In the Garden:
Lower South
February, 2007
Regional Report

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Plants like these dieffenbachias can grow lanky and out of proportion over time. Air layering is a great way to bring them back down to size.

Rejuvenate Overgrown Houseplants

Houseplants often last for years, coaxed along for so long that they become members of the family. I've seen some pretty lanky, decrepit specimens in my time. The years had seen them outgrow their beauty but still gain a loyal connection with their owners who couldn't bear to part with them.

Such plants can be given a new life, and, no, I don't mean in that great greenhouse in the sky. I mean restoring them to a manageable size and shape with fresh new foliage and vigor. I love to find an overgrown, sparsely foliaged plant destined for the dumpster and take it on as a project.

Ficus trees of various species tend to lose foliage during stress from dry soil or changes in their light intensity. They also get overgrown quite rapidly, reaching the low ceilings in our homes in no time. The easiest way to save such a plant, other than provide it a new home where there is more room to grow, is by air layering it.

Air Layering Basics
Ficus will readily send out roots into a mass of soil wrapped around the trunk or a branch. You can make several plants from one large one in this way; or just take the main top of an overgrown one, establish roots on the stem, and then cut below the roots to remove it from the original plant. Then repot it and you have a new, smaller plant.

While a small fistful of potting medium and a bread wrapper will work for air layering a small branch, for a large trunk you may want to use a large plastic pot cut in half. Enlarge the hole in the bottom of the pot to fit around the stem. Remove a ring of bark on the stem to promote rooting above that area. Then place the pot around the stem with the ringed area inside where the potting soil will be.

I use duct tape or electrical tape to hold the pot together and then fill the pot with potting mix. Next wrap the pot filled with potting mix in plastic to hold in moisture. Check the mix every week to make sure it's staying moist. As roots form, you'll need to add a little water every few days. When there are plenty of roots in the pot, you can cut below the pot to remove it from the old plant and then repot it into a slightly larger container.

Air layering is an especially good way to take a long, lanky dracaena or dieffenbachia and create a shorter plant. When you remove the air-layered top from these species, the base will resprout one or two new shoots near the end of the cut stem, so if it is very long you may want to cut it off again at a more desirable height. With these long-stemmed plants, you need not remove a ring of bark but rather just wound the stem in one or two places to encourage formation of callous tissue and roots.

Potbound No More
Often a houseplant isn't so overgrown as to require such drastic measures. It may simply need to be repotted into a larger container. Lay the plant over on its side and slide it out of the pot. Look for roots that are circling the outside of the rootball. Cut through these, making three vertical slices about 1/2 inch deep around the rootball and removing the outer circling roots. Then reset the plant in the next larger pot size and fill in around it with fresh potting soil.

Give your plants a little fertilizer and keep the soil moist without overwatering. Soggy soil is very detrimental to good root health and is probably a more common cause of houseplant problems than dry soil. Finally, provide a very bright location for best growth. While plants vary in their tolerance of low-light conditions, adequate light intensity is critical to strong, vigorous growth and healthy plants.


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