I’ve seen fig trees become quite popular for home gardens and orchards, probably, because they are generally thought of as easy to grow. However, fig trees, usually grown in gardens and home orchards for fruit, tend to have similar issues with certain environmental conditions.
Some of these problems include having difficulty developing or losing leaves outside of the winter season. The reasons behind this issue can be challenging to overcome. They require knowledge and trying out a few different things before reaching any solutions. That’s why I want to share my experiences in this article and luckily save someone’s figs in the process.
Fig tree’s leaves stop growing either because of frost injury to the tree and its roots or improper pruning, fertilizing, positioning, or watering. Unless the whole fig tree dies, staggered leaf development can be reverted by a few techniques and proper care for the tree.
What Happens to a Fig Tree in Winter?
Before going into details about each cause of figs not growing leaves, I would like to mention a few things about fig trees in winter, what happens to them and how they behave.
Fig trees are deciduous, meaning they lose leaves in winter. That’s kind of obvious, but what isn’t obvious is that fig trees pause their growth and development. Growth pause happens to most deciduous trees. However, figs have a hard time coming out of this state because they originate from parts of the world with barely any winter. They need certain triggers to restart their seasonal growth.
A good thing about fig trees not growing leaves is that it shows us something is wrong on time to fix the problem and still get the fruit for the year. Now let’s see what the most common causes of this problem are, how to check and fix them.
1. How To Tell if Fig Tree Is Dead or Alive?
It’s always best to start with inspecting if a tree is dead or alive, even only at some parts, since it is the hardest thing to solve on this list of causes. Things are not as grave as they sound. Even if only one part of the tree is still clinging on to life, we can regrow it for years to come.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know if your fig tree is dead or alive during the dormant season, especially for someone without too much experience growing fruits. I remember I had issues distinguishing alive from dead trees in my early years, but now I know as soon as I look at it. Luckily for people with less experience, you can do a few things which will immediately answer this question.
I always try bending the branches to see if there is proper tension. Healthy fig tree branches have a decent amount of elasticity, even the thicker ones. When the tree is dead, branches will be a lot stiffer and break easily.
Another method is to use your thumbnail to nick a small amount of the bark away. If the color green can be seen beneath the bark, it is most likely still alive. Begin at the very top of the tree. If the underside of the bark isn’t green, move down the trunk to see if you can find a region with some life left in it. You can do this even on branches of bigger trees by cutting a tiny piece of bark to see underneath, but try not to peel it off in case it’s still alive. Then you can cover it back, secure it with rope and allow it to heal just like your own wound would. Covering it back like this prevents that branch from dying if temperatures are still low.
Solution to Dead Fig Tree Wood:
The first thing I always did is I would cut all the dead parts away. If the tree is in a pot, I would also take it out and inspect the roots. Make sure to clear out as many dead parts as possible because even though they are dead, the tree is still losing energy through them, either by being exposed or by those parts rotting away later on.
Secondly, make sure that all the soil conditions for fig tree growth are met. Figs can adapt to a wide range of conditions, but in the process of reviving the tree, you want everything to be as best as it can.
Lastly, if the time for buds to appear has come and there is none, I like to do some additional pruning because it can trigger healing and growth processes. If you notice tree sap coming out, try to keep pruning to a minimum, and wear gloves to prevent skin irritation.
If only one tiny branch is still alive, you can regrow the whole tree from it. However, it would take years, and it’s way better to get a new tree instead.
Sadly, if the whole tree is dead, there is no saving it.
2. Frost Damaged Fig Tree Leaf Buds
A few years back, one of my potted fig trees survived the winter well. Leaf buds started growing, everything going great, but suddenly, a few cold days with strong winds happened. I left it outside since I planned to put it in the ground anyway. To be honest, I wanted to test it to see how it’s surviving before the cold days are over. At first, it seemed fine, but then leaf buds became greyish-black. I scratched a few of them to ensure the buds died, and all appeared to be dry and ready to fall off. I thought I wouldn’t have leaves that year, but then I tried a few things and managed to find a solution. Although, I’m not sure if it will always work.
Potted fig trees tend to grow leaf buds 1-3 weeks earlier, and that is one thing I always look out for these days. I always protect them if buds come out before the cold is over.
Solution to Dead Fig Tree Leaf Buds:
I removed all the dead leaf buds. I would suggest doing this carefully, because some may still be green and alive inside. You want to leave the green parts because they will certainly regrow, but only if the dead part of the bud is removed to prevent rotting.
Next, make sure the fig is properly fertilized. In early spring, I prefer a balanced fertilizer like Southern Ag All Purpose Granular Fertilizer, and then figure out what more the tree needs later. It’s easier to analyze once the leaves start growing. The only thing left to do is to water the tree regularly, based on weather conditions. Figs don’t like the soil to be soaked in water. Their roots tend to rot that way. Then, eventually, leaves fall off when they shouldn’t.
3. Frost Damaged Fig Tree Roots
I have never had an issue with the roots of in-ground fig trees being damaged by frost. However, I’ve had it happen with the same potted fig tree I previously wrote about. I haven’t planted it in the ground yet, and I wanted to test if the same thing will happen again. What can I say? I like to test stuff and value knowledge over immediate results. This time leaf buds never even appeared because most of the roots were frozen. Luckily, I knew how to fix this from long before.
Solution to Frozen Fig Tree Roots:
My solution to frozen roots is always replanting the tree completely. I take it out of the pot, cut all the frozen roots, which can be identified by rot. If the rot is not visible at first, you can scratch roots to see the color underneath. Rotting roots are always in one of three colors; dark gray, dark brown, or black. Healthy roots have light natural colors, very light brown or tan in most species.
Once I’ve cut all the rotten roots, I like to give the tree better chances to recover quickly by pruning the tree to adequate proportions for how many roots are left. In my experience, the proportion of the tree to its roots should be 2:1 at maximum if you want a good chance of recovery.
Lastly, I plant the tree back in the pot with the soil clear of rotting root pieces. I don’t fertilize the soil immediately because roots are exposed by cutting, and they should heal before getting in contact with fertilizers. Otherwise, roots can get burned.
4. Pruning Fig Tree at the Wrong Time
Fig trees are more sensitive to pruning than most other trees. To put this better, fig tree wood is way more likely to start rotting if left exposed at the wrong time. However, this also depends on your location and climate.
Most internet sources recommend pruning in winter, but it’s not that simple. For example, you can prune your fig tree in areas with a warmer climate in early winter as soon as the fruit season is over. However, this doesn’t apply to areas with colder winter unless you can shelter your fig tree.
Most of my fig trees are in-ground, and I always wait until late winter or early spring to prune. The tricky part is that there is a small window of opportunity if you want perfect results. If the tree is already producing decent amounts of sap, it can hurt it, similar to the cold.
Remember that you must not prune fig trees once leaves are completely formed, or even worse, in fruit season.
Pruning fig trees at the wrong time results in cold damage or going into the dormant season for the whole year. If there is cold damage, you will notice some branches are dead, and it might stop the growth season altogether. If a fig tree goes into a long dormant season, it will appear alive under the bark, but it just won’t grow on time to form fruit. In this situation, leaves usually appear a few months late.
Solution to Pruning Fig Trees at the Wrong Time:
Sadly, it’s unlikely that anything will help for the year if you already pruned at the wrong time. I tried to do several things for people who made this mistake, and the tree always skipped the whole season. Luckily, if you apply the methods I mentioned in previous sections of the article, you can expect a full recovery next year.
5. Improper Fertilizing and pH Levels for Fig Trees
People often forget to check the soil from time to time, especially for pH levels. I was a victim of this once. I always adjust pH levels when planting my figs; however, I often neglect to check them later. Rain, certain stones, and minerals all change the pH levels of the soil in time.
Improper fertilizing and wrong pH levels of the soil can lead to leaves becoming yellow and falling off, or even not growing at all.
Solution to Improper Fertilizing and pH Levels for Fig Trees:
I check pH levels at least twice a year in large areas around each fig tree to ensure they have the best conditions possible. The best time to do it is the same as major fertilizing in early spring, at the time when new growth begins. Fertilizing and changing pH levels affect each other, and you should always do them simultaneously.
If your soil requires regular fertilizing in smaller quantities, you don’t need to check pH levels all the time. However, it’s good to plan ahead of time and see exactly what fertilizer and how much to use to keep the pH levels in balance.
The second time I check pH levels is during the fruit season, but I never adjust them at that time. That tells me how pH levels are affecting fruit quality and yield quantity. Once the fruit season is over and the tree goes into dormant season, I can adjust pH levels if necessary. That way, the fig tree won’t prolong its growth season into the winter, which can cause cold injury.
6. Breba Figs Lead to Delayed Growth Season and Frost Injury
Breba, or Breva figs, are a second yield that grows on the previous year’s growth and ripens in the spring. They rarely reach decent qualities except on a few fig tree species. They are a bit of a gamble if you live in mild climates that sometimes have cold winters. Brebas have a chance to give you decent extra fruit but can also lead to frost injury.
Brebas often confuse people because they grow while the tree has no leaves and start asking why there are no leaves. Don’t let that confuse you. If breba figs are there, maybe it’s yet not time for leaves to grow.
If leaves don’t appear at all, even later in growth season, that means breba figs took too much time and energy out of the tree, and they delayed the main growth season by months. That is not great because you might not get the main fruit that year at all. In addition to that, the delayed season can leave the fig tree exposed to cold damage in early winter.
Solution to Breba Figs Delaying the Growth Season:
Unless you have Marseillas, Desert King, Bordeaux, Ventura, Black Mission, Croisic, Grantham’s Royal, or Kadota figs, I would suggest getting rid of them as soon as they appear. Other fig species have very little chance to produce breba figs of good quality, and there is a high risk of problems later on.
On any of those trees that produce high-quality brebas, I always weigh my options to see if it’s worth keeping them. If they appear too early, or the main fruit starts growing early, you may end up with both on the same branches. Then you only need to get rid of some of them. For example, if you see them appearing on the same branch where the figs from the main fruit season are growing, remove breba figs and leave the main figs. You can remove figs from the main season only if you estimate that it would be more beneficial. All in all, it’s always better to have them on separate branches.
If brebas appear too late, I like to get rid of some of them to ensure the tree can get enough resources in time for them to get ripe.
7. Not Enough Sun for Fig Trees
Growing a fig tree in the wrong place is a common issue in colder climates. Fig trees need a lot of sunlight and warmth in the growing season. It may not be an issue when the tree is smaller. If it manages to get big enough, there is usually a threshold after which it cannot acquire enough sunlight for its size. This doesn’t happen that often because a fig tree won’t grow big unless the climate allows it. However, it can be triggered by one or two warmer years in a row which can trick a fig tree into growing larger than it should.
Solution to a Fig Tree Not Having Enough Sunlight:
If a fig tree is in a pot or small enough to be replanted somewhere else, I will move it to a better position, for example, near the south wall of your house. That way, your fig tree can benefit from sunlight and heat reflected from the wall.
If a fig tree has grown large and I’m unable to move it, I will prune it back to a proper size and clear most of the branches in the middle so the sunlight can penetrate through the tree to the branches on the other side. This method never failed me, and I’m sure it will work for anyone anywhere.