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All fruit trees need some pruning to maintain their vitality, encourage fruit production, and stay in a manageable shape. Fig trees are somewhat unique, however. Depending on how you prune and train them, they can grow as bushes or trees.
To prune a fig tree to grow as a bush, remove lateral branches, and intentionally shape the tree each winter. To prune a fig tree to grow as a tree, use the open center system or modified central leader system. Either of these pruning approaches will encourage the tree to grow wide and full.
Pruning and Training Methods
Fig trees can be pruned and trained to grow as bushes or trees. At full maturity, a fig tree may reach 15 to 30 feet tall. However, because fig trees are usually wider than they are tall, you can prune them to be more shrub-like, which many gardeners find more manageable.
Fig trees do not require the heavy pruning that other fruit trees need. However, it is still worth your time to do it correctly to encourage your tree’s health and productivity.
Training, Renewal, and Maintenance
There are three basic reasons why growers prune their fruit trees: training, renewal, and maintenance.
- Training refers to the pruning cuts that are made during the early stages of the tree’s life that influence its overall size and shape.
- Renewal involves thinning and heading back, both of which renew the vigor of the tree and encourage new growth.
- Maintenance pruning is the task of cutting off dead, diseased, or damaged branches, removing suckers (upright shoots) from the tree’s base, ensuring adequate airflow throughout the tree’s crown, and keeping the crown from blocking sunlight to the lower branches.
If your fig tree is a dwarf variety, training may last two or three years. For standard varieties, training may be complete in as little as five years or as long as eight.
Renewal pruning typically does not need to happen until after the tree begins to bear fruit. Likewise, you may not need to do much maintenance pruning until the tree reaches full maturity, except in the case of damaged branches, disease, or sucker removal (source).
Making Correct Cuts
Regardless of your tree’s height and shape, it is important to remember that when you prune, you are strategically wounding your tree. When you prune correctly, your tree can heal properly, can maintain its health, and may even become healthier than before. Incorrect pruning, however, leaves wounds on your tree that are unable to heal.
This is why it’s important to make your cuts in the right places. Always cut back to branches or buds, where productive growth is most likely to keep occurring.
If you leave bare stubs behind when you prune, you are unintentionally inviting decay bacteria, fungi, and other organisms to settle in. Many of these organisms can over-winter in the wood of your tree and populate entire branches and limbs quickly.
When you make your cuts, aim for a 45° angle across the limb or branch. The open surface should face downward. This will prevent excess water from pooling on the surface.
It used to be common practice to use a pruning sealant to cover the tree’s cut wounds. However, experts have shown that pruning sealants can trap bacteria and excess moisture, which increases the likelihood of disease and decay. Instead, allow the pruning wounds to dry in the open air and heal on their own.
To Train Your Fig as a Bush
You can begin to shape your fig tree into a bush as soon as it is planted. (Read our guide on the proper time to transplant fig trees from pots).
At the time of its planting, cut off about one-third of the tree. This will force the tree to produce new shoots from its base. Allow these new shoots to grow freely throughout the tree’s first growing season.
In late winter, after the coldest temperatures have passed but before new growth begins, examine these shoots and determine which ones will be your “leaders.” Leaders are the primary upright branches that are the foundation of the tree’s structure.
You will need between three and eight shoots to become leaders. Eventually, they will need to become three or four inches in diameter without being crowded by other leaders. If you choose leaders that are too close to each other, they will remain too thin to support lateral branches and a future crop of fruit.
Once you have chosen three to eight leaders, prune the remaining shoots. This allows all of the tree’s water and nutrient uptake to go into the leaders, allowing them to develop the thickness they will need to support future growth.
After the second growing season, you can prune to encourage more branching. To do this, cut back between one-third and one-half of the shrub’s yearly growth.
At this point, you should also take another look at your leaders. Remove any branches that are impeding the growth of your leaders. If you have a dead or damaged leader, choose a new sucker to take its place; all other suckers should be cut off.
This is also a good time to prune off any lateral branches that are growing close to the ground. These branches are not likely to be as productive when your tree begins fruiting because sunlight and airflow will be restricted.
As your fig tree continues to mature, you can restrict its height by “topping” it. Other fruit trees can be harmed by topping, but it will not hurt fig trees. When you prune to reduce height, make your cut just above a lateral branch.
To Train Your Fig as a Tree
When left to their own devices, fig-trees become large and sprawling. This form may be desirable in a shade tree, but it does not encourage healthy crop development.
If fruit production is your goal, consider training and pruning your fig tree using one of the following systems:
- The open center system
- The modified central leader system
Open Center System
Also known as the “vase-shaped system,” the open center system does exactly what it sounds like: trees trained in this system are free of dominant upright branches, which helps to keep lower and lateral branches open to air and sunlight. You may already be familiar with this training system if you grow other fruit trees such as peach, plum, or apricot, since those fruits also grow well in open center systems.
In the late winter after your fig tree’s first growing season, choose three or four branches to become your tree’s primary scaffold branches. These scaffolds will provide the main structure for your tree throughout its life.
As much as possible, you want your chosen scaffold branches to meet the following criteria:
- At least 18 inches higher than ground level
- Spaced evenly around the circumference of the trunk
- Spaced far enough apart vertically to become thick without interference
- Not growing directly above or below another scaffold
- Attached to the trunk at an angle of 45° or greater (branches that grow at steeper, more acute angles tend to be weaker)
Once you have selected your scaffold branches, prune the rest. It is possible that your fig tree will be wider than it is tall at this point.
As your fig tree matures, you can head back your scaffolds to encourage them to produce secondary scaffolds. Eventually, you can head back your secondary scaffolds to encourage the growth of tertiary branches, and so on.
The main goal of the open center system is to reduce upright growth near the tree’s center that blocks sunlight and air and interferes with lateral fruiting branches. When your fig tree becomes mature, pruning is mostly a matter of thinning out unnecessary branches, cutting off waterspouts and suckers, and keeping its height at a manageable level.
Modified Central Leader System
This system is sometimes called the “delayed open center system” because the two systems closely resemble each other when trees reach maturity.
Shortly after planting your fig tree, identify the strongest upright shoot. This will become your leader. Prune all other upright shoots that will compete with the leader.
As your tree grows, you want to develop tiers of lateral branches at different heights. Keep the above criteria for scaffold branches in mind. Some growers use stakes or branch spreaders to keep the lateral branches growing outward and away from the leader.
You eventually want three or four tiers of branches with several secondary and tertiary branches per tier. You can achieve this by heading back your scaffolds to promote growth and pruning out upright shoots.
Once your tree’s lateral growth is well-established and at a manageable height, remove the central leader. At this point, your fig tree will look very similar to those trained in the open center system.
Continue to thin out dead wood, unnecessary branches, waterspouts, suckers, and other upright growth that may interfere with fruiting branches.
Best Equipment to Use
Pruning can be a dangerous task, so for your own safety, make sure you have the right equipment before attempting any pruning cuts.
If your tree is very large or you simply feel uncomfortable taking on the risk, call in a local landscaper or tree expert to help you get the job done.
These are the primary tools you will need to correctly prune your tree:
- A curved pruning saw with blades eight to fifteen inches long and wide-set teeth
- Lopping shears with handles that are 24 to 30 inches long
- Scissors-cut hand shears
Each of these tools has its own purpose; do not make the mistake of thinking one tool will be enough if you want to do the job properly.
Curved pruning saws are necessary when you need to make large cuts, such as removing thick branches. Lopping shears are the right size to cut shoots or branches up to an inch in diameter, and hand shears make precise cuts no larger than 0.5 inches in diameter.
Using the wrong tool, or a tool in poor condition, can prevent you from making clean, precise cuts. When the cut left behind is rough, uneven, or ragged, it takes longer for the tree to heal.
Pruning tools can carry disease organisms from one part of the tree to another, so disinfecting your tools is a necessary part of the process. Spray or wipe your tools with a solution of one part household bleach to nine parts water in between cuts. Be sure to wear gloves to protect your skin (source).
Cost and Availability
All of these tools are available at lawn and garden stores or online retailers. Prices and availability will vary by region and retailer; make sure you buy from a reputable manufacturer and seller.
Ask a local expert if you need help determining which tools are the right fit for your tree and your budget.
Depending on the height of your fig tree, you will need the right ladder when you prune.
Regardless of how sturdy and well-constructed they may be, typical extension or folding ladders are not considered safe to use while pruning! They are simply not designed for landscape use, where the ground is often uneven or soft.
Tripod ladders, also called “orchard” ladders, are the only kind of ladders that are safe to use while pruning. They are designed for this type of landscape work and can remain steady even on hillsides.
Check pricing for tripod ladders (link to Amazon).
When to Prune
You may hear gardeners say that you should prune fruit trees as soon as they finish producing, but this is not the case. The best time to prune your fig tree is while it is still dormant, but after the coldest part of winter is over.
Pruning in the late summer or early fall leaves time for new growth to develop. This new growth will still be quite tender when temperatures drop, putting your tree at risk of winter injury (source).
On the other hand, if you wait to prune until after the first of the year, new growth will not occur until temperatures begin to rise in the spring.
Furthermore, pruning in late winter ensures that your view of the tree will not be blocked by leaves. You will have a much easier time locating the right branches to cut. This more open view will also make pruning a safer job for you to take on.
Whether you train your fig tree to grow as a bush or a tree, make pruning a regular part of your yearly maintenance. When done correctly and at the right time, pruning will keep your tree healthy, vigorous, and productive. For your safety, use the proper equipment and seek the help of an expert when necessary.
Read our guide on proper fertilization of fig trees.