Question:

Here in Upper Darby, I have four fig trees that were planted three or four years ago. Other than cutting back some branches that didn't survive the winter, I haven't pruned them, although they have grown quite a bit.

Some of my neighbors prune their fig trees quite aggressively with no ill effects, but I didn't want to hurt my relatively young trees. Do you have any advice for me?

- Toni R. Amato

Answer:

Growing figs in our climate is tricky because they prefer Mediterranean conditions. The biggest issue here is winter, but recent mild winters have been good for figs. (In recent memory, the standard practices included elaborate winter protections, one of which was digging a fig tree and shallowly burying it horizontally.)

My fig - propagated from a tree with Italian origins that was grown for years in Pittsburgh (whose winters are more severe than ours) - has come unscathed through the last three winters with no protective measures. But that doesn't mean that the next winter won't do a number on it. Last year, it fruited well, with ripening in September. Like you, I have limited pruning to removal of a few winter-killed stem tips.

One of my principal gardening tactics is to copy successful local practices. If my neighbor or the local arboretum has better results with a particular plant than I do, I try to do the same (soil, light, water, etc.). Advice from a book written by a Californian or a South Carolina blogger is not very local. So you could do much worse than to talk to your fig-growing neighbors. What size crops do they get with what sort of pruning regimen?

That said, here's the general advice on fig pruning gleaned from several sources, among them

Pruning and Training Plants: A Complete Guide

, by David Joyce of Britain (milder climate alert!):

First, figs can take a lot of pruning, and at various times of year. Proper timing will enhance fruit production.

Second, as with many fruit trees, when the plants are young, pruning is properly focused on shaping the tree, not fruit production. Several well-spaced branches are best, so thinning is likely needed to create the proper "scaffold," in orchard lingo. Once the scaffold is created, some regular removal of lateral branches is recommended because, if the fig tree is too leafy and dense, there isn't enough sunlight getting in to ripen the fruit.

Hereabouts, most figs that successfully ripen were actually formed the previous fall; presuming the tiny fruits survive the winter, they become the late summer crop. That's the reason for the (past) elaborate steps to protect the fig branches over winter. And, very important, that's the reason not to prune back an entire tree from fall through the next summer, for that would remove all those incipient fruit. Thinning, yes; entire cutback, no. (Figs formed in late spring or early summer are far less likely to ripen.)

Speaking of sun, remember the Mediterranean and site figs in as much sun as possible, keeping in mind our winters, which, not being Mediterranean, call for a protected site. Mine is grown against a southeast-facing wall, where it gets sun all morning and into the early afternoon. It wouldn't mind more sun, but the wall of the house provides wind protection and helps warm the soil in winter.

Send questions to Michael Martin Mills, The Inquirer, Box 41705, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101 or gardenqanda@earthlink.net. Please include locale. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.

com/michaelmartinmills.