Growing and pruning fig trees can be tricky. Spring frost will often kill the young little figs in many years. Secondly, without a root barrier it is very difficult to control growth of the fig tree.
As regards pruning, the process is not straightforward. Skilful summer pruning carried out at the correct time is often much more important than winter pruning. When fig trees have gone out of control, it will take several years of a combination of skilful pruning in March, June and August to rebalance growth and fertility.
Lastly, it should be remembered that the young figs grow mainly towards the end of branches. So if pruning is not done skilfully it is very easy to prune away all the potentially forming new crop.
A root barrier for fig trees
In the UK, figs are best grown in a pot or container which can initially be 35 cm in diameter and successively 45 cm in diameter and at least 40 cm in depth. Read an article on how to grow fig trees.
In northern locations, if the container is mobile, it can be brought into a shed from November to March to protect the fruiting tips from frost. If the tree is left outside during the winter months. it is best to wrap a double layer of garden fleece around the main branches to stop the tips of the branches being damaged by winter frosts.
For a more permanent arrangement, the container can be buried, with the rim just above ground level, or a container can be built using bricks and mortar. The larger the container, the larger the tree.
Watch a video about how to grow fig trees in the UK.
Tips on how to prune fig trees
A brief introduction is necessary to explain the techniques for pruning fig trees. The fig tree is a fruiting bush or small tree originating from much warmer Asian countries. The Ancient Romans were familiar with figs and how to grow them, and they spread fig tree culture to other Mediterranean countries. The tree is mentioned in the Bible, when the disciples were looking for figs and found a small tree with no figs at all ready to eat. The Romans introduced fig trees to areas further north, and they were later adopted by monasteries where fig trees were successfully grown against south-facing walls in their walled gardens. Often figs were trained along these walls, just as for apricots.
The winter frosts that occur today in the UK are not cold enough to kill the fig tree outright. However, the micro-figs at the end of newly-formed shoots, the current year’s growth, are easily damaged by early spring frosts. These micro-figs are the size of small peas, visible at the end of the new shoots, and they will become next year’s crop.
You will also see larger figs on the tree in November, when they will be the size of a chestnut. These chestnut-sized figs are no good, because the tree has already shed all its leaves and has has closed down its system of growth as winter is about to start. So in November you have to remove the chestnut-sized figs by hand to stop the tree holding on to those fruits.
The micro-figs will develop into successful fruits if the fig tree is protected against frost, for example if it is protected by a poly tunnel or greenhouse, or by the application of fleece, so that it remains frost-free during the winter. In the UK, frost-protected micro-figs are the only fruits capable of developing into tasty ripe figs.
The fact that micro-figs develop at the ends of new annual shoots leads to an important consideration. If, during the winter pruning of a fig tree, the tips of all the branches are pruned off, there will be no worthwhile crop of figs at all!
So the basic principles of fig pruning are:
- ensure that there is sufficient light reaching the annual shoot growth
- do not cut the tips of the annual shoot growth
- increase the light in the tree by completely removing some of the secondary branches and pruning back long, non-fruiting branches
Here are our tips in point format, starting from the ideal situation in which you are planting a new fig tree.
How to prune a newly-planted fig tree
- Plant the fig tree in a pot or container, the best time to plant is from November to March.
- Plan the method of protection against frost: wheeling the pot into a greenhouse or poly tunnel in winter months, or protecting new growth with a double layer of garden fleece at times when frost is likely
- Prune your new tree in April, cutting back all branches by about a third. The concept is to encourage the tree to channel energy into root development.
- In June, prune new growth back to 5-leaf length.
- Next winter, from November to March, select a few of the strongest branches, choosing those that are at least a 45° angle from the trunk, and cut off the others. The aim is to create a well-balanced, evenly-distributed structure, ideally with a bowl-type shape canopy.
- From the third year on, prune every winter as described below.
How to prune an established fig tree (winter pruning)
- Remove any dead, diseased or damaged wood.
- Cut off suckers growing from the base.
- Cut off some of the secondary branches, especially those which form an angle less than 45° with the main trunk – these branches are not strong enough to be sustainable.
- Remove branches that cross other branches or rub against another branch.
- If there are a lot of long, non-fruiting branches, about a quarter of these can be pruned back to 2/3 inches length. Remember that fruit only develops on the new annual growth.
- According to the strength of growth, prune again, following the same techniques as above, in late May, and again in late June if necessary.
- Remember: do not cut the tips of the annual shoot growth. This is where the micro-figs will develop.
How to prune a fig tree that has gone out of control
“Help! My fig tree is growing taller every year and it is becominng unstable. There is no new growth lower down on the trunk. The tree is no longer producing good crops. What can I do?”
We often receive requests of this type. If a fig tree is planted without root restriction, after a few years it will channel most of its energy into new growth instead of cropping. This is extremely difficult to correct. The fundamental principle is to increase the amount of light in the lower part of the tree, and reduce the total amount of energy available when the tree starts to grow in the spring. Energy is formed by leaves, and so there is no point in pruning in winter when all the leaves have fallen anyway. Here is the process:
- in spring, after leaves have appeared, remove all the basic strongly-growing branches that grew last year, with all their newly-formed leaves
- after 8 weeks, repeat the process
- continue this process of summer pruning every year for the next 4 years
This will reduce the energy levels in the tree, and increase the intensity of light available for the remaining branches. The tree will gradually adapt to this regime and begin producing fruit at lower levels. It is a lengthy process and unfortunately, no short cuts are possible. I have already said this, but I will repeat it here: without root restriction, fig trees are very reluctant to crop in future years.