How to Prune Fig Trees

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Common fig (‌Ficus carica‌) is a tree in the mulberry family with large, attractive lobed leaves and delicious, edible fruits. They are fast growers and are deciduous in cooler winter climates while evergreen in climates with warmer winters across USDA plant hardiness zones 7 to 10 (some cultivars are hardy to zone 6), reaching a mature height of up to 30 feet tall and wide. Fig tree pruning is essential both at transplant time and when the tree matures. Transplant pruning is also called training, and its main objective is to encourage the tree to grow upward and outward by establishing scaffold branches and thinning out interfering branches. Pruning fit trees helps a mature tree keep its manageable size, maintains tree vigor, and opens the crown to sunlight and air. Failure to prune a fig tree results in a bushy tree that lacks vigor and produces small figs of inferior quality.

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Pruning figs is not difficult, but it's easier if you get an overview of how to prune fig trees properly before you dive in.

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The Best Time to Prune Fig Trees

Training a fig trees starts at planting time when you must cut back the young tree in order to help form a sound structure of new branches. While the initial trunk cut is made at the time of planting, over the following five years, additional training must be done in the dormant season to create a structure of scaffold branches. Once the first prunings are done and training is finished, mature trees should be pruned annually in late winter or early spring before the new growth begins. Regular pruning maintains tree vigor, shape, and balance and keeps the tree at a manageable size for your home garden.

Training Young Fig Trees

The first year, when you plant the fig tree outdoors for the first time, severe pruning is the order of the day. This is done during the growing season, either in spring or fall. Depending on the size of the tree, cut it back by half or to a height of 2 to 3 feet above the ground when you plant it. This is to start off the fig as a compact tree and to encourage lateral branching. The new shoots that grow near the point of the cut at the base of the tree will form the structural or scaffold branches.

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During the first dormancy, different pruning cuts are required.

  1. Select three or four lateral branches that are evenly distributed around the trunk as the scaffold branches.
  2. Thin out all other lateral fig branches and then trim back the tips of the scaffold limbs some 3 feet from the trunk using your pruners. This encourages secondary branching.

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The idea is to create a strong up-and-outward branch structure from the main trunk and to remove flat, low-growing limbs during its first winter. Repeat this the next year (and for the young fig tree's first few years).

How to Prune Fig Trees as Ornamentals

When it comes to pruning fig trees, you'll have to decide early whether you wish to enjoy the fig tree as the attractive ornamental it can be in the garden or whether the point of the fruit tree is to sprout figs for you.

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Left to its natural growth pattern, the common fig tree is a charming tree for the backyard and can grow to a height and width of 30 feet or so. It offers a spreading habit, attractive foliage, and bears fruit. Look for smooth silver-gray gnarled bark in mature trees and lobed dark green leaves to 10 inches long. The main fruit crop appears in mid- to late summer on new wood, but in some areas, a lesser crop (a "breba" crop) may appear in spring to early summer on new wood.

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If growing figs for you just means having it be an ornamental, minimal pruning is required. Here's what you do when you prune in late winter.

  1. Remove all dead, damaged, and diseased wood. Cut back the dead branches to the trunk with your pruning shears. Remove the diseased and damaged branches by pruning back to an outward-facing bud on healthy wood. Prune out all suckers, too, which are upright stems that grow from the roots or crown of the tree.

  2. Identify crossing branches and remove the weaker branch. Make the cut just outside the branch collar, which is the slightly swollen area where a branch meets the stem or trunk of the tree. Do not leave bare, unproductive stubs since these serve as entry points for wood decay organisms. Make all pruning cuts back to a bud or branch.

  3. Thin out the remaining branches to allow air and sunlight to penetrate into the canopy.

  4. Slightly head back long shoots by making a 40-degree angle cut just above an outward-facing bud. This keeps the tree growing with vigor and maintains the branch balance. If you are growing breba-crop figs, they are produced at the end of the previous year's shoot growth, so you'll want to leave some branches uncut if you want first-crop figs.

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How to Prune Fig Trees for Easy Harvest

Some gardeners install fig trees in their home orchard specifically to bear fruit. The pruning required in this case is very different since the intent is not to create a lovely specimen tree but to maximize the crop and facilitate the harvest. That includes reducing the height of the tree to allow the easy harvest of all figs from ground level. While some of the steps are identical, the primary intent of the pruning is to keep the tree small and compact.

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  1. Remove all dead, diseased, and damaged branches. Cut back the dead branches to the trunk. Remove the diseased and damaged branches by pruning back to an outward-facing bud on healthy wood.
  2. Reduce the height of the tree to 4 feet in late winter or early spring. The new growth will appear on the top of the cut tree, and fruit will result from this growth and be within easy harvest distance.
  3. Thin out the remaining branches to allow air and sunlight to penetrate into the canopy. Head back all of that year's lateral growth, making a diagonal cut just above an outward-facing bud near the main branch. This keeps the tree growing and perpetuates fruit production.
  4. If you are growing breba-crop figs, they are produced at the end of the previous year's shoot growth, so you'll want to leave some branches uncut if you want first-crop figs.

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Need to see the process visually? Watch this video on how to prune a fig tree by Jim Putnam:

How to Prune Fig Trees for Winter Weather

Common fig trees, even the most cold-resistant varieties, only tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. They will suffer from lower temperatures, and branches and even trunks can crack from the cold, causing internal rot to the tree.

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In areas with cold winters, figs are best kept relatively short and can even be grown as fig bushes. If you wish to maintain a tree shape, prune the tree in the same way as for easy harvesting, reducing the height each winter. In addition, mulch them well (6-12 inches with leaves, straw, or other organic materials) and wrap them with burlap, canvas, or row cover to protect them from the wind.

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