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How To Save a Dying Fig Tree: 3 Quick Steps

I have a couple of brown turkey fig trees and they aren’t doing too well. Some of their leaves are turning brown and falling off and I’m a bit concerned. So, I did some research to find out what could be affecting them and how to fix it. Here’s what I found.

Fig trees typically die from improper watering, nutrients, or climate. However, transplant shock, pests, and disease can also affect them. For best results, water only when the soil is dry, provide compost, and plant in USDA hardiness zones 7-9. Once the source of stress is reduced, the fig tree should recover.

So, while fig trees can die from several causes, how can we identify which issue it is, and from there—how do we treat it? Let’s take a closer look.

a brown turkey fig tree

Can Dying Fig Trees Be Saved?

Dying fig trees can be revived if you first find the proper issue and apply a timely solution. The hard part is finding out which issue is affecting it. However, a good approach is to start with the possible issues based on the symptoms and try solutions starting from the least invasive to most invasive.

The reason why we want to start with the least invasive solution first is to minimize the stress your fig tree takes. For example, if we’ve narrowed down the possible issues to a lack of water or disease, it’s much easier on the fig tree to adjust its watering rather than spray it with chemicals or dig it up.

By approaching solutions in this way, it will also make it easier for you to treat your fig tree, as you can work your way up from simple solutions to more complex ones.

Can Fig Trees With No Leaves Be Saved?

Fig trees with no leaves can be saved as long as their roots, trunk, and branches are still alive. Since fig trees are deciduous trees and normally lose their leaves in the winter, they’re efficient at storing nutrients and regrowing their leaves. Prune a branch tip, if there is still green inside, it’s still alive.

How Do You Know if a Fig Tree Is Dying?

Fig Tree SymptomIssue*
Wilting/Curling LeavesUnder-Watered, Heat Stress, Transplant Shock
Yellow LeavesUnder/Over-Watered, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pests
Brown LeavesUnder-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Pests
Spotted Leaves or FruitPest or Disease
Dropping LeavesUnder/Over-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pest or Disease
Dropping FruitUnder-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Lack of Pollination, Pest or Disease
*While these diagnoses are accurate in many cases, they are still generalizations. Symptoms can vary based on the tree and issue.

Now, to give you a head start on what could be affecting your fig tree, let’s look at the 5 most common reasons why fig trees die.

The Top 5 Reasons Why Fig Trees Die

1. Under or Over-Watering

Fig trees most often die from over or under-watering. A lack of water causes drought stress and can lead to brown and dropping leaves, while over-watering can lead to root rot and green leaves dropping. The best way to water fig trees is to only water when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry.

Watering fig trees only when their soil is dry easily helps avoid over and under-watering. Also, small periods of drought provide the tree with healthy amounts of stress, which encourages it to grow deeper roots and access deeper water. Over time, the fig tree will become more water independent and better able to survive future droughts.

While watering fig proper amounts goes a long way, compost and mulch are also vital.

Compost greatly improves the soil’s richness, which increases the amount of water it can hold. Every 1% increase in the soil’s richness can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre (source).

Mulch shields the soil from drying out in the sun and wind. This not only dramatically reduces evaporation but protects the soil life (such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi). Over time, these beneficial organisms gather and provide the tree’s roots with deeper nutrients, in exchange for sugars created by the tree via photosynthesis.

In addition to only watering fig trees when their soil is dry, apply 2 inches of compost and mulch on top of the soil, keeping them at least 3 inches from the trunk to prevent mold. Reapply compost every 1-2 months and mulch every 3-6 months. Some good mulches for fig trees are leaves, bark, straw, and pine needles.

If you’d like to learn more about best watering practices and drought-resistant fruit trees, make sure to check out my recent post: 30 Best Drought-Tolerant Fruit and Nut Trees (Ranked). Sneak peek: fig trees made the list!

2. Lack of Nutrients

A lack of nutrients can cause fig trees to decline in health and lead to issues such as yellowing, browning, and dropping leaves and fruit. While fertilizers are normally more potent in nutrients, compost has been found to provide more than sufficient nutrients for both the tree and its beneficial soil life.

If you’d like to go with a store-bought fertilizer, aim for one with a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), such as a 10-10-10. For more information on fig tree fertilizers, you can visit my recommended fruit tree fertilizer page.

Alternatively, you can use compost. In addition to providing nutrients, compost adds to the soil’s richness and water holding capability (mentioned in the above section). On the other hand, some chemical fertilizers can cause more harm than good, short-circuiting the nutrient exchange between the tree and the soil’s microorganisms.

These nutrients [in compost and manure] can replace fertilizer needed for pasture or crop growth, eliminating the need to purchase fertilizers. Plants do not distinguish between sources of nutrients. However, compared to commercial fertilizer, manure contains organic carbon which is the key to maintaining soil health, including the characteristics of cation exchange capacity, soil tilth, and water holding capacity.

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Generally, store-bought compost will work well, but I prefer making my own at home. You can find out more information about homemade fruit tree fertilizer in my post here.

Soil pH is also important. With soils that are either too alkaline or acidic, nutrients won’t be properly dissolved in the soil and will become inaccessible to the tree’s roots. Because of this, aim to have your fig tree’s soil pH between 5.5-6.5.

ph scale couch to homestead

If you’re not sure how to measure your soil’s pH, you can use pH strips or a pH meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re affordable and easy to use. To see which pH I use and recommend, check out my recommended tools page.

3. Wrong Climate

USDA hardiness zone map
Source: USDA

Fig trees generally grow best in USDA hardiness zones 7-9, but some specific varieties have different preferences. Natively, fig trees are from the Mediterranean region and like warm, dry weather including areas such as California and Spain.

If fig trees are exposed to the wrong climate and suffer from too much heat, cold, or humidity, they’ll likely decline in health.

However, some gardeners are discovering they can stretch their hardiness zones and grow figs more reliably with methods such as:

  • Pots/Indoors
  • Greenhouses
  • Microclimates

While growing fig trees in pots and greenhouses are fairly straightforward, microclimates are more complex and can take lots of time and effort to influence.

If you’d like to learn more about microclimates and how you can adjust them, check out this video by Gardener Scott:

4. Transplant Shock

If you’ve recently relocated or planted your fig tree, and it started declining in health, it’s likely from transplant shock. Transplant shock is when a plant gets stressed by being moved to a new and unexpected environment. The more extreme the move, the more stress the plant gets. Recovery can take one year.

Transplant shock symptoms can vary, but generally, it results in wilted, yellow, brown, or falling leaves. Because of this, it’s important to move your plants gently, and avoid damaging their rootball.

It’s generally best not to transplant fruit trees at all if you can help it. However, this is not always possible, especially if you buy your fruit trees or need to move them to better draining soil.

So, if you’d like, here are some steps I commonly use to prevent transplant shock when planting my plants:

  1. Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
  2. Remove as much of the tree’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
  3. Grab the base of the tree’s trunk and wiggle lightly
  4. Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
  5. Lightly place the tree in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
  6. Make sure the soil is at the same level on the trunk as before
  7. Apply 1-2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil
  8. Water generously and add more soil as needed

Aim to plant fig trees either in the early spring or early fall (depending on if you get an early or late frost).

For more information about the best time to plant fruit trees, check out my post: When to Plant Fruit Trees: Spring vs Fall? (Solved).

5. Pests and Diseases

While it’s not as common for fig trees to die from disease and pests, Fig Rust, blight, and nematodes have been known to affect the health of fig trees. Typically, you can identify pests and diseases from spotted leaves or tree damage. Common treatments include sprays and planting companion plants.

Here’s some more information about the more likely pests and diseases fig trees can get:

  • Fig Rust – A fungus that infects fig trees in the spring, causing the tree’s leaves to yellow and brown, and shed early in the summer and early fall. Can be identified by rust-colored spots underneath the leaves. Treatments include pruning and sprays such as neem oil.
  • Blight – Another spring fungus that causes fig tree leaves to have yellow, pink, or white spots or even holes. If untreated, leaves can turn brown and fall from the tree. Highly infectious. Treatments include pruning, picking up diseased and dropped leaves, and sprays.
  • Nematodes – One of the most common pests that figs can get, nematodes damage the fig tree’s roots and can kill the tree given enough time. Treatments include soil sterilization, sprays, and planting companion plants—such as marigolds.

While it can be difficult to identify which pest or disease is affecting your fig tree, there are usually some signs.

For example, nematode damage isn’t apparent above the soil but can be seen by the swelling in the tree’s roots. For more information about accessing nematode damage, check out this video below:

How To Save a Dying Fig Tree

If you’ve tried following the above information for the most common fig tree issues, but don’t see the condition your tree has, or you feel you’re not any closer to saving your fig tree, there’s still hope.

Here are 3 steps you can use to save your fig tree, for just about any condition.

3 Quick Steps To Save a Dying Fig Tree

1. Identify the Possible Issues

The first step in reviving a dying fig tree is to identify the possible issues. After all, the process of elimination wouldn’t work if we didn’t know which options we were eliminating!

If you haven’t seen them yet, for more information on the most common fig tree issues, reference the above sections.

2. Isolate the Actual Issue

Once you’ve checked the specific symptoms your fig tree has, you can now cross off potential issues from your list.

Try to get it down to 1-3 potential issues that best match the symptoms your fig tree is exhibiting. This will give you the best chances to provide the right solution for it (you don’t want to spray the tree with neem oil if the problem is a watering issue).

If you’re still not sure about the issue your fig tree has, that’s okay! Call up your local nursery and get their opinion on what’s happening. You may need to talk to a few people to get their experience, but there’s a strong chance they’ve seen it before and can point you in the right direction (or even provide you with the solution!).

Additionally, you can contact your local professional orchard or cooperative extension service.

3. Test Solutions

Now that you have a narrowed-down list of the potential issues, it’s time to try the solutions one at a time.

Start with the least invasive and work your way up to the most invasive. For example, providing less water is much easier than going through the process of repotting the tree. Try to save that option for last.

Continue testing the treatments you believe are most likely to fix the issue. Hopefully, one of them sticks.

Worst case scenario, start from step 1 and make a new list of possible issues. There’s a chance you might have missed something or notice something new the second time around.

Stay persistent! It’s easy to say, “Dumb plant, why don’t you want to live?”, but there’s always a reason why plants act the way they do. Keep the course and see if you can uncover it.

More Tips to Keep Your Fig Tree Alive

  • Avoid fertilizing fig trees in the winter. Fig trees are deciduous trees and go dormant in the winter, so they don’t need excess nutrients from the soil. In fact, they typically store what they need in their trunk and branches, as the ground will likely be frozen and inaccessible.
  • Plant companion plants to boost pollination, reduce pests, and make an overall more productive garden. Companion plants are any two or more plants that mutually benefit each other. A good example is planting marigolds near your fig trees to prevent and repel nematodes. You can see more fig tree companion plants from my other post: The Top 10 Companion Plants for Figs.
  • Consider the fig’s native region. If you’ve tried many solutions, and haven’t found success, the fig may be trying to grow in a climate that isn’t suited for it. Too much heat, frost, or humidity could be stressing it and slowly killing the tree. Generally, dry and warm climates are best for fig trees.

Again, if you get stuck, I’d suggest consulting your local nursery, professional orchard, or cooperative extension service. They’ll be the best equipped and have the knowledge (and treatments) for the specific fig tree issues in your area.