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 stout1And 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. 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’2Perhaps not the most exciting choice of cultivar, but generally a reliable cropper, even in our Norther climes., 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 in3We 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., 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 year4Sad-face emoji… 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

  • 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…

43 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 used to be the same, until I watched gardeners world one time, and if you remove any fig bigger than the size of a pea around november time (i think) then the pea sized ones will be ripen next summer and the tree will bear more fruit too (as less energy is lost to the big fruits which will not ripen and will just harden or rot in the summer)

      Doing this has transformed my figgy, and we get lots to eat these days good luck to yours too!

      1. Hi Lou – That’s a top tip, and it does work here in the UK. If we had more consistent heat through the summer and into the autumn then both crops of figs would probably ripen, as they do in more Mediterranean climes. But yes, removing the larger fruitlets, which are often frost-damaged, before they rot is a very good idea.

  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…

      1. I rescued a fig tree and is now really healthy but has never fruited .I don’t know why.

        1. Sometimes if the trees not in a position where the roots are not confined then it diverts its energy into branches/leafs rather than becoming fruitful I believe?

  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.

      1. Hi June – If the tree has been in the pot for 7 years then it maybe doesn’t have enough nutrients to produce fruit. Do you feed it regularly? A high potash feed might help it to set fruit, and then a high nitrogen feed in the autumn as the leaves are changing colour will help it to store nitrogen in its roots for spring. Most importantly though, when was the last time you potted it up into a larger container? I’d say moving it up a size once a year and adding plenty of free-draining soil / compost would be a good idea, again to give it access to more nutrients to produce that fruit.

  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?

  8. Should I cut back the frost bite tips of my fig tree? They are a much darker color than the rest of the branch. You left yours alone, but what if I cut them back to where the color is normal? My fig tree is very large for my yard. I thought it was dead once due to drought but it came back strong. It is in the corner of a chain link fence and sometime I have to cut the lower branches.
    Anyone have a good, easy fig recipe?
    – north Alabama late February

    1. Hi Rick – I’d say it depends on whether you’re likely to have any more harsh frosts in north Alabama world before the tree gets growing again. If you cut the tips off and then there is another frost, the exposed pruning wounds will be vulnerable to further damage if they’ve not healed over properly. But if you leave the dead tips on the tree a little longer they should just dry and shrivel naturally and can be trimmed back when all risk of frost has gone.

      As for fig recipes, there are some amazing-sounding ones in ‘Tender vol II’ by Nigel Slater, if you can get hold of a copy in the U.S.

  9. We just had our fig trees leaf out, then had a cold snap and all those beautiful new baby leaves shriveled and died. Can we hope for it to recover and put out new leaves? Will this affect fruiting? What should we do? We live in South Carolina, USA.

    1. Hi Marlene – Figs are pretty tough, so I suspect the tree will recover and put out new leaves in a fairly short space of time, so as long as there aren’t too many more surprise frosts, it should bounce right back. As for fruiting – that will depend on whether the new leaves can grow on uninterrupted by frost and then the conditions you have over the summer. If the weather-gods are kind then fruit will hopefully come your way in time.

  10. I have a giant 15 year old fig tree that had tons of lucious figs last fall. We had a hard freeze at the end of the year. I didn’t cover it. Now it’s early May and there’s no signs of life.
    Could it still be alive?

    1. Hi Fran – It very much depends on where you are in the world and what sort of weather you’ve been having over the past few weeks. If it’s been quite cold and damp then the tree might just be biding its time, waiting for the warmth of spring. Any stems that are looking dry and shrivelled may have died back, so it might be an idea to trim those off.

      And you could try a cambium test as well – if you gently scrape away the top layer of bark in a very small patch at towards the base of a branch and find green underneath then that’s a good sign that there’s still life in the tree. If you just find dark, brown wood then I’m afraid it might not be healthy after all. Try a few more cambium tests on other branches to see what the general picture is.

      Fingers crossed, and good luck!

  11. Zone 8 in SC. Pruned our fig to open up the center and decrease height before any buds were forming. Had lots of new leaves when we got hit with very low temps, all that new growth died. Mid May now and lots of growth coming up from the base and a very small amount of new leaves on the established wood. Should we remove the new growth at the base or remove the established branches with the very slight new growth (the thinking that removing one or the other will give more energy to the other)? Or just leave both?

    1. Hi Gigi – I’d say it very much depends on the shape you want the tree to grow into. If you’re happy with a multi-stem tree, then leaving the new growth to do its thing will mean you get a wider canopy a few years down the line and the tree will eventually take up more space, unless you prune out some of the new stems.

      If you’d rather have a single-stem for a more traditional standard tree, then you’ll need to prune out the new growth at some point, but it might be worth waiting to see if any of the original stems have been killed completely before you do. When ours was frosted the tips died back, but then new growth sprouted further down the original branches. But you don’t want to cut out all the new growth, only to discover later that the original main stem is too damaged to re-grow well.

      Hope that helps?

  12. Wish I could send you a picture. We let it get away from us before we started pruning in the past so we now have nine trunks. Most of these have a very small amount of new leaves but some have none. These trunks are about 5 ft tall. Sounds like it will be ok to leave the new growth from the base and see how things go. Will need to thin out in the winter or I will be back where I started. Thank you for responding!

  13. Hi Darren,
    I planted a fig branch 15 years ago and over the years, it grew into the size of a living room, yielding 125-150 figs a day every fall season. I’d cover it with blankets and tarps for the winter here in western PA and uncover it each spring. Then nature did it’s thing
    No idea what’s happened this year. It wasn’t a bad winter—a couple of freezing snaps—but I’d say only 25% of the tree has flowered and there is no sign of anything going on with the rest of it. And the bark is showing no signs of green
    I have no idea how to proceed. Cut? Just let nature deal with it? Pretty depressing, as this has been a nice hobby for me.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Enjoy your site

    1. Hi Ed – This past winter seems to have caused a few problems for US fig growers, if the comments on this post are anything to go by. In your case, I’d suggest that as part of the tree is still healthy, cutting back the rest of it if it’s definitely dead might not be a bad idea, to make room for new growth. You could try the cambium test that I suggested to FranG a few comments back, to see if any of the apparently lifeless stems do actually have any life in them, and if not, then cut them out as close to their point of origin on a healthy part of the tree as you can. If it turns out there’s still some life left in them, then leaving them be for now might be wiser, in case they start developing new leaves later in the season, which will help with the tree’s recovery.

      When you say ‘25% of the tree has flowered’ though… do you mean it has produced fruitlets? As far as I know, the edible fig – Ficus carica – isn’t usually a plant that produces actual flowers per se, but I might just be showing my ignorance there 🙂

      In any case, cutting out the dead wood is still probably a good way to go, if it definitely is dead wood. And hey, don’t be depressed! Our little fig tree came back stronger from its own bout of frost-bite, and it’s producing well this year. Where there’s life there’s hope, and it sounds like there’s life in your old tree yet!

      1. Thanks so much, Darren.
        I read your comment to Fran previously and more than half of the tree seems to have “dead wood” now as bark after performing the test
        When I say “flowered,” I mean that the leaves have emerged. Nothing in the way of fig buds but in this region at this time of the year, that’s normal. The lack of leaves over the majority of the tree however, is not normal
        What’s very strange to me is that other than one or two cold snaps, where temperatures suddenly dropped below zero for a few days, this was a mild winter in the region. Certainly, this tree had survived much more rough winters over the years
        But as the tree has grown and branches have sprung in all directions it has become much more difficult to pin down prior to each winter (with bungee cords and stakes) and then cover with sheets and linens, etc., before finally putting big tarps over them
        I’m thinking that perhaps it became too big and with growth of its core areas, was more susceptible to sudden freezes and frost
        Who knows? I thought I’d done a great cover job again this past fall
        Anyway, thanks again. I’m going to do nothing until temps are consistently in the 70’s at least and overnight lows stay above 50. Then the cutting away will begin and hopefully, a new version will emerge in time
        Truly appreciate your insights and ideas. As I said at the start, this tree started from just planting a twig to generating 150 figs a day in the fall
        I’m going to miss being the talk of the town
        Thanks so much

        1. Hi Ed – You’re very welcome, glad I was able to help some. Hopefully before too long the tree will have recovered and be back to full strength, and you’ll be the talk of the town again. Just a thought, but by way of an insurance policy, is it worth trying to start off a couple more cuttings, just in case next winter is freakishly harsh as well..?

          1. I suspect that this giant of a tree will have to be cut down substantially in the next couple weeks and will make covering it for winter a much easier job than what I’ve become accustomed to over the past few years. That said, I think I need a better strategy if this again grows in all directions in the years ahead. As I said above, what I’ve always done is to bunch branches together as best I can, bend them downward and hold them with bungee cords. I tend put everything from bed sheets to old carpeting sections on top and then put tarps on top of them, staking the tarps down for the winter. It’s become difficult as the branches have grown in many directions and they frequently slap me in the face in the process, but I’ve managed. I’ve never had a freeze problem over all these years and through many “more harsh” types of winters, but somehow things went wrong this year. I’m guessing that the great fluctuations from mild winter to sudden below zero days with high wind just did the damage.
            But again, although I do now seem some growth at ground level, at least half of this big tree will have to have branches cut almost to ground. Shame. Thanks again and by all means, keep the ideas coming. We are still having evening lows in the low 40’s and highs only in the 70’s. I’ll give it a couple more weeks

  14. Hi Darren
    I have a candy-fig tree in my garden in sunny South Africa and it gets full sun where it is planted. It produces two fruit crops every year, but it drops its fruit of both crops prematurely when they are still small. From the start to the end of the fruit showing, it drops the fruit after about 6-8 weeks. I have searched the web and cannot find a solution to the problem. Do you perhaps have an idea what it can be?
    Thank you so much for your website 😉

    1. Hi Irna – Would the candy-fig be the same as the candy-striped fig, or Ficus adriatica? If so, it seems to be a native of Italy, so should thrive in near-Mediterranean conditions, which I suspect is what you have in sunny South Africa.

      From what I’ve been able to find out by searching around, it seems the most common cause of fruit-drop is probably linked to water stress, either an insufficiency or irregularity of water supply, especially if the tree is growing in shallow soil. I did see a suggestion that if fruitlets are affected by sap-sucking insects, such as thrips, that could cause them to drop prematurely as well.

      I think the solution to the first problem would be regular watering, either by hand, or perhaps you could set up some sort of automated, or drip-irrigation system. I think the second problem is usually tackled by bagging the fruit, although that might not be practical, depending on how the tree is growing.

      The other thing you could try, although it might be a bit drastic, is to remove all fruitlets that are above pea-size at the end of autumn, just leaving the brand new fruit buds to develop in the spring. That might encourage the tree to put all its energy into the new buds, rather than wasting energy on trying to develop over-wintered fruitlets that may have been frost-damaged and doomed to fail. That’s generally what we have to do here in not-so sunny England in order to get our one crop per year.

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