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Fielding Questions: Consoling a weeping fig, thinning apples, wrapping trees

In this week's Fielding Questions, Don Kinzler offers advice for caring for a weeping fig, tips for thinning apples, and tells readers it's not too late to wrap trees to prevent sunscald damage.

Ficus 3.jpg
A reader asks gardening columnist Don Kinzler what may have caused her Ficus to lose so many leaves.
Contributed / Shirley N.
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Q: This is the saddest Ficus I’ve ever seen. I bought it in August and thought I followed instructions but now most of the leaves have fallen off. What should I do now? The bare branches seem kind of dead. Thanks for any advice you can give me. — Shirley N.

A: From the photo I’m not sure of the exact species of Ficus, but it’s at least a close relative of a Ficus commonly called weeping fig, and the care will be similar. Most members of the Ficus genus have a milky white sap and waxy leaves, allowing them to retain moisture, and they dislike being kept overly moist.

Sometimes weeping fig and related species will drop a portion of their leaves as daylight length shortens, and they sense the changing seasons, even while indoors. To check if the bare branches are still alive, scratch the bark with a thumbnail.

A green layer under the outer bark indicates life, while the absence of the green cambium layer indicates dead or damaged tissue. From the photo, I think I see buds along the twigs, which can also be checked for freshness and life.

Hopefully the bare portion of the tree is still alive and will leaf out in time. Meanwhile, decrease watering, because the Ficus is now requiring less moisture with less leaves to support. Let the soil dry between waterings until a finger inserted to the first joint feels no moisture. This also isn’t the time to fertilize.

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You might also prune and shorten the branches that still have leaves for a better-balanced plant. Please keep us posted.

Q: Our apple tree was so loaded this year that I needed to prop up branches, or they were going to break. I know you’ve mentioned how to thin out apples so they don’t break the tree apart, but I didn’t write it down. Would you mind repeating? Thanks. — Ed M.

A: When we’re looking forward to a fresh apple crop, it might seem like a shame to pluck off and discard little apples in early summer, but there are good reasons for thinning out a too-heavy crop. Apples often form in tight, closely spaced clusters.

Thinning out the developing apple crop not only prevents branch breakage, but also improves the size, flavor and quality of the remaining fruit. It also levels out the tendency of many apple cultivars to bear every-other-year, promoting better fruiting every year.

Apples should be thinned when fruits are dime-sized or before, leaving the remaining fruit spaced four-to-six inches apart. A shears can be used, or simply remove fruit by hand.

Q: I didn’t get our apple trees wrapped for the winter before the snow came. Will wrapping them still do any good, or is it too late? — Ben S.

A: Wrapping fruit trees in early December is still a great idea because much of the damage prevented by wrapping happens in December, January and February.

Wrapping the trunks helps prevent winter sunscald injury to the bark, which is a major killer of fruit trees in snowy, cold climates. Winter sunshine reflecting off the bright snow can warm the south or west sides of tree trunks, thawing cells and rupturing them when they refreeze. Winter sunscald damage appears as darkened or off-color bark on the south or west trunk exposure and can kill or badly damage trees.

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Tree wraps are available from garden centers, or in a pinch trunks can be wrapped with burlap, heavy paper, or flexible cardboard, and taped at top and bottom. Fruit trees are thin-barked and are best wrapped for as many years as it takes the bark to become thick with some ridging and self-protection. Wrapping also helps prevent animal injury.

More gardening columns from Don Kinzler
In this week's Fielding Questions, Don Kinzler answers questions about the possible causes of brown tips on houseplant leaves, if wood ash can safely be applied to gardens, and more.

If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler, NDSU Extension-Cass County, at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu . Questions with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.
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