Let me tell you a little story about a big ficus (AKA weeping fig). The one that sits next to my desk, swiping the ceiling. Circa 1977, Alan (my now-husband, then boyfriend) and I took a plant-propagation class together in college. We both loved the class and, happily, were able to work together on most of the assignments.
For one of the class projects, we learned about ficus care and propagation, and we started a ficus plant from a little cutting. And by little I mean a single little toothpick-sized branch with two little leaves. We placed it in water and set it aside. Over the course of the class, the branch sprouted good roots, so we tucked it in a little pot filled with stellar soil (potting mix was part of the curriculum!) and we brought it home.
It grew and we repotted it, and moved it and repotted it, and got married and moved it and — you get the idea. Our most recent move required a dolly and two strong guys to put it on the back of a moving truck at the very last minute so it wouldn’t get too cold on the trip. We all crossed our fingers. Leaves dropped as our massive ficus rode in the truck and then got used to our new home. But here it is, as healthy as our marriage. Oh, and, like us, she has grown a family. More about that below.
As you might guess by the story, a ficus (Ficus benjamina, I still remember from class!) doesn’t need a lot of very delicate tending. BTW, there are other ficus, such as the rubber plant (Ficus elastica) and fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata). They can be a little finicky, but the Ficus benjamina — the common household tree variety — is what we’re focusing on. Here’s what you need to know about ficus care to make yours happy:
Location — What’s the best place for your ficus plant?
Ficus don’t like to be moved around, so give some thought to where you place it. (I tend to try plants here and there before the plants and I decide where they’ll stay, but a ficus would prefer that you make up your mind right away and keep it there.) If you move your ficus, it may drop leaves in protest. Don’t worry; it’ll survive with a few less leaves. But try not to move it too often if you want it to do well.
Place your ficus in medium to bright, indirect light. Keep it away from drafty windows and doors, cooling and heating vents, and out of very chilly rooms. It loves a temp of between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll do okay in the 60s.
Ficus do like humidity, but they don’t like wet roots, so provide humidity with an occasional misting or by placing the pot on a tray of pebbles filled with water. Don’t overwater it.
Your ficus will enjoy a trip outdoors on a nice summer day, but protect it from direct sunlight or you’ll give it a sunburn. And bring in at night if the temps dip below 65.
Watering — How often to water your ficus
No plant likes wet roots (unless it’s a water plant, like a water lily), but a ficus prefers you not water it until the soil is drying out. So keep soil barely moist, not wet. Time between waterings will depend on your home environment, the time of year, and the weather. I water my ficus weekly and mist the leaves in the winter when the air is dry.
Use room-temperature water for watering and misting — and, for extra ficus care points, wipe any dust off the leaves while you’re tending.
Good ficus care includes trimming out dead branches now and then. But you can also prune your ficus to keep it small, to encourage bushiness, and/or to shape it. When you prune, use sterilized clippers and cut just above a branching stem or leaf. (That’s where it will produce new growth.)
Ficus plants are good at growing! You can slow that growth a bit by not repotting it too often; just don’t let it get rootbound.
The best time to repot is in the spring. Choose a container that’s just an inch or two bigger than the current pot, and make sure it has a drainage hole to keep the roots from getting soggy. Use soil that has good drainage, too, like a potting mix with some added vermiculite or perlite.
Ficus grow pretty rapidly, which means they’ll appreciate some food now and then. No need to fertilize it year round, though. Just give it some fertilizer once a month or so in the spring and summer months.
There are several ways to propagate a ficus, including air layering and putting the cutting in rooting powder then planting directly into potting soil.
Obviously, I’m a proponent of rooting a branch in water. Couldn’t be easier, and you can watch it work. Here are the steps:
- Cut a little branch that’s not too woody (it’ll root quicker). Include a couple of leaves, but no more.
- Place the branch in a glass or vase of water. Keep it out of direct light and heat. (Basically place it where it would be good to place the plant.)
- Watch the branch grow roots. (If the water gets murky, change it for fresh water.)
- When the branch has a good collection of new roots, simply place it in a little pot of good potting soil and water it.
A couple of Xmases ago I started new plants from our big ficus and gifted one to each of our kids, along with some directions for ficus care. So far so good for them all, including the one we kept for ourselves. (See, I told you they’re not difficult!)
Leaf dropping is the most common problem you’ll find when it comes to ficus care. It may simply be that the plant is acclimating to a new location or even a new pot! It may be hotter or colder, or in a new draft. If your plant starts dropping leaves in a location that it’s been happy in up until now, make sure you’re not over- or under-watering it.
Scale are waxy little bugs that you can detect on the backs of the plant’s leaves. What you may detect before the scale itself, though, is that the plant is oozing sap. This sap is called honeydew, and it’ll make everything around the plant a little sticky. You can scrape scale off the leaves with your nail, or you can apply isopropyl alcohol to them with a cotton swab.
When our plant has scale (which it occasionally does), I don’t have the hours it would take to dab each leaf. So we concoct a spray by filling a 32-ounce spray bottle with 6 ounces of isopropyl alcohol, a tablespoon or so of dish soap and the rest water. We (meaning Alan) spray the entire plant, partitioning it off with plastic to protect the surrounding area. The process needs to be repeated several times over a week or so in order to get all of the eggs. Some experts recommend patting the leaves dry after spraying with alcohol, because the alcohol is very cooling, but we’ve never found this necessary (or practical).
An alcohol application or spray will also take care of mealybugs, spider mites, and whiteflies.
Other scale solutions include spraying with neem oil or liquid soap and water. (Use an organic baby shampoo or dishwashing soap, about one teaspoon per quart of water.)
Whatever solution you decide to try, it’s a good idea to test it on a few leaves first, to make sure that it won’t damage your plant.
Because scale can live on the top of the soil, you might also want to scrape off the top inch or so of soil and replace it with fresh potting soil.
Do you have a Ficus benjamina, or are you thinking of getting one? You can now find the pretty, pointed leaves in variegated varieties. And when the plant is young, the stems are flexible enough to braid and twist. Some people like to trim ficus as a bonsai, too. That’s clearly not what we did!