Fig Tree Size Matters: The Beauty of Dwarf Fig Trees & Taming the Growth of any Fig Tree
Updated: Jun 26
Fig Tree Size
Well before we begin, I have to be the bearer of bad news. 95% of the information you’ve read about fig trees on the internet is incorrect and even worse it’s constantly regurgitated. That’s why I created this blog. The information you’ll find on fig trees is grossly irresponsible.
A question I commonly get from beginners is, so… how large do fig trees get anyway?
Fig trees can reach 40-70 ft tall, but that doesn’t mean they will. Reaching those heights would take many years of growing the right fig variety in the perfect situation. There are so many factors influencing any tree’s inevitable size and so for the overwhelming majority of us, fig trees will top out at around 20 ft and be almost equally as wide.
However, every experienced grower of perennial fruiting plants knows you can learn to control the size of whatever you’re growing. Even a 20 ft high tree for most of us is not a welcomed number that new fig growers want to hear.
Just think about how much more difficult it becomes to prune, harvest, or net a large tree.
That’s why in this article, I am going to discuss exactly how you can keep your fig tree small or a manageable size, what varieties of figs are dwarf and don’t require annual pruning, and I’ll provide more context on the overall size of a fig tree.
Dwarf Fig Trees
In the world of fruit trees, there are 3 sizes of trees. Standard, Semi-dwarf, & dwarf. As you might expect, standard-size fig trees grow quickly. These are the varieties of figs (vigor is determined by their genetics) that can reach 40-70 feet tall and unfortunately, most fig varieties fall into this category. In fact, fig trees are one of the fastest-growing fruit trees. Therefore finding a dwarf fig variety that doesn’t require annual, limited, or no pruning at all is quite rare.
How do we define a dwarf fig tree?
Dwarf fig trees are slower growing and produce wood that has a thinner diameter than others. They also have tighter node spacing, require little or no pruning, produce smaller leaves, and fruits, and might also be more inclined to grow outwards more than upwards. Typically, dwarf fig trees top out at 6x6 or 8x8 ft.
Here are some dwarf or not-so-dwarf fig varieties:
Little Ruby - Little Ruby is a seedling of Hardy Chicago. It’s become one of my favorite figs for its short hang time and fruits that taste like dried figs. It’s truly a dwarf fig tree that won’t get much taller than 6-8 ft. Even without annual pruning.
Little Miss Figgy - Little Miss Figgy is a mutation of Violette de Bordeaux also known as Majoam. Frequently, branches or single buds located on a fig tree will mutate. In fact, I would argue that every bud on a fig tree is slightly different than another. How crazy is that? Sometimes these buds can mutate more than expected and will display very different characteristics than the Mother tree. In this case, the Mother tree is Violette de Bordeaux, which is one of the most well-studied fig varieties that you can commonly find today.
However, If you research Violette de Bordeaux outside of this blog, you’ll see that Violette de Bordeaux and its synonyms are frequently thought of as dwarf fig trees. This is incorrect. Their vigor is about average or even slightly above average. I certainly would not categorize them as dwarf. In my limited experience with Little Miss Figgy, it’s not much different than Violette de Bordeaux, however, Little Miss Figgy could be slower growing like advertised, but you should instead select to grow a superior-tasting strain of Violette de Bordeaux like Nero 600m or even Violette de Bordeaux itself.
Fignomenal - This is a newly patented variety and is another mutation and instead stems from Hardy Chicago, not Violette de Bordeaux. Its growth rate could be slower, but whether it classifies as a dwarf fig tree remains uncertain. I can’t recommend growing Fignomenal until it proves to provide a superior eating experience compared to other Hardy Chicago figs.
Hardy Chicago like other “types” of figs are diverse in terms of flavor and eating experience. Think of the mutation that occurred to change Fignomenal or Little Miss Figgy into a slower grower. The same thing happens with the eating experience. That’s why finding the right source or strain makes all the difference. I'd advise selecting a Hardy Chicago variant with a high flavor reputation, such as Conde, Azores Dark, Malta Black, St. Rita, Crozes, Red Lebanese Bekaa Valley, or Norella.
To read more about mutations, synonyms, and types of figs, check out this detailed article, here:
Nerucciolo d’Elba & Verdino del Nord (VR) - These are both dwarf Italian heirloom fig varieties, and were not bred like Little Ruby was or are patented mutations like the others. They were selected for their superior qualities and preserved and spread throughout the world over time naturally.
I was lucky enough to be one of the first growers to grow them in the United States and it didn’t take me long to recognize their special attributes that are suited for humid climates. They both have short hang times and a fantastic ability to dry. Both of which lead to superior and consistent fruit quality when grown in humid places. Having said all of this, I would argue their dwarf classification is actually their worst quality, but nonetheless, if you want a dwarf fig tree, these two are in a class of their own.
Are Dwarf Fig Trees Prefered?
Contrary to what a lot of new fig growers think, owning a dwarf fig tree is not a necessity nor is it my preference. Though they don't demand extensive knowledge on pruning, their dwarf characteristics can make establishment more challenging. Especially for new growers.
Do I Need a Dwarf Fig Tree for Container Cultivation?
Fig trees flourish as container plants, with their success not being contingent on their vigor. The size of your chosen container and your training techniques will guide the eventual size of the tree. Since containers inherently limit root growth and the supply of water and nutrients, they naturally control the tree's size, negating the need for a dwarf fig tree.
While some might argue that dwarf fig trees in containers entail less root pruning, if this is a key concern, consider opting for grow bags or fabric pots which perform air-pruning of roots.
I would aruge, when it comes to container cultivation, standard or semi-dwarf fig varieties may be more beneficial than dwarf ones. Dwarf fig trees can prove more challenging to establish due to their weaker root systems. They also tend to mature later, producing inferior fruit in their early years, are more susceptible to root rot, and in general, their performance in containers can be subpar.
To counter these issues, grafting dwarf fig varieties onto robust, vigorous rootstock is usually my recommendation for those growing in pots or containers.
The video below will give you critical and helpful tips for establishing fig trees in containers:
If there isn’t much value in dwarf fig trees, how do I learn how to control the size of my fig tree so that I don’t need one of the few varieties mentioned earlier in the article? Continue reading to find out how:
The Challenge of Fig Tree Size Control
You might be thinking to control the size of a fig tree, pruning would be the best option. After all, pruning limbs are literally decreasing the size of your tree.
However, pruning poses its own set of problems when it comes to fig trees. Unlike other trees that respond well to a simple lopping off of the top branches, fig trees respond to this same treatment by growing back even more robustly, possibly even reaching greater heights than before. This counterintuitive response to pruning can often leave the well-intentioned gardener feeling both frustrated and stumped.
So how does one strike the perfect balance? How do you keep a fig tree small and manageable, without compromising its fruiting potential? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of the fig tree's growth, particularly in the hormones governing its growth rate and fruit production. We'll explore this fascinating science in the following section, offering insights into how you can maintain control over your fig tree's size without sacrificing its fruit yield.
Understanding the Science Behind Fig Tree Growth
Managing the size of a fig tree is more than a physical task; it's a lesson in plant biology. The secret lies in understanding the hormones of your tree and the role they play in dictating growth and fruit production. This knowledge can guide you to effectively regulate your fig tree's growth without hindering its capacity to bear fruit.
The fig tree's rapid growth and fruit production are regulated by a delicate balance of hormones within the tree. One crucial element to comprehend is the hormonal relationship between the buds at the top of the tree, known as the apical and lateral buds, and those closer to the base. This is because different buds in different areas of the tree exhibit distinct behaviors.
The buds at the top of the tree, due to their hormonal balance, are better equipped to bear fruit and grow at a slower rate. Conversely, the lower buds tend towards more vegetative growth, often shooting up rapidly and putting more energy into growing leaves and branches rather than developing fruit. This divergence in behavior stems from the tree's hormonal architecture.
You can identify whether your fig tree is hormonally balanced by observing the distance between the nodes or the distance between where the leaf stems attach to the branches. A hormonally balanced tree will have closer nodes and leaves, indicating that the tree is likely to produce more fruit and grow at a slower pace. On the contrary, if you see a lot of space between leaves or nodes, it's a sign that your tree is out of hormonal balance, favoring growth over fruiting.
Winter pruning, often practiced to control the size of trees, can upset this balance in fig trees. When we prune the top branches of the fig tree during winter, we unwittingly promote vigorous growth for the following year. This is because pruning removes the top buds, which are inclined to fruit and grow slowly, leaving the more growth-oriented lower buds to take over. As a result, pruning in the wrong way or at the wrong time can lead to the very growth spurt we're trying to avoid.
The challenge, therefore, is to prune the tree in a way that maintains the right hormonal balance, allowing for controlled growth while also encouraging fruit production. In the next section, we'll delve into practical strategies for achieving this balance, helping you to maintain a manageable, yet productive, fig tree.
Fig Tree Pruning: How to Control Size While Ensuring Fruit Production
Fig tree pruning is an art as much as it is a science. If done correctly, it can help you maintain your tree at a manageable size while ensuring plentiful fruit production. However, it's crucial to understand how to prune appropriately to avoid stimulating excessive growth at the expense of fruiting.
Avoid Excessive Winter Pruning: Fig trees respond to winter pruning by entering a growth phase the following year. This growth is often more vigorous than usual, leading to an overly large tree that may not produce much fruit. Avoid this by refraining from winter pruning.
Recycle Wood Through Pruning: The best way to control the size of your fig tree while ensuring fruit production is to use a recycling practice. Essentially, this involves removing entire scaffolds or trunks from the base of the tree. By doing so, you're not just removing the buds at the top of the tree that are in a hormonal balance favorable to fruiting but also eliminating the vegetative buds lower down, which would otherwise encourage rapid growth.
Select and Encourage New Growth: After you've pruned away an old scaffold or trunk, new growth will spring up from the base of the tree. You can allow this new growth to take the place of the old trunk or scaffold, ensuring your tree stays at a manageable size while continuing to produce fruit.
The Scaffolding Technique for Smaller Trees: If you prefer a smaller tree and you’re growing a fig tree, not a fig bush, you could opt to encourage your fig tree to develop scaffolds at a lower height. These scaffolds are the permanent branches that stem from the main trunk. If the scaffolds form at a lower height, your tree will naturally be smaller.
The most important thing to remember about pruning is to work with the tree's natural tendencies and not against them. Understand the hormonal balance of your fig tree and adjust your pruning strategy accordingly. Pruning a fig tree for size control doesn't mean simply chopping off the top—this often results in the tree growing even larger. Instead, make your cuts thoughtfully, considering the long-term health and balance of the tree.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are fig trees better in pots or ground?
A: Both methods have their pros and cons. Potted fig trees can be easier to manage in terms of size, as the pot restricts the root growth which, in turn, controls the size of the tree. Moreover, pots allow for greater control over soil conditions and make it easier to move the tree indoors during colder months in temperate climates. However, fig trees in the ground can become larger and more productive, given they have more space to grow and access to nutrients. This decision largely depends on your available space, climate, and personal preference.
Q: What is the width of a fig tree?
A: Fig trees can spread out quite extensively if given the room to grow, typically equal to their height. However, with regular pruning, the spread of a fig tree can be controlled to a more manageable size of 6 to 10 ft.
Q: How much space does a fig tree need?
A: Space your fig trees at the distance in which you will allow them to grow. A fig tree, when grown in the ground, can reach a size of 15 to 30 feet both in height and spread if left unchecked. However, with careful pruning, they can be maintained at a size of 6 to 10 feet.
Q: What not to plant with fig trees?
A: Fig trees have a wide, shallow root system that competes for nutrients and water. Therefore, it's generally best to avoid planting other trees or large shrubs nearby that would compete for the same resources. Remove any other competition like weeds and grasses where possible.
Q: Do you need two fig trees to get fruit?
A: No, you do not need two fig trees to get fruit. Fig trees are self-fertile, meaning they can produce fruit on their own without needing another tree for pollination. However, certain fig varieties that are classified as San Pedro or Symrna, can benefit from a specific wasp species for pollination.