Is my Benjamin wet enough?
December 5, 2007 2:37 AM   Subscribe

Do you have a happy Ficus tree? Can you help me water mine?

I have four large (about five feet tall) indoor Benjamins that haven't stopped dropping leaves since I got them in September... which, yeah, was probably not the best time of year to acquire new, finicky plants. At any rate, they are at least dropping fewer leaves as time goes on (but I had no idea that they would still be dropping leaves after so long!) and do continue to put out new leaves, so I'm hoping for the best, but I'd love to have some level of confidence about how much to water them. I get contradictory advice when searching, and I'd like to hear from folks who have healthy specimens themselves.

Each one is near or at a window; the general climate here (in Greece) is dry; they each have a quite large pot (they were re-potted at the same time that we got them). They came from a nursery, but not an upscale one. They don't have any yellow leaves, but each one continues to drop perfectly healthy fully formed leaves.

If I at least could be certain that I'm not under-watering them, I would be glad. I'm watering 1.5 liters each, about once every two weeks, but that's me holding back, since I read that the worst thing was over-watering, and this amount was recommended at some web site somewhere.
posted by taz to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When you water plants there is not set volume of water that a plant will need each week. It varies depending on the temperature, light levels, wind speed, plant health, etc. So, the only way to know if your plant needs to be watered is to stick your finger into the soil, up to the second knuckle, and feel how moist the soil is. Also, in general once a plant is dry you should water until the water runs out the holes in the bottom of the pot. Your pots do have holes in the bottom, right?
Now I'll step aside to let the ficus experts to take over.
posted by nprigoda at 3:23 AM on December 5, 2007

My experience with ficus is that they take a long time to calm down from any perceived slight. Moving and repotting are those things to these plants.

I water my fairly large one a bit less than a liter every week (or so). I'd say right in range with yours, although my climate is more humid than is yours.

I'd say they'll calm down and stop dropping leaves soon.
posted by OmieWise at 4:51 AM on December 5, 2007

Try to keep the temperature and environment as consistent as possible. My ficus has lost almost all of its leaves at a couple of points, looked like it was going to die, then seemingly came back to life. I water my ficus tree once every 7-10 days or so with a quart or so of water.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:23 AM on December 5, 2007

I used to be one of those plant-ladies you see taking care of ficuses and corn plants in office buildings. All of the above are correct. The main thing is - ficuses are like the most finicky, punishing cat you ever met, and they will pee on your bedspread for even thinking about changing their litterbox. (To extend a bad metaphor.) Even when a ficus is healthy, you can expect to lose a dozen or so leaves a week.

Sounds to me like you're doing everything fine, the only other thing I might do is check right where the leaf attaches to the stem, look for a dark, crackly-looking drop of something, or sticky undersides of leaves - those are the two most common ficus predators.

Good luck!
posted by pomegranate at 10:26 AM on December 5, 2007

I agree with everyone about the need for consistency to minimize the leaf-dropping melodrama. They seem so sensitive but they bounce back. I looked after a few indoor office ficus that would start dropping more leaves as the days got shorter and the amount of light they got decreased. Combined with the indoor heating coming on in the winter here, indoor plants like ficus have hard transitions to make. This was in Canada, so these seasonal shifts may not apply to you in Greece in the same way, but maybe your plant is still adjusting to getting less light, going maybe from a greenhouse to a window? This would also change the amount of water it needs from what it's used to, so even just these two changes are probably sending it into a tizzy.

Also, you said that you repotted your trees in "quite large" pots when you bought them. If your new pots don't have drainage holes, or some stones in the bottom of the pot so that the plant doesn't sit in water, you are wise to be even more cautious about overwatering. Either way, you have more soil to wet, and only you can judge how moist the soil is by the time you water again. Over two weeks, 1.5L doesn't sound that unreasonable, but as others have said, it really depends on the environment of your plants. Is the soil still moist after two weeks, or is it bone dry, or something in between?

In addition to poking your finger into the soil, you can try using a hydrometer to get an idea of the moisture level below the surface. A hydrometer has one end as a long probe, like a skewer, that you poke into the soil, and at the other end above the soil is a measuring scale of dry to wet with a needle that will point to where the soil is on that continuum. Gardening stores often have relatively cheap ones for indoor plants just like this. Protect the probe end because it can be easily damaged (speaking from on-the-job experience!). They're not infallible but they might give you more information to work with, and combined with a sensitive eye to environment, they can be really helpful. Good luck!
posted by onoclea at 12:52 PM on December 5, 2007

Have you fed them? My poor ficuses were on the edge of death but to be honest, I'd rarely watered them and never fertilized them. Water helped, but I got a whole bunch of new growth and the end of fallen leaves when I fertilized. Uh, my ficuses remain outside, and most rely on rainwater, but I live in a subtropical environment.
posted by b33j at 1:31 PM on December 5, 2007

b33j, I haven't, though I do have fertilizer. Since they are so new (well, about three months new) and the potting soil was new, I wasn't sure if it was wise to begin fertilizing yet. And... some sites say not to fertilize in winter, though I don't know if this is the best advice. I wondered if I should wait for spring to fertilize about once a month?

Onoclea, I think you're right about the problem with less light; the combination of getting them just as autumn set in, plus less light here than they would have in the greenhouse anyway is a big difference - and the one that gets the least light has dropped the most leaves.

I had them potted in pots large enough that we wouldn't need to repot them as they grew, since I knew how sensitive they can be, but the pots definitely have drainage holes. However, if I ever watered them so much that the pots were sitting in water, that would be a ton of water, given the size of the pots... or else it would mean that the soil was so dry that the water was sluicing right through - so in either case, I would have much worse problems than I do now! At the point that I water them, the soil doesn't feel bone dry, yet it doesn't feel moist either. Some soil adheres to my skin, so - well, there's that much moisture, however much that is. :)

I wasn't alarmed that they dropped a lot of leaves - I totally expected it, but I thought that a few weeks, and certainly two months, would be enough for them to adjust... so then I began to worry that they needed more water. And different sites give exactly contrary advice about that.

I feel rather reassured now, and I think it is probably the combination of time of year combined with the shock of moving and repotting that has made the transition perhaps even harsher than if we had done this in early summer, for example.

Pomegranate, I've checked, and don't find any stickiness or dark, crackly spots where the stems begin. Yay! And I do see a lot of new, young leaves.

One more question, if anyone is still reading this... where some branches have become more obviously bare, would it be okay to trim them back? Wait for spring to do this? Don't do it at all?
posted by taz at 1:52 PM on December 5, 2007

Bare as in dead? Or bare as in not as many leaves? Dead branches can be trimmed any time, few leaves I would wait until your ficus has stopped dropping so many leaves for a while. I prune mine a bit to show the structure and to let light into the denser areas, but I've done it a couple of times over the last 5 or 6 years. They will exude sticky latex at each cut, so really it's kind of a pain in the ass unless they absolutely need to be pruned. I fertilize mine once a year- you shouldn't need to do it every month, and over fertilization can lead to infestations of pests and foliage that is more susceptible to disease.

Remember that watering needs will change with the seasons, so always do the finger test that nprigoda describes. It's also important to make sure all the soil is evenly most at watering, so check a couple of places if your pot is large.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:24 PM on December 5, 2007

I've heard that ficus trees are not actually good indoor plants at all. I believe that many of the supposedly healthy ficus trees seen in business settings are swapped out on a regular basis by the folks who "care" for the plants.

Pomegranate, is it true?
posted by quinoa at 5:33 PM on December 5, 2007

I've had one of my indoor ficus trees for six years, and the other one for five. The five year one was somebody else's indoor ficus for a few years before that. Down the street from me is one in an atrium that's been there for 20 years. The companies that do indoor plant care will often swap things out because they're being paid to make the indoors look good, not to allow plants to go through any natural cycles, or to repot things when they outgrow containers. The best indoor gardening places have a greenhouse where they can take care of plants then put them back into circulation when they look good again. Ficus benjamina itself is actually a pretty tough and forgiving indoor plant. I've moved both of mine to radically different situations when I've changed living spaces and they have always done well.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:18 PM on December 5, 2007

Quinoa, about half stabilize and stay where they are for years, but half just don't make it. And to be honest, most of those plants in offices/banks/hotels are leased, so we were paid to make them look okay, and if they didn't, (most often b/c someone was watering them behind our backs with coffee and diet Coke) then we'd downshift them to a less observant customer and bring in a new shiny plant for Ms. CEO's office.

(On preview, what oneirodynia said)
posted by pomegranate at 7:57 PM on December 5, 2007

Thank you, everyone, for your answers! I do feel more confident now, and I'll update here when/if the trees seem to stabilize more completely, or if I learn anything further that may help people looking for related info in the future.

I have a feeling that there are very many variables that will account for different behaviors in this sort of plant. For example, I once had very large Benjamin that I inherited from someone who moved away; after about a week of dropping leaves, it settled in and was completely healthy. I think that the light and humidity levels must have been almost identical to it's former home, which made the transition easier. These, coming from a nursery, probably had more light, more humidity, and a sort of special microclimate with lots of other plants around... then the moving, the new conditions, the time of year, the repotting, etc. was just an awful lot of change all together, when any single one of those things could have affected them adversely. I'll just be very kind to help them recover from their trauma! :)
posted by taz at 5:27 AM on December 6, 2007

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