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Hortiscope: Jade, ficus and holiday cactus all need light, humidity

Q: How do you get nice, thick stalks on jade plants?

A: Back in the 1970s, an interior plantscape designer noticed that interior plants that were subjected to regular air movement had more flex in the trunk and branches and were thicker and more robust. These stout stems were not subject to flopping over or breakage. Of course, good light was needed as well or else the air movement was not effective.

That's the good news. The bad news is that you can't convert a skinny stem, branch or stalk to a robust one because it has to be trained from the start. To accomplish this with a current jade plant that is too thin and weak to support itself, take cuttings from the end of the branches or just some healthy leaves.

Make sure it has plenty of light from a plant light for 12 continuous hours a day. Run an oscillating fan over it for the same length of time. As the cutting grows, it will develop what is known as stressed cell tissue that is thicker-walled than nonstressed tissue.

This will result in a plant with nice, thick stalks. You also can cut the skinny plant back to a branch or stem on the lower part of the plant and execute the same treatment on the resulting new growth.

Q: I saw your Web site and am wondering if you could answer a question I have about my ficus plant. We bought it from a store. After a few weeks, the leaves started falling off and now there are no leaves left. The branches look dry, but the trunk still looks healthy. Is there hope for the tree?

What do I need to do this winter to keep the plant healthy? How do I take care of it if I live in a place that is mostly cloudy and rainy and dark by 5 p.m. in the fall and winter?

A: Total leaf drop is unusual for a ficus plant that was just purchased. Some drop is to be expected, but not total leaf loss. The fact that the trunk is green would lead me to believe that a good many of the branches are, too, and would indicate that there is a chance the plant will releaf.

Low light will kill the plant eventually, so you need to get a hold of a plant light and put it on a 12-hour timer for it to recover and thrive. Winter care should focus around not overwatering it. Give the plant water when the soil is dry to the touch up to the first knuckle. Never fertilize unless some new growth, not just releafing, is taking place.

Q: I have a big, beautiful Thanksgiving cactus with coral blooms. I saw a big chunk of the plant lying on the floor. I guess it was so heavy it fell out of the pot. I could tell there was still a root attached, so I replanted it. Right now it is droopy, but it is green and it doesn't look like it's going to die. Do you think it will live? Should I be doing something else with it? Thanks for any help you can give me!

A: Thanksgiving cactus is an amazing plant because of its ability to recover. There isn't anything special you can do to accelerate its recovery. Provide normal care, don't overwater and try to give the plant some physical support while it is attempting to re-establish itself. Give it plenty of light, but not direct sunlight. You also can use a plant light.

Check around the base of the plant to see if any rot is starting to develop. If there is, cut it off back to some healthy tissue by a few inches. Allow it to sit in open air on a counter for a couple of days so it will callus over and then plant it in a peat-based potting soil. In fact, to make life easier for this plant, remove some of the pods from the end of the plant and allow the cut end to callus in the air for a couple of days. Insert the pods in the peat media for rooting.

To contact Ron Smith for answers to your questions, write to Ron Smith, NDSU Department of Plant Sciences, Dept. 7670, Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050 or e-mail