Getting Started with a Ficus

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Getting Started with a Ficus Bonsai

 By Curt Drury

GENERAL CARE : 

The first thing you should know is that ficus lose their leaves if you look at them cross-eyed.  Don't be alarmed. This is perfectly normal. Cut back on watering. The leaves will grow back.  Always keep your bonsai clean of old leaves, dead branches, weeds, etc.

Ficus can tolerate temperatures between 32 and 100 degrees, but it is best to keep them between  40 and 85 degrees.  Frost will kill the leaves, and a freeze will kill the tree.  High temperatures cause heat and water stress.

Ficus can tolerate low light levels, especially during the winter, but prefer bright light and even direct sunlight. A bright window is good.  A bright window with a compact fluorescent light within 4 inches of the plant is better. Gradually moving your ficus outside in the spring and taking it inside in the fall is the best way to keep your tree healthy. Your tree must be introduced to direct sunlight gradually or you can burn the foliage.  This procedure is covered below.

Fertilize your bonsai once every two weeks during the growing season, spring until fall. An organic liquid fertilizer such as a fish emulsion or an organic seaweed fertilizer works best. Chemical fertilizers may be used but should be diluted to approximately one half strength so that valuable roots are not damaged. Organic pellets such as rice cakes may also be used along with regular fertilizers. Some recommend high nitrogen fertilizer from start of growth in Spring until mid-summer, balanced feed until late summer followed by low nitrogen until winter.

Water when the soil looks and feels dry on the surface. Under most conditions this will occur every two or three days. After a while you will be able to tell by "heft" when watering is needed. A chopstick in the soil can act as a "dip-stick."  Simply pull it out of the soil.  If it is wet, don't water.  If it is dry, water.

Only conduct major pruning during the spring or Sept. 1st - 15th , but not in summer. After Sept 15th your trees will be trying to harden off and store energy for the winter.  If you weaken it at this point by pruning and have any other problems over the winter, the tree could die. Maintenance pruning can be done throughout the season. Regularly pinch off the young shoots.

Ficus are relatively disease free.  Scale can be a problem. Regular jets of water and a systemic insecticide will control scale.  A good scrub down with soapy water is also an effective weapon against scale infestations. Remember, the best defense against insects and disease is a healthy bonsai.

Frequency of repotting and root pruning depends on the size and age of the tree, the condition of the roots, and other factors. Younger trees, or those in small pots, may need to be repotted every year. Older trees, or those in larger pots, may need repotting every two to four years. The safest time to transplant is when they are starting to push out new growth in the spring, but ficus can be repotted at any time. Protect newly repotted trees from wind and sun by placing them in a protected shady spot for 2-3 weeks, and gradually reintroduce them to sunlight. A free-draining soil mix should be used.  The general rule of thumb is that you can safely remove up to 1/3rd of the roots during a repot.  A healthy ficus can withstand up to 1/2 the roots being removed. 

There are two basic strategies for finding a location for your ficus bonsai.

Inside all of the time - If you are going to keep your tree in one spot year round, look for a bright window, preferably on the south side of your house, facing the sun.  East or west are a good second choice.  North would be the darkest place.  You may need or want some supplemental lighting.  I like compact fluorescent lights in a small fixture.  Regular light bulbs don't work.  They are to hot.  Put the plant as close as you can without touching.  4 ft shop lights are bigger, but also work great.  Your tree will need more water in the summer, less in the winter. 
Treat it like a house plant.

Inside only during the winter - This is a better way to go if you can.  Most people don't like this option, because they want to see their plant all the time.  Here is the procedure.  Mid-May, move your plant outside into the shade.  If there is a frost warning, bring your plant inside for the night. After 1-2 weeks in the shade, move the plant to the edge of the shade. Next begin giving your plant 1 hour of sunlight per day.  I like to find a spot that only gets 1 hour of sunlight per day. You can also just move the plant in to the sun for an hour, and move it back. After 2-4 days of this, go to 2 hours per day. Gradually, over a period of 2-3 weeks build up to at least 4 hours of morning sunlight.  This spot is located under the eves on the east side of your house.  6-8 is better.  If you have your tree in a large pot, you can try to work up to full sun. Give your tree as much sun as you can.  These are tropical plants, and they love the sun.  In the fall, leave the tree out till it gets to 40 at night, then bring it in.  Do not let it get any frost.  Put it in a sunny spot for the winter.  It may shed some or all of its leaves at this time.

 
The Basics of Making a Bonsai Tree.

The younger you get your tree, the more control you have over its development, but the longer you'll have to wait for it to develop.  Take a look at this series of pictures.

Each picture represents 6-12 months in the development of a bonsai tree. 

The hardest part of bonsai is developing a good trunk.  You start with a cutting or seedling and grow it until it has filled its pot with roots.  You then up-pot it to a larger pot using bonsai soil. Bonsai soil is special soil that is very coarse and free draining.  If you have potting mix that is coarse and free draining you can substitute that for the first 4 steps, but use the real thing in the bonsai pot. Once the tree fills up the next pot with roots, you pot it up again. Spread the roots out flat as you repot.  You can also wire your tree into a nice shape. Keep going to larger pots until the trunk is just the way you want it.  Remove overly large branches before they get too big (see picture 4+5). Keep the top pruned, and when you cut the top off, turn up a branch to be the new top. (see picture 4+5)

Once you put a bonsai in a bonsai pot, the trunk stops growing and the whole tree grows much slower.  When the trunk is ready, repot your tree into a bonsai pot.  Let the tree recover in the shade for at least 2 weeks and gradually reintroduce it to bright light.  Once in the bonsai pot, you can develop and refine the branches and shape.  You can also reduce the leaf size and work on ramification. It is best to wait until the trunk is ready to do this.