My parents have a couple fig trees in their backyard which recently started losing leaves. They thought it could be due to the autumn season, but they weren’t sure. So, to help them out, I did some research. Here’s what I found about fig trees and why they lose their leaves.
Fig trees are deciduous trees and normally lose their leaves in the fall and winter as the tree goes dormant. However, if fig trees drop their leaves in the summer, it’s likely due to stress such as improper watering, nutrients, or climate. For best results, water the soil only when dry and use quality fertilizers.
So, why exactly do fig trees drop their leaves in the fall and winter, and what issues might cause early leaf drop (in the summer)? Let’s take a closer look.
Why Fig Trees Lose Their Leaves in the Fall and Winter
As deciduous trees, fig trees enter a state of dormancy during the fall and winter and drop their leaves, blossoms, and fruit to reserve energy. Since the ground is frozen, they survive mostly off of stored energy. As a result, fig trees can handle more extreme winter temperatures than most evergreen trees.
Like other deciduous trees (cherry, apple, and peaches for example), fig trees shed their leaves starting in the fall. Since maintaining leaves and keeping them alive during winter takes much more energy than simply regrowing them in the spring, deciduous trees would rather shed them.
A deciduous tree’s dormancy is a survival technique to reserve energy, similar to how bears hibernate.
Since figs are native to the Mediterranean and warm, dry climates, they don’t require as many chill hours as other deciduous trees—instead of around 1,000 chill hours, fig trees only need about 100 chill hours per winter season (source).
Ideally, fig trees should be exposed to temperatures under 45ºF during the winter to maintain their chill hours.
If temperatures get above 45ºF, dormancy will be broken and the fig trees will “wake up”. Fortunately, dormancy and chill hours for figs aren’t as necessary as they are for temperate fruits such as apples and cherries. However, this can still pose a problem as active fig trees won’t be prepared to handle a severe frost that might come later in the season.
But what if your fig tree isn’t losing its leaves in the fall or winter? What if the leaves are dropping early, such as in the summer? Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes.
Why Fig Trees Drop Their Leaves Early (In the Spring and Summer)
1. Under or Over-Watering
Fig trees most often drop their leaves 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.
You can check your fig tree’s soil with a moisture meter, but I personally prefer to check by pushing a finger into the top of the soil. By watering only when the soil is dry, you’re only watering when the tree needs it and avoiding most of the risk of under or over-watering.
Along with proper watering, composting and mulching go a long way.
Compost adds valuable nutrients and 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). This is especially important during the hot summer months.
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 mutually benefit the fig tree as well.
Apply 2 inches of each compost and mulch on top of the soil, at least 3 inches from the trunk to prevent mold buildup. Reapply compost every 1-2 months and mulch every 3-6 months. Some good mulches for fig trees are leaves, bark, straw, pine needles, and grass clippings.
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 normally have more nutrients in quantity, compost has been found to have nutrients in quality.
If you’d like to go with a store-bought fertilizer for your fig tree, 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, which can even replace fertilizers.
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 works well, but I prefer making my own at home. You can find out more information about homemade fruit tree fertilizer in my post here.
Keep in mind that the soil’s pH is just as important as nutrients. Without a proper soil pH, nutrients won’t be able to be dissolved in the soil. Keep a fig tree’s soil pH between 5.5-6.5.
You can measure soil pH with pH strips or pH meters. I prefer to use a pH meter since they’re affordable and easy to use. You can see which pH meter I use and recommend on my recommended tools page.
3. Wrong Climate
Fig trees generally grow best in USDA hardiness zones 7-9, but some specific varieties have different preferences. They can typically survive temperatures as low as 15-20ºF. Natively from the Mediterranean region, fig trees like warm, dry weather which includes areas like California and Spain.
If fig trees are in the wrong climate, they’ll become stressed from the extreme heat or frost.
Symptoms of cold damage include brown and dropping leaves, blossoms, and fruit. Occasionally, some branches or the entire tree can die. You can protect fig trees from frost by:
- Planting cold-hardy varieties
- Covering the tree with bedsheets or tarps in times of frost
- Bringing potted fig trees indoors
If you have a potted fig tree and decide to bring it indoors during the winter, take care not to place it near the central heat. I accidentally did this to my potted Meyer lemon tree and the hot and dry air caused it to start losing leaves. After moving it to a cooler room, it recovered and even started new leaf growth.
Heat stress symptoms include leaf curl, brown leaves (usually starting at the leaf tips), and dropping leaves.
- Applying 2 inches of each compost and mulch to the top of the soil
- Providing a few hours of afternoon shade
- Bringing potted fig trees indoors or to a shaded area
We’ve already touched on compost and mulch, but don’t discount the benefits these two practices have during hot weather. Also, since the afternoon sun is typically much hotter than the morning sun, providing a shade break can go a long way.
4. Transplant Shock
If you’ve recently relocated or planted your fig tree, and it started losing leaves, 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 up to one year.
Transplant shock doesn’t happen every time a plant is moved, but there’s a good chance of it. Because of this, there are some ways to decrease the likelihood of your fig tree getting stressed from transplanting. Here are some steps that I use.
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the tree’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the tree’s trunk and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the tree in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the trunk as before
- Apply 1-2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
Aim to plant or transplant 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 lose leaves from disease and pests, Fig Rust, blight, and nematodes have been known to impact the health of fig trees. Typically, you can identify pests and diseases from spotted leaves or damage to the tree. Common treatments include sprays and planting companion plants.
Here are some of the most common diseases and pests 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.
If you’d like more information on these, and how to revive a declining fig tree, consider visiting my other post: How To Save a Dying Fig Tree: 3 Quick Steps.
Will Fig Tree Leaves Grow Back?
Fig trees that lose their leaves in the fall and winter will grow them back as long as the frost isn’t too extreme (typically below 15ºF). However, if fig trees lose their leaves early due to watering, nutrients, climate, or other causes, they need to overcome the issue before the leaves will grow back.
Why Fig Tree Leaves Turn Yellow and Brown
Fig tree leaves turn yellow or brown due to improper watering, imbalanced nutrients, transplant shock, or pests. Typically, spotted yellow or spotted brown leaves are symptoms of disease, such as rust or blight. For best results, start small (such as watering) and work towards more complex issues and solutions.