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Are Fig "Trees" a Tree or Bush? Which is Better? They Can Be Both!




I’m Ross the Fig Boss and I’ve been educating growers on their fig trees since 2014. Over the years, I’ve been asked this question a lot: They’re called fig trees, but...

Are figs a tree or bush?



The answer is: that the “fig tree” will naturally form a bush. Their natural growth habit is to sucker, which are new shoots that grow from the base of the tree. Unlike other fruit trees, fig trees are usually not grafted. Therefore, their suckers are not from a rootstock. They're identical to the main plant and do not need to be pruned away.

Photographed is a view of the trunks of an old fig tree planted at Buckingham Palace in London, which clearly shows the natural growth habit of a fig tree.


Want a fig tree and not a fig bush?


Select a healthy and vigorous sucker and prune away the rest. To maintain your tree, remove the suckers annually or semi-annually.

Well... Which form is better?

Should you prune fig trees into a bush or a tree?


The answer is: it doesn't necessarily matter!



Fig trees naturally form what’s called a rounded crown, which refers to the canopy of branches at the top of the tree. This is true regardless of whether you prune them into a single-trunk tree or a multi-trunk bush. The difference is in the inevitable height of the tree, its aesthetics, and the advantages in colder growing zones.

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Here's a breakdown of the pros and cons of each form:


Tree Form: Has a single trunk


Pros:


  • Aesthetically Pleasing: Many people find single-trunk trees more visually appealing and elegant.

  • Larger Tree: The higher scaffolds can lead to a larger tree, which often translates to a larger overall harvest.

  • Easier Maintenance: Mowing and general yard maintenance around the tree is easier due to the single trunk.

  • Better Air Circulation: Improved air circulation around the tree can reduce the risk of fungal diseases like rust.



Cons:


  • Harvesting Difficulty: The increased height might necessitate the use of a ladder for harvesting figs.

  • Winter Damage: In cold zones (5-7), the entire tree will have to regrow and start its form over if the trunk is damaged by winter weather.


Bush Form: Has multiple trunks growing from the base



Pros:


  • Easier Harvesting: The lower scaffolds and multiple trunks make harvesting figs more manageable without a ladder.

  • Cold Climate Suitability: Better for cold climates (zones 5-7) because if one trunk dies or is damaged, the bush can continue to grow and produce from the remaining trunks.

  • Bird Protection: Easier to protect the fruit from birds or other critters due to the lower, more accessible canopy.

  • Privacy Screen: Suitable for creating a fruiting privacy screen or hedge.



Pruning & Maintenance


Bush Form:


When choosing the bush form, simply allow healthy shoots to grow from the soil line. It's important to manage the number of trunks at the base to prevent overcrowding, which can lead to poor air circulation and lower productivity. Typically, maintaining 2-4 stems in containers and 5-7 stems in the ground is recommended. 


Each trunk needs to be strategically placed and trained away from each other. Think of the top view of a hexagon with each trunk staked into each corner. That way light can penetrate through the center of your tree and you maximize the given sunlight in your area.

When fig trees get older, their root zones expand. Feel free to increase 5-7 trunks to 8-10. You can even spread the root zone quickly by doing a propagation technique called ground layering, which involves taking one of the trunks, bending it, and securing the tip of the branch below the soil 3-5 ft away from the main rootball. This will speed up the expansion of the root zone, leading to a much larger and more productive fig tree.

Tree Form:



For tree forms, pruning involves forming semi-permanent scaffolds from a single trunk to create a desired shape and manage height. Select a healthy and vigorous sucker and prune away the rest. To maintain your tree, keep on top of the suckers removing them annually or semi-annually.

Similar to the bush form, 5-7 scaffolds are preferred. 3-5 scaffolds for trees growing in containers. 


Here’s more on training fig trees.


The Benefits of Training Fig Trees With The Help of Pinching:



Pinching fig trees during summer encourages them to branch out sooner. This method leads to the formation of new scaffolds in the 1st season rather than the traditional way of pruning fig trees during dormancy to form their scaffolds in the second season. This early formation of scaffolds will result in earlier and more productive fruit sets in the subsequent years.

  • As we discussed earlier, an accelerated formation of the tree's mature shape and form, potentially cutting the development time by a whole growing season.

  • Encourages branching, which can lead to earlier and more fruit formation.

  • With proper application, a small young fig tree can transform its form within a season. 

  • By the second or third season, trees can take on a mature appearance and bear a significant number of fruits. For instance, a two-year-old tree called Martinenca Blanca in a five-gallon pot managed to produce around 65 fruits in 2023.




So, which form should you choose?


That’s up to your preference. The greatest positive to a tree is the larger area the canopy can cover leading to a higher yield over time. Otherwise, the bush form is better for growers with limited space, they are easier to maintain and net, harvest from and they’re better for cold climates. 

You can also espalier your fig tree (train it to grow flat against a wall or fence) to save space or even train it as a low cordon to aid in winter protection.


Espalier Fig Trees



Creating an espalier fig tree involves training the tree to grow flat against a structure, such as a wall or a series of wires. This method maximizes sunlight exposure and air circulation, which is particularly beneficial for figs. 

To begin, plant a young fig tree and let the main trunk grow until the growth is 6-10 inches past your desired height. At this point, top the trunk to encourage the growth of lateral branches or cordons. Allow these cordons to grow for a season, then gently tie them to a support structure to maintain their horizontal orientation. This simple setup promotes strong, healthy growth and simplifies pruning and harvesting.

In the subsequent seasons, focus on maintaining the espalier form by regularly pruning and thinning the branches. It's crucial to ensure proper spacing between the fruiting branches, ideally 8 to 12 inches apart, depending on the variety and light conditions. Thinning is essential to prevent overcrowding, hindering light penetration, and reducing fruit quality


By consistently managing new growth and adjusting branch spacing, you can achieve a highly productive and visually appealing fig tree espalier. This method not only enhances fruit production but also makes the tree easier to care for and harvest, making it an excellent choice for backyard gardeners.


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Fig trees are quite versatile and can indeed be grown as either trees or bushes, depending on the space and care they receive. For those who are into gardening, choosing between a tree or bush form of a fig can depend on your specific needs and the landscape you're working with. If you're looking to monitor your fig trees or bushes more effectively, especially at night or in low light conditions, I highly recommend checking out AGM Global Vision https://www.agmglobalvision.com/. They offer a range of high-quality night vision and thermal imaging devices that can be incredibly useful for keeping an eye on your garden and ensuring your fig plants are thriving no matter the time of day.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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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