3-year-old stops growing dropping leaves and figs

FruitTreeLoverJune 24, 2013

I live in San Diego inland, planted a potted 1-year old fig tree from Home Depot more than 2 years ago and now it's the 3rd summer. I have heavy clay soil with lots of rocks (50% or even more below 2 feet). When planted, I made the mistake by following the planting instruction on the tag, just digging 2-3 inch lower than the pot (about 20 inch deep, with an diameter of 12-15 inch).

For the past two seasons, very slow growth (from 3 feet to 4 feet, but fruited both years, with 2 harvests of about a dozen figs in total last year. However, all leaves fall prematurely last summer to early fall last year. No pruning the first winter, and light pruning last December.

This Spring, after fertilizing with some steer manure, the growth was initially strong, with first 6 figs from Winter, and 22 figs popped up during Spring. However, since the raining season ended in April, the growth slowed to a halt, and it started to have yellow/brown leaves which eventually wilted and fall, from large old leaves at the bottom to now small new leaves at the top. This really resembles last summer, but this year it came much earlier. And even worse, more than half of the figs have dropped, starting from the smaller ones at the top of each branch.

San Diego this year has mild summer so far, temperature has been consistently between 55-80 degree. My fig tree is facing a canyon on the west, with strong dry wind and direct sun shine almost all day. In late Spring, I had sprinklers watering twice weekly with 2 gallons of additional water once a week. Since observed fallen leaves, and found the soil pretty dry before each manual watering, I've started to do sprinkler only once a week, but increased additional water to 3-5 gallons a week, which didn't seem to help. I will post two more close-up shots of leaves.

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Since San Diego is very dry in summer and the small tree has good air flow, I thought fungi infection like Rust unlikely. So what's left are water and sun.

This is a closeup for several leaves at the top of the tree, with yellow/brown at the tip or edge of the leaves first, and also, the young leaf at the right upper corner shows more yellow less green. I forgot to mention that I also used Vigoro citrus fertilizer 6-4-6 in late Spring as well.

Is it possible to know if I'm watering my tree too much or too little based on the pictures? Or if I should add some sun protection to the main trunk and branches? Thanks in advance.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2013 at 1:16AM
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This is a closeup of a leave from the bottom/back, where the stems shown as brown lines. This is very common for leaves before they turn brown and fall.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2013 at 1:19AM
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Did you prune the roots before you planted?

It does look like maybe it got too much fertilizer because of the brown tips and funky leaves. But if it is rootbound that is probably the main problem.

I think you are watering too frequently but not enough volume at a time. But I am on the east coast so don't have experience with your climate and soil type...

    Bookmark   June 26, 2013 at 4:06AM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

Not enough water. It grows good in spring after winter rains then shuts down. It needs a lot more water. The sprinkler probably isn't wetting much at all. And a few gallons by hand just isn't enough.

I'd apply more water and wet a bigger area.

This post was edited by fruitnut on Wed, Jun 26, 13 at 12:48

    Bookmark   June 26, 2013 at 12:46PM
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Oops, seems I lost my reply to banana yesterday. Hoosierbanana and fruitnut, I appreciate very much your insightful analysis and agree with you.

To earlier questions from HB, I didn't prune the roots before planting the fig in ground. I had hoped earth worm and the fig itself could break loose the heavy clay soil, but it may still be root bound after 2 years. This would explain the slow growth in general. Any suggested corrections?

I also agree that I likely put too much fertilizer especially considering the poor growth. I will stop fertilizing the tree.

The summer weather in SD is not very hot, but very dry. Daily highs are typically between 70-80 degree, but lots of sun shine.

Fruitnut, your suggestion was right on. Both of you came to the same conclusion. I was worried about the poor drainage from clay soil, therefore watering the tree with hand-measured volume. But putting things together, I can see now it must be lack of water. Since I can't dig out the fertilizer already in ground, more water will probably alleviate over-fertilization as well.

I've doubled this week's water volume to make sure the tree is soaked. For the last few days, the leaves shown in above pictures turned more yellow and likely I will lose them. However, hopefully the fig will put on some new growth after I add more water. I will keep you posted.

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   June 27, 2013 at 9:59AM
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I think now that the leaf problems are probably from the salt in the manure, or a combination of the salt, fertilizer from the manure, and fertilizer all at once. The citrus fertilizer should be fine but use a little less because you have clay soil. The mulch uses nitrogen as it decomposes and watering leaches it and potassium away quickly from the soil.

You can try digging a few inches from the original planting hole and see if there are fig roots in the soil there. If not you can dig in to the rootball and make a slice in the circling roots. Do another section in 3-6 months until you have made slices all the way around.

And/or you could widen (6'-10') and deepen (4"-6") the mulch. This should make the base of the trunk grow new roots that can spread easily outwards. If you can get finished compost a thick layer underneath would be great or a load of coffee grounds from starbucks. Earthworms love coffee grounds.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 7:07AM
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HB, thanks for the follow-up. I think you solved another piece of puzzle for me. I have two kumquat and one citrus trees which were fertilized in the Spring using the same steer manure from HomeDepot as well. They had lots of new growth, but also shed almost 70-90% old leaves over the course of 1-2 months following fertilization. I researched online reading about the life expectancy for those leaves are 18 months, but still I think it's pretty unusual for the old leaves to drop all at the same time. It makes sense to me now that the salt in steer manure might be the culprit. One question though, as the mulch takes away nitrogen, shall I give it more nitrogen to compensate?

I digged in two opposite spots immediately outside of mulched area, about 4-5 inches away from the rim of the initial root well. There are healthy fig tree roots there. I'm glad that my fig tree is not root bound. However, the roots are incredibly shallow, 1-3 inches below surface, which dries out within 2-3 days of full sun. So I will use your tip of compost/coffee grounds + mulch to help the roots.

I also did some reading on watering fruit trees. It's kind of eye opening to see the water penetration pattern on clay soil. I've ordered a drip watering kit and will install it when I get a chance.

Those yellowish leaves above already fell off the tree last week. There're new leaves turning yellow, but at much slower speed. I don't know when it can turn the corner, but hopefully soon.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 5:33PM
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Maybe you could put a shade canopy over the tree to keep it from getting so much sun while the tree is building a better root system. To me the leaves look like they are burning up from chemcal fertilizer reacting to the direct sunlight Figs are not citrus trees and don't need too much fertilizer. Your better off with compost, fish emulsion for nitrogen, a little agricultural lime to reduce acidic soil and to add calcium, and rock phosphate or bone meal for phosphrous. I think these are easier on the tree than chemical fertilizers.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 7:13PM
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The coffee grounds will supply plenty of slow release nitrogen, as well as potassium and phosphorus that is available immediately. Compost usually contains all nutrients needed for good growth. Here is a good page I found about organic nutrients I found while wondering if compost had phosphorus in it.


I think citrus loves coffee grounds as well. Starbucks keeps their grounds separate from trash, smaller shops don't seem to do that. The best time to go is after lunch if you want to get alot, but remember, the bags are heavy!

I also found this article about using coffee grounds on the left coast that should help you out as well.

Here is a link that might be useful: coffee ground test

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 9:21PM
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I have a similar problem, but, apparently, for different reasons - help! I have a ground planted, 5/6 year old fig. Initially I cut all the offshoots off to gain height. Within 2/3 years it was six feet tall. The first year, I got two figs. I picked the first one too early (I didn't know any better) and waited until the second one was near to rotting on the stem. It was the most delicious fruit that I have ever eaten! However, I have since, let the tree bush out, with no pruning. Each year, in December/January, I return to the Keys to find the fig bush dormant with no leaves. For two South Florida Winters, I watered it daily. It became flush with large, rich green leaves and produced more figs each year, but the figs would grow to about half size, seem to mature - a color change observation, then wrinkle up and fall off with no edible flesh. The slightest touch would frequently cause even the green ones to fall off. This year I added a very moderate amount of citrus tree fertilizer. Many more figs, five dozen ? or so, but all change to a mature dark brownish purple at half size and fall off. None are edible. I had added about two cubic feet of garden soil and peat moss (from Home Depot) when I first planted the tree. The ground otherwise has no soil, just a normal limestone island upon which we live. The bush gets direct sunlight 90% of the day. I have a potted two year old "Paradiso" fig that, with the same watering and fertilizer has produced two very good figs and two more will mature soon. No problems with falling off. Any suggestions? Thanks for your help.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2013 at 12:52AM
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Sorry for the late reporting. The July 4th holiday schedule in my house was quite crazy.

I'm happy to report that my fig tree started to grow again! It was absent for the last 3 months. I have attached a picture showing new buds on all the tips.

Terry, thanks for the tip of using sun shade. I actually used this trick when planting a young guava tree, which worked really well. However, the fig tree is facing a canyon, where the wind is very strong. I haven't been able to get the canopy staying in place, but have some other idea to try this weekend. As the old leaves continue to curl and drop, I think I have to try this trick with the watering change.

I agree with you on the compost vs. chemical fertilizer. It's quite clear to me now that I'm guilty of over-fertilizing the fig tree, so I stopped doing it except some coffee grounds outside of drip line to amend the soil. BTW, my soil is ph7, very uniform, so not sure if I should use agricultural lime.

HD, thanks a lot again for the great tip of coffee grounds. That's a lot of information on coffee grounds from your link! I'm not a coffee drinker, so instead of getting coffee grounds from Starbucks, I've been getting about 1/2 lb daily from my office for more than a week.

I actually have a question following your mulching tip. The fig is sitting close to an edge of a slope. I did pull up ground cover and extended the mulch area away from slope, but kind of debating if I should do the same toward slope since ground cover is there to prevent soil erosion from rain. The ground cover seems improved the soil quite a bit. For the places without ground cover, the soil was really dry and barren, while the soil under ground cover were moist and rich. I've found fig roots as far as 2.5-3 feet away from trunk. Do you think I should replace more ground cover with mulch? One thing I don't know is if ground cover will compete with fig on water and nutrients. However, in places where ground cover and fig roots co-exist, the soil is better than those with fig roots alone.

I've been using dripping from buckets to better water the tree, which seems to be working well. I also plan to install automatic dripping converting my sprinklers. The challenge I am not able to solve yet is ground cover and fruit trees need to be on two different schedules, but I have only one zone covering that space. Here is a link I found very informative to calculate how much water fruit trees need, which I miscalculated really badly before. I realized that I was giving my fig less than half of what it needs!

Bud, your tree is in a much better shape, as it grows really well. My tree after 3 years is less than 5 feet tall. However, I wonder if both of us are guilty of over-fertilizing the tree. From my reading, too much nitrogen during its fruiting time will lead to premature dropping of fruits. Does it apply to your case?

    Bookmark   July 13, 2013 at 10:48AM
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That is good thinking about the slope. I guess the best thing you can do is enhance the groundcover. It will add organic material to the soil as well. Some types will have deep roots that aerate the soil and bring water up from down deep.

There are so many weeds here I just remove the nasty ones and leave violets, dandelions, clover etc.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2013 at 11:11AM
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HD, Thanks for the prompt confirmation! I will keep the ground cover then. Today I actually found new figs popping up from the new growth near the tip. I'm really encouraged.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 12:59AM
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