Ficus, oh ficus

I have a complex relationship with my ficus tree: it's the air conditioner for the house, holds up the tree house and shades half the garden, but it sheds a huge amount. I compost everything except the ficus leaves, which seem to be toxic to seedlings.Is there a toxin in ficus that causes the problem and is there a composting method to make ficus leaves reusable?

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Mar 17, 2017
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by: Caroline

Dear anonymous

I think you do have a complex problem. But you appear to be heading towards a solution, that of acceptance. You have drawn positives out of the tree's presence by building a tree house in its stout branches. I also have a problem with a huge tree that shades most of my garden and makes a racket on the roof in the wind, and nothing grows underneath this tree either. I like yourself have tried to accept the tree and hung a swing in it, which is extremely relaxing and don't we all need that ? I can look up into complex network of branches and ponder at life and existence. I have planted shade loving indigenous plants which all the books say, thrive under thorn trees as Acacias fix Nitrogen, but all the under plantings die, slowly. I read somewhere it is not the shade or the leaf debris but the way the huge tree takes all the water and nutrients out of our poor soil. Nothing in the root circle survives. But you dear reader, distinguish between the leaves and the other debris which has fallen from the tree, and have noticed a tendency which points to the leaf's toxicity. If there is a toxin it is going to be an organic molecule, and it should be broken down by composting. It appears that this is not the case. Did you moulder your leaves in a slow composting pile, or in a hot pile ? I think a tough organic molecule may just be destroyed by heat. Heat up the pile as you build it with lavish sprinklings of Nitrogen, the kind freely available in any home, in the bathroom. Layer the compost with lawn clippings, thinly spread mind you, or they mat, kitchen refuse, and get the pile up to a cubic meter, which is sufficiently large to preserve internal heat, using whatever organic material you can including newspaper. Nitrogen drives the heat in a pile, and hot composting is also a quick process, but it will need to be turned to keep it oxygenated. They say turn every four days, but I am not 'they'. I've read that very hot composting kills all the beneficial organisms, so I turn every two weeks to keep the temperature lower. It is still pretty hot. My aim is to preserve the organisms, and yours will be to destroy molecules. My point is that turning every two weeks still produces a very hot pile. Alternatively the hot pile can be aerated by other means. It can be pierced by perforated plastic pipes, which are laid on the pile as you build it. Perhaps this way you can get it hot enough to break down the organic molecule which kills your other plants. There is also solarizing. Put the leaves in a large plastic bag. You can get huge bags from wholesale textile merchants. Seal the bag and flatten it out in the sun somewhere. It should get pretty hot inside the bag. There is also a cold decomposition process which can reduce all organic matter to methane, it acidifies and then breaks down all organic molecules in stages. It is called anaerobic decomposition or digestion in the energy sector. Cut off the oxygen supply to your pile of leaves. you can put them under water, or in a pile that is constantly saturated with water and covered with plastic, you can keep them damp in sealed refuse bags or you can bury them in a hole and cover them with plastic or deep soil. This process will eventually break down EVERYTHING, proteins, carbohydrates and lipids, into methane, and leave nothing but lignin. However you are not going to go that far, I presume. Or if you do want to you should build a digester and get yourself a biogas cooker. There are mini digesters available in India, I've seen them on the internet. A producer in Cameroon is also one of my facebook friends. He is building large scale but may have some knowledge about making a smaller one. That heating or anaerobic processes will do the trick is just a guess, I will do some research on the toxins in Ficus species and get back to you. If we know what molecule it is it may guide the decomposition strategy. Another path is acceptance of its toxicity and adapting your utilization of the leaves accordingly. You could use them to prevent plant growth intentionally for instance.
Thank you Anonymous for your interesting question. I hope I've been of service to you

Caroline

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