After a rough winter with some single digit temperatures, we’re very pleased to see most of the figs in the city sprouting new growth!  The amount of winter damage has been very variable from site to site and even one tree to another.  Some are sprouting high on the tree:

Some are only sprouting from the roots at the base:

And some even have survived well enough to set an early Breba fig crop:
Early Breba fig crop forming at Earth’s Keepers Farm in West Philly, May 2018.

The amount of fig winter damage depends primarily on location and microclimate (proximity to thermal mass like walls or wind protection) as well as whether the figs were wrapped or otherwise protected for the winter.  Although most established figs should have survived, some fig crops are likely to be greatly reduced this year.  Some cultivars with shorter growing seasons (like Chicago Hardy, Celeste, Takoma Violet, etc) are more likely to regrow and fruit in the same year.

If you still haven’t seen any signs by late May, I’d still give it the month of June before giving up completely.
Late March or April is generally a good time to prune fig trees in Philadelphia, removing any winter dieback. At this point after a harsh winter, some figs may be showing some dead branch tips, identifiable by their reddish-brown coloration and lack of swelling buds.  For any growth that you’re unsure of, you can leave it until later in the month to see where new growth and leaves emerge.
Although POP has generally taken a minimal approach to fig pruning, it can be helpful to do some more aggressive pruning with these goals in mind:
1. Thin out overcrowded growth (each branch should have at least a foot of space around it)
2. Reduce height of figs extending beyond reach
3. Pruning to generate new growth.  Unlike most other fruit trees, the main crop of figs forms on new growth, so more aggressive pruning can actually help produce a larger crop.  NOTE: Some caution is needed, as over pruning can also delay the formation of fruit, which may be problematic for some slower-ripening varieties.
Figs take to pruning well and don’t need to be pruned to any particular form.  Since they have no significant pest or disease challenges, pruning is primarily focused on maximizing fruit production and accessibility and controlling size of the plant.
Here’s a good video on fig pruning and propagation:

Once it is clear where the regrowth is occurring, cut back your figs to just above any signs of green leaf or bud growth using loppers, handsaw, or pruners.  Reddish-brown wood is always dead and should definitely be removed.  In some cases, this could mean removing most or all of the branches after a harsh winter.  Good news is that figs are quite resilient plants and if they survived the winter, they are likely to make a full recovery.  A lot of winter damage is likely to result in a reduced crop and hopefully inspire greater effort at winter protection next year!  For more information on winter protection strategies and growing figs in cold climates, see our previous article:

And our primer on some favorite fig cultivars for Philadelphia:

This blog post was written by POP Executive Director Phil Forsyth. 

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