Though the perpetually Instagrammable fiddle-leaf fig manages to look effortless when styled beside mid-century furniture and bohemian-inspired vintage rugs, this plant famously takes real effort to keep alive, unlike the laid-back ZZ plant or impossible-to-kill air plant. To get every tip and trick on how to care for the finicky tree, we spoke to Erin Marino, director of marketing at The Sill (one of our favorite New York City–based houseplant shops), and Baltimore-based artist and dedicated plant collector Hilton Carter, who has been caring for his first fiddle, named Frank, for more than five years.
Know the Heights
The fiddle-leaf fig houseplant (fiddle or FLF for short, but technically speaking, the Ficus lyrata) is native to western and central Africa. While it can grow up to 50 feet in the wild, there are two common sizes you’ll find in most people’s homes. The first variety, a bushy-looking type, will grow to be around 3 to 4 feet tall. The second, a taller, trunked fiddle, is likely to be 5 to 7 feet tall. They’re all the same species; they just grow differently. Worried your fiddle might graze the ceiling? Don’t be. “It’s almost impossible to re-create those tropical conditions inside your apartment, so don’t fret about a Jumanji-like situation arising,” says Marino.
When to Buy
While you may want to bring some green to your interior in colder months, don’t get one in the winter. Because its natural climate is tropical, transporting a fiddle and exposing it to even a few minutes of cold air can be detrimental to its health. Marino advises buying and moving your plant when it is above 50 degrees, preferably over 65 just to be safe.
How to Pot
Rule number one: Transplant your fiddle-leaf to a new pot from its original plastic one. “Plants that are potted live longer, happier lives because they have better access to water, and their roots can continue to grow and not be pot-bound in the black plastic grow pot,” says Marino. Ceramic, stoneware, terracotta, or fiberglass containers work best as long as it’s 2 to 3 inches larger in diameter than your fiddle’s plastic pot. Go too big and you’ll likely end up overwatering it, which is a no-no. Adding lava rocks mixed with gravel to the bottom of the container will protect the plant’s roots from rot.
You need to water your fiddle once a week. Half a liter is good for the larger trees. Another thing to remember: The air gets very dry in the winter, which is not at all like their natural habitat. Fake humidity by misting your plant with water once a week—you can do this year-round, but especially in the winter. This can be done at the same time you water your plant. If you’re still not sure how often you should be watering your FLF, remember that it will tell you when it’s ready. A fail-proof indicator that your green friend is craving some H20? Place your finger about 2 inches deep into the soil. If your finger comes out dry, it’s time to drink. And you should water your plant until water drains into the base tray.
Taking care of houseplants requires more thought than placing them directly in or out of the sunlight. Says Marino, “Fiddle-leaf figs require bright light, but not direct sun. This means as close as possible (no more than a foot away) from a large, bright window of any exposure. Southern exposure is usually the best, while northern exposure is generally the worst.”
When to Fertilize
As for the soil, make sure to buy the variety made for indoor plants. Look for perlite and vermiculite on the soil bag—Marino says this mix will retain water for the plant between drinks. If you plan on doting on your fiddle, spraying it with organic liquid fertilizer once a month will be a real treat. (The Sill is a fan of Fox Farms liquid fertilizers.) “Fertilizing helps to place nutrients back into the soil that have been lost from watering over time,” says Carter. “If you fertilize during the spring, you should see much more growth in your plant.”
Avoid Big Moves
Carter might be a seasoned FLF parent now, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t make his fair share of mistakes along the way. There were a number of moments over the years where he thought he was going to lose Frank for good. “Moving Frank from New Orleans to Baltimore was the first thing I did wrong,” notes Carter. “Fiddle-leaf figs don’t like to be moved, and that trip took a toll.” No matter how excited you are to take on a FLF, consider holding off on bringing one into your home until you’ve settled down somewhere permanent.
Fiddles grow slowly, so don’t worry if you don’t see immediate growth. Green leaves signal you have a healthy plant on your hands. If it receives plenty of sunlight and the proper care, you should expect it to grow its entire life. “We say true success with a plant is when you need to eventually repot it in a larger vessel,” says Marino. When it comes time to repot, the season doesn’t matter, just as long as you stay indoors. Repotting in the early spring (right before the FLF’s growth season) is preferable but not required for a successful transfer. Pro tip: Make sure to rotate your plant so it doesn’t end up lopsided.
When Things Go Wrong…
Think of your fiddle like you would a pet. You need to love and care for it, pay attention to how much you feed it, and take action if it looks sick. When more than 50 percent of leaves have changed color or fallen off, it’s time to say goodbye.
Falling off: Water more. Your plant is most likely thirsty.
Browning: Give your plant more sunlight.
Wilting: Water more.
Yellowing or lightening: Water less. The leaves should be a nice dark shade of green.
Clipping the browned leaves isn’t necessary to keep your plant healthy, but it will make it look prettier. “The browning of leaves is unfortunately permanent on this plant, so once the damage is done, it can’t be undone without removing the entire leaf,” says Marino. “Don’t fret, though—if you give it more sunlight, it’s new growth should not brown.”
Dust particles prevent your plant from absorbing sunlight. Marino compares it to leaving on your makeup, except instead of just clogging your pores, you’re preventing photosynthesis from occurring. Lightly spraying your fiddle with water, using a feather duster, or wiping leaves with a soft cloth are all great ways to keep your plant clean and healthy.
Average Life Span
Purchasing a fiddle-leaf fig is an investment. Before you spend big on your plant, know that most last a few years (if cared for correctly). If you’re an overachiever, know that they can last much longer, too. “We’ve heard plenty of stories of houseplants passed down through generations,” says Marino.
Most of All…
Have fun! While you should keep your fiddle near and dear to your heart, it’s important to remember that it’s just a plant, and if you follow these instructions, you will be fine. Marino adds, “Reading about where your plant grows in the wild (and looking at photos online of it in its natural habitat) is super-helpful, too.”
This story was originally published on February 4, 2016, and has since been updated with new information.
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