Beyond The Basics

Branching Out: How to Shape Your Houseplants

Be warned: It can be a little traumatic at first!

For a more low-key houseplant experience, we often recommend buying your houseplants in a state close to how you’d like them to stay. When you do this, the care is all about straightforward maintenance, not drastic growth and transformation.

Let’s say you want a Fiddle Leaf Fig with a tall stately trunk and full head of leaves (a so-called standard, or tree-form) to make a big statement in your space. In this case, we'd typically say to buy when they already have a few branches. Not when they're still a little baby bush or straight column shape. But what happens when you already have one at home?

Well… it will take a bit of nerve, some knife skills, and a lot of patience, but you can transform your plant! The methods we’ll go through apply directly to all your ficus friends like Rubber Trees and Ficus Audrey, but the concept translates to most plants with woody stems or trunks. Think Dracaena friends (like marginata or reflexa) and Schefflera. We’ll refer to the Fiddle Leaf Fig (FLF) in most of our examples but keep this in mind as you’re reading!

Before You Start

When you buy a Fiddle Leaf Fig, they may come in a tall, straight column. Or they could look more like a shrub or bush. You might figure that the branches will show up on their own—after all, if you’re caring for them properly, they will grow like you want, right?

Not exactly...our houseplant friends have minds of their own. They remember where they come from and grow in a way their environment encourages them to—focusing all their energy to stretch towards the sun. Another thing to keep in mind is that these are juvenile species that have yet to mature into the full-on tree they could become in the wild (up to 50 feet tall!). So essentially, they are still just working on getting big and tall, which is progress... But where are those branches?

Well, before you start working with your plant to encourage branching, make sure they're happy first. You’ve got them in a place where they're actively growing, you have their watering needs down, and the plant is promoting new growth on their own.

With some intentional work, you can get your plant to grow the way you’d like. There are three main methods to produce growth: pinching, pruning, and notching.

Each method has its place in helping a houseplant grow and branch. Read on and we’ll help you break it down!

NOTE: The best time to shape your houseplants is during the spring or summer—the active growing season. Plants will react much better to being shaped when they're already making moves.

Pinching 101

Many gardeners use the term pinching—it’s a well-known trick for promoting fuller growth. And the same thing applies to our houseplant friends. It will basically tell the plant to grow twice as many stems where you pinched. This is perfect when you want the plant to redirect their growth a bit.

When

Pinching works well for those shorter bush-like Fiddle Leaf Figs that have gotten to a height where you’d like to start seeing branches. For example, if you’ve been growing your FLF for a while and have a 3-foot bush but no branches, this is the method for you!

Why

When you pinch back new growth, it directs focus from growing up to growing out. Essentially you are saying: okay, plant, I see you and your growth but let’s redirect that attention to growing some branches! This allows you to control the height and branching capabilities of the plant.

It may seem counter-intuitive to remove new growth. The first time you do it, you may think you’re about to murder the plant! It’s okay to be nervous—but trust us, this is a tried and true method to promote growth.

How

  • Locate the bud at the top of the plant. It should be the little pod-like thing directly in between the newest leaves at the very top of the trunk or branch. You may notice a papery sheath around the bud.
  • [1] Pinch it with your fingers and snap it off—if it’s resisting the pinch, you can twist a little here as well.
  • ~If you’re afraid to pinch it, you can also use snipping tools or shears, depending on the size.

And that’s all there is to it! You may see some sap coming out of the area you pinched. If you do, take a paper towel or cloth, and dab it away. You probably don’t want to wipe it away directly with your fingers because the sap has been known to irritate skin. You can also just leave it be.

[2] This pinched tip will callus over, and you’ll notice emerging growth nearby within a few weeks or so.

Pruning 101

You’ve probably heard of pruning back shrubs and bushes to get them under control but may not have heard of it as a way to promote growth on houseplants.

It's a little like a renovation for your plants—removing the old (and perhaps a little tired) bits in order to make way for a new and improved look!

And it has the added bonus of allowing for propagation.

Pruning is essentially taking off the top of the plant—and it promotes branching where you remove the plant. So, if you have a 5-foot tree and really want a branch about 2 feet down, you can cut off 2 feet of the tree.

Yes, it may wrack your nerves a little and look bare at first—after all, you did just chop off a big piece of your plant! But your nerves will be rewarded with major growth! It just takes time to grow back, so be prepared to wait a little bit.

Do make sure to research the specific needs of your plant friend. If you cut the top off a Norfolk Pine, they're not likely to grow back! So it’s always best to double check.

When

Pruning makes sense when you want to encourage growth and branching at a specific point. If your tree is starting to hit the ceiling or lean under their own weight AND you can stomach cutting off a piece, pruning is your best bet! It's also something to consider for any houseplant that's getting "leggy" (stretched out, skimpy looking growth) and you'd like to encourage fuller or bushier growth.

Why

It may seem terrifying to cut off a whole section of the plant you’ve been working so hard to nurture. But ultimately, it’s the best way to promote even more growth. It behaves a bit like pinching, where the plant will grow more in the area you cut back. And continue to grow after the cut.

So put aside your anxiety, take a deep breath, and let’s do it!

How

  • Locate the place you want to cut—typically, you’ll be looking about half an inch above a leaf, or node. The node can also be identified by the slightly raised line or ring running around the stem.
  • [1] Take sterilized shears, prepare your mind, don’t freak out, and CUT IT.
  • ~It’s best to cut at a 45-degree angle.
  • ~Be aware of the orientation of your pruning shears—the sharp cutting blade should be on the bottom (close to the part of the plant that you're keeping) and the chunky bypass part should be on top.
  • Optional: Take a paper towel and blot off the sap that comes out of the tree—you don’t want to touch it because it can irritate the skin.

And there you have it. You may feel a bit guilty until you start to see the results—that’s normal. 😥 But soon you may start to see new branches from previously dormant nodes! Pruning actually awakens those nodes. [2]

You may even notice a spot along the stem where an old leaf fell off (or was removed) starting to branch.

When you cut off the top of your ficus, you can propagate that piece instead of tossing it. Why not, right? You’re already learning to develop quite the green thumb by branching and shaping. Now it’s time to create some plant grand-babies.

Propagating What You Pruned

We'll preface by saying this type of propagation is definitely worth a try, but it may not work—propagation isn’t always a guaranteed thing. And that’s okay; think of it as a chance to learn! Something else to keep in mind—your best chances for a successful propagation are in the spring or summer (when you should be doing this type of pruning, anyway). Okay, let's get into it:

  • Trim the stem back a bit, if needed. For the purposes of propagation, it's best to cut the stem back to just below a node as this is where the roots will grow from. If the section of stem below the node is too long, it can rot instead of pushing out roots.
  • Remove the lower leaves. It’s best to have enough clear stem to easily place the cutting in a vessel with water or other growing medium (without submerging any leaves and risking rot).
  • Rooting hormone is helpful for these types of plants—they can be a bit more stubborn!
  • ~When using rooting hormone, every brand has their own method. Typically, if it's a powder, you just wet the cutting a little and dip it in. Try to do this in a separate container otherwise you'll contaminate and degrade the rest of your rooting hormone.
  • You can propagate in water or in another growing medium.
  • ~When in water, place your cutting in a clear vessel so you can check for cloudiness in the water and monitor the roots for progress.
  • ~When in another growing medium, like peat/sphagnum moss or an appropriate potting mix, you can place the cutting right into a container and water it well. For this method, you may need to cover it with a plastic bag or some sort of dome to maintain humidity!
  • Watch for those roots—it may take a while, but in the end, you’ll end up with a couple inches of fresh roots. Even in a growing medium that's not water, you should examine the cuttings weekly to monitor their progress.
  • Pot up like you would with any other plant once there’s an established root system.

And there you go! You were scared to cut off the top of your houseplant, but now you have a happy, soon-to-be branching momma plant and a baby plant to look after or gift to someone. Pretty cool, right?

Notching 101

Notching. It sounds scary, it may look scary, but it works pretty well! When you notch a ficus or other woody stemmed houseplant, you essentially do just what it sounds like—you’re cutting a notch into the side of the stem. This helps promote the growth of branches to get that coveted tree shape with branches galore!

When

Notching is great for a Fiddle Leaf Fig with a straight column shape at a height you want to maintain or a plant that already has some established branches, but you want more in specific spots. It works best and is less risky on a well established woody stem rather than a young stem that is still soft and green.

Why

The notch you create basically puts a stop to the growth-regulating hormone and redirects it.

We like to picture it as a road of growth hormone. Right now, it’s a one-way street: up! That’s why your tree may be getting taller but not branching out.

The notch you create sends a signal that, hey, we want to go this way, can you build a new road? It stops the one-way direction and makes the hormone turn where you placed the notch. When focused where you've notched, it begins to form new branches—which is exactly what we want!

How

  • Sterilize a sharp knife. You don’t want to accidentally spread disease to your healthy plant! Especially because you are notching into the main stem. You can use rubbing alcohol or a diluted 1:9 bleach to water solution to sterilize your knife.
  • [1] Locate a section between two nodes. This is also called an internode—little plant vocab for you. You can identify a node by looking at where a leaf stem attaches to the main stem of the plant. You may also see a ring running around the stem or a scar from a lost leaf.
  • [2] Make your cut. You’ll want to go about one-third of the way around the stem and one-third of the way into the stem.
  • ~When you see white sap coming out, you'll know you’ve done it right!
  • You can repeat—but don’t go too crazy! It’s best to stick to around 2-3 notches at a time, especially when you’re starting out.
  • [3] Monitor the nodes closest to your cuts for new growth.
  • ~Since it can take some time, you can also mark the spots where you cut with a little ribbon or something so you remember where to look!

There are other methods to notching, like making two cuts at a 45-degree angle that meet and actually take out a chunk of the tree. For beginners, we recommend the method above. Making one cut is scary enough! Plus, it generally works just as well.

Many people don’t have as much luck with notching as they’d like due to not notching deep enough—so make sure you're cutting enough to see a bit of sap.

On the other hand, it is a good idea to start near the top when you first try this. The resistance of the bark, or the sharpness of your tool, can surprise you.

This could cause an accidental prune instead of a notch!

Uhhh, It’s Not Working

You read all the instructions—you know you did it right! But for some reason, no branches are coming out. There are a few reasons this can occur.

The Plant Isn’t Happy

Make sure that your plant is happy and in optimal growing conditions. If they're in a dormant state or don’t have the right light, they can’t perform as well…or, at all. You’ll need to make sure that they're in the right lighting condition and you’re watering to meet their needs.

You might also take into consideration the last time you repotted. If it's been longer than you can remember, that plant may need a healthy dose of fresh nutrients. You can either pot up if needed or you can top off with a bit of fertilizer. Remember, indoor potting mix has a lot of nutrients in it on day one. But, over time, the plant uses them up and needs a refill!

Another thing to keep in mind for Fiddle Leaf Figs is that they are not huge fans of moving around. So try not to prune and then on top of that move your plant to a new spot. This will likely result in too much stress for the plant to even think about new growth.

The Plant Isn’t Healthy

If the plant isn’t healthy and has a disease or pests, they won’t be able to spend much energy on new growth. Imagine if you had a cold and someone asked you to go out and run your fastest mile!

We are asking a lot of our plants to grow new branches, so we need to make sure they are in prime condition.

Regularly check for pests and diseases on your plant. Make sure to fully treat these and get your plant in optimum health before trying for branches.

It’s Not Active Growth Season

While the methods above are tried and true, sometimes it won’t work. In a plant’s dormant period, it's less likely to work. It’s also much slower to work if it does! So, if you tried in the dead of winter when you were feeling experimental, give it some time, and try again when spring and summer come around.

The Notching Wasn’t Deep Enough

Are you sure you saw some sap come out? Was it one-third across and one-third deep? Sometimes, our nerves can take over, and we don’t cut enough when we are notching. That’s okay. You can try again!

Working on our green thumbs takes time, patience, trial, and, most importantly, error. Don’t get discouraged if your methods aren’t working—just learn from it and try again.

You’re Just Impatient!

It can take a little longer than you may expect to grow branches. It can take up to a month (or even longer!) to see those new buds pushing through. They will eventually come. Keep nurturing the plant as you have been, and you’ll be rewarded with those coveted branches!

A Branching Adventure

Branching is not for the faint of heart, but it can be an extremely rewarding experience. It will require some experimentation and may result in some mistakes at first. But trust that everything you do will teach you more about your plants. Plus, by the end of your branching adventure, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier and shapelier plant. Indeed, you now wield the power to shape your houseplants! ⚔️

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