a natural extension of my own growing experience.

How you proceeded looks good. I'm sure you'll be happy with the results. The root system currently shows soil saturation has taken a heavy tool on root function/health, so the next time you get a look at the roots, it will be a much different story. Please do remember to use the 'tell', and water when it shows the medium is getting dry at the bottom of the pot.

If all goes well, your next repot should be around the summer solstice 2022. Plants have natural rhythms (search endogenous or circadian rhythm), one of which is the growth cycle. If the plant approves of the care it's getting, it will be strongest and most robust from mid-June to mid-August. That is the time period when tropical trees and most houseplants should be repotted because the abundance of stored energy and the current ability to trap the sun's energy to make food (photosynthesis) is at peak levels, which ensures recovery faster than at any other point in the growth cycle. You grow plants because you like to nurture, working with the plants natural rhythms instead of at cross purposes makes you feel like you're a better nurturer ...... and in fact that would be true.

Also, I can't see if you pinched the plant (tip-pruned) but you could do that to force some back-budding. If you pinch it, don't prune until next summer. At that time, you should remove the lanky winter growth you'll get by cutting back to last summer's short internodes. After that, you should start pinching all branches back to 2 leaves once the 3rd leaf on each branch has started to unfurl. That is how to maximize ramification (branch and leaf density).

Questions?

Al
Montreal, Canada
Philz
Aug 4, 2020 12:18 PM CST
Hi !

I do not presently own a "tell". I'm thinking buying this one :
https://www.amazon.ca/UNIROI-M...

When you speak about tip-pruned, do you mean cutting both tips just over the red pen on the pictures ?
Thumb of 2020-08-04/Philz/e2d9f3
Thumb of 2020-08-04/Philz/d4aa25

Have a good day,
Philippe

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