Updated: Jun 28
Growing fig trees can be a rewarding experience, but it's easy to make mistakes along the way. Even expert fig growers make mistakes and you can bet they’ve made a lot of them. After all, that’s what makes a good gardener and grower. I’ve made all of them, and that’s why in this article, I want to share with you all of the possibilities of how you can fail so that you can succeed.
From improper fertilizing & watering to harvesting figs too early, there are a number of factors that can prevent you from having the best fig experience possible to cultivate healthy, productive fig trees in your own backyard. In this article, we'll explore eleven common mistakes that fig growers make and how you can avoid them.
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And check out the 15 Steps to Success fig checklist & the Fig Tree Timeline for other very helpful tips.
Common Mistake #1 - Not Fertilizing Potted Fig Trees
Fig trees make great container plants. With their fibrous roots and resiliency to root pruning, they can stay in containers for extended periods of time. And growing fig trees in containers also has plenty of advantages like being able to move them away from potentially damaging cold temperatures or to give them a headstart to the growing season. Some growers, however, tend to overlook the critical step of fertilization, sometimes assuming it's not essential or merely forgetting it. This neglect will impair the tree's performance, limiting its fruiting potential and growth during your growing season.
The assumption that potting soil provides an endless supply of nutrients is misleading. In a short period of time, a fig tree will exhaust the available nutrients in the soil. They’re heavy feeders compared to other fruiting plants. Without a suitable NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) fertilizer and a comprehensive array of micronutrients in the soil at all times, you will be hindering your fig tree’s potential.
Nutrient leaching is another crucial aspect that demands attention. Each time you water your fig tree, some nutrients get washed out of the pot, gradually depleting the soil's nutritional profile. Thus, regular replenishment of nutrients through fertilization is vital to counteract this natural process.
To provide consistent fertilization, I recommend feeding your potted fig tree with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer. Just apply the slow-release fertilizer once early in the growing season. You can also conduct a soil test to better understand the nutritional needs of your tree and tailor your feeding schedule to its specific requirements.
To read more on fertilizing fig trees for optimal growth and fruiting, click here:
Common Mistake #2 - Too Much Pruning & Excessing Winter Damage
While pruning is a part of necessary fig tree maintenance, too much can prevent your fig tree from fruiting.
Over-pruning will likely remove the fruit-bearing, slow-growing upper buds called the apical and lateral buds, leaving the growth-oriented lower buds or vegetative buds to dominate. The result can be an unexpected growth spurt the following year, exactly the kind of unchecked growth you might have been trying to avoid.
To prune your fig tree effectively, you need to maintain the right hormonal balance, fostering controlled growth while promoting fruit production.
Fig Tree Pruning Tips
Make thinning cuts, not heading cuts.
Remove entire scaffolds or trunks from the tree's base, effectively getting rid of both the slow-growing, fruit-bearing upper buds and the fast-growing lower buds. This technique helps manage your tree's size without compromising fruit production.
If you prefer a smaller tree, encourage your fig tree to develop scaffolds at a lower height. These permanent branches that sprout from the main trunk will naturally keep your tree smaller.
Remember, like excessive cold damage, excessive winter pruning can severely affect fruiting in the following season. By understanding the effects of pruning and implementing these techniques, you can effectively manage your fig tree's growth while ensuring a good yield of fruit.
To read more about pruning fig trees for the right size, shape, and hormonal balance, click here:
To read more about winter protection for fig trees, click here:
Common Mistake #3 - Improper Watering Practices
Container fig trees have a high water requirement, particularly in the warm summer months. Depending on the temperature and size of your tree, you may need to water your fig tree daily or even twice a day. A good rule of thumb is to provide about 30-60 ounces of water per day for every 5 gallons of soil in your pot.
On the other hand, fig trees are particularly susceptible to root rot. Especially trees that are weak, young, have fewer leaves, and are growing in containers too large for their root system. Overly saturated soil causes the soil to turn anaerobic, which eventually leads to root rot. After enough time growing in these soil conditions, your fig tree will decline in health and eventually perish.
Best Practices for Watering Fig Trees
Consistency is key when watering fig trees. Rather than saturating the soil once or twice a week, provide a steady amount of water each day. This consistent watering schedule promotes healthier fruit development and helps to prevent issues like fruit splitting.
Drip irrigation systems are a popular choice among fig tree growers. They deliver water directly to the roots, minimizing the risk of overwatering and promoting healthier tree growth. These systems can be easily adjusted to meet your tree's specific watering needs, making them an effective and efficient watering solution. You can also hook your irrigation lines up to an automatic timer preventing any unnecessary neglect.
Recognizing Underwatering and Overwatering
Recognizing the signs of both underwatering and overwatering can help you adjust your watering practices accordingly.
Underwatering: The most common symptom of an underwatered fig tree is premature fruit drop. The tree may also stop growing and lose leaves. Drooping leaves, particularly if the entire tree looks "sad," can indicate insufficient soil moisture. Remember that if only newer leaves droop, this may be due to a sudden drop in humidity rather than underwatering. Look for signs of leaf scorch too, which occurs during times of high temperatures combined with a lack of soil moisture.
Overwatering: Yellowing leaves, especially the lower ones, are a classic sign of overwatering. Overwatering is much more common than underwatering for new growers and newly acquired fig trees. Don’t kill your tree with a brown thumb.
To read more about watering fig trees properly to promote healthy soil, click here:
Common Mistake #4 - Forgoing the Dormancy Period
Forgoing the natural dormancy process in fig trees by attempting to grow them indoors during winter may lead to various complications. It can increase pest pressure, deteriorate soil health, cause stunted growth, root rot, and even lead to the death of the fig tree. Moreover, such an approach may set a poor precedent for the upcoming growing season. Let's delve into why it's crucial to respect this dormancy period:
Increased Pest Pressure: Winter dormancy serves as a natural break in the life cycles of many pests and diseases that afflict fig trees. By forcing the fig tree to continue its growth indoors during the winter, you may inadvertently create a haven for pests. This is because indoor environments often lack the natural predators that help control pests outdoors and provide a favorable environment for some pests like spider mites and scale to thrive. The result is an increased pest pressure that can weaken your fig tree and negatively impact its growth and fruit production.
Root Rot and Potential Death: Overwatering is a common issue when growing fig trees indoors, especially during the winter. Fig trees require less water during their dormancy period. If you're trying to maintain active growth through the winter, you might be tempted to water as frequently as in the growing season, which can easily lead to waterlogged soil and root rot. Root rot is a serious condition that can cause extensive damage to the tree's root system, impeding its ability to absorb nutrients and water. In severe cases, it can lead to the death of the tree.
Poor Start to the Following Growing Season: Forgoing dormancy can have lasting effects that extend into the next growing season. A fig tree that hasn't had a chance to rest and conserve resources during the winter might not have the energy reserves necessary to support vigorous growth and fruit production in the spring. As a result, you might see delayed bud break, slow initial growth, and a reduction in the overall fruit yield in the following season.
To avoid these issues, it's essential to allow your tree to go through natural processes before moving it into winter storage. Allow it to be outside during cold nights of 20-25F. After a few light touches of frost, you’re tree will drop its leaves and go to sleep. Don’t turn it into a houseplant instead.
To read more about what to do with potted fig trees come winter, click here:
Common Mistake #5 - Sunburn
It’s not uncommon for fig trees growing in containers to be affected by sunburn in the springtime. Especially if they were indoors or in winter storage prior to the start of the spring. Sunburned leaves typically show discolorations and patterns, such as darkening colors, light spots, silvery patches, and brown areas. Sunburn can have significant impacts on the health and productivity of your fig trees. Here’s why:
Sunburn damages leaf cells, impairing their ability to photosynthesize. This results in a reduced overall photosynthetic capacity, potentially slowing the tree's growth and development.
Sunburn may also cause leaves to fall off the tree, reducing its energy generation and potentially stunting its growth. This can hinder young fig trees' development, making it harder for them to reach their full potential in size and fruit production.
Sunburned fig trees may produce lower-quality fruit due to the stress from leaf damage. The fruits might not reach the optimal size, taste, or texture typically associated with your fig variety.
Causes of Sunburn on Fig Trees
Understanding the causes of sunburn can help prevent its occurrence:
Rapid light transition: A common cause of sunburn is moving fig trees too quickly from a low-light to a high-light environment. Fig trees, particularly young ones, require time to acclimate to changes in light intensity.
Inadequate shading or protection: Without sufficient shading or protection from direct sunlight, fig trees may experience sunburn. This is especially crucial for young trees, which haven't yet developed strong sunlight tolerance.
To read more about sunburn, check out this detailed article, here:
Common Mistake #6 - Improper Training
Inadequate training of a fig tree can lead to poor fruit production or even no fruit at all. Proper training ensures the tree receives sufficient sunlight, crucial for fruit production. It also allows the tree to grow in a balanced and healthy manner, enhancing overall vigor and fruit yield. Therefore, time and effort spent in training your fig tree can lead to years of delicious and bountiful harvests.
Techniques like staking and pruning performed in spring can significantly influence your tree's form and fruit production.
Staking the scaffolds at a more horizontal angle opens up the tree's center, providing more space for growth and allowing more light to reach new growth points. This enhances the chances of main crop fruit bud formation, boosting fruit yield and quality.
Thinning, pruning, and proper positioning of the tree through staking all work together to maximize sunlight exposure. A well-pruned tree with a less dense canopy, fewer branches, and strategically positioned scaffolds will receive more light, leading to increased fruit production.
If your large, well-cared-for fig tree isn't producing fruit, you may need to reassess its exposure to sunlight. Fig trees need ample sunlight for fruit formation and to produce a bountiful harvest.
Here are some tips on how to train your fig tree:
In the first year, choose to keep 1-3 vigorous & healthy shoots on container-grown fig trees or 5-7 on in-ground trees. Prune any excess shoots and stimulate healthy growth with rejuvenation pruning if necessary. Allow these shoots to grow freely throughout the first season and top them in the summer to encourage scaffold formation.
Aim to create 3-6 well-spaced scaffolds during this season, using stakes to guide them to grow horizontally.
In the second and third years, fruiting branches form on the scaffolds, increasing each year as the tree grows and stabilizes. If your tree becomes too tall, you can create scaffolds earlier with a shorter trunk or use a smaller container to limit its size.
For more on training fig trees to allow them to reach more sunlight and produce more figs, click here:
Common Mistake #7 - Choosing the Wrong Variety
Selecting the correct fig variety for your growing conditions and taste preferences can dramatically impact your fig cultivation experience. In the world of figs, one size does not fit all. Here's why:
Understanding Fig Varieties
Different fig varieties offer an array of flavors and textures. Contrary to what some might think, fig varieties do not taste the same. For instance, some varieties are sweeter and juicier, while others boast a more acidic, berry-like flavor. There are figs that exude the taste of pure honey, and others still that offer a unique texture reminiscent of jam, meat, or even cake!
Additionally, figs come in diverse shapes, colors, and sizes, largely determined by their genetics, much like our own traits. Over time, fig trees have evolved and adapted to different climates and conditions. Some figs, like the striped Panache or Tiger fig, owe their unique appearance to a chimera mutation, where a branch of the tree started displaying distinctive growth characteristics. This mutant branch was then propagated to grow independently, bringing us this visually striking variety.
Why Choosing the Right Fig Variety Matters
The right fig variety, attuned to your climate and taste preferences, can yield a much more enjoyable and productive fig-growing experience. If you select a variety ill-suited to your location, you may end up with a tree that rarely produces high-quality figs, or in some cases, no edible fruit at all.
Fig varieties are highly responsive to their environment during ripening. Unlike fruits with a hard covering, such as apples or persimmons, figs can easily be damaged in their final ripening stage. The soft-skinned fruit can absorb water, leading to cracking, splitting, mold, and fermentation, as the inside of the fruit becomes exposed to the elements. With figs, it's crucial to keep in mind that they can stay soft on the tree for 5 to 15 days, making them particularly vulnerable to adverse weather conditions.
How to Choose the Right Fig Variety for Your Climate
When selecting a fig variety, take into account the climatic conditions of your area during winter, summer, and fall.
Some fig varieties are more cold-tolerant, while others thrive in climates with mild summers due to their reliable breba production or early main crop harvest periods.
Certain varieties fare well in humid climates, thanks to their skin that repels water like a waterproof jacket and their ability to ripen quicker, thus spending less time on the tree. On the other hand, some varieties are better adapted to warmer climates, producing extraordinary flavors even in temperatures as high as 100-110F.
To read about the best-tasting fig varieties, click here:
To read about the characteristics fig varieties need when grown in humid climates, click here:
To read about a general overview of fig varieties, click here:
Common Mistake #8 - Harvesting Figs Too Early
The timing of your fig harvest can have a profound impact on the flavor and quality of your fruit. When harvested at the right time, figs are a true delight - sweet, succulent, and packed with flavor. However, if harvested too early, they can be tough, bland, and resinous due to the latex sap of the tree. On the other hand, overripe figs may spoil, mold, or even ferment.
As with most fruits, figs have a relatively short window of peak ripeness. Mastering the timing of your fig harvest allows you to maximize the color, size, flavor, and nutritional content of your fruit.
Recognizing a Ripe Fig
The key visual indicators of a ripe fig include skin color, fruit size, drooping posture on the branches, and skin cracking. Some varieties even develop a drop of 'honey' or fig nectar at the eye, serving as another sign of ripeness.
Once harvested, ripe figs will not leak milky sap at the fruit scar (the spot where the fruit was removed from the branch), and the stem or neck of the fruit will also be free of white latex sap. Cutting open a ripe fig, the outer portion of the pulp (just inside the skin), known as the pith, should not be a bright white color. Instead, it should start turning yellowish, possibly even bleeding color into the pulp. As the fig ripens, the pith tends to narrow.
Unfortunately, commercial figs bought from grocery stores often have bright white, thick piths, a clear sign that they were harvested underripe. This is typical of figs that are shipped long distances.
However, these visual indicators can sometimes be misleading. Therefore, to accurately determine fig ripeness pre-harvest, one must rely on other characteristics.
Determining When Figs Are Ready to Harvest
The best way to know when a fig is ripe and ready for picking is by assessing the softness of its neck. While skin color, size, cracking, and other visual indicators can provide helpful clues, the softness of the neck is the most reliable indicator of ripeness.
This is because figs ripen from the bottom up. If the top (neck) of the fig is ripe, you can be confident that the bottom is ripe as well. Therefore, touching the bottom of the fig or relying solely on visual indicators can be misleading.
Here's a simple 3-step process to ensure you harvest your figs at the optimal time:
Step 1: Look for figs on the tree that exhibit the visual indicators of ripeness mentioned earlier.
Step 2: Gently squeeze the necks of these figs to assess their softness.
Step 3: Pick the figs with the softest necks.
Every fig grower must learn the feel of their fig varieties' necks when they're ripe. Once you have mastered this skill, you can enjoy the full flavor and nutritional benefits of homegrown figs, harvested at the peak of their ripeness.
To read more about harvesting figs properly to have the best fig experience possible, click here:
Common Mistake #9 - Not Repotting Fig Trees into Larger Containers
A container that's too small will impede the growth of your fig tree and can ultimately lead to its failure. A larger pot, on the other hand, provides ample room for root expansion, which is essential for healthy growth and fruitful production.
Choosing the Right Pot Size for Your Fig Tree
Pot size is crucial for successful fig tree cultivation. While one-gallon pots may seem sufficient, they can seriously constrain your tree's growth. For optimal growth and fruit production, fig trees should be grown in pots of at least three, five, or seven gallons. A larger pot provides more space for your fig tree's root expansion, improving its access to water and nutrients, and consequently enhancing fruit production.
Many growers make the mistake of keeping their fig trees in smaller pots for extended periods. The trees can become root-bound, which restricts their growth potential and overall health. Once the fig trees have fully rooted and are somewhat established, they should ideally be moved to larger containers or planted in the ground.
To read a step-by-step guide to repot fig trees, click here:
Common Mistake #10 - Improper Winter Storage
Winter storage is crucial for container fig trees as it helps to prevent cold damage and premature awakening. The goal is to keep the tree in an environment that maintains a temperature between 15-50F throughout the winter season. Despite popular belief, complete darkness is not an issue; it's the soil temperature that sends a signal to fig trees to break dormancy. Here's how to prepare and store your fig trees during winter effectively:
Preparation for Winter Storage
Preparing your fig trees for winter storage is key to their survival and health. The first step is to ensure they are dormant. To facilitate dormancy, allow your fig trees to experience 1-4 frosts, including a hard frost around 25F. Following these frosts, the leaves should appear wilted and start to dry and fall off. This, coupled with a lack of sap flow in the branches, indicates they are ready for storage.
Before storage, prune if necessary, feed the trees, water them thoroughly, and mulch the containers. Doing so will allow you to skip watering them during dormancy for 3-4 months.
Alternative Storage Options
Heeling Them In: If a suitable environment cannot be provided, planting the tree in the ground and covering it, known as heeling in, is a good alternative. You can wrap the tree, bend the branches to the ground and cover them with a lot of mulch, potentially adding a tarp layer, or create a mulch ring with chicken wire.
Outdoor Storage: In warmer climates, like zones 7 and 8, it's possible to leave fig trees outside all winter if temperatures don't drop below 15F. Place the trees near your home or a structure that retains heat and cover them with layers of straw or other insulative materials before securing them with a tarp. A list of hardy fig varieties that could survive outside all winter can be found here.
Root Cellar or Wine Cellar Storage: These cellars maintain mild temperatures all year due to stable ground temperatures. In winter, they stay above freezing, providing an ideal storage environment for fig trees. Be cautious, as not all cellars are equal, and some may be too warm, which can lead to premature awakening.
Greenhouse Storage: Depending on the type of greenhouse, this could be the best option. Just ensure temperatures don't drop too low during winter nights. If well-insulated, you won't need additional heating. The primary advantage here is that when the fig trees wake up in the spring, they're already in direct sunlight.
Garage or Shed Storage: These structures usually stay cold throughout winter, taking longer to warm up in spring than heated basements. If your shed or garage has windows, or you can open the garage door, the trees can benefit from some sunlight once they wake up.