Help!! My Plant is Healthy!


That’s not a phrase I usually cry in despair and self-loathing, but it was today. I’ve been side-eyeballing my potted ficus on the front lawn in a very un-trusting manner for that last few months. Shiny leaves with a lush and deep green happy vigor and an ever expanding crown reaching towards the heavens are usually a really good sign. But this tree is in a pot that’s way too small for such growth.

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There is a very good reason for such a limiting pot. It’s not because I hate this tree or wish to see it stunted or sad. It’s because the location I chose for this ficus is directly over my sewer lines going out into the street. As illustrated in this high-tech 3D rendering of the “brown line express” (oh, how crass!).

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The poop evacuation route. Well, the second evacuation route actually.

As a homeowner, you can imagine how costly it would be to have some root invasion for this essential poop escape highway! Like several grand to replace these pipes. And the last thing I want is any backing up or flooding in the house to let me know that I have made a grave error! Gross and costly are not my favorite combinations! Gross and cheap is okay in a pinch.

I’m not always a fool. When I wanted to have a lovely ficus on the front lawn and had only one spot as an option for it, I was completely aware of the dangers.

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The tell-tale convergence of ficus and sewer line.

So I figured that a large pot with no drainage holes would be the smartest route. Ficus’ can take a little bit of standing water in their pots so I would just have to keep an eye on my watering schedule and occasionally prune back the roots to keep it from getting root-bound. A simple plan.

But over the the last several months, the tree began acting a little too happy and robust so I knew something was going terribly right for the tree, but terribly wrong for me. Even though I knew in my heart what was happening, I decided to ignore it until now. Avoidance is a trait I have honed and sharpened like few others.

A few days ago, while explaining my fears to my girlfriend I gathered the strength for an investigatory lifting of the pot. I’m no slouch when it comes to manly man might. My hobbies and bi-decade workout schedule has left me stronger than most people my size. Not to brag too much, but I am a bit mighty-mighty. Yet, this pot would not budge an inch. It was then that my fears were realized in vivid and breath-winded full color shit-storm intensity.


When it comes to invasive tree roots, you would be hard pressed to find another tree as destructive as the fig. Many figs are actually more like parasites to other trees. They begin growing in the canopy of an innocent tree and then send down aerial roots to the soil below. Once it reaches the ground, it begins to completely encapsulate the host tree until there is nothing left of it but a skeletal form in the center of the bastard fig. Total dick move!

If you doubt the intensity of the invasive-ness, just go ask an ancient temple in Cambodia how they feel about it. They’ll let you know that figs are rude as shit. [Insert Dead Kennedys joke here. Pol-shitty foam-Pot]

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“Hey! I’m trying to temple up in here you dick!” -Ta Prohm

So if you’re planning a landscaping project over your water lines, and want to screw up the entire system and spend tons of money, then ficus is the smartest way to go!


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But let’s get back to my problem. I need to get these roots trimmed before any further damage happens to my pipes. But I also don’t want to change up the location of my ficus. I’m stubborn like that. If you’ll recall my ordeal with another invasive species and its evil roots invading my water feature, I never say never in the battle between nature and my own aesthetic desires. Stubborn.

So I went out and got myself a much more sturdy pot as well as a thick saucer for underneath so I can see if any roots begin creeping again.

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The current pot was a garbage-picked ornate piece of foam crap. My weed wacker was beginning to tear it up anyways. But it was free and light, so I used it. Stubborn, cheap and stupid. Now I am armed with a solid two inch thick fired clay pot and even if the roots crack this beast, I’ll be able to see it first before it infiltrates my pipes.

Now all that was left was to free the old pot and ficus from it’s moorings. Easier said than done. My first attempt merely snapped the flimsy foam pot in two.

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And then three, and then four, etc. It took some wrestling, a little sweating (in 95 degree heat) and A LOT of cursing. But like any ninja gardener, I was able to fell the beast.

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Tenacious three-inch thick roots made for a fun battle.

help-my-plant-is-healthy-6_the-battle-was-won

help-my-plant-is-healthy-7_the-fallen-soldier

Success!! The beast is cast upon uncut grass like so many vanquished enemies before today. I firmly placed my right heel in it’s groin and beat my chest for all the neighbors to witness.

Take a gander at these bastard roots! Perhaps this pot did have holes in it after-all and I conveniently forgot about them. The spacing of these roots is suspiciously even…

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Here’s an excellent lesson for all of us; plan ahead! I was a fool to not have some form of a barrier between the bottom of this pot and my precious pipes. A damn fool! Take a look how the roots parted and manipulated the relatively soft foam base.

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Another few years and I would’ve had a huge problem on my hands that would’ve cost me way more than a new fancy pot! The next order of business was to slap down my cock-blocking saucer of power.

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I then trimmed of some of the larger roots and removed the old soil and replanted the ficus in it’s new home.

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Which is all well and good, but there is still a major issue here. Can you tell what it is? The foliage on top is now very disproportionate to the new smaller root system below! This plant will definitely go into shock as it is, after all I did just beat the shit out of it, kick it in the groin and then beat my chest. If I leave all this green leafy demoralized canopy as is, the poor beast will not be too healthy for much longer.

I imagine based on the thickness of those roots, that I instantly removed about two-thirds of this trees root system. I needed to prune back about the same up top or all is lost.

I removed a large portion of the bottom of the canopy as I was tired of ducking and weaving when I cut the grass anyways.

Speaking of that, I’m totally aware of how long and ill-kept the grass looks here. It’s fully intentional by the way. Only partially founded in laziness. During the long hot SoCal summers, I have a few tips on keeping my lawn healthy and green (greenest on the block I’d wager). I also do so while using half the water than most. You can see my methods here.

I also thinned out the interior of the canopy and used the opportunity to do a little shaping and training. When all was said and done, I had roughly two-thirds removed.

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I applied some fertilizer and gave the pot a healthy watering before cleaning up all the carnage about the front yard.

I’ll be keeping an eye on it for a while and make sure it bounces back as well as can be expected. I’m fairly certain that some of the leaves will begin to yellow and drop though. You can’t take a beating like that without some type of fallout.

Today I have learned yet another lesson about short-sightedness which seems to be a common theme for this reckless gardener. Learn from my mistakes dear reader! I’d love to hear your war stories about invasive root issues as it would serve to improve solidarity as well as make me feel less stupid.


14 Replies to “Help!! My Plant is Healthy!”

  1. Up here in Canada, Ficus trees only survive as house plants. And sulky ones at that. The merest whiff of a cold breeze or water that hasn’t been warmed to the exact temperature of its liking, results in a temperor tantrum of dropped leaves all over your slippery wood floor. Further resulting in the cats chasing aND hiding said leaves all over the house.

    1. You can send me photos that I can then show to my ficus so it stays in line! I think one of the roots was making its way up the toilet and taking money out of my wallet!

      There are also a few credit card charges that I can’t explain…

  2. Holy cow, that’s what a ficus with leaves looks like! As Robert said, up north they are indoor only. I rescued a large, leggy one from a coworker’s torture. It recovered nicely for quite a while (now living in my dining room), but lately it and its little brother have been shedding like crazy. I’ve tried more water, less water, food, no food. Maybe they’ll stabilize over the winter … if not, I’ll have to fire them, which I hate to do.
    You did a nice job of pruning. I may try that with mine, but it’ll look like a home hair cut. I have to ask, WHY did you have to place this ficus right back over the sewer line? Why not move it over a few feet? And did you remove the price tag from the pot?

    1. Haha, paying attention to the details I see! The triple digit heat made me say screw that sticker! I’ll get it later;)

      A few feet in another direction wouldn’t save the pipes anyways. And I like it there anyways. I know I’m playing with fire, but my tagline does mention gardening with danger so…

      Indoor ficus are little bitches when there is any changes in light, food or water. I lost a fifteen year old ficus this summer which made me sad. Even outdoors in pots they can get the yellow leaf drop. They usually bounce back fairly easy though. Don’t give up on yours! Next time it bounces back, try repotting it in some fresh soil. They do get root bound fairly quickly so a light root trimming does them good. No more than 25% of the roots though!

      My 2/3 root pruning was an emergency situation and not recommended. 1/3 at the most is the norm.

  3. When we lived in an old army house in the tropics, the downstairs toilet mysteriously stopped clearing things away when flushed. Plumber’s visit revealed that the waste pipe, made of plastic because the landlord did things on the cheap, had been invaded by the roots of nearby jungle trees on the hill behind the house. Their contractor’s approach was still on the cheap–bore through the massed roots and stick in a new plastic pipe. Fortunately we do not live there anymore, and the house has been converted into an Institute for Advanced Mathematics. The supercomputer does not use the loo, and presumably the mathematicians can use the upstairs one.

    1. Haha, excellent story. I’ve never met a landlord that didn’t do everything on the cheap.

      Also, that’s quite a flip-flop for a residence to become an institute for advanced mathematics. Perhaps one day my house can achieve such academic grandeur! So long as it does its homework and stays off the streets.

    1. Thanks Mark, I hope it stays that way and avoids a total leaf drop. I shall endeavor to keep that from happening by singing to it every morning and apologizing for such a public humiliation and demoralizing beating.

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