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The Fig Commandments

Have you ever been wondering what the basic rules of fig trees are or perhaps some solid general recommendations?

Well... I'm here to share with you what I know about these oh so special Ficus trees.


For instance, have you been wondering what is the best way is to control growth on your fig tree? A lot of folks instinctively think about starting/stopping fertilizer, but in actuality the way you can start or stop growth on fig trees is by controlling the soil moisture. By adding, subtracting or completely limiting water, you can be the master of the growth of your fig tree. Allow the soil moisture to dry out enough and growth will significantly slow down or even stop completely! And in really dry conditions, the fig tree can even enter a preservation mode, drop all of its leaves and go dormant surviving for months without much water. The opposite is also true. With lots of soil moisture, fig trees will not stop growing. Even into the fall when they should be lignifying and preparing for frost and winter.


Lets begin:


Water

  • As mentioned above, water is the on or off switch for growth.

  • How much water? Well... more water if you want growth, less if you want to slow it down or stop it completely. However, let it be known that young fig trees are very prone to root rot. Yellowing or browning leaves is often the sign of too much or in very few cases, too little water. When deciding to water, the best advice is to put your hand in the soil, damnit! Soil temperature plays a big part too. Water less when the soil is cold and water more when the soil is warm. Grow your figs in well draining soil with plenty of air!

  • The fig tree can survive in very dry conditions. In fact, you can often find them growing wild in the cracks of concrete or rocks where very little water can be found because excess water the fig tree doesn't need is stored within the trunks and branches and even in the fruits themselves! The fig tree is like a cactus in that way. It stores water in preparation of drought. Therefore it is important to note that an excess of water after fruit set can lower the concentration of sugars in the fruits (brix) due to water being stored within the fruits.

  • Splitting can be reduced by consistent soil moisture.

  • A lack of water is a common cause of fruit drop.

  • Rehydrating the roots of your trees is a great way to help wake a fig tree up from dormancy.

  • My recommendation: Water well early in the season prior to fruit set. Significantly decrease that amount after fruit set. Only water enough to keep your tree happy and healthy and then again potentially lowering it even further 3 months prior to frost to help lignify the new branches in preparation for frost/winter. Whatever you do, make sure it's consistent in amount.


Food

  • When? Fertilizing is often performed prior to fruit set. That could be at any time during your season. Time your feedings with future fruits in mind. Figs love calcium and magnesium specifically, but cover all of your trace minerals & micronutrients. Correct any deficiency immediately.

  • Nitrogen is an essential element of vegetative growth and therefore is a strong contributor towards production.

  • How Much? Too much nitrogen after fruit set can cause fruit cracking, mule (Dall'Oso) figs and lower quality. I personally like applications with a ratio of 10-4-12. I feed my potted trees about 4-6 times or give them a one time application of a slow release.

  • Silica can greatly help with a common disease issue in humid locations called rust.

  • Pay attention to soil ph annually or bi-annually. Figs can handle a wide range, but ideally you should stay between 6-7.5.

Sunlight

  • How much? As much as possible, but more importantly the minimal amount of sunlight for fruit bud formation. Each variety is different and requires a specific amount of hours of light at a certain intensity to set the fruit buds.

  • Winter pruning with maximization of sunlight in mind is critical. The better you maximize the light your tree receives, the more productive your tree will be. Selectively thinning new fruiting branches shortly after bud break and or staking new fruiting branches are other ways in addition to proper pruning to maximize light. Remove unwanted suckers, weeds and any other competition or things potentially blocking the sunlight.

Temperature

  • The fig tree can withstand temperatures of 0F & also 130F for brief periods of time. However, very few select fig varieties can survive temperatures all the way down to 0F. Some are said to be able to withstand -5F, but those varieties are mostly unproven at that temperature. 5-10F are much safer temperatures for fig trees and the majority of varieties can easily survive 15F winter lows assuming good lignification of the branches, which take on a not only brown, but also a "shriveled" appearance.

  • 78F is the soil temperature for an optimal metabolism. This is also the temperature at which you see propagation rates the highest. Grafting, air layering, rooting, etc...

  • Increasing soil temperatures early in the spring when the ground is still cold and not 78F is a fantastic way to exponentially increase your production that season. Ways to increase soil temperatures include: planting your trees in a very sunny location, planting your trees above grade (even planting the rootball in 1-2 ft high mounds is recommended for some), making use of thermal mass and using black nursery plastic as a groundcover.

Pruning

  • The main goal of pruning should always be focused around maximizing light, forming the desired shape of the tree quickly and maintaining the health of the tree after the desired shape is achieved. Pruning is usually performed during dormancy. When the leaves have fallen and the sap flow is minimal and has returned to the roots.

  • Pinching of the apical bud during the growing season (aka summer pruning) can net you a harvest that's 2 weeks earlier, improve fruit quality of the main and breba crops and increase the size of the breba crop (Argenteuil pruning) or increase your production by over 100% in conjunction with food and water for a timed second harvest (Rivers pruning). Pinching can also nudge stubborn trees into fruiting.

  • Fig mosaic virus is largely a non-issue for a healthy fig tree. If you're seeing bad symptoms, simply by improving the health of your tree by focusing on soil health can go a long way towards keeping the virus in check. Rejuvenation pruning is a great way to almost completely eliminate observational effects of the virus. Simply cut your tree back to healthy wood on established trees and excavate some of the top layer of soil to encourage suckers or new buds to form. Choose the growths that are healthiest and remove the heavily infected.

The 4 P's: Planting, Propagation, Pollination & Pests

  • Planting as mentioned in the temperature section should mainly be concerned about maximizing soil temperatures in the spring and in the fall. Planting higher above grade is the key to achieving that. Depending on where you live, it may be in your best interest to keep things cool. Instead by planting very deeply (even planting the rootball 5 ft below grade) you can establish a strong root system very quickly while also giving your tree better access to water in dry places.

  • Propagation is mainly performed by rooting cuttings. Seeds will produce offspring that is not true to type and only 25% of that offspring will be common and in many cases produce poor quality fruit. It is through the many years of selection by mostly Romans that figs have become the tasty fruits that they are today. Air layering & grafting are also great propagation methods. I highly recommend grafting your chosen variety onto a highly vigorous (and RKN resistant rootstock in heavily infested soils) rootstock whenever possible and right for your situation.

  • The species Ficus Carica comes in 4 different types. The common fig, san pedro, smyrna and the male caprifig. The common fig is the only of the 4 that does not require pollination from the fig wasp (Blastophaga). San pedro figs only produce breba (the first crop) without pollination. Smyrnas require pollination and male figs are not edible. If you're seeing a lot of fruit drop, this could be the reason.

  • A few pests affect fig trees. One more recently on the rise and of great concern is the Black Fig Fly. Some common pests are scale, spider mites, fruit flies, wasps, ants, borers, nematodes, slugs & animals if we can squeeze them in this category. The one of most concern to many growers are fruit flies. Control their populations by picking up fallen fermenting fruit. Don't give them a food source.

Miscellaneous

  • Fig trees grown from cutting have roots that can be found as far out as 2 times the width of the canopy only going deeper down in soils in arid locations and without a taproot. Planting near structures or foundations is not an issue when figs are propagated this way.

  • Ripe fruits can be seen 70-130 days after fruit formation or after pinching the apical bud. This number is heavily influenced by soil temperatures.

  • Fruits form in 3 stages. They start out as small pea sized figs and increase their size quickly until reaching a particular size. They'll stay at that size for an entire 30 days until again very quickly swelling to a larger size almost even overnight and then again staying stagnant at that particular size for another 30 days until finally swelling and becoming soft.

  • Figs ripen from the bottom up, so it's important when picking figs to feel their necks. Not the stem. Not the body. Not the bottom. The neck. When the neck is soft, the fig is ripe. Do not go by other indicators like cracking, color, etc... If you see latex after harvesting, that's a sure sign the fig is not ripe yet.

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