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Lessons Learned: The Two Fatal Mistakes I Made with My Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree

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Lessons Learned: The Two Fatal Mistakes I Made with My Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree

October 30, 2020

I bought my first fiddle leaf fig tree at Home Depot more than five years ago, when my husband and I moved into our first (and current) house. After years of living in a small, light-challenged Brooklyn apartment that had just three windows, I was excited to be able to finally bring some greenery indoors. There are 16 windows on our first floor alone, after all! It seemed impossible that I would kill the thing.

And yet.

Over the course of several months, I did just that. Leaf by leaf, my fiddle leaf fig turned brown and brittle, the color spreading slowly until entire leaves dropped to the floor.

I tried to resuscitate the tree by pruning it, dusting it, changing its location, watering it more, spritzing it more, bringing it into the bathroom for steam sessions, pleading with it to give me another chance—but nothing I did seem to pause its steady decay. (Perhaps I should have read Michelle’s 7 Secrets: How to Save a Dying Fiddle-Leaf Fig Tree?) Eventually, I was forced to admit that I had failed it.

A few years later, I finally felt ready to bring home another one and try again for compatibility and happiness. To my surprise, this new fiddle leaf fig thrived. What did I do differently this time around?

N.B.: Featured photograph by Brian Ferry for Remodelista; styling by Alexa Hotz, from Before & After: A French-Inflected Townhouse Renovation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

New Light

Above: A fiddle leaf fig growing toward the light. Photograph by Natalie Weiss for Remodelista, from Done/Undone with Clarisse Demory in Paris.

My first fiddle leaf fig tree lived in our dining room. I had chosen the location because I figured the large bay window in there would ensure enough natural light. Problem was, the room is north-facing, the absolute worst part of your home in which to place a fiddle leaf fig tree, which requires bright filtered sunlight for at least six hours a day. North-facing windows tend to get a little morning sun (and maybe a little late-afternoon sun in the summer if you’re lucky)—and that’s it.

The second time around, I decided to place my fiddle leaf fig tree next to a south-facing window in our living room instead. It has thrived there, where it’s awash in sunlight for much of the day. Some experts caution against placement of a fiddle leaf fig tree next to south- and west-facing windows for fear of direct light burning the leaves, but I haven’t had that problem with mine at all. (I’ve read that east-facing windows are the best for fiddle leaf figs, as they provide ample indirect light.)

Less Water

A healthy fiddle leaf fig tree in my friend George&#8\2\17;s apartment. Photograph by Kelly Marshall, from Expert Advice: How to Organize a Dinner Party with Minimal Effort.
Above: A healthy fiddle leaf fig tree in my friend George’s apartment. Photograph by Kelly Marshall, from Expert Advice: How to Organize a Dinner Party with Minimal Effort.

I watered my first love once a week, without fail. I was strictly following the advice I had found on the Internet. Besides, the brown leaves, to me, pointed to the need for more water. Turns out, brown leaves, especially ones that start at the bottom of the plant and spread upwards, are a sign of root rot, which is a symptom of over-watering.

Now, I water my fiddle leaf fig about every ten days or so. The soil is definitely dry by the time I water it (I bring it to the sink and give it a good, thorough soaking), and my tree is as lush as ever.

In summary . . .

Above: Florist Sophia Moreno Bunge’s happy fiddle leaf. Photograph by Beth Coller for Gardenista, from 10 Ways to Bring Nature Home with Sophia Moreno-Bunge.

Lack of light and over-watering likely contributed to root rot, which ultimately ended up killing my first tree. My second chance at happiness with a fiddle leaf fig has been a success largely because I relocated my tree to a sunnier part of our home and I stopped over-watering.

Do you have any other tips for a healthy fiddle leaf fig tree?

For more on fiddle leaf fig trees, be sure to check out our Field Guide: Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree. Plus, see:

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