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Shaping Fig Trees for Seriously Improved Fig Cultivation

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

The Quick & Dirty of the Article

Why Training Fig Trees is so Damn Important

Training fig trees is fundamental for their long-term growth and successful fruit production. Properly trained trees tend to yield fruits more easily, offer higher fruit quality, and promise continuous future fruit production. The primary purpose of training is to optimize the tree's form for maximal sunlight exposure, which directly impacts fruit set and quality. By carefully shaping the tree's structure through strategic pruning, staking, and topping, you encourage balanced growth and optimal fruit production.

In today’s article, I want to focus on staking. Out of the three options of training mentioned above, staking is by far the most important tool.

For a detailed guide on training fig trees, check out this article, here:
For a detailed guide on topping fig trees, check out this article, here:

Shaping Fig Trees with Stakes & Limb Spreaders

Staking fig trees is a useful technique to maximize light penetration and improve fruit production. By staking your tree’s scaffolds during the training process on a 25-50 degree horizontal angle, you can open up the tree and create more space for the tree to grow. This allows more light to reach the new growth on all points of the fig tree, increasing the chances for the main crop fruit buds to form.

As I’ve discussed many times on this blog, every fig tree has a specific sunlight requirement needed to form its main crop fruit buds. As the tree grows the fruit buds will form if the fig varieties’ sunlight intensity and duration requirement is met.

To learn more about the importance of sunlight, click here:

Additionally, a common challenge that fig growers may face, and is often overlooked, is the issue of insufficient sunlight leading to figs dropping prematurely. Sunlight plays a significant role in the process of photosynthesis, which is crucial for the development and ripening of the figs. If a fig tree does not receive adequate sunlight, the figs may drop before they have had a chance to fully develop and ripen.

One clear case of this effect can be seen in the variety 'St. Martin'. Known for its hardiness, the St. Martin fig variety has exhibited a surprising characteristic.

St. Martin fig trees can set fruit even with a reduced amount of sunlight. This trait makes it seem like a highly productive variety, but herein lies the catch. When densely planted along with other trees, it is common for St. Martin trees to experience a lot of shade, particularly lower on the canopy. This lack of light eventually leads to the dropping of its figs.

This fig dropping, often experienced with not just the St. Martin fig variety but also in other varieties like Celeste and Pastiliere, is not due to some inherent property of the fig itself. Contrary to some theories, I believe it's not related to whether or not the fig variety is a Smyrna, is Common, or if it is partially parthenocarpic as some have claimed. It's the direct result of a lack of sunlight.

This phenomenon is demonstrated in this video:

And lastly, staking is particularly useful for branches that are situated in strange places or in areas where they would shade out other branches, causing lower fruit yields.

I think we can all agree now how important this topic actually is. In fact, I would argue it’s the most important topic you can learn on this blog to become a better grower of fig trees.

Tools for the Job of Training Fig Trees

Bamboo stakes stand out as an extremely cost-effective solution for training and supporting plants, particularly young fig trees. Their appeal lies in their strength, lightweight, and affordability. While the initial investment is relatively low, these stakes are also reusable and have a long lifespan if stored and cared for properly. Bamboo is naturally rot-resistant, meaning it can withstand moisture and adverse weather conditions, reducing the frequency of replacement.

However, for larger and more mature fig trees, bamboo stakes might not provide the necessary strength and durability. Thus, while highly cost-effective for younger plants, bamboo stakes may necessitate the use of additional or alternate support systems as trees grow.

Limb spreaders, on the other hand, offer a specialized approach to training tree branches. While they may be a little more expensive than bamboo stakes, they are instrumental in shaping the growth of a tree and encouraging better fruit yield. Limb spreaders work by gently forcing branches to grow outward rather than upward, increasing air circulation and sun exposure.

Like bamboo stakes, these tools are reusable and durable, making them a solid long-term investment.

One such alternative is a trellis system. Trellising fig trees can offer support for the branches, helping them maintain the desired shape and direction. This system is especially useful for espaliered fig trees, which are trained to grow flat against a wall or fence and are usually trained along wires. While trellises can be more costly than bamboo stakes, they can provide more structural support for larger or heavier branches.

Shaping Fig Trees into an Espalier: Training Figs as a Cordon

Espalier is a fascinating horticultural technique that involves shaping trees or shrubs by pruning and tying their branches to a frame. This method can turn a fig tree into a living work of art that not only maximizes sunlight exposure for enhanced photosynthesis but also serves as a unique decorative element in your garden.

Figs can indeed be trained as a low cordon or espalier. A low cordon system is one of the most effective ways to maximize photosynthesis, which is the primary consideration when thinking about pruning your fig tree or shaping its form. The main question you should ask yourself is: which form will maximize the sunlight my tree can receive?

To train a low cordon, typically, 1-3 arms are formed at a low height. This method is similar to training a single-stem whip, where the tree is grown as a single stem and is then topped at the desired height during the summer. This topping stimulates the formation of lateral branches or "arms." Depending on your desired arm length, it's recommended to let these arms grow to the required length before tying them down to wiring or a trellis.

By the 2nd or 3rd year, when you've tied the arms, I recommend topping them. Topping the arms encourages the formation of new vertical shoots along the arms. In the dormant season, a common practice is to prune these vertical shoots back to what are called spurs, which are short stubs left after the previous season's growth, approximately 1-4 inches away from the arm, leaving enough buds for regrowth the following growing season.

Ensure that the vertical shoots are spaced roughly 8-14 inches apart. This spacing is critical for allowing sufficient sunlight exposure, which is required to set fruit buds.

However, training a fig tree into a low cordon isn't for everyone. While it is an excellent learning experience, the heavy pruning required each year can have potential downsides, particularly concerning fruit production.

An alternative method to spur pruning can be used when growing fans, Belgian fences, or 3-tiered cordons. This approach aligns with a concept I've repeatedly emphasized in previous blog posts: minimizing pruning. Rather than resorting to heading cuts, which is the essence of spur pruning, adopt a strategy of making thinning cuts instead.

This methodology allows the fig tree to preserve its apical and lateral buds year after year. As a result, your tree can maintain a state of hormonal balance that promotes slow growth and heavy fruiting. This pruning technique, focusing more on thinning and less on the severe shortening of branches, is a more gentle way of shaping your fig tree without sacrificing its fruiting potential.

For more on pruning fig trees, check out this detailed article, here:

Comparing Staking to Pruning when Training Fig Trees

When it comes to shaping fig trees, growers often debate between staking and pruning. While pruning is a common technique, staking I would argue is more effective at maximizing light penetration into the tree. It’s also a more consistent practice with predictable results.

For example, after pruning fig trees don't always respond in the exact way we expect them to.

However, some growers argue that pruning is necessary to shape our fig trees properly. I would argue the opposite.

By topping a fig tree with good timing during the summer, you can allow your tree to reach the proper form a whole year earlier than the traditional method of training that expects pruning the top of the main trunk(s) of a fig tree to the desired height after the first growing season. Using this alternative training method that I’ve covered in detail in video form and also on the Fig Boss blog, I would argue that pruning fig trees can be diminished to almost zero. Especially when training young fig trees into their desired shape.

Pruning is for bigger jobs like size control and for improving the health of our trees through rejuvenation pruning.

To read about size control, check out this article, here:
To read about rejuvenation pruning, check out this article, here:

Ultimately, there are different approaches to training fig trees, and each grower should choose the method that works best for their circumstances and climate. While staking is more effective than pruning, it's important to consider individual circumstances and the tree's hormonal balance when making the decision. Proper training helps maximize light exposure, encourages better fruit production, and improves overall tree health, regardless of the specific method used.

The Importance of Size Control

One of the most frequent errors pertains to size control and the height at which scaffolds or main branches are formed.

Many growers, especially those new to fig cultivation, often allow their fig trees to grow unchecked in the first few years. They may form the scaffolds or primary branches at a high height, thinking that a larger tree will yield more fruit. While this might be true in the short term, forming scaffolds at a high height often leads to larger, less manageable trees in the long run.

Allowing your fig tree to grow too large can create a host of challenges. Firstly, a tall fig tree might become difficult to maintain and harvest from, particularly for home growers who lack specialized equipment. Pruning, netting, harvesting, and other maintenance tasks can become more difficult and time-consuming.

Instead of allowing your fig trees to grow unchecked, it's best to start thinking about size control early in the tree's life. Decide on an optimal height for your fig trees that balances productivity with manageability. As a rule of thumb, most home growers find that maintaining their fig trees at a height of 6-10 feet allows for easy maintenance and good fruit production.

Forming the scaffolds at a lower height also has several advantages. It creates a more open and accessible canopy that improves sunlight penetration and air circulation, enhancing overall tree health and productivity. Additionally, it makes maintenance tasks like pruning, spraying, and harvesting much easier and safer.

Recognizing Shaded Areas and Strategic Placement of Trees

It's important for fig growers to recognize and strategically manage shaded areas within their growing space. Shaded spots can significantly hamper fruit production by reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the tree, which directly influences photosynthesis and fruit set. Thus, keen observation of your garden's microclimate and effective planning is crucial for ensuring all your fig trees receive sufficient sunlight.

Consider rearranging your container fig trees if some are located in shaded areas. Remember, maximizing light exposure is essential for fruit production. Sometimes, simply repositioning a tree can make a notable difference in its sunlight exposure leading to fruit set on a stubborn tree. Additionally, the strategic use of stakes or limb spreaders can also improve sunlight exposure and fruit set, by opening up the tree's canopy to allow more light penetration.

As I’ve discussed earlier in the blog post, a specific sunlight duration, and intensity must be met for each fig tree as they grow. Otherwise, they won’t produce fruits. It’s also important to realize that we cannot go back in time to produce fruits lower on the new growth. We as fig growers can only move forward and meet the sunlight requirement as the tree continues to grow where new fruits can form.

If your fig tree isn’t fruiting, read about the 4 reasons why your fig tree isn’t fruiting, here:

If relocation isn't an option due to space constraints or tree maturity, consider using reflective surfaces, like garden mirrors or white surfaces, to reflect more light onto the shaded tree. It may not entirely resolve the problem, but it can be a useful supplementary strategy to increase light exposure.

Practicing Continuous Training and Regular Fine-Tuning

Consistency is key in fig tree training. Regular and continuous training maintains the tree's form and productivity as it continues to grow. It's not a one-time process but an ongoing practice that evolves as your tree develops. Every year I evaluate every fig tree I am growing. Whether it’s in a container or whether the fig tree is planted in the ground, each tree is evaluated in terms of the sunlight it reaches.

Understanding Fig Varieties: Individual Growth Patterns and Training Needs

Fig trees exhibit a great deal of diversity in their growth habits. Understanding these patterns is essential for successful cultivation as every fig tree and variety grows differently, and hence, their training needs vary.

Certain fig varieties exhibit a more erect growth habit. They naturally grow upward with a strong central leader and vertical branches. This upright growth habit can often lead to a dense canopy and limited light penetration, which can adversely affect fruit production. These erect varieties typically require more intensive training to maximize sunlight exposure and encourage fruitful growth. Staking, pruning, and use of limb spreaders can be particularly beneficial for these varieties, helping to open up their canopy and direct growth in a more horizontal or outward direction.

On the other hand, some fig varieties have a more relaxed or sprawling growth habit. These trees tend to grow less erect, with branches that naturally spread outwards or droop down. While these varieties may require less intensive training, they can still benefit from occasional staking or pruning to maintain a balanced and productive structure.

This video discusses a fig variety called Smith and it's upright growing habit leading to lower production.

You’re Now Ready to Have the Best Fig Trees Around

Training your fig trees is more than a mere horticultural task—it's a commitment to nurturing and understanding your trees, shaping their growth, and ensuring their fruitful future. The techniques and practices we've discussed in this article—staking, pruning, and strategic tree placement—provide a comprehensive toolkit to train your fig trees effectively. Yet, it's important to remember that each fig tree, like each fig grower, is unique.

This article has been a comprehensive guide to shaping fig trees. Always remain curious and eager to learn more about your trees. Let each growing season be an opportunity to better understand your fig trees, experiment with different training techniques, and ultimately, become a better fig grower.

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Valya Boutenko
Valya Boutenko
May 23, 2023

Thank you for this wonderful information!

ross raddi_edited.jpg
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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