Pruning Fig Trees: An Expert Guide
Do you have to prune your fig tree? Unless you have a particularly vigorous variety, the answer to that is not really! However, if you want to prune, it can help to maximise your fig crop, reduce the size of your tree or just keep it nicely shaped. It's important to do your fig tree pruning the right way. Here’s how.
Why prune your fig tree?
In the wild (for example on an Italian mountainside), fig trees can grow to 6-9m high, at a steady rate of 30 cm per year. However most of the varieties popularly grown in the UK are much more compact than this, with the favourite variety Brown Turkey growing to a far more manageable 3m high by 2m wide. It’s still a good idea to prune it though - as well as keeping it well shaped, you’ll encourage new branches to grow and stimulate the production of fruit. If left to its own devices, the tree will put more energy into leafy growth, rather than producing good quality figs. Pruning also allows you to check your tree’s health and act on any damage or disease you find by trimming out the affected parts before they become a problem.
Image source: Wikimedia.
When to trim fig trees
The main time to prune figs is in summer, when you can trim them lightly into shape.
You should also give them a quick tidy up in winter, to remove any dead, diseased or crossing branches.
Fig trees are one of those species that bleed a lot of sap. This can mean infections getting into the cuts, weakening the tree or even killing it. To avoid this, they should never be pruned in spring, when the level of sap is at its highest.
You’ll need a pair of sharp secateurs and for taller trees, some loppers or long handled pruners. If your fig tree is larger or more mature, you may need a pruning saw for the thicker branches. It’s very important for all your equipment to be cleaned between trees, to prevent the spread of disease. You can do this with a clean cloth dipped in disinfectant or rubbing alcohol.
Fig tree sap can irritate your skin, so make sure to wear gardening gloves or gauntlets. If you start at the bottom of the tree and work your way up, there’ll be less chance of sap dripping on you.
How to prune fig trees
Most fig trees in the UK are grown in pots as standards or half standards (a tall clear stem with a crown of branches on top). Figs are usually trained as free-standing small bushes, with a short trunk topped with a crown of branches, or as standards, with a taller, clear stem. They can also be grown as multi-stemmed shrubs branching from the base. The method below is the same for both of these types of fig.
Winter fig pruning
When the tree is dormant, between November and March, is the best time to prune - our experts do the job in February, on a dry day with no frost.
What you’re looking to do here is get rid of any damaged, weak, diseased or crossing branches, to create a nice open, airy framework for your tree. Prune these branches down to about 2.5cm from the trunk, to encourage healthy new ones to grow, and try to avoid removing any stems with fruitlets (tiny figs!) at the ends. Crowded branches can be removed completely, as you don’t want those coming back!
Summer fig pruning
June is the best time for your summer pruning, leaving plenty of time for the tree to form the following year’s fruits before the weather gets too cold.
To prune in summer, trim back the new shoots to 5-6 leaves long. What you’re doing here is opening up the crown of the tree to let plenty of sun and air through, as well as encouraging the tree to branch evenly and devote its energy to growing those all important fruits.
You should also remove any large figs that haven’t ripened by mid-autumn - they won’t do it this late in the season. The tiny, pea-shaped fruitlets at the tips of the branches are the ones you want to keep, as these are the beginning of next year’s crop.
Fig trees work really well as fans - this means training them against a wall with a support network of wires in a flattened fan shape. This saves space in your garden as well as improving the tree’s health by allowing more air and light to the branches, as well as space for larger fruit to develop. Find out how to do this with our step by step fan training guide.
Pruning older fig trees
If your tree is older or very overgrown, you can prune it back harder, but be aware that you might not get much of a fruit crop the following year. Prune back the branches that have grown too long to about 5-8cm to encourage healthy new growth; any crossing or overcrowded branches in the centre can be removed completely.
For more expert fig tree advice, check out our Fig Tree Growing Guide.