A Frost-Pruned Fig Tree, and What Happened Next

I absolutely love the taste of fresh, perfectly ripe figs. In my roster of all-time most delicious things ever, they’re right up there with fresh-off-the-tree seasonal apples, well-ripened pears, really good ice cream, 85% cocoa dark chocolate, vintage cheddar cheese, strong dry cider and deep, dark imperial stout[1] So when we moved house a few years ago and started redeveloping the back garden, a fig tree was at the top of the list of plants to add.

Add one we did, a ‘Brown Turkey'[2], back in 2017. It was planted in a fig pit, at the corner of the shed, in a position designed to catch the maximum amount of afternoon sunlight. It was a rather small tree when it went in[3], and for the next four years it grew steadily but quietly, producing a few tasty fruits each year, and seemed quite happy with its lot. In May 2020 there was a late frost forecast for May, so I wrapped the tree up in fleece to protect it…

…which goes to show how little growth it had put on. Then, in 2021, another late frost was forecast in May… but this time I didn’t manage to get the fleece on in time. I can’t remember if I was away from home, or too busy, or just plain forgot, but the fig tree remained unprotected, and the frost hit, hard.

The end result: the tips of all the main stems were frost-bitten, and every fruitlet was killed:

I wrung my hands, gnashed my teeth and shook my fist skywards in the general direction of the cruel and capricious Weather Gods, but the damage was done. Nothing for it but wait and see what happened next. And what happened next was: massive re-growth.

As if spurred into action by its brush with icy die-back, the tree sprang back into vigorous life and produced a mass of side shoots. Here’s the tree in July last year. You can see the fresh, green stems shooting out in all directions

In this in-zoomed view you can just about make out the died-back tip of the old leading stem and the two vigorous new stems that grew to replace it. My intention has always been to add a few wire supports to the shed and tie the fig in to train it around the window, and those two new shoots appear to be nearly perfectly placed:

Or at least, one of them is, as you can see from this profile view. The original leader was actually a little too far from the shed for tying in, but that new stem is growing in just the right direction, and the one in the middle of the pic might be flexible enough to gently bend back around as well.

There’s also that lower stem, which is jutting out across what amounts to a path, which I think definitely has the potential to be air-layered and propagated to make a new fig tree, which I’d quite like to add to the allotment.

Later in the year, after the leaves had dropped, it was easy to see quite how much new growth the tree had put on and, as per the labelled diagram, the pattern of regrowth: buds breaking and developing into stems alongside or just below the points of die-back:

Of course, the tree didn’t produce any edible fruit last year[4] because the fruitlets had been frost-killed and the replacements that it did grow didn’t reach a reasonable size before the onset of autumn. There were a few of those, but they’ve all sustained damage to some degree and so have been removed:

I am, however, hugely hopeful for this year’s crop. Quite a few top-fruit tree species are strongly biennial: a poor fruiting year allows the tree to devote more of its available energy to the production of fruiting buds for next year. Having said that, there are caveats: whilst I know this generally applies to apples and pears, I’m not as well-read, or practised, in the ways of fig trees. I can but hope that the same general principal does apply and some of these shorter, rounder new buds will turn out to be fruitful rather than just result in leaf or stem extension growth:

Time will tell! In the meantime, I have a couple of jobs to do: setting up those wire supports and tying in the best of the new stems, then propagating that spare stem in spring. I will, of course, be keeping a close eye on the weather forecast in case of late frosts, and this time I’ll do my best to be ready with a bundle of fleece – although I’ll need a fair bit more than last time – to protect those precious fruit buds. And hopefully later in the year I’ll be posting photos of dishes full of perfectly ripe figs.

How about you? Do you grow figs either at home, on your allotment, or at work? Do you have any top tips for fig-tree care? How do you go about protecting them from frost, if at all? Please do let me know, via the comments, below.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 And wouldn’t that lot make for a hell of a sandwich? Okay, maybe the cider and stout wouldn’t go <em>in</em> the sandwich, I’d probably have those on the side… but I digress.
2 Perhaps not the most exciting choice of cultivar, but generally a reliable cropper, even in our Norther climes.
3 We ordered one by mail order and got what we were sent, which perhaps wasn’t the best tree we could have picked out ourselves. That can be the down-side of mail order: you’re at the mercy of the nursery and whatever they decide to send you.
4 Sad-face emoji…

18 comments

  1. I have a fig in a pot. It fruits sometimes but nothing that ripens fully. I can’t remember the variety but it’s not a Brown Turkey, which may explain why the fruits don’t ripen. It’s now in the best place for afternoon sun so I live in hope.

    1. If it’s in a pot, could it be moved into a greenhouse or conservatory in late summer to help the fruits ripen? Or have you could tried thinning the fruit, which might help it to devote more of its energy to developing the ones that remain?

  2. Mine got hit this year with a pretty bad frost after it had started to bud. I didn’t have enough fleece, so I left it uncovered… wish I hadn’t. I’m hopeful it bounces back like yours! It definitely taking its sweet time.

    1. Hi Angelica – The weather has warmed up a bit, so I’ve just uncovered my fig after a couple of weeks under fleece. There are a few black spots on the buds which look like minor frost damage, so I’m not sure it has escaped unscathed. But hopefully it’s just the outer casing that’s been damaged and the bud itself might be okay. Time will tell…

  3. I have a largish fig ,only pruned once it’s about 5 years old 6foot tall, has lots of fruits this year.
    But after all the fruits have gone I’m going to cut it back to train it up the back fence.

    1. Hi Kevin – That sounds like a good plan. I’ve started training ours to wires along the side of the shed and it seems to be quite happy with the new arrangement so far. There are quite a few fruits on it this year seem to be developing nicely. We’ll just need a bit of heat to ripen them up, otherwise I’ll be trying the roast green fig recipe that someone mentioned / told me about / I saw somewhere random online 🙂

      1. Hi Cal – Well, I’m cutting ours back as little a possible, trying to train it by bending the branches and tying to the wires along the side shed, rather than prune it into shape. I think the more you cut back a fig, the more vigorously it tends to re-grow, so I’m trying to let ours find its own balance and shape, just with a little extra help.

  4. I have a fig tree in a pot in the ground. It was rather pathetic when I bought it 2 years ago. So far no fruit at all. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Gabrielle – How’s it looking now? If it’s still a bit pathetic then it could just be too weak to produce fruit. Trees also need to reach a certain level of maturity before they start producing fruit, so it could just be that it’s still too young. Can you see any round, green buds forming? These could be next year’s fruits stating to develop. If so, it might be worth feeding it with a high nitrogen feed this autumn, which might help it kick on next spring.

  5. My Figs almost died 2 yrs ago due to heavy snow winter. However, thank God, they survived. Last year I built a little house for them, put a lot of straw, leafs and a roof over them. I ate figs last yr. This year they blew up. It had so much growth I’m planning to cut it back so it fit in the house. Out of the pruning I have 2 new fig trees growing, which I’m excited about. I’m planning to keep the pots in the garage for the winter since they still small. The other 2 trees are in the ground. I want to know how often to fertilize and what to fertilize it with.

    1. Hi Eroilda – Figs are a lot tougher than we give them credit for sometimes – they’re Mediterranean plants after all, so they’re used to growing in fairly harsh, dry, stony landscapes – and I think as long as the roots survive a winter of frost or snow they’ll always be able to recover to some extent.

      It sounds as though yours are doing just fine! I’m not sure you’ll need to fertilise them though. If the tree(s) in the ground are growing strongly already and you’re having to prune them back, then any more fertiliser will just make them even larger and then they’ll need even more pruning. And if they put on too much new growth too quickly then the long, soft stems will be more prone to frost damage if we do have a bad winter.

      All in all, I’d suggest leaving it to its own devices and just make plans for all those tasty figs instead.

  6. My fig tree is 4 yrs old and I need Help. I live in NC and every year the cold completely kills it back and it starts new growth from the ground, never producing fruit. The first winter I covered it with straw and fabric but it still died back so since I’ve just left it. This year it has grown more, about 3 ft and just this week I discovered a fig on it so I still have hope. My sister has a brown fig that was planted 3 yrs and they had figs the second yr and this year they had 2 large crops and they live 3 houses from me so I know it isn’t the area. Please advise me what to do this winter to protect it. Thank you

    1. Hi Beverly –

      Is there any chance the tree could be in a bit of a frost-pocket? Maybe in the corner of a yard, or towards the bottom of a slope, where cold air could sink or flow and then accumulate? That might account for the regular dying-back when neighbouring trees are doing fine.

      I’m afraid another possibility is that it’s just not that strong an individual tree. They’re all different, and if there’s something in its physiology, or genetics – could it be a different cultivar or variety to your sister’s tree? – that makes it more susceptible to cold, then that could also account for the regular die-back.

      Protection-wise, heavy-duty horticultural fleece wrapped around the branches might help. Or burlap sacking, according to this article I found: https://www.bbg.org/gardening/article/how_to_wrap_a_fig_tree_to_protect_it_for_the_winter

      Fingers crossed, and good luck!

  7. I have a brown Turkish fig tree for many years and it grows beautiful. I cut it back each autumn to keep it a certain size because it’s roots grow under the patio.
    It bears lots of big fruits, but they never ripen. It’s time now to cut it back without having enjoyed a single ripe fruit.
    What am I doing wrong?

    1. Hi Sylvia – Well, there could be a number of things going on here. Firstly, figs do need a decent amount of heat to ripen, so depending on where you are in the world and what your local climate is like, it might just be that your summers aren’t quite warm enough to ripen them up. In which case, there might not be a lot that can be done, short of growing figs in a greenhouse or polytunnel instead. And another possibility is that it’s not actually a ‘Brown Turkey’, but another variety of fig, and perhaps one that’s not quite as well suited to your local climate, which might be affecting its ripening.

      The annual autumn cut-back could also be affecting the tree’s regrowth pattern. Most fruit trees over-compensate when damaged, producing a lot of re-growth in response – do you notice lots of new shoots springing out from around the previous year’s cut-points, by any chance..? – and the more energy the tree puts into growing new stems and leaves, the less energy it has to put into developing and ripening fruit.

      Cutting back will also remove a lot of next year’s early fruit buds, many of which are set this year to grow on next year. If the tree has to grow new stems and then new fruit buds on those stems, they’re going to be developing into fruit much later on in the growing season, which means they’ll be second-flush fruits and those really do need a long, hot summer to ripen well.

      As an experiment, how about not cutting back one or two established branches with new fruit buds (small, green and round) on them already, but removing any unripe, large fruit. Then you can see how the fruit on those branches performs next year, compared to the new sections?

      You could also try the ripe banana trick: put those nearly-ripe figs and in a paper bag with a ripe banana to see if the excess ethylene gas produced by the banana will then influence the figs and encourage them to ripen. That might be worth a shot?

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