Is Root pruning for Fig trees a good idea or not?

nkesh099(6)March 4, 2010

I heard that, root pruning for fig tree is advised. So, have anyone kept a fig tree in a container and had to cut back the roots? If so, when is the best time, how much to cut the roots and should I do it annually?

Thank you

P.S. I'm getting two five gallon Brown turkey fig trees, should I prune the roots this year or next year or is it something I should do few years later?

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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Root pruning is required if you wish to offer your trees at least the opportunity to grow to their genetic potential within the limiting effects of other cultural conditions. Another way of saying it is tight roots inhibit growth.

Studies show that at about the time once the root mass colonizes the container to the degree that it remains intact when you lift the plant from the container, that growth is affected - permanently, unless you correct the condition. Branch extension is affected first, but there are other ill effects that also ensure the tree will be growing under stress until the root-bound conditions are corrected. Simply potting up does not remedy the problem; it simply allows the plant to temporarily grow at a level of vigor somewhat closer to normal, which most growers confuse as a 'growth spurt'.

The best time to undertake root work is while the tree is dormant, and immediately before budswell (in areas where the actual soil temps may drop below freezing). In warmer areas, you might decide to repot/root-prune after the tree has become dormant/quiescent in the fall.

Ficus c is very vigorous and will usually grow best if you root-prune annually, every other year if you wish to push the interval. A 'general' guide would be to remove the bottom 1/3 of the root mass with a saw, bare root the remaining roots, then remove about 1/3 of those remaining roots, concentrating on the heaviest roots and those growing directly under the trunk.


    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 12:31PM
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Hi, i grow in containers and root prune every 3 years.
Best time is when plant is dormant.
Here are some links at figs4fun forum while your there browse around the forum and you can even join if you wish to.
You said your getting a few 5 gallon plants, what you can do if there dormant now is slide them right out and see how root bound the roots are first if there already starting to bud i would leave them and wait till next season when they go dormant.
The pictures will give you a good idea on how to root prune them.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 12:41PM
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I had a tree that I forgot to root pruned early last season. Its growth was stunted until I pot-up(late July) from 10 gal to 20 gal. Within a very short span the tree's vigor improved & was noticeable via new branching. By the time I had to get it indoor for winterisation(Nov), I could see the aggressive roots grown into ground. There is a definite benefit in root pruning. Also, all the other trees that were root pruned had awesome growth.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 4:30PM
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Thank you everyone with the information that you guys provided me with. It will give a better understanding on how to prune the roots and why I should do it.


Those links are very informative. Thanks once again.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 5:11PM
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Hello all -

Al - could you please explain what you mean by -
"bare root the remaining roots, then remove about 1/3 of those remaining roots,"
I would like to root prune this year but I don't know what the above means.

Also, is there a general rule of thumb for how much of the canopy should be removed when root pruning? For Figs should the roots be as long (deep) as the tree is high? --If I'm correct I think this would contrast to other trees like pine that I've heard don't send roots very deep but send them mostly laterally in shallow soil?

If I want to keep about the same height how should I root prune and if I did it that way would I expect increased vigor or do I need to prune the root and canopy significantly to get increased vigor?

As always thanks for your help.


    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 10:27PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

If you live where roots will be subjected to freezing temps, remove the plant from its pot while dormant, just before buds move in spring. Saw the bottom 1/3 of the root mass off with a sharp pruning saw. Remove all the soil from the roots. I use various tools that are specifically designed for root work because I repot up to 100 deciduous trees each spring, + the evergreens and tropicals that come in May and Jun/Jul, respectively. A hard, fine spray of water from the hose works well too. After the soil is removed from the remaining roots, first remove crossing roots and roots growing back toward the center of the root mass, then concentrate of removing the largest roots, especially those under the trunk. You should remove about 1/3 of the roots that were left after sawing off the bottom 1/3 of the root mass. If you do this, you will have removed about 1/2 of the o/a mass of roots. The tree will tolerate it just fine - it's very vigorous.

There is no actual need to remove any of the canopy because you pruned roots or to 'balance' the canopy mass to root mass. The tree will react to the reduced ability to move water to the canopy by delaying the opening of a portion of the buds until roots recover and water supply is adequate. You can prune the canopy at the same time you root prune if it fits with your plan for the tree.

You can pretty much disregard the plant's root growth habits in the garden or in situ situations when they are moved to container culture. Those plants that are normally shallow rooted in in situ situations will happily and completely colonize soil with roots, even the deepest containers. Plants like maples, rhodies, others that maintain a shallow root system do so because that's where they find air (the biggest reason) water and nutrients in greatest abundance. As long as those cultural needs are favorable in all parts of the container, the roots will grow there. Sort of like "If you build it (a good soil), they (roots) will come".

A good thread with more about root-pruning.

Heavy, peat-based bagged soils often impede root growth/function/metabolism and tend to cause a cyclic death and regeneration of fine roots because they hold so much perched water, so please be wary.

I'll talk about stress & strain for a sec because it leads into a short discussion about the difference between what you referred to as vigor, and what is actually vitality.

Sick plants are stressed plants. Stress is a condition that can be caused by interference in the plants ability to manage or allocate energy in the manner it normally would, or by the plant operating at or near its genetically programmed limits. Stress is reversible, but if unchecked will lead to strain, a much more serious condition. Strain causes injury and is not a reversible condition.

You might notice my regular use of the term Âvitality when I write. It is actually a plantÂs vitality that we can hold sway over, not its vigor. ÂVigor is constant. Mother Nature provides every plant its own, predetermined level of vigor by building it into each plant. Vigor is the genetic potential every plant is encoded with, and its measure is the plant's ability to resist stress and strain. Vitality, in contrast, is variable - a dynamic condition that is the measure of a plant's ability to cope with the hand it's dealt, culturally speaking. A good way to look at the difference between vigor and vitality is to look to genetics for the level of vigor and to things cultural for the plantÂs vitality. It's up to us to provide the cultural conditions that will ensure our plants' vitality. Vigor and vitality are distinctly different, and a good case could be made that they are unrelated, but there is no need to delve deeper into that point. A plant can be very vigorous and still be dying because of poor vitality. Far more often than not the term 'vigor' or 'vigorous' is misapplied, where in their stead the terms 'vital' or 'vitality' would have been more appropriate. Poor vitality is what we witness when our plants are growing under stress or strain and in decline.

I would like to take a moment to express my appreciation to the late Dr. Alex Shigo for his works, which have helped distill my understanding of stress, as opposed to strain, and vitality as opposed to vigor.

How to prune to keep the same height requires some planning, and will vary significantly from year to year. You'll need to allow some back-budding on the tree so the tall stem(s) can be reduced appropriately so it doesn't look like a buzz job if you want to keep it in tree-form. It would be easier for you if you allowed multiple stems and undertook a 3-year cycle of maintenance (sometimes called 'rejuvenation') pruning. Those are actual terms, so you can search them for multiple explanations of how to go about this type of pruning if you're interested. If you have more questions about pruning, I can probably help.

I hope that helps. Please forgive typos/misspellings. It's late and the day started early for me.

Take care.


    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 11:49PM
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wabikeguy(7 AB)

Al. How does one develop multiple stems? I have several young fig trees that I would prefer to develop into bush form. How and when can I prune to do this?

And...with new cuttings....will they naturally grow in that manner?


    Bookmark   March 6, 2010 at 8:48PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Usually, the first time you cut a pant back hard, it will produce multiple basal shoots and you can thin them to whatever number you want. If you wanted to, you could just cut any tree that was growing well last fall off just above the roots and many new stems would sprout from the stump. I do things like that all the time as a step toward building taper into my bonsai trees, but I know it's hard to make yourself do it the first time. ;o)

With new cuttings, it depends on how many nodes produce leaves. Usually all the buds that activate after the cutting strike turn into stems, unless you remove them. If only one leader develops, you can ensure multiple stems by removing the apical meristem (growing tip) after the stem has several leaves on it.


    Bookmark   March 6, 2010 at 10:10PM
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lisazone6_ma(z6 MA)

I hope you don't mind me jumping into your post nkesh099!

I am going to root prune and top prune my fig for the first time since getting it 5-6 years ago (I know, I should have done it already!).

I'm pretty clear on the root pruning, and I only need to top prune it enough so that it stays a size we can handle to get it in and out of the garage for storage each winter. I was going to cut each branch back about 6-8 inches just above a "node". Is that correct?

Also, mine unexpectedly started to bud! I thought I had another week or so before that would happen. They're just starting to peek out tho, so is it still ok to prune? It's way, way overdue and I think it will really suffer and maybe even die this year if I don't so I suppose I don't have much choice. It's a marsaille and it's a tree form, about 5 feet tall with a nice canopy of branches. While I'd love to get them, I don't mind if I don't get any figs this year - my main concern is keeping the tree healthy and growing for the future. Thanks so much!


    Bookmark   March 10, 2010 at 9:08AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lisa - you should remove branches en total, or you'll end up with a branch coming off each stub for every node on the stub + whatever adventitious buds develop. If you want to keep your tree in bush form, read what I said toward the end of my long post upthread about maintenance/rejuvenation pruning.

Prune asap. Initially, the energy to push foliage comes from an area at the base of the bud that is rich in starches and sugars, so it won't be much of a tax on energy reserves if you remove it as the flush is just starting, but it will be if you wait.


    Bookmark   March 10, 2010 at 10:11AM
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lisazone6_ma(z6 MA)

I don't want to have it change to a bush form, I want it to stay in it's current, tree form. It's just like a tree, with one, single trunk then it splits to 3-4 large branches, with a canopy of smaller branches coming off of each one of those. I was going to cut back each small branch by about half it's length, removing any that were growing wrong or rubbing. The tree is already pretty vase shaped with plenty of space in the middle of the canopy so light gets to all the branches. I was lucky that I got just about a perfectly shaped tree from the start. I assumed that, like with a rose for example, if I cut back to an outward facing node/bud, a new branch would form. Are you saying I should cut all the small branches back to the big, main branches? Then shorten each main branch a bit? I'm basically looking to reduce the overall height and canopy spread of the tree at least 8-10 inches smaller than it currently is. It's at the maximum size that we can handle as far as bringing it in every year to store in the garage and it's actually a bit too big now, which is why I'd like to reduce it down a bit. But I'm getting the impression from your post that I might end up with little "witches brooms" at the ends of the branches - is that right? Way too many small branches breaking from all these cuts?

Sorry if I'm not understanding - I've been gardening for 25 years but I've had a phobia about pruning and have avoided doing it so I'm not only hesitant to do it, I'm also clueless as to how!! But this is a beautiful tree and it gives me 40-50 figs every year and I'd hate to lose it or ruin it by pruning it wrong.

Thanks so much and sorry for being a pain!


    Bookmark   March 11, 2010 at 8:35AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Well, it sounds like you're pretty well-versed in how your tree will respond to pruning - which is a good thing. ;o)

I did misunderstand your intent. W/o seeing your tree, I think I would look at the branches near the top of the tree to see if any of those are inordinately thick and threatening to take over as the most vigorous (form the new leader) or are getting much thicker than lower branches you want to keep. If you cut those branches beck to 2 nodes, you'll slow them down. If you leave 4-6 nodes on the other branches (or a similar strategy) depending on how thick they are, you can balance the tree's energy (do it all the time on bonsai trees). Leave more nodes/buds on the lower and weaker branches because the tree is so apically dominant, and it will concentrate more than half of its energy in the upper 1/3 of the tree. So, cut back the top 1/3 of the tree extra hard, the middle 1/3 a little, and in the lower 1/3 - limit pruning to keeping the tree in bounds, unless whole branches interfere with your vision of how you want the tree to look and need to be removed.

For appearance, if you allow the weaker branches to extend to a greater length than the stronger branches (through summer) before you prune them, it will fatten them up and also balance energy. Keeping the top branches in check while allowing he lower branches to extend before you prune them is a good strategy.

I could show you how to do this in 10 minutes, but describing the technique isn't as easy. Hopefully, I've done well enough that you were able to understand what I said? You can share pictures if you'd like.


    Bookmark   March 11, 2010 at 9:47AM
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Hello A1 and everyone for their great advice about root pruning figs, you have answered many questions for me! I just want to check one thing however, timing. Is it really bad to root prune either during the summer or autumn or does it have to be just before they start the new season's growth? I live in the north of the uk, so I am guessing this would be end of feb/ early march. Would this apply to my small olive tree also?

I have always tended to repot (never root pruned) in the summer when it's warm!

Thank you for help!

    Bookmark   August 15, 2010 at 5:14AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

It's best for evergreen/tropical figs to do any major work in the month prior to their most robust growth - usually Jun/Jul, depending on where you live.

For containerized edible figs (carica): in areas where there is a possibility of freezing temperatures during dormancy/quiescence, it's best to repot, which includes bare-rooting and root pruning, in spring, just before buds move. In areas where there is no danger of freezing, repotting in fall after leaves fall is fine, as are spring repots.


    Bookmark   August 15, 2010 at 10:29AM
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Hi all We have some good experts here on these postings. I have my Fig trees planted in Pots which is 8 gallons each. I put about 30 to 40 holes in the middle and lower part of the pot. Then I bury the pot in the Garden soil. Around the Month of December I dig the pot out of the ground. The way I do it I dig a circle around the pot and cut the roots traveling from the holes into the Garden soil with a knife and take the pot in the garage for winter. My question is am I pruning the roots? or do I need to do some thing more. Also I prune the branches to a manageable height Is that good?

    Bookmark   August 16, 2010 at 3:58AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Root congestion and crossing/circling/girdling roots that occur once the roots have, at any point, become congested to the point that the root/soil mass can be lifted from the container intact permanently affects growth and vitality - until/unless corrected. Though you are pruning roots, you're not doing the sort of root pruning that alleviates the conditions I described or prevents them from occurring; so if you wish to ensure your tree can grow to its potential within other cultural limits, additional root work would be required.


    Bookmark   August 16, 2010 at 11:31AM
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