Ficus Techniques : 34

Does this bonsai need repotting?

by Jerry Meislik

Ash Barnes, a bonsai artist from Australia, asks about a friend's Ficus. This Ficus macrocarphylla has not been repotted since about 1980! It also has grown long and leggy. When is the best time to repot?


Ash states, "I selected branches and wired them, eliminating a few that I deemed unsuitable for the first styling.I then potted it into this green glazed oval. The soil mix was Debco bonsai mix to which I added 3-5mm crushed granite. A very free draining mix with zeolite. The tree was watered and placed in the shade.

The roots were a swirling mass in the saucer underneath and of course filled the pot. What little soil there was seemed to be a sandy loam. But the roots were full of vigour and I cut very few away and spread the rest out to give the tree a new beginning."

It is truly a miracle that this Ficus has been growing for so many years in such a small container. For most Ficus bonsai a two year repotting is the norm. Once the roots have filled the container and hold the soil together in a pretty tight and solid mass it is time to repot. This tree certainly could use a repot into a fresh soil mix by now.

Generally the best time to repot a Ficus is in the active growing season. This can be in mid-summer when grown outdoors or at other times of year if the tree is being grown indoors. The tree will recover most quickly if repotted when it is at its most active and vigorous.

If a tree is in distress with very poor soil condition and is declining in vigour, losing leaves and looking very weak an emergency out-of-season repotting can be done at anytime. This would involve removing it from the old pot and teasing out the outer part of the root system, prying open the solid interior mass with a screwdriver or similar instrument but not removing any roots. As much of the old compated soil as possible should be removed without damaging the roots. The remianing root mass can be placed into a larger container with a granular, open bonsai soil.

Water the newly repotted tree only when the soil dries an inch or two below the soil surface. Keep the newly repotted tree warm, above 70F, and out of direct sun for a few weeks. Then it can gradualy be moved to a sunny spot.

Once the tree is actively growing new leaves it can be fertilized.

After the tree is healthy and growing well for 3-4 months the long brnches can be trimmed back to inner, shorter branches making these the new terminals. This will help to bring the growth back in to the trunk and decrease the leggy appearance.

Defoliation can be used later to increase the density of branching but only done with a very healthy tree.

Ficus macrophylla with long leggy growth

The base of the same Ficus

The same Ficus repotted and re-designed by Ash

Ash's Update March 2011

"The fig came back to me at the start of Summer and the project this time was to chase back the foliage along the branches to create a more convincing tree.

I defoliated the Moreton Bay extensively during the stage two process as well as terminating the new growth at the branch tips to try and encourage back budding along those bare branches. After a lot of fertilizer and encouraging words the tree responded. I then removed more branches to create a more aesthetic appearance. The height of the tree was shortened twice to accomodate the more compact form the tree had acquired and the branch on the right was reduced to allow a new shoot to take the lead.
Overall, my aims have been fulfilled in season two of this tree's rehabilitation. I took cuttings from this fig as I hope to start my own little family. This species is too rewarding not to get involved with them. Please ignore the loose wiring on the tree as it will be going back to its owner over Winter and I hope to get it back for its Summer vacation next season."


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