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How to care for the finicky fiddle leaf fig

April 7, 2020

Every room needs something botanical to feel complete. Might be flowers or might be potted plants — live, of course (no faux). Sometimes all it takes is a small sprig of greenery in a vase. Other times, you need some drama. Enter the fiddle leaf fig.  

This high-performance plant with the unusual leaf shape has featured prominently in magazines and plant shops for a few years now, and it remains hugely popular. I’m a little surprised. Fiddles are finicky! But perhaps people have discovered that they’re well worth the effort. And really, we’re not talking that much effort. As with most things, you just need a little know how!

In their native African jungle, Ficus lyrate can grow to over 40 feet. In your home, it might reach 10 feet. There are small varieties, too, if you’re intimidated or have limited space. Ficus lyrate bambino and Ficus lyrata compacta are two examples. The bambino grows up to 30 inches, and the compacta will stay below five feet.

They’re all a little picky about their care. Here’s what you need to know to keep them happy and healthy:

Light

Fiddle leaf plants need a lot of very bright light, but (this is important!) it needs to be filtered. Don’t place a fiddle leaf in a sunny south window without any protection. Instead, locate it in a very bright room, a sunny east window, or a south window with a curtain to filter the light.

Rotate the plant as it reaches for the light, so it doesn’t become lopsided. 

Cleaning

Those big leaves will collect dust, so wipe them off with a damp cloth when you water. Not only will it look uncared for if you don’t, the plant won’t be able to absorb all the sunlight it craves. Don’t use oil or anything else on the leaves. (Apparently there’s advice out there to use coconut oil. Nope. Just lukewarm or room-temperature water.) Other substances can accumulate on the leaves and suffocate them.

Watering

#1 tip: Do not overwater your fiddle leaf!  (I’m tempted to put it in all caps, but I don’t want to yell at you.)

close-up of fig leaf with water droplets on it

Water your fiddle leaf fully and thoroughly with lukewarm or room-temperature water. But let it dry out between waterings, and never let the roots sit in water. Most fiddle leaf plants in most environments will need watering once every week to 10 days.

Think of it this way: In their native environment, the plants get soaked with torrential rain and then have dry stretches. That’s what you want to recreate at home. Thoroughly soak the soil, then let it completely dry out. Not sure if it’s dry? Stick your finger down into the soil a couple of inches. You should feel zero moisture.

There are a few ways to soak a plant well. One is to take it to your sink (if the plant is small enough) or tub or shower. Soak it and leave it there until it’s finished draining. 

If you have a big fiddle leaf, though, this might not be practical (unless you’re using watering as a workout). Instead, put your plant on a plant stand (up off the ground) with holes in it (one that has metalwork or lattice or some such rather than a solid bottom) and place a large tray under the stand before watering. Water the plant well and let the water drain through the plant stand into the tray. Remove and empty the tray when the plant is finished dripping. This way you won’t need to lift the plant at all. 

Climate

Fiddle leaf plants love a warm, humid environment. It’s native to the rainforest, remember? We’re talking humidity around 65 to 75 percent. You can simulate that, if your home is drier than that (as most are), by misting the plant or by setting it on a tray of gravel that you water. (Keep the water level below the gravel.) Grouping the fiddle leaf with other plants will also increase the humidity. If you’re really devoted to it, you might buy it a small humidifier. 

What it does not like — at all — is a draft. Keep your plant away from open windows, exterior doors, vents, air conditioners and fans. It also doesn’t love to be moved. If you do move it, or you just brought it home, give it some time to adjust.

BTW, fiddle leaf plants can give pets an upset tummy, so if your cat or dog is likely to nibble on plants, you’ll want to keep this one out of their reach.

Potting

Peaty, well-drained soil is the fiddle leaf plant’s best potting mixture. 

The plant doesn’t mind being a little rootbound, so don’t rush to repot it. Wait until the roots are peeking through the drainage holes. Usually every year or so will do it. Choose a pot that’s just a couple inches larger than the current one. Loosen the root ball gently and place it atop some fresh soil. Fill in with more soil — to within an inch of the top of the container — and water well. 

If you want to keep your fig from getting out-of-control big, though, you can take it out of its pot and trim the root ball. This will keep the plant its current size for a while longer. Don’t trim more than about 20 percent of the roots or you’ll damage the plant. Repot it in new soil. A larger pot probably won’t be needed.

fiddle leaf fig leaves on a white background

Fertilizing

Fertilize monthly in the spring and summer months with a 3:1:2 fertilizer. (That’s 3 parts nitrogen, 1 part phosphorus, 2 parts potassium.) 

Propagation

Fig plants are easy to propagate in water. Choose a branch with a healthy leaf on it. Cut the branch right above a node (where a leaf connects with the branch). Place the branch (with a leaf attached) in clean water, and replace the water every week or so, whenever it starts looking less than clear. Keep it in a bright spot. Once the roots develop — in about a month — pot the plant. You can also air-layer fiddle leaf fig plants, but the water method is easy-peasy.

Pruning

There are several reasons you might want to prune your fiddle leaf fig: to keep it a reasonable size for your environment, to shape it (choose between a tree shape and a shrub shape), and to make it look (and help it stay) healthy. 

Some pruning tips:

• Use sharp, clean pruning shears.

• Cut the stem of the leaf at an angle, about half an inch from the trunk.

• Start by cutting back any damaged leaves. You want your plant to put its energy into its best leaves. 

• Don’t remove too many leaves at a time, or you may shock the plant. For a large plant, about half a dozen leaves at a time is fine.

• As you would for a tree, cut crossing branches to give the plant good air circulation and a nice appearance. 

• Make your cuts at least an inch away from the main trunk. Usually your fig will sprout two branches where you cut it.

• For a tree-shaped fiddle leaf, trim off the bottom leaves. For a bushier plant, cut stems wherever you want to promote branching. 

• Prune in the spring, so it’ll have time to grow afterwards. (The plant is dormant in the winter months.)

• If your fig is towering to the ceiling, you can cut off the top and it’ll be just fine. 

Refurbishing a sad fiddle leaf fig

A fiddle leaf can look truly awful when it’s not flourishing. But in most cases, you can save it! When can’t you? If the stalk has shriveled up, it’s time to get a new plant. Otherwise, here’s how to give it another chance:

  1. Cut off any brown or badly damaged leaves.
  2. Take the plant out of its pot and remove the old soil.
  3. Also remove any rotting (brown, soft) roots. The remaining roots should be firm and white.
  4. Gently loosen the root ball.
  5. Repot in new soil and water well. Then — and this is important — let the soil dry out before you water it again!

Problem solving

fiddle leaf branches and leaves

So back to being finicky. If you follow all the tips above, hopefully you’ll have a stellar fiddle leaf fig plant. If not, though, here are some solutions. You got this (with a little experimenting)!

If your plant has:

Brown spots — The most common cause is root rot from too much watering. Water less and provide better drainage. Another possibility is that it might be cold. Make sure it’s not next to a cold draft, especially.

Whitish spots on the tops of the leaves — This is probably sunburn. The spots you’re seeing are where the sun bleached the leaves. Remove the burnt leaves and provide protection from the direct sun.

Brown or tan edges — It may be that your plant is too dry, especially if the leaves are curling. Humidity below 50 percent will also cause brown edges, so start misting!

Dropping leaves — Have you moved your plant recently? Fiddle leaf plants don’t like abrupt changes. They also don’t like drafts, so don’t set yours next to an open window or air conditioner or fan.

Pests — If your plant has holes or odd growths, it might have mealy bugs, aphids, mites, or scale. Look on the underside of the leaves for little bugs. Wipe them off with a cloth dipped in warm soapy water.

Do you have a fiddle leaf fig plant? How’s it doing?

You might also like: How to care for succulents and African violets.

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