To prune a fig tree, you should:
- Wear gloves and use clean pruning shears.
- Always prune in late winter, before spring leaves appear.
- Prune branches to half their length the first winter after planting.
- Cut off any dead branches.
- Remove “suckers” growing from the base of the fig tree.
- Prune off branches that cross over other branches or rub against them.
- Each winter, prune branches by one-fourth their length if you wish to keep your fig to a manageable size.
These steps set up a young fig tree for success and allow you to maintain a healthy fig tree year after year.
Do Fig Trees Need to be Pruned?
Young fig trees need to be pruned during their first winter after planting in order to encourage strong root development. However, mature fig trees grown in warm climates seldom require pruning. Pruning a mature fig can increase fruit yields and keep the tree to a smaller size which makes harvest easier. However, most established figs will continue to produce healthy fruit year after year with little to no pruning.
- Newly planted figs should be pruned in their first winter.
- Established fig trees can be pruned annually, but most do well with minimal pruning.
- Pruning a fig tree annually can help to increase yield and limit tree size.
- Fig bushes grown in cool climates must be pruned annually to prevent frost damage.
In cool climates, figs require annual pruning to prevent being damaged by winter temperatures. However, in these regions, figs are grown as bushes, not trees. Instead of a central trunk with fruit-bearing branches, fig bushes are grown with 5 to 12 stems growing from the soil level. The steps for pruning a fig bush are very different from pruning a fig tree. In this article, we will discuss pruning fig trees only, not bushes.
7 Steps for Pruning Fig Trees
From planting time until your fig tree reaches its full height, proper pruning can encourage healthy growth and prevent disease. It can also help you get more fruit from your fig trees. Here are the steps for fig pruning:
Prepare Your Tools
Whenever you are preparing to prune a fig tree, start by putting on a pair of sturdy gloves. Fig sap is a skin irritant that can cause burning, itching, pain, and redness. A combination of fig sap and sunlight can even cause your skin to blister. Since this sap is found in the branches, leaves, and roots of figs, take precautions to protect yourself while pruning.
- Wear gloves to prevent skin burns from fig sap.
- Thoroughly scrub your pruning shear blades with rubbing alcohol.
- Cleaning your shears prevents plant diseases from moving between plants.
Scrub the blades of your pruning shears with rubbing alcohol before pruning your fig tree. This will remove any residue (including bacteria or fungus) from the pruning blades. Cleaning your shears prevents diseases from infecting your figs. It’s a great idea to clean your shears with alcohol after pruning each plant.
Prune in Late Winter
Always prune fig trees in late winter. The best months for pruning are February and March. Whenever possible, prune your fig tree before it has produced new spring leaves. By pruning during the dormant season, your fig tree will pour its new spring growth into the remaining branches. This results in the healthiest tree with the most fruit.
- Prune in February or March.
- It is best to prune before your fig tree starts to grow new leaves.
- If your fig tree is starting to leaf early due to mild conditions, prune in very early spring.
- Never prune a fig in summer or fall.
An abnormally mild winter may cause your fig tree to leaf early. That’s okay. You can still prune a fig tree that has started to leaf. When pruning, it’s better to prune early than late. If you miss your chance at pruning in late winter, prune in early spring. Do not prune your fig tree in summer or fall. If it is past May, it’s best to wait until next winter to prune.
Perform Intense First-Year Pruning
After you have followed our steps for planting a new fig tree, wait until the first winter to prune the new tree. This will be the most drastic pruning you ever do for your tree. For first-year fig pruning, follow these tips:
- Select 4 to 6 main branches to keep.
- The main branches should be on different sides of the tree, to encourage full growth.
- Remove any small branches that are not the main branches.
- Cut the main branches to one-half their length.
This may seem like drastic pruning for a young tree, but it will have a huge benefit. By encouraging main branches to grow on all sides of the tree, your tree will begin to grow outward and spread, so it can produce more fruit in the future. By removing excess branches, the fig will put more energy into developing strong roots at a young age. This leads to a much healthier and hassle-free fig down the line.
Cut Off Dead Branches
No matter what age your fig tree is, you should always remove any dead branches during your annual pruning. Removing dead wood helps prevent diseases, rot, and insects from infesting your tree. Cut off dead branches flush with the trunk. Then, allow the tree to heal on its own. Never use pruning sealant. It is actually harmful to the tree.
- Remove dead or broken branches from your fig tree entirely.
- Cut dead branches off flush with the trunk or parent branch.
- Do not use pruning sealant because sealing tree limbs after cutting is surprisingly harmful.
- To tell dead limbs from living ones, look for leaf buds. Branches without buds are dead.
It can be hard to tell dead branches from living branches while your fig tree is dormant. To be safe, wait until the tree has begun to form its first leaf buds. Then, look for branches without buds. Living branches will produce buds and leaves in late winter through early spring. Dead branches won’t have any buds. So, once the tree has buds on it, look for budless branches and prune them off.
In order to promote the healthiest growth for your fig tree, cut off any shoots growing from the base of the trunk or the roots. These shoots are known as “suckers” but you can think of them like little vampires. They will siphon growing energy away from the main branches, but they won’t produce any fruit. Cut them off flush with the trunk or soil level.
- Look for suckers growing from the main trunk or from the roots at the base of the tree.
- Cut suckers off flush with the trunk or soil level.
- You can trash suckers or use them to grow new fig trees.
If you are interested in growing a new fig tree from a cutting, you can use suckers for this purpose. So, the waste from pruning can actually turn into new fruit trees in your garden. Since fig tree pollination is very complex, using a cutting is often the best way to grow a new fig tree.
Prune Crossing Branches
When pruning an established fig tree, remove branches that cross over one another. When pruning fruit trees it helps to think of the branches as spokes on a wheel. The tree should have “spokes” spreading out in all directions so they each get light from above. Secondary branches that cross over one another choke out sunlight and contribute to a sickly tree with smaller fruit yields.
- Cut off fig branches that cross over each other.
- Each fig branch should be able to receive unblocked sunlight from above.
- If two branches are rubbing against each other, remove the weaker branch.
If two fig branches rub against one another, one must be removed. Wind can move the fig branches and rub away the bark where the branches touch. This creates an open wound on your fig tree where it can be attacked by disease. Retain the branch that grows outward from the tree in a straight line. Remove the rubbing branch that is growing sideways or at an odd angle.
Cut Branch Length if Desired
It is not necessary to cut fig branches back each year, but it does have several benefits. First, the tree will produce more fruit per branch. Second, the tree will be smaller, which makes it easier to harvest fruit or protect your figs from birds. If you would like to use this method, cut one-fourth to one-third of the length off each fruit-bearing branch.
- Optionally, cut each branch back by one-fourth to one-third.
- Cutting back fig branches promotes a smaller tree with denser fruit production.
- It is not necessary to trim back branches on established figs, especially if your fig serves as a shade tree.
If you are growing a fig tree in a warm climate where frost damage is not a concern, you do not have to trim the branches. Just remember, some fig trees can reach immense heights. It can be very difficult to harvest fruit from a 30-foot fig tree. But, if you want your fig to provide shade, let its branches grow long.
Can You Prune a Fig Tree as a Bush?
Instead of pruning your fig to grow as a “tree” with a central trunk, you can grow figs as bushes. To do this, you will encourage 5 to 12 shoots to grow from ground level, like several thin trunks. Each year, you will trim these shoots to remove the top growth, retain the strongest branches, and remove secondary branches.
- It is possible to prune and train figs to grow as bushes, not trees.
- Fig “bushes” are grown by encouraging several smaller shoots to grow from ground level, instead of a single trunk.
- Fig bushes are kept shorter than fig trees, which prevents winter damage.
- Trimming fig trees as bushes is essential when growing figs in regions with freezing winters.
Pruning fig trees as bushes is the best way to grow figs in regions where winter temperatures commonly get below freezing. This is often done in the upper south and lower midwest of the United States, where cold winters can damage fig trees with traditional trunks and branches. However, the system for pruning fig bushes is a bit different than training a fig tree, so the steps listed above do not apply to fig bushes.
What is the Best Way to Prune a Fig Tree?
The best way to prune a fig tree is by first donning protective gloves to prevent skin irritation from fig sap. Then, clean your pruning shear blades with rubbing alcohol. Always prune figs during the dormant season, in late winter. Prune first-year fig trees aggressively, by removing all but 4 to 6 main branches. In the following years, remove dead branches, suckers, and branches that cross over one another. This will promote a healthy tree and remove diseased wood. Finally, you can trim the branches of your fig tree by one-fourth to one-third their length to keep mature trees to a smaller size, for easy harvesting.