Rubber plants, or Ficus elastica are popular as houseplants and it’s no surprise why. These trees grow rather quickly and are very forgiving when it comes to care mistakes.
While rubber plants are forgiving, they will try to let you know when they aren’t getting the care they need. If your plant is starting to exhibit leggy growth, it is usually due to a lack of nutrients or lack of sunlight – or both.
Why is my rubber plant leggy?
In most species of plants, leggy growth is due to either a lack of nutrients or a lack of sunlight. This holds true for the rubber plant.
Lack of nutrients
A lack of nutrients can be caused by a few different factors.
If you are growing your rubber plant indoors, it will benefit from regular fertilization in the spring and summer. I usually fertilize mine with a balanced liquid fertilizer at half strength every 2 weeks. This keeps my rubber plant looking great and growing well.
If you aren’t comfortable using liquid fertilizer, you can also use slow-release pellets. Apply them in the spring and every time you water, nutrients will be rinsed down into the soil. These pellets generally last 6-9 months, so you will need to apply them annually.
While fertilizer is important, it isn’t the only thing you will need to do to keep your plant well-fed. Having healthy soil is just as important. All plants pull nutrients from the soil and when you water your house plants a small portion of dirt will also be washed out of the drainage hole. This means that even if you fertilize, eventually your plant will be all roots and no dirt.
I repot my rubber plants every year for this reason until they are about 6ft tall, then I switch to every other year. If you get your plant out of the pot and it doesn’t seem like it needs to be upgraded to a larger pot, you will still want to refresh the soil before placing it back in the pot.
When making a potting mix for your rubber plant, you will want one that is well-draining and slightly acidic. I usually make my own mix with 20% coco coir, 20% orchid bark, 20% perlite, 10% worm castings, and 10% activated charcoal, but you can also do a 1:1:1 mixture of peat moss or potting soil, perlite or coarse sand, and orchid bark. Both of these mixtures will keep your plant healthy and thriving.
If making DIY soil isn’t your thing, you can also use high-quality potting soil like FoxFarms Ocean Forest. Just be sure not to overwater with this mix.
Lack of sunlight
If you know you have your rubber plant in the ideal soil and you are fertilizing regularly, your plant’s leggy growth could be due to a light deficiency. While rubber plants can grow in lower light than some other plants, they really thrive in bright indirect light.
If you are seeing leggy growth in the direction of your plant’s light source, this is almost certainly due to low lighting. Try moving your plant closer to a light source or add supplemental lighting with a grow bulb.
Ideal plant placement
The best place for your rubber plant is a few feet from a south-facing window. You want your rubber plant to be out of any direct sunlight but exposed to indirect light for most of the day. If your south-facing room is flooded with direct light, you can add a sheer curtain to the window in order to block the harshest rays of light.
If you don’t have a south-facing window an east-facing window can usually work as well. Early morning light is much more gentle than afternoon rays, so placing your rubber plant in front of an east-facing window can be ideal. Keep an eye on your plant though, as sometimes morning light isn’t quite enough.
If you have your plant in the best spot in the house and it still isn’t thriving, it may be time for you to add a grow light to the room. There is a huge variety of grow bulbs on the market. Some are quite pricey and high tech and others are just simple inexpensive light bulbs.
While I use higher-tech LEDs for my fish tank plants, I’ve had great success with the cheaper Walmart and Home Depot bulbs for my indoor houseplants. If you want your grow bulb to look more refined, you can place it in basically any lamp or fixture you like. The sky is the limit as long as the light is reaching your plant.
Shaping your Rubber Plant
If you want your rubber plant to grow a specific way, there may be some steps you need to take to help it get there.
If you want your plant to grow straight up, there is good news. This is the way your rubber plant would naturally grow in the wild. To encourage this type of growth, you will want to make sure your plant is receiving light from all sides. You can do this by placing a grow bulb above your plant.
You will also want to stake your plant if it is young to give it extra support. This will keep the plant from wanting to bend due to weight or other environmental factors. Once your plant is a few feet tall, staking should no longer be necessary, but it won’t hurt your plant, so feel free to keep staking if you like.
It is very important for upward growth that you don’t prune your plant. You can always cut off damaged leaves, but if you pinch off or cut off new growth it will cause your plant to send out new growth and additional branches.
If you want your rubber plant to have multiple branches and a bushier growth, you will need to accomplish this by pruning. Trim back your plant at the top of the main branch and it will cause the plant to start sending out multiple growth points.
Bushy rubber plants generally take a bit more work to maintain than straight growth plants, so keep this in mind before embarking on the bushy plant journey.
Personally, I love the straight look of rubber plants, but I currently have a really cool rubber plant that goes up about 2 feet and then splits into a Y. I have maintained this look by trimming off any new growth points that pop out of the main part of the plant or the Y and I think it looks really neat.
Rubber plants are really forgiving and aren’t very sensitive to pruning, so feel free to play around with your plant and see what you like best.
Just keep in mind that the ideal time to prune is in the spring before the growing season begins. If I’m planning on a large prune, I will usually do it about 2 weeks after I repot for the season.
Tips and Tricks
Whenever you plan on pruning your rubber plant, it is a good idea to start with a plan. Envision how you want your plant to look and then decide the best way to make it look that way. Before trimming my rubber plant, I usually take a photo of it and then mark on the photo where I plan on pruning.
This helps me make a blueprint of ideal cuts before I get too caught up in pruning and make a mistake. You can always take off more cuttings later, but you can’t put leaves or branches back on.
When I am cutting, I always remove downward growth first as I want my plant to grow upward. I then remove any branches that seem overly crowded. After that, it’s all about the shape. Try not to take off more than a third of the plant at one time as this could cause your plant some stress.
Rubber plants are poisonous to both humans and pets, so be careful when placing a rubber plant in your home. If you have cats or dogs be sure to place it somewhere they can’t reach it. Symptoms of ingestion can be vomiting, shaking, stomach upset, rapid breathing, and in worst cases, death, so be sure to consult your veterinarian if you think your pet has been exposed or has consumed some of your rubber plant.
If you don’t have pets, it is still good to handle your rubber plant with caution. When pruning your plant you will want to avoid getting the sticky white sap on your hands or near your eyes or mouth. It can cause skin and eye irritations and if you are allergic, it can cause anaphylaxis. Be safe by wearing gloves and washing your hands anytime you touch your plant.
One of the worst things you can do to your rubber plant is water it too much. Always be careful to only water when the top 2 inches of the soil are dry. Rubber plants are prone to root rot, so too much watering can lead to a dead plant much quicker than a light or nutrient deficiency can.