The lucky people in this world have fig trees that grow with a “classic” tree architecture like the one we draw as children, something along the lines of epic florets of broccoli. The rest of us have figs that grow out of the ground in masses of seemingly random stems that proceed to cross one another, curving and branching in every direction with no clearly discernible pattern. The weight of leaves and fruit bring limbs to the ground, and they, under the cover of foliage, clandestinely root themselves into the ground, slowly expanding and inching the entire mass across the landscape, inevitably in directions not of our choosing. Pruning becomes a matter of self defense.
This fig is a Brown Turkey cultivar grown from a small cutting collected from my Grandfather’s tree in Atlanta. In the past I could rely upon cold winter temperatures to knock the entire tree back to the ground. To protect the roots, river rocks were placed around the base to collect sunlight, and a large pile of straw insulated the center to ensure that it always came back up in the spring. With warming temperatures over the past few years, it is now unusual for the tree to suffer any kind of cold damage, so there has to be quite a bit of pruning to keep it in check. Above is the crown of the “tree” before pruning, and below is the base.
It’s a tricky business getting in between the myriad stems and cutting out a few things without nicking and damaging others. I use a battery of tools including two different types of pruning saws, small pruning shears, loppers, and an electric mini-chainsaw for the really big stems. Sometimes, depending on how much space is available, a cut is made with one tool from one side and another from the opposite direction. Below is the cleaned up center of the mass, now a bit more open to allow for for air movement and new growth. I left a couple of rooted plants for neighbors and friends, but those will be much easier to pry out of the ground after a heavy rain.
The crown is a tougher customer. It is nearly impossible to follow the standard rules of pruning and remove every crossing or rubbing branch when you are cutting what is pretty much a bouquet of fig stems, gathered at the base. It’s looking pretty good right now, although I am resigned to it becoming a bit of a tangle soon after it begins growing again.
Brown Turkey figs make two different crops of fruit each year. The first batch is the breba crop that forms on last year’s wood and comes out in a flush with the new leaves. We had two nearly 90 degree days in a row (come on, April, give us a break), and they popped out early. The second crop will form on this year’s growth yet to come, and those are the figs that are left on the tree when the first freeze comes in the fall.
I fertilized this tree fairly often during the first few years it was establishing itself; it got a few bags of horse and rabbit manure as well as mulch. It is so well established now that I give it a bucket of wood ash from the fireplace once a year, spread out around the base where the roots are located, and then some compost before the leaf mulch gets applied in the spring. The ash helps raise the pH, and, if you have an acidic environment in your garden, can help fruit trees that tend to prefer a more neutral soil. The rest goes on the lilac, the persimmon, and the plum.
I’ve also started “leaving the leaves” as encouraged by various groups including the Master Gardeners in our area, so there was no raking in the bed that contains the fig. The leaf litter encourages all kinds of beneficial invertebrates and also helps nourish the soil. There are also claims of weed suppression, but the winters are so wet here that most everything has decayed by spring, so the weeds run rampant anyway. Nonetheless, a few hours well spent during the busiest gardening time of the year should help ensure a nice crop this summer and fall.