How to grow, prune and propagate ficus
Ficus covers a large group of well-known plants commonly called figs, including an extensive array of indoor and outdoor plants
What you need to know about ficus
Name: fig (Ficus species and varieties)
Height: hill’s fig to 10m; creeping fig—prostrate
Foliage: variable according to species and variety.
Climate: temperate to tropical; dislikes cold.
Soil: not fussy provided drainage is good.
Position: sunny to partial shade.
Flowering: not significant on most, apart from edible and Moreton Bay figs,
Feeding: use a long-term controlled-release fertiliser.
Watering: DO NOT overwater! Read labels for specific information.
Appearance and characteristics of ficus
Each of the popular garden and indoor figs has its own distinctive appearance. Apart from the creeping fig, most of the ornamental figs can grow into quite large trees in their natural habitats, but in garden situations or indoors, they are usually restrained by regular pruning.
While much of the sample growing techniques can be applied to all members of this genus, we will confine the discussion here to ornamental figs found around our homes. These include:
Fiddle-leaf fig (F. lyrata): a popular house plant with large, crinkled leaves.
Rubber plant (F. elastica): popularised in the 1970s and still going strong, with broad, shiny leaves.
Weeping fig (F. benjamina): two or three plants in the one pot with their trunks braided or twined together.
Hill’s or weeping fig (F. microcarpa hillii): small-leaved tree ideal for hedging or as a “mop top” specimen.
Creeping fig (F. pumila): attaches itself to walls and fences to create a dense mat of green; can cause damage to bricks and mortar.
Some species of ficus will produce aerial roots, which develop on above-ground branches and grow down and into the soil. In extreme situations, these aerial roots completely surround the trunk. Others form buttress trunks, like that of the Moreton Bay fig , but in miniature on small plants.
The leaves of figs are just as variable. The edible fig has a multi-lobed mid-green leaf, while the fiddle-leaf fig has large, oval, crinkled leaves of mid-green. The rubber plant has broad, large, dark green leaves sometimes tinged with dark red. There are also variegated forms available.
How to plant and grow ficus
Ornamental figs prefer good indirect light, although some will tolerate full sun. Those with variegated foliage seem to do best in medium light—bright or direct sunlight bleaches the colour out of their leaves. In the garden, position plants so they receive good ambient light under tree canopies or overhanging branches. Indoors, make sure they have plenty of natural light but are not exposed to direct sunlight through glass, which could burn the leaves.
Adequate warmth is essential—ficus will not thrive where temperatures are lower than 16°C. In temperate climates, they will grow well outside in protected positions, where they can be sheltered from strong winds and draughts.
Indoors, the perfect temperature is room temperature—around 21°C. Keep your ficus away from air-conditioning or heating vents, which can be drying. Mist the leaves every few days to maintain some humidity, or stand pots on pebble-filled saucers of water—DO NOT stand pots in water!
Potted ficus should be grown in a premium-quality potting mix. Pots should have good drainage.
Ficus does not like wet feet—in fact, it will quickly drop leaves and look decidedly unhealthy if it is overwatered. Allow the top 5–10cm of soil or potting mix to dry out before giving more moisture.
Good drainage is important. In heavy soils, build up planting mounds or raised beds so you can be sure excess water will drain away from roots. Pots should have plenty of drainage holes in the base and sides so excess moisture can flow out freely. Don’t leave pots standing in saucers of water for more than 30 minutes.
Ficus is a vigorous grower and a voracious feeder! Apply a six-month controlled-release fertiliser at the start of each spring and autumn, and supplement it during the peak growing season with monthly doses of a water-soluble or liquid plant food. Indoor plants may need feeding through winter too, but reduce the frequency of the liquid fertilisers to once every two months.
How and when to prune ficus
Regular pruning of garden and potted ficus is essential both in the garden and when growing in pots, otherwise plants will simply become too large. Most are quite vigorous growers that can become very tall, so keep them trimmed to encourage branching.
- Nip out tips regularly and cut back branches that become too high.
- Hedges and mop tops will require quite a bit of attention to keep them in shape.
- Once the desired form has been achieved, you will need to trim regularly to maintain it.
Diseases and pests affecting ficus
While most ficus are reasonably disease-free, they can sometimes be plagued by pests such as scale and mites. A horticultural or pest oil or natural insecticide like pyrethrum should be more than adequate in controlling these pests.
Other symptoms such as browning of leaf edges and leaf drop are more likely to be caused by environmental or cultural factors rather than disease. Check your watering regime, drainage, light and humidity.
How to grow ficus from cuttings
Most ornamental ficus are grown from cuttings, but they can be difficult to strike. Tip cuttings about 15–20cm long are best, but they need warmth and humidity to strike.
How to propagate ficus by aerial layering
Rubber plants and some other figs can be propagated by air or aerial layering—a technique involving a stem section still attached to the parent plant.
Due to the ready availability of most ficus and the temperamental nature of propagating your own, it’s probably not worth the effort.
If you like this then try
Poinsettia: a tropical and sub-tropical plant mostly grown in pots; the perfect house plant.
Jade plant: a succulent plant perfect for pots and a great contrast to ficus.
Philodendron: a warmth-loving house plant enjoying similar conditions to rubber plant.
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