“When do you prune pomegranate trees and fig trees?” Question from Renita of Flomaton, Alabama
Answer: Pomegranate (Punica granatum, USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11) and figs (Ficus carica, Zones 6-10) may both grow as trees or shrubs and have different pruning needs. Here are tips for when and how to prune them.
How to Prune Figs
Figs are deciduous further north and evergreen further south, so they need to be pruned differently depending on where they are growing. The goals when pruning a fig are to control excess branching, encourage an open habit and new growth, and control height. Fig fruits are produced on new wood in summer and a second crop, called a breba crop, is sometimes produced on the old wood later in the season. Breba figs are generally not as tasty.
Where I live in Delaware (Zone 7), my sweet ‘Celeste‘ fig’s stems may die back partially or even to the ground, so I wait to prune until I can easily scratch the stems in early spring. That way I can remove any branches that are dead. Southerners should wait to prune until the cool of late winter before new growth has begun to appear.
Start by cutting the largest stems back to the base as well as those that are overlapping and small and sucker-like. From there, you can cut the remaining stems back to 3-4 feet. Figs grow large quickly, so this process should be repeated annually if you want to encourage more compact growth. Fertilize them shortly after pruning with balanced, slow-release plant food, such as a 10-10-10. (Click here to learn more about growing figs, and click here for more detailed pruning tips.)
How to Prune Pomegranates
Like figs, pomegranate foliage can be deciduous, partially-evergreen, or evergreen, depending on how far north you live. Pomegranate fruits develop in summer on second-year growth, so care must be taken to prune them at the correct time and refrain from removing all of last year’s wood. Prune them in late winter before they flower. When pruning, the goal is to shape and thin the crown by cutting off any crossing, excessive, or overgrown stems. Each stout, main stem should have five to six lateral branches remaining. Tip growth can be cut back to maintain a uniform crown of 4 to 5 feet. A thinner, tidier crown looks good and should yield better fruit. It is also essential to remove any shoots or suckers from the base of the plant throughout the growing season. (Click here to learn more about growing pomegranates, and click here for more detailed tips on pruning and training them.)
As a child, we had golden raspberries in our woods in southern Indiana. Each fall, as I passed them in the morning to meet the school bus, I would see how many were ready to pick and pop the ripened fruits in my mouth. The lingering memory of their warm, sweet, raspberry taste makes them my ultimate autumnal berry, but there are many others to be grown and enjoyed in the garden. After doing a little research, I discovered that our woodland raspberry was likely an escaped golden-fruited Rubus ideaus, or cultivated raspberry, which makes finding it at nurseries easier.
Late-season berries come in all forms—from grapes to cranberries to raspberries. In this piece, I am also bending the definition of “berries” a bit to include figs, another fall favorite. (Botany lesson: fig fruits are technically aggregate or collective fruits called “syconia” (singular syconium) made up of multiple tiny fruits from multiple tiny flowers folded inward to form a single fig. The resulting fruit has a berry-like appearance.) Fall and figs go hand-in-hand. And, my figs are going gangbusters on this early September day, so I want to include them. They should keep producing into mid- to late-fall.
Garden Berries for Fall
American Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon, USDA Hardiness Zones 2-7): Ripening by late September to October, no berry says fall quite like the tart snap of an American cranberry. Cranberries are fully evergreen and grow in bogs with moist, sandy, acid soils. If you lack a bog (most of us do), it’s smart to create special beds for the best yields. Rows of low-set, broad nursery pots partially sunk in the ground and filled with sand and Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss work well. Keep the pots moist and supply fertilizer for acid-loving plants. Lots of pink, bell-shaped flowers will appear in springtime (bees pollinate the blooms) followed by ripe red cranberries in fall. Full to partial sunlight is needed–that’s at least 6 hours per day. The variety ‘Pilgrim‘ is especially attractive and spreads to form a tidy groundcover with plenty of flavorful berries.
Cape gooseberry or Peruvian groundcherry (Physalis peruviana, Zones 10-12): Imagine growing golden fall fruits that taste of tart pineapple, which can be grown like tomatoes or tomatillos. These are Cape gooseberries, close tomato relatives from subtropical regions in Peru. The husked berries are golden when ripe and mature from August until mid-fall when nights grow cool. Tender Cape gooseberries produce fruit the first year from seed, which is why they are grown as annuals. Eat them fresh or use them to make jam for canning or pie.
Concord or Fox Grapes (Vitis labrusca hybrids, Zones 4-8): Sweet, aromatic Concord grapes are a late-season treat that taste of grape jelly and purple grape juice. The twining, woody vines need a strong fence or trellis for best production and begin to produce fruit by late September. Seasonal pruning in spring will keep vines productive and in control. (Click here for some grape-pruning tips.) Try the popular Seedless Concord. It has all of the great flavor and vigor of the traditional type but it lacks the seeds–making them easier to process into jelly, juice, and pies.
Figs (Ficus carica, hardiness varies) grow very large (6 to 15 feet by 8 to 20 feet), even compact varieties, so plant them in an area with space. My Zone 7 garden requires that I choose hardier varieties. I have found that some hardy varieties taste better than others. My top choice is the small-fruited, super sweet sugar fig ‘Celeste’ (USDA Hardiness Zone 6-10) with its copious small, squat, purplish-brown fruits that produce most on second-year wood. This year mine is producing beautifully. Another that I want to try is the Louisiana State introduction ‘LSU Gold’ (Zones 7-9), which produces very flavorful, sweet green figs with pinkish flesh. Expect this more southern fig to be more cold-sensitive. When plants die back to the ground, they do not always set fruits on new wood. One means of protecting plants through winter is mounding mulch around the crown in late fall and then removing it in spring after the threat of frost has passed. (Click here for a full overview of figs.)
Golden Raspberries (Rubus ideaus hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones ): Some late raspberries are red and others are black, but I like the gold ones for their delicate, sunny flavor and unique beauty. There are several from which to choose. The large berries of ‘Anne Yellow‘ are deep gold with almost a hint of orange. Berries appear July and again in fall on tall, upright plants with thorned stems. Double Gold Yellow is a patented berry with thimble-shaped gold fruits blushed with pink. Thorned fruiting canes produce berries both in summer and again in fall. Pull and prune back new suckers to keep rows tidy.
Sink a few of these sweet berried plants in your garden next spring, and you will be rewarded with a wealth of fall berries. In the meantime, look for them at your local farmers market or roadside fruit stand.
Figs (Ficus carica) have yet to become commonplace in American gardens, although they are surprisingly easy to grow and even easier to eat. Some consider them frost-tender and finicky, but this is far from true. The tough, fruitful shrubs are exceptionally drought tolerant, due to their Middle Eastern and Mediterranean roots, and many cultivated varieties are remarkably hardy, even in more northern landscapes. Figs are also relatively self-sustaining, requiring little supplemental care once established. Truly earthy, sweet figs are perfect starter fruits for budding food gardeners with space and inclination.
Figs were one of the first domesticated fruits (along with olives, dates, and grapes) originating from the dry lands of the Middle East. Very early on, they were brought as far West as Portugal, and today wild shrubs freely grow across southern Europe and northern Africa as well as the Middle East, where they populate lowland stream and lakesides. In North America, they have become a lucrative crop, particularly in California and Texas. And here too, figs have escaped cultivation and are considered invasive in the southeastern United States and California, though seedless cultivars are available.
The small trees or large shrubs reach an average of 20 feet, and they are deep-rooted, though relatively tender. Their fleshy, sweet, teardrop-shaped fruits are called syconia (singular syconium) and are only pollinated by tiny fig wasps.
Cultivated figs have four standard fruiting types: Common, Smyrna, San Pedro. and Caprifigs. Each type has its own flowering and fruiting characteristics, but this piece will focus on Common figs because they are the most popular in North American gardens. This is because they don’t require cross-pollination, many cultivars are hardy, and some even have seedless fruits.
Common figs set fruit parthenocarpically, which means “without a pollinator”, so a single plant will set fruit. The fruits vary widely in size, color, sweetness, and flavor – some are eaten fresh while others taste best dried. In mild climates, plants may appear to produce fruits continuously through the growing season, but more commonly they produce crops in two flushes—once in spring and again in fall. The first spring crop is called the “breba crop” and produces fruit on last season’s growth; the fall crop is called the “main crop” and produces fruit on the current season’s new growth.
Fruit quality and shrub hardiness vary widely among Common figs. For this reason, they are further subdivided into several cultivar types, the commonest being Brown Turkey and Mission types.
Brown Turkey Figs
Brown Turkey-type figs are by far the hardiest but are not the most flavorful. Their brown to green fruits are earthy and less sweet, but a few cultivars are remarkably tasty. The small-fruited, sugar fig ‘Celeste’ (USDA Hardiness Zone 7-10) is deliciously sweet and produces loads of small, squat, purplish-brown fruits on second-year wood. And the French ‘Blanche’ fig (aka. ‘Marseilles’, USDA Hardiness Zone 8-10) is an old, green-fruited variety brought to the Americas by Thomas Jefferson and grown at his Virginia estate, Monticello. Jefferson described the sweet fruits as, “unquestionably superior to any fig I have ever seen.” They are also excellent for drying.
Mission-type figs are dark-skinned with rosy pink flesh and are by far the most popular for eating, fresh or dried. Many varieties are cold-tender, but a few will handle colder winters. The relatively compact and hardy ‘Black Jack’ (USDA Hardiness Zone 7-10) produces many sweet, purple-black fruits and reaches an average of 12 feet but can be pruned to a productive height of 6 feet. For many growers, the equally compact and hardy ‘Bordeaux’ (aka. ‘Violette de Bordeaux’, USDA Hardiness Zone 7-10) has the best-tasting fruit of all. The super sweet purplish black fruits have strawberry-colored inner flesh. Both ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘Black Jack’ grow well in large containers if regularly pruned and maintained.
Figs grow best in full to partial sun and average, slightly alkaline soil with good drainage. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers that will encourage leafy growth and reduce fruit production. Any quality fruit tree fertilizer would be perfect for figs and should be administered once a year in late winter or spring.
Mulch the roots with at least 3 inches of mulch to protect the roots in winter, and amend the soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, as needed. Container-grown specimens grow beautifully in Black Gold Natural and Organic Potting Soil and can be overwintered in a conservatory, garage or basement if provided cool temperatures and very little water while dormant or semi-dormant.
Though self-sustaining once established, figs will become unproductive if left unpruned for too long. Removal of the oldest, largest stems in spring keeps shrubs more compact, manageable and fruitful. Dead wood can also become a problem. Specimens planted in the coldest zones often die to the ground, with new branches arising from the living roots in the spring; all dead wood should be pruned back before new shoots emerge.
So, plant a fig for food and fun. With so many delicious and surprisingly hardy selections, they are truly fruits for every gardener.