Pruning a Fig Tree and Other Plants

Pruning season is upon us. Garden priorities might simply be clearer this year, but the list of pruning tasks has grown dauntingly long.

Cotoneaster berries

Red Clusterberry

One of the most pressing tasks is to shape a Red Clusterberry (Cotoneaster lacteus) that began as a volunteer and grown to dominate one part of the garden. In the past, it has shrugged off significant pruning cuts. A common objective for pruning is to stimulate fruiting, but that is not a priority in this case.

This year’s pruning schedule began with controlling a rampant California wild grape (Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red’), which had grown without pruning for a couple years, and found its way into the branches of nearby trees and shrubs. Whacking it back has greatly improved its overall shape and should result in a bountiful crop of grapes. I will resolve once again to cover it with netting to protect a fair share of the clusters from unknown midnight marauders.

I have also pruned the new growth on four dwarf apple trees and sprayed them with dormant oil to discourage codling moths. Friends with the California Rare Fruit Growers, noting that moths fly, emphasize the need for neighbors to spray their trees as well, but I see no other apple trees in the neighborhood. I have also planned to cut selected main branches on one apple tree (Malus ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin) to gain some freedom of movement around it. My related resolutions include another spraying one or two more times before bud break, and thinning the fruit when it grows to about the size of a golf ball, to support the development of larger fruit.

My rose pruning project is more than half completed. My approach to hard pruning roses is close to the shearing style described recently in this column. I am also shovel-pruning some under-performing roses and intending to install replacements, with a preference for “own root” roses. Pruning suckers from grafted roses is the downside of whatever benefits might flow from a superior rootstock. Related resolutions: fertilize in the spring and irrigate regularly.

My next pruning focus is a large fig tree (Dorstenia ficus ‘Black Mission’), which dates back to around 1768, was grown in the California missions, and is a very popular fig for home garden cultivation. Fruit tree specialists also recommend several other varieties. Fig trees generally produce two crops of figs each year. The first, called the breba crop, develops in the spring on last year’s growth. The second, the main fig crop, develops on the new growth and ripens in the late summer or fall. My tree has gone several years without pruning, sprawled into large size and produced relatively light crops. Its low harvest might indicate the tree’s age or the effects of drought, but it might simply benefit from pruning. I will prune it heavily during the current dormant period to improve its shape and hope to stimulate a larger main crop.

Here are the basic pruning recommendations.

  • Begins by removing any dead, diseased or otherwise unproductive wood and any sprouts growing from the base of the tree.
  • Then, remove any secondary branches that are growing at a too-narrow angle (less than 45 degrees) from the main branches.
  • Then, cut back the main branches by one-third to one-quarter.

Related resolutions include resuming an earlier plan to establish an espalier form by training branches to posts on either side of the tree, and netting the tree at the appropriate time to protect the ripening fruit from winged wildlife.

My list includes more seasonal pruning tasks, all of which should result in wonderful growth in the spring.

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