How to restore this popular houseplant when it starts looking bad.

By Steve Bender
August 04, 2020
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I’m going to let you in on a little secret garden centers don’t want you to know. Fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata) makes a lousy houseplant. Native to the African rainforest, it likes bright shade; moist, well-drained soil; and warm, moist air. It hates dry, air-conditioned air in summer and dry, heated air in winter. Thus, if you plan on keeping it inside your house year-round, you soon will be confronted with a very unhappy and ugly plant.

I know. After absconding with a nice 6-footer after a photoshoot five years ago, I planted it in a big, clay pot and sat it near a window in an empty corner of the living room that needed height. It looked great there. Judy and I took great pride in the fact that our house now looked remotely like one you’d see in Southern Living. (We can dream.)

Well, it wasn’t long before the fig started sulking. One by one, big, fiddle-shaped leaves dropped to the floor. Other developed black and brown edges – never a good sign. I tried misting it daily to increase humidity, but it didn’t work.

Fast forward five years. The fig tree is now reduced to two gnarly branches with roughly six leaves each reaching towards the window. “Dang, that’s ugly,” I said to Judy. “I think I’m gonna just throw it outside in the woods.”

“Well, if you do, don’t tell me about it first,” she replied. “I can’t bear to see it suffer.”

Sigh. Women.

Then I thought to myself, “What’s ugly about it? The sparse, gnarly top. What if I just cut off the top and see it it’ll leaf back out?”

One day in June when Judy wasn’t looking, I took the plant outside. Using some sturdy loppers, I cut back the trunk to a foot tall. I placed the pot in the shade to see what would happen. “It’s all up to you now, Bubba,” I muttered.

Guess what? Within two weeks, new leaves sprouted from the top of the stump. They grew quickly in the hot, humid, rainy weather. Now in early August, it’s a beautiful, bushy plant like you might buy from the garden center. I sat it on our shady front porch.

It can’t stay there permanently, of course. Winter cold would kill it. So before frost comes this fall, I’ll move it indoors during the cold months. It won’t like it and will probably drop some leaves. However, in spring, back outdoors it will go. Should it ever grow too big, I now know how to prune it.

And now so do you. Aren’t you glad you read “The Grumpy Gardener?”