While working on the blog, I found this text by my Father, Larry Hodgson, which had been saved, but never published. Good reading!
I couldn’t figure where I was going wrong. I’m used to growing houseplants and usually expect reasonable growth from them. Especially when I know what species they are and what other gardeners are recommending. But in this case, the plant was just not reacting to my ministrations.
The plant in question was a so-called ginseng ficus: two forms of Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarpa) grafted one on top of the other. A fast-growing, thick-rooted clone with its root top exposed to make it look like a multiple twisted trunk. And a slower, denser growing variety, often F. microcarpa ‘Green Island’, grafted on top to supply foliage. The ensemble is said to look like a bonsai. As a result, the ginseng ficus is generally marketed as a bonsai and sold in a pseudo-bonsai pot consisting of a ceramic pot with an assorted saucer. That is exactly what I brought back from the local IKEA store that winter’s day.
Most people would take it for a bonsai… although a bonsai specialist certainly wouldn’t.
Basic Care Fail
I’m an invalid now, very limited in my movements, so my friend Helene comes by to take care of my houseplants. She usually does a fine job. Yet, she couldn’t figure this plant out. It kept losing leaves and rarely producing new ones.
She mentioned it to me a few times to me that she was having problems with this one plant, but I only gave it a cursory glance. I’d only recently purchased it on one of my rare shopping excursions, so I wasn’t all that concerned. Maybe it was just slow to adapt to my conditions. These things do happen!
The conditions should have been perfect, though, as other ficuses were thriving in the same part of the house. The light was bright, even intense, temperatures were warm to hot in the day and cooler at night, the humidity was pretty much in the 50 to 60% range. It should have been perfect.
No, I didn’t have Helene try to fertilize it. Only plants that perform get fertilizer!
Never fertilize weak plants. Only plants showing signs of growth and recovery should receive fertilizer!
However, things weren’t getting any better. So, I had Helene bring it over to me for a quick look. I pulled off a few yellowing leaves, trimmed back some dead branches. Hmmm… No sign of insects…
Then I touched the soil: it was soaking wet! How could that be?
I looked at Helene.
She said she couldn’t figure it out. She generally did a watering run every 4 to 6 days (less in winter) and any plants that weren’t on the dry side after that time, she’d water at the next session. But this one never seemed to dry out. So, after skipping 3 waterings, she felt obliged to water it. After all, a ficus is not a succulent and therefore isn’t adapted to arid conditions!
“Pour some water on and we’ll see what happens,” I suggested. She did. It just sat there. The soil really was saturated. Yet, no water drained into the ceramic saucer at its base. That was unexpected.
I looked more carefully (the medication I take has caused cataracts to form on my eyes, so I don’t see as clearly as I once did). Just a second! That’s when I noticed there was a green plastic grow pot just inside the bonsai pot. It turns out the plant was double potted!
We removed the grow pot and checked it out.
Yep! There drainage holes, so excess water was able to escape. Perfect! But the bonsai pot (outer pot) looked suspicious. It looked like a thick, black ceramic pot set in a similar-sized black ceramic saucer. I could see 3 drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. So, excess water ought to have been able to flow out of the bonsai pot into the saucer. But it didn’t seem to be doing that.
A Saucer That Just Won’t Come Free!
I tried to remove the saucer. It wouldn’t budge. I gave it a twist. No better luck. I tried thumping it against the table. But no amount of banging would separate the pot from the saucer. It was truly stuck solidly to the pot.
Pseudo-Bonsai Pot, Pseudo-Bonsai Saucer
That’s when it struck me: it wasn’t a real saucer. It was a pseudo-saucer. Strictly decorative. There were even 3 holes drilled in the bottom of the saucer, but they didn’t lead anywhere. Instead, they were plugged! Helene had been watering the plant assuming excess water was draining out, but in fact it wasn’t.
Instead, the pseudo-bonsai pot was a double pseudo-bonsai pot, because it wasn’t even a bonsai pot, but rather a bonsai cachepot that the nursery had planted the ginseng ficus directly into. And you should never grow a plant in a cachepot*.
*A cachepot is an ornamental outer pot for houseplants. The plant roots inside a grow pot, one with drainage holes, and placed in the cache-pot for show. After watering, any water remaining in the cache-pot can be poured out. Read The Cachepot Revolution: Changing the Way We Grow Our Houseplants for more information.
Plants grown directly in cachepots inevitably die.
Saved in the Nick of Time
I had Helene remove the plant from its pot. Since she’s a bit leery about pruning and I’m not, I cut away at the mass of largely rotting, stinking roots, reducing the plant to just a few live ones. She managed to find a half pot (a plastic pot half the height of a classic flowerpot) that fit almost perfectly into what we now realized was a bonsai cachepot and potted the ficus into that. Within 30 minutes, we had moved the ficus to a new pot, with fresh, moist but not soggy soil. It looked weak at first, but even so, it almost seemed to be letting out a sigh of relief!
That Was Then…
Now, Helene can water the ginseng bonsai logically. When the potting soil feels dry to the touch, she waters abundantly. Then any excess water drains into the cachepot or saucer, so she drains that. If none does, she waits for the next session before watering.
After 6 months, the formerly weak, dying ginseng ficus was dense and dark green. In fact, it now needs the occasional pruning and fertilization.
A Lesson I Need to Learn
Always check that there is some way excess water can be removed from any plant container, even if that means drilling a hole in the bottom. It makes keeping the plant healthy and happy far, far easier!
Note too that, usually, a plant saucer, even if it is designed to match the pot above, is larger than the pot: it has to be for water to drain into. I kick myself now for not noticing that from the start!
Also, don’t assume that any plant you buy was potted up correctly. I didn’t… and almost lost my plant because of it!