Part 2 - Caring for your new potted or in-ground fig tree.
CARING FOR YOUR NEW FIG TREE
“Grandpa used to sit in the yard enjoying his De Nobili’s with a glass of wine. When he was finished, he’d throw the cigar butt at the fig tree.”
That’s a quote coming from someone new to growing fig trees. Taken at face value it may seem a little comical but the person was describing the technique his grandfather used to fertilize his own fig tree. It was then I learned that people should use the rituals and practices they remember or they’re familiar with to take care of their own fig trees. I’ve probably heard a thousand or more different ways of caring for fig trees. Use lime, don’t use lime, plant it close to the house, don’t plant too close to the house, plant it under the kitchen window, water from the top, water from the bottom, rub olive oil on the eye, fertilize with eggshells, oyster shells, hair, matchsticks, Epsom salt, chicken poop, rabbit poop, used coffee grounds, fish heads, singing; the list goes on and on. If grandpa grew his fig tree a certain way, used a certain fertilizer or method and you would like to do the same, please do so. Carrying on that tradition is a fulfilling experience it will make you and your fig tree much happier.
These instructions will help you take care of your new fig tree in a pot or transplant it into the ground. There are many successful techniques that cover all of these subjects and they are readily available on the internet. If there is a subject that you would like to know more about, please feel free to look it up or ask.
POTTED FIG TREES
Keeping and caring for your new fig tree in a pot is not difficult. You may have to adjust the rules according to the size of your tree, climate and soil type, but if you follow these general guidelines you should be okay.
- Place your pot in full sun. Your fig tree will require at least 6-8 hours of full sun per day. More sun = more watering, healthier yields, and tastier figs.
- Use a well-draining pot that’s large enough for the tree but easy enough for you to maneuver. The pot should have enough holes on the bottom to ensure that water will run through and not collect. Holes on the sides of the pot are a good idea too as this will promote a proper transfer of air to the root zone and more places for water to escape.
- Do not ever put a saucer or pan under your pot.
- Place a layer of pine bark chips on the bottom of your pot to aid with drainage.
- Use a good quality Potting Mix when transplanting and/or root pruning. Good quality Potting Mix is available by the bag, year-round in any of the retail big box stores or local nurseries.
- Water your potted fig tree every other day during May/June and up to every day July through September. Water up to two times per day when it’s extremely hot (90’s or better). Water much less as the fig season is winding down.
- Don’t place your potted fig tree in the path of lawn sprinklers and do not spray water or other products directly on fig leaves. If you must spray a product to treat your fig tree, do it in the early morning or evening and never in direct sunlight.
- Transplant and/or root prune every 2-3 years. Generally, if it is difficult for you to poke your finger through the soil at the top of your pot, it’s time to transplant and/or root prune. You can use the same pot or move up a size or two. The size of the pot is all up to you and what you are physically able to handle.
- When storing your potted fig trees for the winter in a shed or garage be sure to cover any windows with black plastic or other material that will not allow any light through.
IN-GROUND FIG TREES
If you choose to plant your fig tree in-ground, these guidelines will help you.
- Plant your tree in-ground in full sun. Your fig tree will require at least 6-8 hours of full sun per day. More sun = more watering, healthier yields, and tastier figs.
- Dig the hole double the size of the root ball.
- Pour a mixture of garden and potting soil in the bottom of the hole. Place the fig tree on top of the fresh soil so the top of the root ball is slightly above the ground. Add more mix to the sides and top. Pack down lightly.
- Give the newly planted fig tree a good drink but don’t overwater.
- Do not spray water or other products directly on fig leaves. If you must spray a product to treat your fig tree, do it early in the morning or evening and never in direct sunlight.
- Prune your in-ground fig tree annually. Keep it at a reasonable height that will make it easy for you to harvest fruit.
- Protect your fig tree from the winter by covering or planting in a micro-climate. When covering, do not use a plastic sheet as the first layer touching the branches. Plastic collects moisture that freezes, sticks to the branches and kills them. Best to use burlap.
Water in-ground trees lightly every 2 or 3 days after planting. Once the roots take hold and the buds on your tree start to swell or you notice new growth, you can water every day or every other day. Don’t drown your tree; a little moisture for an in-ground tree goes a long way. Roots of in-ground fig trees are greedy and once they take hold they’ll find the water. If the ground looks and/or feels moist there is probably enough water available and you can water more sparingly or not at all. If the ground around your in-ground tree dries out quickly, use mulch around the base to help keep it moist. Stay actively involved in watering and a system will naturally develop that suits you and your fig tree.
WATERING & POTTING SOIL
Keeping a potted fig tree watered properly is a little more challenging than watering an in-ground tree but still not difficult. The correct amount of water to give your potted fig tree is directly related to the type of potting soil it is growing in. Fig trees thrive in a lighter, free-draining and airy soil but must be watered more frequently. Heavier soils retain moisture and need to be watered less frequently but are not as healthy for the roots of the fig tree than a lighter soil. Finding a happy medium that works for both you and your fig tree is easy. Generally, bagged potting mixes available in the big box stores are peat based and heavier. So, if you’re not specifically looking for a lighter potting mix then you’ll probably purchase a heavier one. This is an easy fix. Along with your potting mix, purchase a product called perlite and mix it into your potting soil. Use a ratio of 3:1; that means 3 parts potting mix for 1 part perlite.
Even when using the perfect potting mix, everyone will over or under water their potted fig tree at one time or another, it’s inevitable. There are no tricks or secrets here, you have to recognize when your potted fig tree has enough or too little water. Here are some tips to help you along:
- Do not get potting mix and garden soil confused. Most potting mix contains perlite and is used for containerized plants. Garden soil is heavier and used mostly in the outdoor garden.
- If you are unable to water your fig tree every day, adding a thick layer of mulch to the top of your pot or around the base of your tree will help to retain moisture. Water the tree and add mulch. Skip a day of watering but pay close attention to how the tree reacts. Keep doing this until you work out a schedule that is good for both you and your fig tree.
- Never use wilted or drooping leaves as an indication that your potted fig tree needs to be watered. There could be any number of things going on when leaves are wilted including too much sun, heat, or water, vitamin deficiencies, etc.
- Poke your finger into the soil past your first knuckle. If you feel moisture than your fig tree has enough water.
- After your fig tree is properly watered pick up the pot and feel the weight. Once you know what the weight of your potted fig tree feels like after it’s been watered, you’ll know it will need water again when the pot feels substantially lighter. Only do this if you are able to handle the weight of the pot. If the pot is too big or weighs too much, do not pick it up!
- Don’t overwater. If you’ve been getting regular amounts of rain, don’t add more water to the tree. The drought tolerance of fig trees will amaze you, so err on the dry side.
- If you forget to water your potted fig tree and the soil dries out so that it is pulling away from the inside of the pot, the rootball has become hydrophobic and will not absorb water. Using your hands, push the soil back into the sides of the pot as best you can. Use a rod (pencil, pen, a piece of bamboo, wooden dowel, etc) to poke a dozen or so holes into the soil at least a quarter of the way down into the pot and then water thoroughly. If water runs out the bottom too quickly, wait a minute or two until the soil starts to rehydrate and water again. Repeat until the pot starts to gain a little weight. Be patient and don’t overdo it. You just want to remoisten the rootball. Let it sit overnight and check it the next day.
- Don’t forget to water your potted, dormant fig trees during the winter. A little bit goes a long way here. If they’re in a shed or garage, a few handfuls of snow once a month will do the trick. Otherwise, I generally water by the size of the pot, once a month. A #2 nursery pot will get 1/2 cup of water, #5 - 1 cup, #10 - 1 1/2 cups, #20 - 2 cups, #25 - 3 cups.
LEAF DROOP AND LEAF DROP
Please understand that fig trees are tough, resilient and will attempt to live and thrive in some of the harshest environments. They have genetically programmed defense mechanisms to help them do so. One of those defense mechanisms is the dropping of leaves and/or fruit, seemingly for no apparent reason. As long as you didn’t drown it or dry it out, please don’t be too alarmed if this happens to your new fig tree. You didn’t do anything wrong and there’s nothing wrong with your tree. Your fig tree is simply stressed, adapting to its new environment and may have a little shock. In this case, your fig tree is storing energy and probably putting down new roots. The energy that was removed from the leaves created the leaf and/or fruit drop.
If your fig tree is still in the pot, water lightly and fertilize according to directions. Move the fig tree to a shady spot for a week or two. When you start to see the buds swelling, becoming more green or new buds forming, move your fig tree back into the full sun and the final place where it will stay.
If you’ve already planted your fig tree in the ground, water lightly and fertilize according to directions. Once those new roots grow into the surrounding soil and take hold, the tree will rebound.
In-ground fig trees generally do not require fertilization as they are fed from the earth. If an in-ground tree is lacking or you’d like to give it a boost then fertilize until your heart is content. Additionally, if you have a tradition of fertilizing that has been passed down, please continue that tradition. Otherwise, you should create a fertilizing schedule for your potted fig trees. It does not have to be stringent and may be a simple application only twice a season. But to get really good fruit some type of weekly or bi-weekly feeding regimen should be present. Basically, to keep your fig tree fed and producing fruit:
- Use a Controlled Release Fertilizer on May 1st. Sprinkle it on the top of your pot or broadcast it around the base of your tree. Miracle-Gro Shake n’ Feed for fruits and vegetables is a good all-around fertilizer for both potted and in-ground fig trees. All of the big box stores carry Miracle-Gro products. If you are having trouble finding it, any Controlled Release Fertilizer for fruit and/or containerized plants will do. Nothing special here, just follow the directions on the label.
- After applying a Controlled Release Fertilizer you can work the fig tree into your regular scheduled fertilizer program. If you don’t have a scheduled fertilizer program, simply purchase an all-purpose water soluble or liquid fertilizer. Again, Miracle-Gro has a good product and is readily available at the big box stores. Just follow the directions on the label and you’ll be just fine.
- It’s not necessary, but you can add a schedule of vitamins to every watering if you like. Read up on supplementing vitamins, pick a product and follow the directions. We’ve been using Superthrive in the little brown bottle for years. It’s readily available at the big box stores and reasonably priced. I swear by the product and our trees seem to be happier when watering with it.
- Do not fertilize after September 1st. Your fig trees will push out new growth that may not harden (lignify) in time for winter. The new growth will freeze, die and potentially harm your fig tree.
PRUNING, ROOT PRUNING, PINCHING & CROP PRODUCTION
Pruning can seem like a daunting task and turns some people away from acquiring a fig tree. Pruning is actually quite simple. Follow a few simple rules and everything will fall into place. After pruning a few times you’ll find the fig tree will tell you how it should be pruned. Start out with sharp, clean pruners or pruning saw. Make a quick, clean cut at the base of the branch, close to the collar (where the base of the branch meets the adjoining branch or trunk) and:
- Prune your fig tree when it is dormant.
- Start from the bottom and work your way upwards.
- Terminate pruned branches at a 45-degree angle.
- Prune dying, dead or weak branches.
- Prune any branches growing downward, inward or crossing one another.
- Prune for shape and size. Keep the tree at a manageable height so you can harvest the fruit.
- Thin the center like a vase. This will let more sunlight in. Your fig tree will have higher yields and tastier fruit.
The more involved you get with pruning the more you’ll discover what your fig tree can do for you. At the end of this article, I’ve suggested a book about pruning that can help hone your pruning technique. There are a few pruning tricks that can be learned but you must first understand growth habits, climate and the simple mechanics of your fig tree. You’ll be amazed at what a little proper pruning can do.
Root pruning is different from regular pruning in that you are removing the growth from below the soil line. Regular root pruning will keep your fig tree happy, healthy and producing loads of fruit almost indefinitely. Root pruning also prevents a fig tree from becoming root-bound in its pot. You’ll know when a fig tree is root-bound when water penetrates the soil very slowly or not at all. You may also get poor fruit production, thin, leggy growth, and sparse leaf production. A good test is to stick your finger into the soil. If it’s hard to penetrate the soil-line the tree could probably use a root-pruning.
It is essential to root-prune your potted fig tree every 2 -3 years or so. Just like regular pruning, root-pruning is conducted during the winter when your fig tree is dormant. The root ball is removed from the pot and a portion of roots and soil is removed by slicing, sawing, or shaving the sides. You can use a sharp knife, old saw, or shovel but a reciprocating saw with an aggressive (pruning) blade works best. The tree is replaced in the same or larger pot with fresh soil. When the tree wakes up, new roots will grow ferociously into that new soil.
Sometimes you have to remove a root-mat from your potted fig tree instead of root-pruning. A root-mat is a term I use for the tangled mass of roots that grows upwards into the top few inches of soil. This is a response to rain, fertilizing and watering from the top. It could be a sign that your fig tree needs slightly more water or more stable watering schedule, the period between waterings is too long, or nutrients are not reaching the root ball. Like a root-bound tree in a pot, a root-mat will be hard to penetrate with your finger. But if you dig alongside the pot a bit, peeling back the first few inches, you'll feel loose potting soil that is easier to penetrate. Fortunately, root-mats are easy to handle. Using a curved-blade or old serrated steak knife, poke a hole very close to the trunk at the soil line. Create a straight cut into the root-mat a few inches deep, extending from the trunk to the pot. Now cut a circle around the trunk of the fig tree at the same depth, beginning and ending at the first cut. Dig down a few inches by the straight cut where it meets the pot. Start peeling back the root mat, using a serrated knife to cut the roots and release the mat. Carefully peel and cut until the root-mat is fully detached and remove it. Replace with fresh potting soil and Controlled Release Fertilizer.
Since pruning can remove an entire crop of figs, it’s appropriate that we speak about crop production in this section. Generally, your (common) fig tree will give you two crops of figs every season, a breba (first) crop and a main (second) crop. Here in the northeast, we can expect a ripe breba crop anywhere from early July through August. The main crop will come in for us anytime from July to the end of the season. Breba figs will form on last season’s growth while main crop figs develop on brand new green growth.
Putting this into practice, when pruning back branches that grew this season, you are essentially cutting off next season’s first crop of figs. This is not necessarily a bad thing for several reasons:
- Breba and generally larger but not necessarily better than main crop figs. Most times they are less tasty and not as sweet.
- Breba crop is not as prolific as the main crop.
- Our short season in the northeast further reduces the quality of our breba crop.
For these reasons, in our potted northeast fig orchard, we prune for health and shape and not much regard for breba. We concentrate on making the best main crop possible. In doing this we’ve found that our breba crop is not really affected all that much much. Coming into a new season having done no pruning the preceding year I can report that we lose approximately 40% of our breba crop to pruning. This is a fair estimate and worth the sacrifice for the health and shape of our fig trees. For anyone not willing to sacrifice any part of their crop, follow the instructions above except prune for shape in the early part of the summer.
Pinch pruning is conducted on both potted and in-ground fig trees. Pinch pruning is a simple method of hastening fruit production, shortening ripening times and inducing side branching (more branches equals more figs). Pinching is conducted in May and June after the sixth (6th) leaf has developed onto a new-growth branch. You can pinch after more leaves have developed but I like to wait until at least six (6) are present. Pinching is not conducted after June because any new figs developed as a result of pinching at that time will not ripen before the end of the season and robs your fig tree of precious energy. Count the leaves from the bottom to the tip of the branch. Grasp the terminal bud firmly between your thumb and forefinger. Tilt your hand sideways and ‘snap’ the new bud off the branch. You can also use a pair of pruners to accomplish the same task. After an hour or so the tree will stop bleeding sap. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and warm water to remove the fig sap from your hands.
Using olive oil to hasten fruit ripening is a very old-school method that works. Figs ripened with this method may not taste as good as figs ripened naturally. But figs ripened by any manner in our northeast climate are a real treat in my book. Timing is everything and the technique should be applied to unripe figs that are as close to ripening as possible, during the hottest part of the summer. You must have both elements in order for the technique to work properly and you'll have to apply it when the timing is right for you based on prior knowledge of ripening for your variety and the physical size of the fig. The unripe figs should at least have just started to swell and maybe even show signs of color. For us here in NYC that would always be around the second or third week of August. When you're ready, select figs that are larger in size when compared to others. I like to knock off the very small figs that will never ripen as I think this helps, too. Apply olive oil to the figs in the evening when it's dry (no rain). Place a dab of olive oil on your finger and rub it onto the eye on the underside of the fig. Use only a dab. You can also use a cotton swab (Q-Tip™) as a dauber. Some will even lightly coat the entire fig with olive oil and you can use a cotton ball to help. If the technique was applied at the right time ripening should occur within the next 10 days. If it takes longer or doesn't work then the technique was applied too soon. If the figs are still in good shape and the weather is hot give it another shot.