Yesterday, I posted this email from a reader:

I hope you don’t mind a random email asking for your advice.  You had helped me earlier with my corn plants – several are sprouting new stalks!
I have a Norfolk pine in a fairly small pot that is now about 8 feet high.  During the warm months in Virginia, I put it outside on the back deck.
Soon it will be too tall to bring inside.
Question – I was told that cutting off the top will kill it.  But I don’t have an alternative if it doesn’t fit in the house, other than giving it away and I’ve had no takers so far.
Any ideas?

Many thanks,>>>>

Then I asked how you would’ve responded.

I also told a story about how someone snapped the grow stem off a ten-foot-tall Norfolk at one of my client’s office. Sad day. More about that in a minute.

Let’s see what you had to say:

Steph from Indianapolis wrote, “dun dun dah….I’m setting the DVR right now.”

Martha from Plowing Through Life wrote, “That’s a terrible story! How could someone chop off the top of this lovely plant?!! They do not like being pruned this way. That’s the main growing stem, and once that’s broken, the tree won’t grow from that point. It will start growing sideways and end up looking awkward.I’ve never had to bring this tree down to size (haven’t been that fortunate!), and I’m not entirely sure what needs to be done, but I believe that air layering might be the way to go.Also, I would try to limit the growth by limiting the pot size. Don’t give it too much space, so it doesn’t create more roots and keep on growing! Perhaps some root pruning to discourage it from growing more, as well. Not sure about that last part because I don’t remember if this plant has a sensitive root system. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good idea or not, Liza!

Cass McCain wrote, “It will not kill your Norfolk to prune it back. It may, however, lead to a less symmetrical appearance as the tree forms new leaders. Personally, when I’ve been forced to prune these, I’ve pruned down below eye level to minimize the loss of symmetry. You may be able to root the cutting, but they don’t propagate well this way.”

Ginny Burton, of Burton Optician in DC, wrote, “I don’t suppose you ever found the culprit. Probably not, or you would have wound up in jail for assault. What a perfectly horrid thing to do.

As for the question you were sent, I agree with Martha that keeping it pot bound is the best idea. And maybe keep it inside in the summer to discourage its getting taller. Otherwise, donate it to a nursing home where some patient will love to be in charge of taking care of it. I definitely would not prune it.”

Joseph Brenner wrote, “A friend lopped his a few years back. The tree survived, but attempted to produce several main shoots in place of the one.

I now fully understand the meaning of the word lopsided.

Wow, you guys take my breath away! You’re so good at this!

Here’s my actual response to her:

>>>>Cutting off the top won’t necessarily kill the plant, but it could. Usually, cutting the growing stem distorts the beautiful symmetry of a Norfolk – it will forever grow crookedly after that.
It’s a problem when houseplants get too big for the house. There isn’t much that can be done. You can try cutting it back and hope for the best. Or you can donate it to a church, because more often than not, they have the room and the personnel to care for it. Then you can start over with a small tree and do the whole thing over again.Is that helpful?
Then the reader wrote back,
>>>>”The idea of giving it to a church is a really good one – I’ll start visiting some and asking! thanks so much,>>>>
To which I responded

>>>>Churches are great because they are so big. Make sure they know that if they put the tree in a bigger pot, then it will grow bigger. It seems obvious, but a lot of people don’t anticipate the growth that transplanting brings. It can stay in its current pot as long as they keep adding soil (plants eat their soil over time). Good luck!>>>>

So Martha, we agree on the lopsidedness, we both advised keeping the tree in its current pot. (Their root system isn’t the sturdiest I’ve ever seen.) That’s so cool how you nailed it. And you suggested air layering, which is another great idea.

Cass, I’m so impressed with you as well. I’ve never pruned a Norfolk before, but I will keep your advice in mind when that day happens. Thank you for that!

Ginny, I love how you suggested a nursing home like I suggested a church. I will totally add nursing home to my list when people ask about tall plants, that’s a great idea.

Thanks to you, too, Joseph for your first-hand account of what happens to Norfolks when the growing stem is cut.

Steph, hopefully it was worth the wait.

So what happened to the Norfolk at my client’s office? I was so scared that she would die, but she didn’t. She did exactly what you guys thought she would – she started growing lopsided. She’s still alive today, and healthy, she grew another grow stem out to the side of the damaged stem.

I don’t know who broke the growing stem, and I’m sure I’ll never find out. But I have wondered from time to time if they got it to root. Norfolks tend to be slow growers. There are no easy ways to propagate them, or least none that I’ve heard of or tried. Most experts recommend just starting over with a new plant rather than trying to root a branch or try the air layering that Martha suggested.

I don’t think I’ve ever tried to propagate a Norfolk, but if I were going to make an attempt, it would be the stem in damp vermiculite. I’ve read that it’s not a reliable method – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. One thing that made me so mad about the broken stem was knowing that whoever took it probably wouldn’t have luck rooting it, so it was for naught. Which I would’ve told the culprit if he had asked for a cutting instead of just taking something that did not belong to him. Rude!


I do love me some Norfolks. Here’s Peach in the foyer, a few days after her field trip to the front yard, where she got a spring shower:
Good To Grow, Liza's photos, Peach a Norfolk Island Pine

I’ll try to remember to get a photo of the other Norfolk, the super tall one.

Again, you guys blow my mind with your sophisticated houseplant knowledge. Kudos to you!
I’ll be back tomorrow with an all-new Ask the Experts panel, and a new puzzler. Hope to see you back here.