How to Prune Fig Trees

Growing Figs: From Location to Trimming

Fig tree with fig.
Santiago Urquijo/Getty Images

Damaged, dead, or diseased limbs should be pruned off of fig trees whenever you find them. This is basic "maintenance pruning," similar to pruning that you would perform on other plants. But beyond this, there are specific pruning instructions to follow for growing fig trees during their first few years.

Overview of Fig Trees

The common fig tree (Ficus carica) is actually classified as a deciduous shrub in the Moraceae family. This fact makes it a relative of the mulberry tree. The plant is indigenous to western parts of Asia and southeastern Europe. It is an invasive plant in some areas of North America.

Fig trees grow 10 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide. They have a spreading habit. In addition to bearing their namesake fruits, they also have attractive features that make them suitable ornamentals for patio landscaping, particularly if you seek a tropical look:

  • The bark can have aesthetic value, especially as the trees age, at which time the bark becomes pleasantly gnarled.
  • The hand-shaped leaves can grow as long as 10 inches and have a dark green surface.

The flowers, which come out in spring, are not very pretty, but they are your first step in producing figs. They occur in hollow receptacles.

Preferred Growing Conditions

A fig tree can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 to 10. But, in zones 5, 6, and 7, it should be grown in a container, so that it can be brought inside when cold weather arrives. Northerners should cut back on watering in fall to begin the overwintering process.

When you plant your fig tree in the ground in the South, locate it in partial shade. But full sun is better when growing figs in pots in the North. The plant will perform best in evenly moist, fertile, well-drained soil.

The common fig tree does not need another tree for pollination. Scale insects are one of its chief pest problems.

The Best Time to Prune Fig Trees

Some trees and shrubs "bleed" (leak sap when cut) more than others, and this is the case with fig trees. Such bleeding can increase the likelihood of introducing diseases into the wound (where the pruning cut is made). For this reason, pruning is avoided at those times when bleeding is likely.

The safest time to prune fig trees is when they are dormant. Since they are deciduous, it is easy enough to tell when they are starting to go into a dormant state: They will drop their leaves.

How to Prune Fig Trees

The first time that you prune your fig tree will be during its first winter (period of dormancy). This will be a severe pruning: You will reduce its size by about one half. The focus in pruning your fig tree at this point is on training it to remain a compact plant. You want your fig tree to direct its energy to root development rather than to getting bigger. 

Next dormant season, you will continue this training process. Only, now, with more to work with, you start planning the tree's future in more detail. You want to promote just a few of the strongest, newest branches. What you are promoting is sometimes called "fruiting wood." These branches will become your mainstays for fruit production. But they will need room, so make sure the ones that you choose to promote are evenly distributed around the plant.

During your tree's third dormant season (and thereafter), prune off new branches (including suckers that sprout up from the base of the plant) that would only compete with your branches of fruiting wood for resources. Remove the following, as well:

  • Some of the secondary branches: These are the limbs that grow off your branches of fruiting wood. Prune off those growing at less than a 45 degree angle from the branches of fruiting wood. These branches will be weak because they are growing at an unsustainable angle.
  • Branches that cross each other and/or are rubbing against each other.
  • Prune back the length of the branches of fruiting wood by a third. This will keep the plant compact (and its figs more accessible for picking) and avoid having resources wasted on attaining greater size at the expense of fruit production.