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When to Trim, Prune, & Cut Back Fig Trees

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

As an educator on fig trees, I get this question a lot! Especially as it gets colder outside. “When can I prune, trim, or cut back my fig tree?”

Fig trees can be cut at any time, but the most ideal time to prune fig trees is when they are dormant.

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Why Wait for Dormancy to Prune:

When pruning a fig tree before it is dormant, you’ll notice it bleeds a lot of white milky sap. This sap is the stored energy (primarily carbohydrates) that the trees will need for the subsequent growing season.

During the fall and winter, sap within trees slowly flows down to its roots until warming temperatures return. In the spring, sap flows in the opposite direction and rises to the top of dormant trees to help them explode with new growth.

Think about how maple trees have sap rising from their roots in wintertime, which is harvested and processed into maple syrup. Sap is the tree's stored energy or carbohydrates that trees produce through photosynthesis during the growing season.

If we’re trimming fig trees before the sap flow can return back to the roots, we’re robbing our fig trees of carbohydrates that are vital for the tree's performance in spring.

Pruning Timeframe:

It's recommended to wait as long as possible to prune, especially before harsh weather conditions arrive. If temperatures drop to the low 20s, it's time to start thinking about pruning.

For those cultivating fig trees for business purposes, such as selling cuttings, it's crucial to prune ahead of severe cold. However, for non-commercial purposes, individuals can wait until spring. It allows them to gauge which parts of the tree are alive post-winter and make informed pruning decisions.

Check out this winter protection guide for more information on protecting your fig trees during the winter.

Dormancy Test:

In-ground fig trees in colder regions typically require approximately two to three frosts to be completely dormant.
One can determine if the tree is dormant by snipping a small part of the fig tree. If sap flows out, it means the tree might not be in a dormant state yet.

As fall sets in, many fig trees, particularly those that finish their crop, start to go dormant. They've completed their harvest, and with the falling temperatures, they begin to shed their leaves naturally.

In regions that experience colder climates, dormancy is instigated by the cold. Here, while some trees are shedding leaves in preparation for dormancy, others, especially those in the ground, continue to fruit until they experience frost. For instance, my Ronde de Bordeaux and Moro de Caneva trees will keep producing figs even after they encounter their first frost.

For more on planning for your first frost, check out this article here so you can be prepared.

Tropical Regions:

In places like Florida and other tropical locales, trees might not experience a natural dormancy. In such areas, to induce a form of dormancy, one can strip the trees of their leaves and significantly reduce water intake.

For other information on growing figs in challenging tropical climates like Florida, check out this detailed article.

Pruning Fig Trees: A Short Guide

1. Pruning for Health:

  • Main concern: Fig Mosaic Virus (FMV).

  • Remove damaged, dead, and diseased wood.

  • FMV can be managed by removing heavily infected buds or branches.

  • Use rejuvenation pruning: This involves cutting back infected growth to stimulate healthy new growth. Can be done in both winter and summer.

  • For very old trees, cut down to soil level and allow new growth from roots.

2. Pruning for Proper Form:

  • Decide between a tree form or a bush form based on climate and maintenance preference.

  • In cold climates, bushes are easier to protect in winter.

  • Trees naturally form bushes, so a tree form requires more maintenance to prevent suckering.

  • Bush pruning: Limit trunks from the base to prevent canopy density. For containers, aim for 2-4 trunks. For in-ground trees, 4-6 trunks.

Tree formation methods:

  • Method #1: Grow as a single stem for the first year, cut to the desired height in winter, and then form scaffolds in the second year.

  • Method #2: Grow as a single stem or bush, top branches in summer, and form scaffolds. Reduce fruit set after topping for continued growth.

To read more about training fig trees properly, check out this guide here.

3. Specialized Pruning Techniques:

  • Cordon or Espalier: Train figs horizontally. Form 1-3 arms at low height, then top to encourage vertical shoots. These are pruned back to short spurs annually. Ideal for maximizing photosynthesis but requires heavy annual pruning.

  • Not recommended for containers.

4. Pruning for Main Crop Production:

  • Ensuring maximum sunlight is key.

  • Regulate production by understanding tree hormones. Suckers grow fast but produce less fruit, whereas apical and lateral buds fruit more.

  • Heavier pruning = fewer fruits, especially if only from vegetative buds.

  • Different varieties react differently to pruning.

  • Cordons can work, but not always recommended for the average grower.

5. Pruning for Size Control & Breba Production:

  • Brebas form on last year's growth.

  • For size control and breba production, recycle older wood with younger wood.

  • To control tree size, recycle scaffolds by removing the tallest and densest ones.

To read more about pruning, check out this detailed guide here.

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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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