There is a lot of fuss around fig tree pinching. I think people do it more often than necessary because they don’t really know what it does and how it works.
Common misconceptions are that pinching a fig tree is always a good thing and that it forces a fig tree to produce more figs. It can help a fig produce fruit where it otherwise wouldn’t, but the chances of that are slim. Besides, that’s not what pinching is best used for.
You should pinch a fig tree when the average warm-weather season in your area is shorter than the required number of days your fig variety needs to ripen fully. Pinching will divert the tree’s energy into already formed fig buds instead of growing leaves and branches.
Notice I wrote, “already formed fig buds.” I will explain why that is crucial, but first, let’s see when and why pinching is useful.
Why Do You Pinch a Fig Tree?
You will notice, as I did, that people in warmer climates are usually against pinching fig trees. On the other hand, people in cold climates often claim they do it every year. I wonder why…
From time to time, a debate rages on the internet about the effectiveness of pinching, and it’s always the same, one group against the other.
To make the story short, growing fig trees in warm climates almost never requires pinching at all. I would say never, but there are rare situations where you can make figs taste better by shortening their season and avoiding heavy rains in late summer/early autumn.
And that leads us to the reason why do you pinch a fig tree, to shorten its ripening season. The method is generally useful in colder climates. But more than that, it relies on successfully calculating when the growing season will end and will your fig variety have enough time to ripen.
To state the obvious, you should pinch only if absolutely necessary. Pinching has its downsides like bushy growth and reducing fruit production in years after, which I will explain later.
If you pinch for the wrong reason, you won’t benefit from it while losing additional figs that would form along the particular branch as it continues to grow.
When Should You Pinch a Fig Tree?
Since pinching a fig tree is highly situational, there are two conditions that need to be fulfilled for pinching to be effective.
As we already mentioned, the first is not having enough days until the end of the growing season (weather-wise) for your fig variety to ripen. I’m saying “fig variety” for a reason because each has a different ripening period.
You can easily find how many days a certain fig variety needs to ripen by googling it. Since there are too many to list here, I will say that your safe bet is to look for early varieties which have ripening periods of 70-80 days. The average ripening period of all common fig varieties is about 90 days.
Once you find out the ripening period of your fig variety, it’s easy to calculate if you have enough days left or not. I always look for when the first frost appears in my area. The best way to look for it is to check when it appeared each year in the past ten years and take the earliest date.
The second condition for successful pinching is identifying fruit buds on your fig tree. You can’t even calculate the days if you don’t know if or when fig buds start to grow.
Before fig fruit buds appear, pinching is a borderline useless technique. I always say figs are very stubborn, meaning, if a fig tree didn’t intend to fruit on that branch, no method in the world would force it.
You could potentially stop the development of a branch that would be ready to produce lots of fruit the following year and get nothing in return this year.
Once you establish the necessity and the presence of fruit buds, you can pinch at any time during the growing season. Keep in mind, the later it is, the less effect it will have.
How To Identify Fig Fruit Buds?
The difference between leaf bud and fruit bud isn’t as obvious as we would like, but they can be distinguished.
New buds normally appear either in places where leaves fell off last year or above the new leaves from this year. When there is only one bud, it is more likely to be a leaf than a fig. That’s a problem because we can’t distinguish it early on. A well-trained eye could, but even then, it isn’t easy.
As buds grow, leaf buds will stay pointy, while fruit buds will round up and grow into a fig. Then you can know for sure even if there are single buds above each leaf.
The best way is to wait for two buds to appear right above an already grown leaf. Then one of those buds is certainly a fruit bud. If you are satisfied with how many of those are on a particular branch, you can pinch it if necessary, of course.
How Do You Pinch a Fig Tree?
I often see people pinching right in the middle of the branch’s internode. I tend to avoid pinching there because it puts a lot of stress on the tree, and a lot of wood sap leaks out.
I prefer doing it once the next node fully forms and the next internode is starting to grow. Then I can pinch only the new tip from that node. This way, the branch leaks very little sap, and it’s less likely to sprout new branches during that year.
Pinching itself is easy. I grab the tip with two fingers and bend it until it pops off. New growth snaps easily.
Cons of Pinching Fig Trees
I’ve already mentioned that you will have fewer figs the next year by pinching fig trees unless absolutely necessary. You will have fewer figs in the long run unless your tree has already grown to the size and shape you want.
Other than that, pinching can lead to bushy formations on the ends of pinched branches. When you pinch the tip, the branch won’t grow in that direction anymore but rather grow several new branches sideways from there.
Those side branches will be weak because now suddenly there are 3-4 instead of one. Next year, the fig tree will put all its energy into growing those branches instead of figs. You can lose tree form and figs. Then you need to prune the fig tree heavily during dormancy to correct its form. It can set the tree back by two or more years in its growth.
If you leave those bushy formations on the tree, there will be so many leaves that the fruit quality won’t be good if figs are even ripe since the sun won’t reach them easily.
When Doesn’t Fig Pinching Work?
It took me years to realize that pinching won’t magically produce figs out of nothing. If there are no fig embryos (fruit buds), there likely won’t be any figs.
Pinching in a situation like that may even have a counter effect of growing several new branches, especially early in the season. The tree will then put all its energy into new growth without producing any figs.
Fig pinching may achieve nothing if there is not enough food for the tree, in other words, not enough fertilizer. However, it can also happen if the wrong fertilizer is used for the fruiting season.
For example, using nitrogen fertilizers when a fig tree doesn’t need vigorous growth will only slow down fruit production and force the tree to grow large. Pinching will be countered by bad fertilization.
A fig tree with too much water can delay fruit formation similarly to nitrogen fertilizer. Water will trigger the tree to spend all the energy on growth until there is not enough left to fruit. Pinching can still help, but the effects won’t be as great.