Welcome to Bad at Plants, a new column in which plant expert Maryah Greene, of Greene Piece consulting, answers your questions about plants so we might all become at least slightly better at keeping them alive.
I need help with my fiddle-leaf fig. When I bought my plant from Home Depot in October 2017, it was a sad little neglected mess, and having read about how difficult this plant was to care for, I figured we would have a challenging and short life together. Almost two years later, my fiddle-leaf fig is thriving. It is thriving a bit too much. It is presently over seven feet tall, and my apartment has 10-foot ceilings. Is there anything I can do to slow its growth? Or will the plant know what to do when it reaches the ceiling? I’ve read about cutting the root ball, but that sounds terrifying.
I’ve had two fiddle-leaf figs, but I’ve never successfully kept one. I got mine during the wrong time of year: December. I thought, Oh, I’m a plant lady, I can confidently own a fiddle leaf fig, but every time I opened the door to my room, leaves flew off. It was super-depressing. I made the mistake of throwing them both out because I can’t deal with that negativity in my life. When I started working with Rooted NYC and told them my situation months later, they told me the plants were dormant and would have grown come April or May. I threw away a living thing, it’s fine. I like to think they’re still growing in a dumpster somewhere. So God bless you for being able to keep yours alive and growing this much.
First, some general care: Fiddle-leaf figs are one of the more dramatic plants. One of the reasons is that the soil likes a consistent state of moisture, but it doesn’t want to be dried out or muddy. It’s specific. Checking the top inch of it is a good way to tell if it’s ready for some water. If the top inch is dry, you want to completely drench it, which means water should come out of the hole(s) at the bottom into the saucer. When you see that water, you want to make sure to dump it out because the fiddle-leaf fig does not like to sit in that moisture. You might want to empty it right away and check in an hour to see if it needs to be emptied again. If the leaves start to get limp and floppy, and they turn yellow and brown, that means you’re watering too much. If it’s healthy, you should be able to touch the leaf and it’ll bounce right back up.
Now, regarding your plant, which is very healthy: You have a couple of options here, both of which are intended to encourage a fiddle-leaf-fig plant to grow new branches. Notching is one way. To do it, you’ll need a clean knife. That’s important. I think of this as surgery or even going to get a pedicure: You want clean tools because you’re dealing with genetic material. So now you’ll choose the spot where you want a new branch to grow, and you’ll find what’s called a node close to that starting point. The node is the thickest point of the tree’s trunk located between leaves. You’ll take that clean, sharp knife and make a cut about one-eighth of an inch deep at a 45 degree angle just above that node. The node will still be attached, and you’re making your cut right above that. Right after you do that, you’ll see some sap come out, and it’s supergross but completely healthy. If you do that and you don’t see anything come out, you’ve either done it wrong, or the plant’s unhealthy and on its way out. In your case, it sounds like you’ll see sap. So that’s notching.
Another technique is called pinching, which in your case might be better since you’ve seen so much growth. Pinching goes a step further because it involves completely cutting a piece off. First, you’ll locate the newest part of growth on the tree — the highest, lightest lemon-lime-colored leaves. Take clean cutting shears and cut off this new growth, and again, you’ll see sap. Because yours is seven feet tall, you can probably cut six inches to a foot. You’ll see sap, and then it’ll start to scab over and close up. Once that’s healed, it’ll start to grow a new branch, but instead of growing vertically, it’ll grow out to the side. Within two to three weeks, a tiny bulb should appear. It almost looks like a pimple. It will eventually turn into a branch, and leaves will start to come from that.
Both pinching and notching should be done at the beginning of the growing season, so in spring or early summer. Most important, these are techniques you don’t want to try unless your fiddle-leaf is at least five feet tall already. And for beginners, I wouldn’t even get a fiddle-leaf fig unless it’s the growing season, because you’re going to feel like you’re doing something wrong. You also don’t want to do this if you plan on moving apartments or moving the plant to another room. Think of it like a patient in critical condition: Once you make this cut, you don’t want to dramatically move the patient. Keep it stable.
You’re right about the root ball — that’s some botanical-garden shit. I’ve never done it, but it means going into the soil, identifying which roots are the primary growth roots, and deciding which are worth sacrificing to split the plant apart. I don’t recommend you try that. If you try pinching and it doesn’t work, take it to your local nursery and ask for help.
I also found this fiddle-leaf-fig support group on Facebook that you might want to join. There are over 10,000 people in this thing! It’s a lot of people asking for help. I felt so validated finding that.
Do you have questions for Maryah? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try to get you an answer.