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A Comprehensive Guide to Pruning Fig Trees | In Containers, Large in Ground trees, Young Trees & Old

Updated: Jan 18

Are you ready to take your fig tree pruning game to the next level? Proper pruning is the secret weapon of exceptional fruit tree growers. In this blog post, we'll dive into the art of pruning, from setting specific goals to making intentional cuts that will improve the form, fruit quality, and overall health of your tree. Whether you're looking to boost breba production or simply create a healthier tree, we've got you covered. So grab your pruning shears and let's get started!

As always if you want more fig-related content like this, feel free to subscribe to the Fig Boss newsletter at the top of the page.

Key Takeaways

Recently I published a longer-form video on the topic. I hope you'll indulge. It's well worth the watch and is a different perspective from my words below. I highly recommend that you give it a watch.

Tools for Pruning Fig Trees:

Having the right tools when pruning fig trees is crucial for achieving the desired results. Using tools that are not appropriately sized for the job can make pruning more difficult and time-consuming. The tools below are perfectly sized for any job and I would suggest investing in quality pruning tools that can save time, money, and effort in the long run. These are the best in the industry.

Let's start by breaking pruning into a couple of categories based on what it is you want for your tree: Size Control, Health, Production & Form

Pruning fig trees for better health:

I wanted to start with health because similar to ourselves, health IS wealth. If your tree isn't healthy, it's not going to perform the way it should and the longer you wait to improve the health of your tree, the more you're missing out on a better fig experience. It's better to rip the bandage off quickly rather than slowly, am I right?

When I speak about the health of our fig trees, I am mainly concerned with Fig Mosaic Virus (FMV). Of course, we want to remove damaged or dead wood, but also diseased! FMV is found in the overwhelming majority of fig trees and can express itself in quite a range of intense to very mild or even completely unnoticeable symptoms.

If you ask experienced fig growers, they'll tell you that FMV is not an issue worth worrying about because eventually, the tree will outgrow the virus. My viewpoint is that if the virus is at a certain level of intensity (which I know is quite vague), it will hinder the variety over its entire lifetime and the tree will never live up to what its genetic code says that variety is capable of.

Fortunately, the intensity of the virus can be lessened and is often visible at the very beginning of a fig tree's life. It can and should be corrected then.

What I've come to realize is that every bud on a fig tree has differing levels of FMV. This is partly why when propagating figs from cutting, it's not uncommon to have some rooted cuttings from the same Mother tree behave strangely. You could root 100 cuttings of any variety and a good percentage of them won't behave like the Mother tree yet they should be completely identical.

Removing these unhealthy buds is how you can solve the issue, but usually, there is a weak point in the tree. This is where unhealthy buds grew and were never pruned to remove the heavily infected parts of the tree and so the tree tried to outgrow it.

With a trained eye, you can learn to recognize the growth that isn't healthy. Usually, it's found in older wood. For many of us, that's the trunk of the tree, one of the trunks, or one of the scaffolds. To fix this weakness, a technique called rejuvenation pruning is critical. I talk about this technique and its history here:

Rejuvenation pruning is simply a way of removing the growth that's heavily infected to encourage new and healthy shoots in its place.

Hard pruning a fig tree changes the hormones in our trees and encourages them to put out very healthy and vigorous growth from new and healthier buds from a lower point of the tree. This can be performed either in the winter or summer.

Traditionally, this technique was performed on very old trees. They would cut the tree down even to below soil level and excavate some soil away to encourage adventitious buds to form and grow from the roots. When these shoots grow, you'd never even know that the tree has FMV within. One or several healthy vigorous shoots are selected and those become the new trunk(s) of the tree.

From this point, the tree has a good base to work from. There's no weak point anymore and there's nothing to outgrow. The variety will perform the way it should. This is why I use this technique on even young-rooted fig cuttings. After the first growing season, they're typically rooted out enough to be able to hard prune them when necessary. This sacrifice of weak unhealthy growth early on pays in dividends later.

The video below discusses rejuvenation pruning in an up close and personal view:

Pruning fig trees for proper form:

When thinking of the formation of your fig tree, it's important to complete this task in as little cuts and time as possible. First, think about whether you'd like to establish either a tree or a bush. In cold climates, trees that are planted in the ground and are shaped as "trees" are very difficult to maintain because they're usually too difficult to wrap or protect.

For those in warm zone 7's or higher and with the right variety, you can succeed with a tree form (without protection). The fig tree wants to naturally turn into a bush, so if that's the route you choose, just know that you'll be fighting the tree's urge to naturally want to sucker.

Given the appropriate amount of light, I see no disadvantage to either form, but in colder climates where winter protection is necessary, it is a disadvantage to have a tree form. With a tree, the size of the tree will simply be taller because the scaffolds of the tree start at a higher height. At the desired height you should top it and form the semi-permanent scaffolds, but in a bush form, the trunks at the soil level are the scaffolds.

Pruning a fig tree bush:

This one is pretty simple. It's really about realizing that the trunks from the base can often get too numerous. These are the permanent scaffolds of your tree and so if you have too many scaffolds, your canopy is inevitably going to be too dense and fruit set will become an issue.

For containers, I would recommend 2-4 trunks depending on the pot size. When they're planted in the ground, 4-6 trunks are what you should be aiming for.

For more information on pruning fig trees in containers, see this in-depth and container-specific post here:

If you're densely planting fig trees like the plots I have with trees 2-3ft planted on-center, no more than 4 trunks are suitable. Each trunk can be topped at the desired height to form more branching and to determine size.

For more on high-density fig plantings, see my video below:

Two common methods of tree formation:

Method #1
1st year from cutting: The fig tree is grown out as a single-stem whip for the entire length of the growing season. During that winter, a cut is made along the whip at the desired height.

2nd year: The tree wakes up from dormancy and then 3-5 permanent scaffolds are formed.

3rd year: Heavy fruit set is reached.

Method #2
1st year from cutting: The fig tree is grown out as a single-stem whip or a bush. During the summer when the branches are showing strong growth and have formed large & appropriate sized leaves, those particular branches are topped. After topping we continue watering and fertilizer to encourage permanent scaffolds to form. It may be appropriate to tip the scaffolds to form more branching on those scaffolds.

Please note that heavy fruit set after topping will not yield the desired growth. It may be worthwhile to remove some fruits after topping so that there is a surplus of energy for the tree to continue growing.

2nd year: The tree has already formed 2-5 permanent scaffolds in the first year. Very minimal winter pruning was performed if any. The scaffolds should be staked and now a heavy fruit set is reached.

Below on the left is a photo of a tree that was topped in the summer and has just finished its first growing season. It formed 5 scaffolds. 3 of them grew stronger and 2 of them did not because of a lack of dominance. No staking was performed yet, but the 3 that have shown strong growth will be staked away from each other and bent to roughly a 30-degree angle to allow the other 2 scaffolds to gain some dominance next season and to maximize photosynthesis.

In the right photo is a fig tree at the end of its second growing season. In the first season, it was a strong single-stem whip that was winter pruned to the desired height. 5 scaffolds were formed and staked to maximize photosynthesis.

Check out the video below for an up close and personal view of fig tree formation:

Pruning fig trees as a cordon or espalier:

Figs can also be trained as a cordon. This is also a great form because a cordon system is one of the easiest and best ways to maximize photosynthesis and that is the most important consideration when thinking about form or pruning your fig tree. Which form will maximize the sunlight your tree can reach?

When training a cordon, 1-3 arms are typically formed at a low height. Similar to method #2 which is discussed above, the tree is grown as a single-stem whip and is topped at the desired height in the summer. This will encourage the arms to form, but depending on the desired length of your arms, it's best to wait until they reach the desired length before tying them down to wiring or a trellis.

After tying the arms in the 2nd or 3rd year, topping the arms is recommended. This will encourage new vertical shoots to form along the arms. The most common practice is to bring those vertical shoots back every season to what are called spurs along the arms. Or 1-4 inches away from the arm leaving enough buds for regrowth at those locations the following year.

The vertical shoots should be spaced roughly 8-14 inches apart. This is critical for attaining the sunlight required to set the fruit buds. I don't recommend this form to everyone. I think it's a great learning experience, but because you have to heavily prune your tree every year, it can come with huge downsides that are discussed in the production section below.

Cordons and espaliers are great for size control and they're beautiful, the fruit size will be larger, but the fruit quality will be lower in humid places. They are also great for very experienced growers, commercial growers, or growers looking to save space. It's not recommended for containers.

Pruning fig trees for main crop production:

Pruning for maximum production (main crop figs formed on the new growth) is about having the right form and a healthy tree first and foremost. Once you're maximizing sunlight through proper form, production is regulated by hormones within the fig tree.

Every tree and plant has hormones. Just like us as humans. Every bud on a fig tree has a different hormonal component, carbohydrates stored within, and even varying levels of fig mosaic virus.

The hormonal component can be observed quite clearly. Suckers for example grow from the base of the tree and have a very hard time fruiting because their hormones are out of balance. These shoots love to grow and even in one season, they can reach 10-15 ft from the soil level.

The new growth from the apical buds acts oppositely. They grow much slower, fruit heavily and the fruit on that new growth forms easier and earlier. A similar statement could be made about the lateral buds. These are the buds just below the apical bud. They have fewer carbohydrates stored within than the apical buds, but they still retain the right hormonal balance.

In the winter, if you were to prune the apical bud but also all of the lateral buds, you will have a much more difficult time seeing fruit the following year. Why? Because all that's left on that particular branch are what you could call vegetative buds.

It is of course possible in higher light locations and with the right variety to see the desired fruit set from these vegetative buds, but the "vegetative" buds below the apical and lateral buds have a more difficult time producing fruit the following year.

Therefore production is a two-fold problem. It's about maximizing photosynthesis while also pruning for hormonal balance.

Like most things, however, it's never just 1's and 0's. There's always nuance, but as a general rule of thumb, more pruning will result in fewer fruits if your new growth of the growing season is only from vegetative buds or suckers.

Some growers may argue that when you prune heavily, you'll see more growth the following year and therefore you'll see more fruits. Theoretically, this makes sense. The more leaves you see the following year, the potential for more main crop figs. Their thought process is based around changing the hormones in our trees as well.

We as growers can change the hormones in our plants with pruning. Not just in fig trees, but in other plants as well. Winter pruning encourages strong growth the following season, while summer pruning has the opposite effect. Instead of mostly encouraging growth, the hormones tip in the favor of fruiting.

Their thought process is somewhat inaccurate because the benefit of strong growth the following season due to winter pruning can be achieved by simply removing the growing tips or apical buds. You don't need to remove all of the apical AND lateral buds to see this benefit.

Additionally, the vegetative buds can have a more difficult or easier time fruiting depending on the variety that you're growing and some varieties (or specific trees within that variety) don't respond by growing much at all after a hard pruning.

This is why cordons can and will work, but are not my recommendation for the average fig grower. The same is said for chopping your tree back to 3 or 4 ft every winter and then allowing it to regrow. I believe that a lot of growers choose these methods because they are a simple way to control the size of your tree.

It's also just a simple way to approach pruning, but in the majority of situations these methods are inferior. You can have your cake and eat it too. In the final section of this blog post, you'll see how you can control the size of your tree while also preserving a lot of the apical and lateral buds.

Pruning for Size Control & Breba Production:

This section of pruning fig trees is all about recycling older wood with younger wood to control the size of your fig tree or to increase breba production. Brebas are the figs that form on last year's growth, so if you want breba figs, pruning heavily will remove all of the fruiting buds for next season. Therefore, it is critical for both goals of pruning to figure out a way to recycle new and old wood on your trees.

To control the size of our fig trees, we must be recycling scaffolds. Remove the tallest and densest scaffolds and make sure there is a young scaffold that's available to eventually replace the one that was removed. The scaffolds are permanent or in this case, semi-permanent branches coming from the main trunk of our trees.

If we have a bush form, the scaffolds are the trunks that come from the base of the tree from the soil line. Therefore, our cuts when controlling size are not focused on the top of the tree, but instead, we're focusing on the inside of the tree at a much lower point.

You can get very detailed if you'd like at the top of our trees, but the best way to accomplish this recycling process is to just remove a scaffold entirely. Remember, doing a lot of pruning is not recommended as you will typically lose out on production the following year, but if you have to control the size, this is necessary and is just part of maintaining a long-lived healthy fig tree.

This recycling or renewal process not only impacts health (because it's a form of rejuvenation pruning), but it also impacts the hormones to encourage growth on trees that are old enough to benefit from that newfound vigor.

In terms of breba production, you must also recycle older wood with new wood, but the scaffolds stay. The permanent structure needs to be permanent. It is the fruiting branches on those scaffolds or arms that get recycled instead. Remove the 2 or 3-year-old shoots every year and you'll see the desired success of getting a great fruit set while also controlling the size and renewing the continued vigor and health of your tree.

Summer Pruning Applications:

I hope you've learned something from this comprehensive blog post! Check out a prior blog post of mine regarding summer pruning fig trees that can be found here.

Summer pruning aka pinching is once again a way to influence the fig tree's hormones. By removing the apical bud during the growing season, you can help your fig tree fruit, allow it to branch out at that location, and even increase production.

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1 Comment

If I want to pinch the apical bud in the summer from my first year tree to form the location where scaffolds will begin, do I have to remove only the bud, or can I cut down from that main stem a few leaf nodes to make it a shorter tree, and still expect to get scaffolds from the cut point, as long as it's above a node?

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I'm Ross, the "Fig Boss." A YouTuber educating the world on the wonderful passion of growing fig trees. Apply my experiences to your own fig journey to grow the best tasting food possible.
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