How to Prune a Ficus Tree in 7 Easy Steps
New to pruning your ficus tree? It doesn't have to be difficult! There are a few simple steps you'll want to follow in order to prune properly without harming the plant. In this article, gardening expert Emily Horn shares the steps you'll want to follow when pruning your ficus tree.
During my years in horticulture, I’ve found that pruning is a daunting task for most home gardeners. The idea of intentionally cutting off portions of their plants is very intimidating and often viewed as a cruel, unnecessary process. Believe it or not, pruning your ficus tree is essential for its overall health. Pruning is a way to:
- Give your plant shape
- Eliminate damaged or diseased plant tissue
- Remove weak and crossed branches
- Promote growth (though this seems counterintuitive, it’s scientifically proven)
But when staring at your ficus tree with pruners in hand, it can be a bit overwhelming to know where to begin pruning. I have developed seven simple steps to guide you through the pruning process.
Step 1: Protect Area From Sap
The first step when preparing to prune has nothing to do with making any pruning cuts. Rather, it involves protecting the surrounding areas near the tree from the white, milky sap, which will freely flow once the plant’s tissues have been broken.
The white sap is a form of liquid latex. This liquid is very sticky and difficult to wipe clean should it be allowed to dry on a surface.
Consider placing a drop cloth, old bed sheet, or plastic down on the floor around the plant. If the sap drips from the ficus, it will go on the drop cloth instead of your furniture, carpets, or other flooring. Once the plant stops weeping sap and scabs over, you can move the drop cloth again.
Wearing gloves and long sleeves while pruning is also recommended, especially for those with sensitive skin. The sap is known to irritate the skin and eyes and can be hard to wash off.
Step 2: Clean Your Tools
Before you do any cutting, your tools must be sharp and clean. Dull pruners will make irregular cuts or tear the plant tissues while the cut is made. If the pruning cut is not a “clean” cut, when the plant’s callus attempts to grow over the wound, the callus will not be able to close completely, leaving a void of exposed tissue.
Insects and pathogens can easily infest and infect your plant through these openings. Take the time and spend the money to invest in a good sharpening stone or knife sharpener. It will help keep your pruners nice and sharp and help your plant heal after being pruned.
You will also need to clean your pruners. If you have pruners, chances are they get used for all sorts of things: pruning, digging, or as a makeshift hammer or screwdriver, to name a few. It may not look like it, but microbes like bacteria and viruses can cling to the pruners and be transported around your garden, spreading to each plant you successively touch with them. To clean and sanitize them:
- Remove the debris or soil with a stiff brush.
- Wipe or pour 70% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol over the pruner’s blades.
- Do not dip your pruners into the original container of alcohol. It can contaminate it.
- You can also sanitize by soaking in a 10% chlorine bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water).
- After soaking, rinse your pruners with cool water to prevent corrosion and rust.
Step 3: Remove Dead Branches
Throughout its life, any plant is susceptible to losing a portion of itself. Dead leaves, branches, and even roots are par for the course. Fortunately, these losses are small in the grand scheme of the plant’s life, and if healthy, the plant can send out new growth where needed.
Dead branches are unsightly on a tree, especially inside your house. It may seem counterintuitive, but removing dead branches on a plant will encourage new growth. To do it:
- Trace the dead branch to its origin at the main stem or trunk.
- Cut the branch at an angle in one single cutting motion. Avoid the collar.
- Most bypass pruners can cut branches in thickness up to 1”. Aim for one single motion rather than a sawing-type motion.
If only a portion of a branch is dead, meaning there is new growth sprouting from a node somewhere along its length, cut the branch at an angle slightly above the new growth. This will cause the new growth to become the lead growth on the branch and remove the unsightly empty portion.
Step 4: Remove Disease Infested Tissues
There may be some overlap with diseased or insect-infested tissues and dead branches. Over time, infected branches will die. If possible, you should prune out any diseased tissues before branch death.
You can also remove sick leaves that may indicate the presence of a pathogen. Look for:
- Greasy-looking spots
- Yellowing near the veins
- Brown leaf spots
- Excessive leaf drop (this could also happen if you recently moved the ficus)
Follow the same procedure as you would with removing dead branches. However, sanitize your pruners in between cuts because a disease is suspected. The 70% isopropyl alcohol method would be the quickest way to sanitize any tools so you don’t inadvertently spread pathogens to uninfected branches.
Step 5: Fix Lopsided Growth
I have had a weeping fig for almost 20 years. It sits near a south-facing window that receives filtered sunlight. The side closest to the window is always full, with many branches and leaves plastering themselves against the windowpane. The opposite side? Well, it leaves much to be desired.
A large portion of my horticulture brain tells me to rotate my tree so the sparse side can get more light and fill out once again. However, another part of my horticulture brain screams, DON’T DO IT! So, how do we solve this issue of lopsided growth?
Stand back and examine the tree’s shape. Selectively choose which branches need to be trimmed back. A good rule of thumb is to prune no more than ⅓ of the overall growth off at any given time.
You can choose the direction for branches to grow as well. Look at the leaf node where leaves originate. Is the node pointed out? In? Up? Down? Pruning the branch just above the node will dictate how that branch will grow.
Generally speaking, you will want to prune branches so that new growth goes outward and upwards. However, compared to outdoor trees and shrubs, branches growing inward and down pose no threat to the tree’s strength and structure. Feel free to trim those branches as you would any other branch.
Step 6: Consider the Time of the Year
It’s hard to imagine your indoor houseplants having an active growing season since they live inside your home. But, even in the greenhouses, a plant’s growth rate will slow down from early fall through early spring.
Although technically, you can prune your houseplants at any time of year, early spring is the best time to prune. In early spring, daylight hours are just beginning to lengthen, triggering your plant to begin photosynthesizing more. This increase in photosynthesis will create new growth.
By pruning your ficus in early spring, you’ll remove any dead branches, allowing for light to penetrate deeper into the tree’s canopy. This increase in light exposure will cause new branches to begin forming from the stem, creating a fuller tree overall.
If you prune to reduce the amount of unbalanced growth, the growth stimulation response from pruning and the increase in light exposure and watering frequency will jump-start new leaf and branch development.
Step 7: Root Pruning
Sometimes you need to control the overall size of your ficus tree. Maybe you live in an apartment, have low ceilings, or don’t want a ficus overtaking your living space. Root pruning helps keep the tree compact.
When you prune the top of a plant, you trim back the leaves and branches. Despite the decreased visible plant tissue, the roots are still the same size and are accustomed to supporting a much larger canopy. Therefore, the larger root mass will crank out the new leaves like a boss.
To keep your top growth in check, prune back the top canopy and the root ball. To do it:
- Unpot the ficus tree and remove a decent amount of the potting soil from the rootstock.
- Use clean pruners to cut no more than ⅓ of the root system at any given time.
- Thoroughly remove any diseased or damaged root sections.
- Repot the plant and freshen the soil if desired.
It is imperative to prune the top of the plant if you decide to prune the root ball. A larger root system can easily support a smaller top, but unfortunately, a smaller root system cannot support a larger top for several reasons.
The plant will be top-heavy and not anchored well in its container. Also, the water and nutrients required in the canopy cannot be adequately supported when only the roots are pruned.
Albeit a bit messy, pruning your ficus is an important part of its annual maintenance. Pruning helps promote new growth, eliminates unsightly dead or diseased branches, and can bring shape and an aesthetically pleasing appearance to unbalanced growth.
Now that you know the best time to prune, how much to prune, and how to make appropriate cuts, your ficus tree will thrive inside your home for many years to come.