WHYY home



Guests and Research

Alphabetized Index of Garden Answers

Appearances & Events


Past Shows






  Mike's Gardening Tips

House Plant Woes: A Too Tall Pine & a Rubber Tree What Lost its Bounce

Q. Mike: My Norfolk pine is a mess! I've had it for about 20 years. It's 10 feet tall, but the only branches are near the top. During the summer I lug the pot outside, but in the winter there really isn't anywhere for me to put it at that height. I was wondering if it's possible to air root the thing. Can I make it a little shorter without killing it? Thanks!
---Carol; Oreland, PA

Dear Mike: I hope you can help save my rubber plant. I bought it last Spring, water it once a week and have it near a South-facing window. However, we live on the first floor of an apartment building and my husband keeps the shades down to preserve what little privacy we have, so it gets relatively little light. I'm guessing that's the problem. Still, it looked fine until I got tired of its plastic container and repotted it into a bigger container in the Fall. After that the leaves started to yellow and fall off. Now the branches are either bare or have only sad-looking foliage. In addition, the plant has been invaded by scale-like spots that rub off easily, but leave 'burn marks' where they were attached. What can I do? Thank you,
---Maria; Wilmington, DE

A. Carol--that's pretty much the final height to expect indoors. (Although outdoors on their native Norfolk Island [near Australia] these trees reach 200 feet!) And yes, you can 'air layer' them.

Make a 'ring' around the trunk by scraping away a one-inch section of bark where you want the new roots to be. Soak some sphagnum moss in willow water (let lots of little cut-up willow branches, which contain a natural rooting hormone, sit in cold water for 24 hours), and then wrap it around the cut portion. If you hold it in place with plastic wrap, don't moisten it again; if you use strips of cloth, moisten occasionally with the W.W.

It could take months, but you should see new roots pushing through eventually. When you do, cut the plant off below them (d'uh!) and plant your new improved shortie.

Then, to prevent your 'lower limb problem' from returning, keep the light low. If you MUST take it out for the summer, keep it shaded. Even inside, it shouldn't ever get direct sun. Ever. These plants just can't take it. And, like most houseplants, they also like to be kept fairly dry in winter--they're not actively growing then and can't use the water.

Maria: That could be your problem. Your 'rubber plant' (a type of indoor fig tree) needs to dry out THOROUGHLY between waterings. Your weekly schedule was probably a little too much even in the summer, when it was actively growing. It's CERTAINLY too much in winter, when these trees go dormant and really like to dry out. So stop watering, don't water again till the soil is BONE dry, and then water MUCH less. You may even want to check and see if the roots are rotting. If they are, scrape off all the icky looking stuff, mix some dry potting mix into your water-logged soil, put the plant back in, and think good thoughts.

Yes, it also needs more light. If you put it directly under a four-foot long florescent fixture fitted with 40-watt cool white bulbs, you won't have to worry about the window.

The scale? Spray them with a light horticultural oil, which you should be able to find at any good garden center.

©2005 WHYY