Wednesday, 7 December 2016

My Struggles with Ficus Benjamina

When I first became interested in growing bonsai in around the year 2000 I knew almost nothing about plants. I'd never been interested in gardening and had even found it difficult to keep a house plant alive. Yet I was drawn to the idea of owning a bonsai tree and set about trying to find something suited to life indoors. Not too many candidates presented themselves, but in due course I bought my first Ficus Benjamina.

I remember that one as being a pretty little tree with variegated leaves, but with the benefit of experience it probably wasn't anywhere near as good as I thought it was. I don't have any photos of it so I couldn't say for sure. But with 15 years of proper care it may well have become a decent bonsai. Sadly I'll never know.

I confess that within months I had murdered that tree by excessive defoliation. I was devastated when I was forced to accept that it was dead and immediate started looking for a similar tree to replace it. Unfortunately my attempts at finding another tree like it were fruitless and the best I could do was buy a few group plantings with different coloured foliage. Not realising they could be separated I kept them as house plants and began my first attempts at propagating ficus cuttings to turn into bonsai.

Only one of my early cuttings was successful and for years I battled to turn that tree into the informal upright that it refused to be. So far I've been unable to find the bonsai in that tree, but sentiment prevents me from giving it away.

Somewhere along the lines I got it into my head to try fusing my group of three dark-leaved ficuses into one tree. Without the benefit of repotting. pulling them together wasn't the easiest process. Though they eventually fused, branches were coming off at terrible angles necessitating excessive pruning. I'm still battling to get that tree into a decent shape too.

Other efforts I've made over the years include my plaited tree with three different types of leaves as well as the group planting I'm still trying to bring down to the height I'd like it to be. And then there's my misguided attempt to create a Ficus Benjamina mame. Using the clip and grow method I've created quite a nice trunk but I can't seem to get the branches I want.

But last week I found one Ficus Benjamina in my greenhouse which is showing more potential than the rest of them.

Ficus Benjamina - November 2016, before pruning and wiring

There was a time when I'd planned to keep this one tiny too, but when my styling attempts weren't working out, I left it to grow unchecked and had all but given up on it. Then last week I decided to see if I could do anything with it. On close inspection I felt the branch structure wasn't too bad, though all the branches were clumped together growing straight up.

I've tried wiring Ficus Benjamina in the past with little success. My attempted informal upright was looking great while the wire was on but when I removed it all the branches reverted to their old position, leaving only deep scars to show that the wires had ever been there. Under the circumstances I decided that using guy wires this time was a better option as I'll be able to leave those on the tree for a lot longer.

My initial plan was to do no pruning but I noticed that I had two leaders so I removed the one that was growing to the back. I also cut back some of the heavier branches in the hope of getting the tree to put more energy into the areas that need fattening, especially the first branch which really needs to be the thickest but is by far the thinnest right now.

Ficus Benjamina - November 2016, pruned and wired

Excuse the sloppy wiring, we had a power failure just after I started wiring this tree, forcing me to work by lantern light.

Here's a 360° view:



My plan for the immediate future is to let it grow with only the occasional trim to the thicker branches. I'd really like it to fatten up a bit more, but my main focus is getting the branches to develop the right proportions. And of course to get them to set in their new positions.

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