figs growing on tree
(Image credit: Jasenka Arbanas / Getty Images)

It can be disheartening to have your hard work in the garden go caput due to unforeseen challenges along the way. That's why it is the goal of Gardening Know How to help avoid these issues, or at the very least amend them, by providing the best information possible so your garden will flourish - and that includes answering the gardening questions that plague us all. Fig trees are no exception. The common fig, Ficus carica, is native to the Middle East and western Asia but can be grown in the southern and western United States quite easily. Fig trees can be grown outdoors or in containers and, with the right care, will fruit prolifically. Here are the top questions about growing figs.

1) How to prune a fig tree

Fig trees should be pruned when you first transplant them and again in the winter when the tree is dormant. When the tree is first planted, it should be cut back by about half to allow the tree to concentrate on developing a strong root system and to grow side branches. Once the tree is established, prune the tree to make it easier to harvest and maintain its overall health. Prune out any dead or diseased wood or suckers, remove secondary branches that are at less than a 45-degree angle from main branches, and cut back the main branches by 1/3 to 1/4. Container grown figs can be pruned similar to that of those grown in ground.

2) How to propagate a fig tree

Fig trees can be propagated quite easily, especially cuttings. Take a ½ to ¾ inch thick cutting that's between 8-12 inches in length from the tree late in the dormant season. Cut the tip at a slant and the bottom of the cutting flat. Treat the slanted end with sealant to prevent disease and the flat end with rooting hormone. Place the flat end into a couple of inches of sand or potting soil and then back fill with more medium. Keep the cutting warm, in a sunny location and regularly watered. The new tree will be ready to transplant the following dormant season.

3) Can you plant and grow fig trees in containers?

Yes, and the larger the pot, the better unless you want to restrict the plant size. The benefits of growing figs in containers are that yields are often improved and the harvest date is earlier due to root restriction. A half whiskey barrel or the like is an ideal container for figs. Place the pot on casters for ease of movement. Choose a site with lots of sun and pot the fig in well-draining, loamy, compost-rich soil. Container grown plants require consistent irrigation and more of it than those grown in the garden as well as more frequent fertilization.

4) Why isn't my fig tree producing figs?

There are three major reasons for a fig tree not producing: the age of the tree, excess nitrogen and stress caused by too much or too little water. Some fig trees fruit at 2 years of age and some at 6you're your tree is older than this, I would look at watering next. Remember, fig trees in pots need more water than those in the ground. Try using a water gauge to determine if you are over or under watering. If that doesn't seem to be the problem, then the issue might be nitrogen. Too much can lead to lush foliage at the expense of flowering, thus no fruit. Switch to a lower nitrogen fertilizer or add some phosphorus to the soil.

5)  How to treat rust on fig trees?

Rust fungus thrives in wet, humid environments and is most common in late summer or early fall. While rust on fig trees is unsightly, it isn't fatal, although it can foster winter die back of branches and affect the ripening of fruit. Remove any infected leaves at the first sign of infection and dispose of them; don't compost them. Then treat the plant with a fungicide that contains copper sulfate and lime. Treat bare trees during the dormant season and repeat every 2-3 weeks. Also, prune the fig to improve air circulation and allow for more rapid surface water evaporation.

6) How to care for fig tree in winter?

Caring for fig trees in winter differs slightly depending on your zone and if grown in pots versus those in ground. Container grown figs can just be moved into a cool, dry area such as a garage or basement. If kept outdoors, however, I would place the container in a well-protected location, such as next to the house or a wall where it can absorb heat. The pot may also need to be wrapped. For trees planted in the ground, start by pruning in the fall. Then, tie the branches together and place a thick layer of mulch over the ground to protect the roots. Wrap the tree in layers of burlap, leaving the top open to allow for air circulation and let excess heat escape. Build a cage of chicken wire around the tree and fill it with straw or leaves and then wrap entirely in bubble wrap or other plastic insulation. Top the entire contraption with a bucket. Remove in early spring when night temps are consistently above 20 F. (-6 C.).

7) How do you stop fig leaves from browning?

First, check the soil. If the soil is very dry, it could be resisting taking up water. If this is the case, then rehydrating the plant may be all you need. Fill your tub or a large bucket with water and place the plant in the water and let it sit for about an hour. This will force the overly dry soil to once again take up water and should help with any leaves falling off as well. For in-ground plants, soak the ground for about an hour to obtain the same results. If the soil is moist, something else is causing the browning. Pests or disease could be to blame and will need to be dealt with accordingly, which will ultimately help take care of the browning foliage. Also, you can prune off the brown leaves as well as any dead or dying branches.

8) What causes leaf drop on fig trees?

Figs are notoriously fickle and will drop their leaves due to a number of factors. Leaf drop may be a normal result of dormancy, which is a natural occurrence upon the onset of winter. Pest infestation can cause leaf drop but can be controlled with weekly neem oil applications. Over or under-watering figs will result in leaf drop. Be sure to water when the 1st inch of soil is dry to the touch. Also, environmental factors such as a change in lighting, humidity or temperature will stress the fig and result in leaf drop. Gradually expose the tree to any new conditions beginning with an hour and increasing the fig's time in the new area over the course of a couple of weeks.

9) Why figs are not ripening

A fig tree that fruits but doesn't ripen or mature is probably under stress either from a lack of water or nutrients, or due to high temps. If you fertilize and water regularly, it might be a temperature flux. Also, pests and disease might be the problem; attacks by either of these causes the fig to divert energy from ripening into protecting itself. Treat any pests or disease promptly and if you have had a period of high heat, be sure to water more frequently. Poor pollination can also contribute to this issue, as the fig fruit will remain very small and may also drop from the tree before ripening.

10) How and when to fertilize a fig tree

Generally, these plants draw all the nutrients they require from the soil; therefore, regular fertilizing of figs is not usually necessary except for potted trees or those growing in poor soil, such as with sandy soil that leaches nutrients rapidly or when figs are surrounded by competing plants. Fig fertilization also depends on whether a plant is young or mature. Use a general purpose balanced fertilizer (8-8-8 or 10-10-10) per foot of plant height each time. For instance, feed 1 and 2 year old trees an ounce of fertilizer once a month when the tree begins to put out new leaves, in late winter or early spring. Older trees get 1/3 pound of fertilizer per foot monthly in late winter, mid-spring and mid-summer. Stop feeding before the end of July. We all have questions now and then, whether long-time gardeners or those just starting out. So if you have a gardening question, get a gardening answer. We're always here to help.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.