Although fig trees are widely planted in the Pacific Northwest they really are marginal here. Knowing how they grow will let you get the most out of them.
Fig trees often bear two crops, an early “breba” crop; and then, after a gap, a later crop. In real fig country, which means hot climates like the Southeast, the Southwest, or the central valley of California, the breba crop is considered inferior, and is often disregarded. However, in the Northwest, cooler temperatures make everything develop more slowly. Here, the later “main” crop may not have time to ripen, or may just start before autumn chill brings it to a close. For this reason, the fig varieties that are most satisfactory in the Northwest are those that have a good breba crop. That means fairly abundant and with quality.
Let’s look at how a fig tree has these two crops.
Below is a fig branch, pictured in mid-October. This is a variety named “Negronne”, a good one for the Pacific Northwest.
The next picture is the same twig with the leaves cut off to better show the figs.
The three largest dark figs labeled “A” are this year’s crop. More precisely, they are the “late” crop, which would be the “main” crop in a more typical fig climate. Here in the temperate Northwest, they are just on the point of barely getting ripe, now at the very end of the warm weather. As soon as the weather cools off, figs stop ripening. Incidentally, it sometimes works to pick marginal figs like this and bring them indoors to a warm place, and they will get sweet.
The several medium sized greenish figs labeled “B” are next up along the twig. These figs have been developing, and in a typical hot fig climate would have long since ripened. However, barring an unprecedented heat wave, the cool October weather here in the Northwest will bring their growth to a stop. In some varieties of figs, such as “Brown Turkey”, the chilly weather of November will make these half-grown figs all fall off. In others, like Negronne, they may bravely hang on. Perhaps in a miraculously mild winter, half-grown figs like this may make it through to spring, and ripen up. Almost always, however, freezing weather kills them, and they are lost.
Label “C” marks tiny nubbins of figs, at the bases of the uppermost leaves. Since they are still dormant and undeveloped, they can make it through the winter. Occasionally, we have extreme winter weather in the Pacific Northwest, which kills fig trees to the ground. That’s a whole different story, which I’ll talk about later.
Usually, however, these upper buds do just fine. When the tree leafs out next spring, they will enlarge into green figs, then ripen as the breba crop. Here in Portland, my Negronne brebas ripen during about two weeks in late July and early August. Other varieties are somewhat earlier or later, but it’s a midsummer crop.
Meanwhile, a new shoot will be growing out from the end of last year’s twig. At the base of most leaves, a fig bud will form. During the summer, some of these, mostly starting from the bottom of the twig, will enlarge, hoping to become figs. On Negronne, the earliest of these seldom ripens before the second week of September. Other varieties vary, but it’s a fall crop. In a cold, wet September, you may get very few.
Breba buds expand rapidly after bud break, and this can lead to some confusion about what’s going on. Structurally, fig fruits are shoots, odd inside-out shoots with many tiny flowers inside. They get the same growth push in spring as the new leafy shoots. So, breba buds quickly expand, in March and April, to full-sized green figs. Then, they just sit there for months, waiting for hot weather they need to ripen.
During this same time, the new current-year shoot expands some of its own fig buds. As the picture below shows, by early summer the new crop figs may be of comparable size to the breba figs. The only way you might know for sure the lowermost fig is a breba is that fact that it does not have a leaf stalk below it. Its leaf fell of the year before while it was still a bud.
Finally, in the heat of summer, the breba figs ripen. When fully ripe, they hang soft and floppy on their stems. Ripe figs show no milky juice on the broken end when you pick them.
Try to get them at the peak of perfection. As one writer put it, ripe figs can not be had “for love or money” when out of season. But if they do get away from you and dry on the tree, they are still at least as good as dried figs you would buy. They lose flavor, but keep sweetness — at least till they rot in the rain.
The new-crop figs, though they may look close to ready, are going to just sit there hard and green for weeks longer. Here in our mild Northwest climate, these main-crop figs tease us. In late summer a fig tree may appear “loaded” with these. In fact, fewer than half may ever get ripe. The ones with the latest start will simply run out of warm weather, and abort as winter comes on.
In a more typical hot fig climate, everything would be accelerated. The breba crop would flush in the first hot weather. The main crop would be pumping out by midsummer. In the long hot season, many current year figs would ripen.
Here in the Northwest, even main-crop figs that got an early start are prone the numerous problems. In cool, cloudy September weather, their ripening signals may get crossed. They may decide it’s time to drop before they ever get sweet.
Long rains after a dry spell can make figs split. Then, they most often rot.
Some Northwest fig varieties ripen their main crop all in a flush, in only a few autumn weeks. If one of these weeks is a week of rain, most of your crop may split or rot. Rain can also simply fill the figs up with moisture, so they are watery and bland.
To sum up: In real fig country, brebas are considered inferior, and attention goes to the later main crop. Here, the brebas are the best you’re likely to get. They ripen in our warmest, sunniest time of year. Our main crop is not ready till sunshine wanes, and the rains return. If we don’t have a warm, balmy autumn, our main crop is inferior.
So, the trick of getting figs in the Pacific Northwest is to have breba buds. Equally important is to have them low enough to reach. Notice that figs only appear on new growth. As a tree grows, that new growth is higher each year. Within several years, practically all the figs are high in the sky, where nobody gets them but the wasps and the birds. To prevent this, you have to prune; but how to prune is based on understanding the breba crop.
Below is a simplified diagram of fig growth.
Step “1” is in winter. The dormant breba buds are towards the upper end of the bare twig. The dotted line shows “reach height”, the upper limit of where you can reach while standing on the ground. If your fig tree is not this way, we’ll talk later about how to get it to be.
Reach height will vary by you. It would be chest height, plus a foot or two, maybe seven or eight feet maximum. Figs are not very satisfactory to harvest by ladder. The fruit ripens scattered all over the tree, so you would have to move the ladder for every fig or two. The trees are seldom strong enough to climb, to the fruit bearing limbs. Therefore, you want figs you can reach while standing on the ground.
Step “2” shows next summer. The breba buds have developed into ripe figs. The twig has extended by new growth. That’s the part that has leaves. Fig buds appear at the bases of these leaves, and some of them may develop into the late crop.
Step “3” shows the next winter. Leaves are gone, as well as any late crop figs. The buds that will be next years brebas are out on the tip. Notice two things. These are now way above reach height. Or if they are barely reachable by pulling the branches down, they will be far beyond in another year. Also, this branch will never have any more fruit low down. Never.
So, you have to prune this branch off. Yes, you are losing the potential brebas up there, but you would not be able to reach them anyway. You don’t want to cut back the branch only to reach height, but considerably below that.
Step “4” shows what happens. Next summer, the cut end re-sprouts. It forms figs in the leaf axils, and some of these may ripen into the late crop. Next winter, you will be back to step “1”. If you hadn’t cut back to well below reach height, this new growth, and those breba buds, would be up high.
This simplified diagram ignores any branching. That would mostly be in step “3”, starting at or above reach height. The story is the same. The breba buds would be all out of reach, and ever more so as the years went by. The only figs you would ever get would be from the occasional branch that curved outward low down. Branches that grow up in the interior of the tree are shaded, and have few fruits.
Notice that each individual branch is on a two-year cycle. It has to grow for a year, in which it will only bear late crop figs. Then, the next summer, when it ripens brebas, it will be growing too tall. You let it grow that season, in case it does ripen some late crop figs. Then you cut it off.
Here’s a detail that will pay you back. When you cut off a sizable fig branch, it tends to re-sprout a thicket of shoots, many of them thin and wispy. Only robust shoots, about finger-thickness or more, have the strength to produce figs. If you take the trouble to rub off all the extra shoots, and leave only a few to grow, these will be stronger, and give you figs sooner. Otherwise, the many shoots will all crowd each other, and remain thin.
Think of the fig twigs as individual plants in a garden. Rule of thumb: Thin them to at least a foot apart. Make room for sunshine to get in between.
Fruit gets sweet when the sun hits it. This does not make logical sense, since it’s leaves that photosynthesize and make sugar, not the fruit itself. But there it is. On the same tree, the fruit in the sun tastes best, while the shaded ones are second rate.
So, how do you actually manage a fig tree, to make it grow on this 1-2-3-4 cycle? There are various ways. You may be starting a new tree from cuttings. You may be planting a potted tree. You may be rehabilitating an old tree that has grown too big. I’ll talk about all these.
To start a new fig tree from cuttings, I have found it easiest to just put (about) three cuttings in the ground where I want the tree. On average, one of them will grow. Often, the cutting that grows is not the one you expected would grow, but you’ll usually get one. One is enough, then you’ve got your tree started. If more than one grows, just pull out the extras.
To plant the cuttings, I simply bury them in winter, most of the way in the soil, with only the tip sticking out. There are many other ways to grow fig cuttings advertised online. Most of these are from warmer climates more suited to figs. For example, rooting the cuttings in water probably works in a hot climate, but around here they mostly rot.
If you know anyone with a fig tree, they will certainly have lots of cuttings available from pruning. If a fig tree has a branch that curves down and then back up, it will have a strong tendency to root from the bottom of that curve. This is especially so if the curve is low enough to touch the ground. If left long enough, roots will grow from that touch point, and extend the fig tree into a multi-rooted patch. You can dig up these rooted branches and have a for-sure fig tree.
When growing a new tree from cuttings, one style is to make it branch about every foot. Below is a picture of one I am starting this way. This is the variety “Desert King”, the most reliably fruiting in the Northwest. Unfortunately, Desert King is a robust grower, with especially long internodes, the spaces between successive leaves along each twig. This means, left to itself, Desert King gets tall even faster than most figs. In only a few years, although it has lots of fruit, all that fruit is high overhead.
The technique of forcing branching solves this. To make a twig branch, when the section of twig is the length you want, a foot or so, simply cut off the end. Then, typically two or three buds back from the cut will grow, and so the twig has branched. The vigor is now “split” between the branches, and the overall height growth of the plant is slowed. It bushes out instead. If you look closely, you can see that this little tree, barely more than knee height, already has two figs. They are to the lower right.
As each dividing branch goes dormant for the winter, it will have breba buds that will become figs next season. As long as the tree is below reach height, your job is only to keep it branching. Sometimes, you may have to cut off breba buds, but it will be worth it to get the tree properly shaped.
By the time the tree gets to reach height, it will be a spreading “staghorn” or “clump” form. You can shape it flat, like a wall, so you will not have to clamber inside it so much. Some branch ends will inevitably be taller than others. When these are getting above reach height, cut them off as in the 1-2-3-4 diagram. The next year, previously shorter ends will be getting above reach height. You will have different ends in each half of the two year cycle, and therefore figs every year.
Incidentally, Desert King is so reliably fruiting in the Northwest because it’s stingy with current year figs. Left to itself, it grows long shoots each summer, but expands few of the fig buds along these shoots. Next spring, you will see them as big green breba-crop figs on the bare year-old sections of twigs. They don’t get ripe any sooner than other varieties, there are just more of them. In this way, Desert King can provide a significant crop even in the coolest parts of the Pacific Northwest, such as northern Puget Sound and Vancouver Island.
Fig shoots sometimes grow very vigorously. If yours do, you can summer prune, as in the diagram below. Leaves are shown as outlines, to focus on the branch structure. The dotted line is how the shoot would have grown, if not cut back.
Summer pruning can also increase the number of figs you will get the following season. Breba buds tend to be out on the furthest ends of the twigs. With no summer pruning, you only get one group of these buds, far above reach height. If you summer prune, you can get multiple sets of these buds because you create multiple twig ends.
A year later, after this network of twigs has fruited, you would cut off the whole thing back to the stub shown in dark brown.
Over the years, the branches at this level to which you cut back may become like knobby “heads”. This is fine. It is something like the technique of “pollarding”, except in pollarding you cut off all the branches back to the knob. This works in a “real” fig climate, where each year’s new growth gives you main-crop figs. But here in the Northwest, if you were to do that each year, you would never get anything but the late crop, which in our mild climate is unreliable. Instead, you let each shoot grow for two years before cutting it back to the knob. During the first growth year, you can control height by summer pruning, as shown.
Summer pruning is a balance, and Desert King provides a good example. As already mentioned, this variety tends to produce long shoots each summer, apically dominant, so few of the fig buds expand. They wait till next year, and you get breba figs. Summer pruning causes side shoots to develop. Since figs fruits are themselves shoots, some of them also expand, as if to become current-year figs.
For Desert King, current-year figs seldom ripen well. They fall prey to all the vicissitudes of splitting, rotting, wateryness, and early drop. So, summer pruning can make the tree “waste” some of its fruit buds that otherwise would become next year’s brebas. However, in the interest of controlling height and long term shaping of the tree, it’s worth it. Overall, the best plan is to keep the whole structure low enough that all new growth stays below reach height. Again, the 1-2-3-4 diagram.
You may be planting a potted fig tree from a nursery. I see this so often: Someone has brought me in for a consult, and they proudly show off their little fig tree, set to grow upright and stately like a maple. Sometimes, they have even staked up any spreading limbs, to make the growth even more vertical. Sure enough, it will be beautiful, but other things besides figs make better shade trees. Within a few years, no ground-walking creature is going to be able to reach any of the fruit. There are better ways to feed the birds.
Instead of planting your nursery tree upright, try sideways, as in the diagram below. Maybe it seems brutal to lay a tree down, but think about future growth. Very soon, the upright tree will be all above reach height. Horizontal, you have more options.
This is getting towards what I call “espalier-in-the-air”. People are charmed by little espaliered fruit trees, though the reality is hard to pull off. People think of espaliering apple, pear, or even peach; but somehow never figs. A big factor in these other species is the weight of fruit. A heavy load of, say, apples can literally tear off the branches. For this reason, espaliers of these species require some kind of scaffolding for extra support. Figs, on the other hand, never have high fruit weight. Once you get the branches trained, they support themselves.
Below is a diagram comparing typical espalier with figs. Typical espalier species bear fruit on “spurs”. That is, the growth does not extend much in the process of forming fruit. The fruit appears in pretty much the same place on the limbs year after year. Thus, the multiple tiers. Any upright growth that occurs you mostly cut off to get rid of it.
Figs, on the other hand, have to make extensive growth in order to form fruit buds. If you were to cut off all that growth, you would never get any figs. Each section of this growth is in the two-year cycle explained in the 1-2-3-4 diagram. This growth seldom has any trouble taking up all the space below reach height, so multiple tiers only get in each others way.
In commercial fig plantings, the trees are sometimes trained with four main limbs spread out like a cross on the ground, horizontal and very low. This way, pickers can get to the interior of the tree. You can see how this fits in with maintenance. Workers can cut the upright shoots back as low as convenient. Since these are in “real” fig climates, growers are not particularly interested in the brebas. They can cut the upright shoots right back to those low horizontal limbs in winter, and get plenty of main crop figs the following summer. Here in the Northwest, you would vary that. You would stagger the cutting back, to have some shoots making their first-year growth and setting up their breba buds, while other shoots that grew last year are bearing.
If you look up “fig espalier”, you are likely to see it done in traditional northern European style, flat against a wall. This is not such a good idea. Fig trees get very big roots, which can crack your foundation if planted too close. I have fig trees along my south wall, but set at least a couple feet out. I am gradually training them flat, but perpendicular to the wall. That way I can have more kinds of figs along the same wall. It doesn’t matter if the trees are eventually lopsided, hanging way out over the yard. Fig trees develop very strong roots and seldom topple over.
Below is a picture of one of my fig trees. You might think of it as an informal espalier, or just a shrub. It was given me as a potted sapling, already near six feet tall. I planted it sideways, and that original shoot is to the left. As other branches formed, I curved them out by a combination of pruning and spreading. By keeping the whole thing low, I can reach all the fruit.
Maybe part of your plan for a fig tree is to use it for shade. Well, as we have seen, if you let it grow up as a traditional shade tree, you’ll have that, but at the trade off of never getting any fruit. At least until the rotting figs splat down, wasp infested, in the middle of your picnic. However, you could train your fig as an east-west wall, an “espalier-in-the-air”, and enjoy your summer shade on its north side. You could make it more informal, curved as a “fort” for the kids. Or any number of things, now that you understand fig growth.
Finally, we come to the case of a big old fig tree that has been let to run riot. If I had one of those, this is what I would do. I’d wait till winter, and then cut it off at ground level.
Fig trees are pretty easy to kill, if cut down in summer. They may sprout back a few times, but each time they are pulling heavily on their reserves. With repeated cutting, they soon give up the ghost. I have had to do that a couple times, to get rid of fig varieties that did not prove out in the Northwest climate.
However, if cut in winter, fig trees shoot back up vigorously. If you think about it, this is essentially what happens when we have the rare extreme winter weather here in the Northwest. It freezes fig trees to the ground. Owners are at first appalled, thinking their tree is “dead”. A few years later, they are delighted at having lots of figs. At least till the tree grows too tall again.
There’s no miracle involved. At least half a tree is underground. Take away the top, and the lower half is still there, with nothing on its agenda but to start regenerating the top. Knowing what you know now, you can see that a little judicious training will get your tree back on a system, bearing figs you can pick from ground level for years to come.
When I restore an overgrown fig tree, I start by cutting it off at ground level, as in step “A”. The stump sprouts back, as shown in step “B”. I remove most of the shoots, but select a few to become the main branches. While these are still pliable, I spread them wide, nearly horizontal to the ground. After they put on some girth, they will stay in position. It may take multiple steps, as the ends try to resume growing straight up, and have to be re-spread. But soon the tree is on the 1-2-3-4 system shown in step “C”. This “espalier-in-the-air” can be flat, if that suits your landscape, or have more main branches like a cross or fan.
Some people recommend buzzing a Northwest fig tree to the ground every 4 or 5 years, or growing it as a clump and periodically chopping out some of the major trunks. You can see how these hacks sort-of work. Any cuts to ground level are going to produce sprouts from ground level. However, since all the growth is concentrated from one point, these sprouts grow very tall. If part of the tree is left, the new sprouts have to stretch even more, fighting to get out of the shade.
You see quotes like, “The shoots grew twenty feet high, and I couldn’t reach the figs!” The writer sounds a little smug; as though their naughty pet managed to thwart all efforts. Evidently, such fig trees emit a force field no human wielding pruning shears may enter. We can but stand by, helpless, all summer, as it slowly towers up and ever upward, to twenty feet.
If the writer had summer pruned, or spread the branches while still pliable, or simply removed the long ones, he/she would have had figs. But then, alas, there would have been no monster story to tell later around the campfire.
Not every shoot grows too tall, and so these hack methods produce some figs, some years. And therefore are considered “success”. I’ve tried to lift the veil of mystery on why they sort-of work. With a bit more finesse, and observing details such as the position of breba buds, you can get figs on a sustained basis, year after year.
I wrote this piece because all over Portland I see fig trees nobody is getting any fruit from, because they have been let to grow up into shade trees. Below is a picture of a young tree in my neighborhood. It’s only twelve feet tall, and had a good crop of figs, but already ninety percent of the fruit is out of reach. Why grow a fruit tree, for no fruit?
What’s ahead for a tree like this? A lifetime of raining rotten figs down on the sidewalk. Maybe the owner finally gets exasperated, and flails at the tree every couple years with pole pruners and chainsaw, pounding it into the shape of, say, a head-high apple tree. Knowing what you know now, how fig trees bear only on new upright growth, you can see that this merely perpetuates the problem.
Maybe the owner hires an arborist. Your arborist is expert at tree health, but he or she would have no way to know any more about fig fruiting than you do. Or did before you read this. If you hire an arborist for your fig tree, have them read this article first.
A question sometimes comes up, whether you can graft figs. A colleague and I in fact tried it. We were able to make it work, but it does not work very well.
It seems the copious flow of latex from cut ends literally “pushes” the grafts apart. We did a large number of grafts, but had only a few “takes”. This proves it’s feasible, but to increase the success rate we would have to find the best technique. We tried a variety of techniques.
The best appeared to be a side graft, using small scions. It seemed the small scion allowed the sap pressure to be relieved, by pushing out through the hollow core of the stem. (Not literally hollow, but filled with weak spongy pith.)
In practice, there is no real reason to graft figs. All the advantages for other crops don’t apply. Figs have no need for a pollenizer. There are no dwarfing or disease resistant rootstocks. To enjoy more types of figs, just start more trees, but keep them small.
Raccoons have not bothered my figs. Coons destroy all the plums, cherries, and grapes they can get to, so I’m not sure what’s different. Figs are not tart, like these other fruit, so perhaps the raccoons are not interested. Maybe the raccoons can’t easily climb the smooth fig tree bark, or the twigs are too thin. Maybe the figs come and go too quickly for the raccoons to get in the habit. Perhaps it’s because ripe figs don’t have a scent, at least not distinct from the general “coconut” scent of fig foliage itself. Maybe the coons don’t like coming so close to the house.
Below is a picture of one of my fig trees, trained to something between “staghorn” and “espalier-in-the-air”. The name doesn’t matter. What matters is all the figs are in reach.