Pruning trees today for more fruit tomorrow

20-figtreeQ: I have had a fig tree in a whiskey barrel for years. It never grew very big, but we got just enough fruit to enjoy.

About a year ago a friend took a look at it and said it had turned itself into a bonsai plant. She told me to cut some of the branches, which I did. I got some nice new growth with bigger and better-than-ever figs. It produced fruit all the way up till November, something it had never done before. Now I have to replant it because the whiskey barrel is falling apart, and I plan to put it in another one because I don’t have space to plant in the ground. So I have a few questions. It’s probably root-bound and, if so, is it OK to cut off some excess roots? Should I add some vitamin B to help transplant shock? When should I do this? Now or in warmer weather? What type of planting mix would be best to use?
— Donna Barney, Simi Valley

A: Your experience with a fig tree illustrates two important horticultural principles. The first of these is that pruning invigorates growth. Pruning is an essential part of orchard management.

Deciduous fruit trees — those that lose their leaves in the winter — absolutely require pruning to produce substantial crops the year after. The amount and location of wood to be removed varies from one type of fruit tree to the other.

A second horticultural principle demonstrated by your fig tree is that the size of a root system does not necessarily correspond to the amount of fruit a tree will produce.

I have seen 8-foot tall fig trees grown hydroponically where the root ball was less than 1 foot in diameter. As long as water and fertilizer are regularly applied, there is no reason for roots to grow more than a minimal amount since root growth is simply a response to lack of water or nutrients.

As far as repotting is concerned, any good all-purpose soil mix will do and a mix that has slow-release fertilizer included in it would be ideal. You can cut away as much as one-third of existing roots when you repot a plant that is root-bound — where roots circle the container.

Vitamin B by itself will probably not stimulate new root growth but root hormone, which is usually included with the Vitamin B, should also be on the label. I would transplant after the middle of March when danger from frost, which could nip new growth, is no longer an issue in this part of the world.

No deciduous tree is more suited to the Valley or easier to grow than the fig. At one time, in fact, Sylmar and the north Valley were home to large fig orchards.

There are two crops of figs each year. The first crop starts to grow in March and is harvested in June. A much larger crop of figs begins to grow in April or May and is harvested over a period of several months, from July until October or even November.

Perhaps because it was harvested over a longer period of time than any other tree, the fig was associated, in ancient Israel, with continued sustenance, prosperity and peace. In the book of Micah (4:3-4), the famous verse, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,” is followed by “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree.”

In Los Angeles, the fig frequently appears at random as a volunteer tree. Unlike the Shamel ash and the California fan palm, which are unwanted intruders in the garden, a volunteer fig may grow into the fruit tree of your dreams, although, as a seedling, the quality of its fruit will be a complete mystery until it starts to produce, in three or four years’ time.

Since the fig produces its fruit on shoots that start to grow in the spring, it can be radically pruned in the winter without affecting the following year’s crop.

Of all deciduous fruit trees, figs have the lowest winter chilling requirement, or lowest number of winter hours below 45 degrees needed to produce fruit.

The reason cherry trees do not produce fruit in the San Fernando Valley is because they need a cold winter — Antelope Valley style — to properly bloom. In the manner of cherries, most apple and pear varieties require a cold winter, as do many varieties of plum, peach and apricot, in order to fruit.

The fig, on the other hand, does just fine where winters are relatively mild, if not sub-tropical.

Fig trees have shallow roots and benefit enormously from a mulch of straw, dried grass clippings, shredded bark or rough compost. If their leaves show signs of wilt in the afternoon or suddenly turn yellow and start to drop, it means that they are not getting enough water.

Generally, a slow and thorough soak from a hose once a week during the summer should provide more than enough water to keep a fig tree happy. Potted trees will require more frequent irrigation.

The fig tree is the easiest of all trees to propagate. Cut 12- to 18-inch shoot terminals in the fall, after all leaves have dropped from the tree.

Stand the cuttings in any fast-draining soil, in pots or in the ground and they should start to root and leaf out by the end of the following spring.

Tip of the Week

If you have a small courtyard or enclosed patio with a narrow planting bed inside along the edges, but still want to grow fruit trees, consider the possibility of espalier. Fig and apple trees are the easiest to espalier because of their flexible branches.

Espalier (ess-pal-yay) is a practice that involves growing fruit trees in a flat plane against walls or fences. It originated in ancient Egypt and first appeared in Europe in monasteries during the Middle Ages. The basic espalier form, which mimics the cordon system for cultivation of grapes, simply requires you to fasten horizontal lengths of baling wire at 14-inch vertical intervals up the wall or fence against which your fruit tree will grow. You may extend your wire cordons as far as 15 feet, meaning that you would have up to 7 1/2-foot branches growing horizontally off either side of the trunk.

Plant your tree so that the trunk is 6 to 10 inches away from the wall. This will allow for air circulation and plenty of room for the trunk diameter to expand without rubbing against the wall. One-year-old fruit trees are recommended, but older trees also can be utilized.

Select a standard, single-trunk tree and, after planting it, cut it down so that the top of the trunk meets the lowest wire on the wall. Shoots will sprout from the point where the cut was made and, when they are several inches long, you should snip off all but three of them. Two shoots should be carefully attached to the baling wire on either side of the trunk with soft strips of cloth and the third allowed to grow up vertically. When the ascending shoot reaches the second cordon, cut it and wait for new shoots to emerge before selecting three more shoots to continue the training of your espaliered tree.

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