I have a couple brown turkey fig trees and they’ve recently been getting some yellow leaves. While I had an idea of what could be causing it, I wanted to do more research to find out for sure. Here’s what I found about yellow leaves on fig trees.
Fig trees most commonly get yellow leaves due to improper watering, nutrients, and soil pH. Transplant shock, pests, and diseases can also cause it, and spotted yellow leaves are likely from disease. For best results, water fig trees only when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry and provide a quality fertilizer.
So, while fig trees can get yellow leaves for several reasons, is it normal for them to get yellow leaves in the fall and winter, and how can we treat yellow leaves the rest of the year? Let’s take a closer look.
Yellow Leaves on Fig Trees in the Fall and Winter
Like other deciduous trees (cherry, apple, and peaches), fig trees normally drop their leaves in the fall. Since maintaining leaves and keeping them alive during winter takes much more energy than regrowing them in the spring, deciduous trees would rather drop them. Leaves commonly turn yellow before being shed.
Chill hours (below 45ºF) are good for fig trees, but they aren’t as necessary compared to other fruit trees. For example, fig trees do well with about 100 chill hours per season, while other deciduous trees like apples and cherries can require upwards of 1,000 chill hours (source).
If temperatures get above 45ºF, dormancy will be broken and the fig trees will “wake up”. Fortunately, fig trees aren’t as dependent on chill hours as other temperate fruit trees. As long as temperatures don’t fall below 15ºF to 20ºF, fig trees will generally survive well.
However, if fig tree growth resumes after dormancy, and there is a late frost, early leaf and blossom growth can be damaged and stunt the tree for a season or more. Because of this, if temperatures are warming up, and you get a sudden late frost, cover your fig tree with sheets or bring potted fig trees indoors.
Yellow Leaves on Fig Trees in the Spring and Summer
While it’s normal for fig trees to get yellow and dropping leaves in the fall and winter, yellow leaves in the spring and summer are often from improper watering and nutrients. Other causes are transplant shock, pests, and diseases. If leaves are solid yellow, it’s likely stress, while spotted yellow is from disease.
Let’s take a look at the 4 most common reasons why fig trees get yellow leaves in the spring and summer.
1. Under or Over-Watering
Under and over-watering can both cause yellow leaves on fig trees. If left for too long, leaves will drop and the tree can die. The best way to water fig trees is to only water when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry. You can check this by pushing a finger into the soil. Also, apply 2 inches of compost and mulch.
Watering is one of the trickiest practices as it’s incredibly easy to either under or over-water. Factors such as weather, soil, tree age, and fruiting all impact the amount you need to water. Some days fig trees need lots of water, and others they won’t. Because of this, there’s no one rule to watering, but there are some ways you can water them properly.
By checking the fig tree’s soil moisture regularly, you’ll avoid under and over-watering. Only water fig trees when the top 2-4 inches of their soil is dry. As a result, fig trees will receive the proper amount of water and avoid issues such as drought stress or root rot (from waterlogged soil).
I personally check the soil moisture by pushing a finger into the soil, but you can use a moisture meter if you’d like.
Additionally, apply 2 inches of each compost and mulch, no matter your climate. These two practices are highly beneficial and will greatly improve your fig tree’s water independence. Watering in this way also encourages fig trees to grow deeper roots to access deeper water, instead of only growing shallow roots.
Compost provides valuable nutrients to the soil and increases the soil’s richness and water retention. For example, every 1% increase in the soil’s richness can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre (source).
Mulch protects the soil (and beneficial soil life) from drying out in the sun and wind. In hot weather, mulch dramatically reduces evaporation and captures moisture from the soil, while in cold weather, mulch provides a layer of insulation for the tree and its roots. Some good mulches for fig trees are leaves, bark, pine needles, and straw.
When applying either compost or mulch, keep them at least 3 inches from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold growth. Reapply compost every 1-2 months and mulch every 3-6 months.
By only watering when the soil is dry, and using compost and mulch, the odds that fig trees will survive and not get yellow leaves will greatly improve.
2. Improper Nutrients
Improper nutrients cause fig trees to get yellow leaves. Too little nutrients and the fig tree will be unable to provide for the leaves. Too many nutrients can chemically burn the roots, leading to stress. Both cases commonly result in yellowing and dropping leaves. Ideally, provide quality fertilizer or compost.
When it comes to chemical fertilizers, fig trees prefer a balanced fertilizer NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), such as a 10-10-10. While chemical fertilizers are usually effective, they can cause more harm than good.
Chemical fertilizers are potent in nutrients, and if there’s an excess amount in the soil, it can chemically burn the fig tree’s roots. This stress leads to yellowing and dropping leaves, along with root dieback. If left long enough, the fig tree can die.
While this isn’t too likely, perhaps the most damaging part of chemical fertilizers is how it impacts soil life.
Beneficial soil life, such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi, hunt for nutrients deeper in the soil and trade them to the tree’s roots in exchange for sugars (from the tree’s photosynthesis). Chemical fertilizers prevent this exchange, causing the soil life to become redundant and die.
Without this soil life working for the fig tree, the tree will have decreased nutrient availability and an increased chance of contracting pests and diseases.
Because of this, the best fertilizer is often the simplest—quality compost. Most trees evolved in forests and had plenty of compost in the form of decomposed animals and plants. These natural nutrients are much easier to absorb by the tree’s fine roots than ones that are made synthetically.
However, the choice is ultimately up to you. If you’d like to see which fertilizers I recommend for fig trees, check out my recommended fertilizer page.
If you do go the compost route, aim for quality and ideally—organic compost. Fig trees do well with 2 inches of compost applied under the drip line of the tree every 1-2 months. Unlike chemical fertilizers, it’s difficult to over-apply compost. You can also make your own fertilizer/compost at home.
Lastly, remember that nutrients aren’t everything. Fig trees also need a balanced soil pH to properly dissolve and absorb the nutrients in the soil. Aim for a soil pH of 5.5-6.5 for fig trees.
You can measure your fig tree’s soil pH by using pH strips or a pH meter. If you’d like to see which pH meter I use and recommend, here’s my recommended tools page.
3. Transplant Shock
If you’ve recently relocated or planted your fig tree, and it started getting yellow 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.
Here are some steps that I take to help prevent transplant shock for my plants:
- 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). The answer might surprise you!
4. Pests and Diseases
While it’s not as common for fig trees to get yellow leaves from pests and diseases, Fig Rust, blight, and nematodes have been known to cause issues. Typically, you can identify pests and diseases from spotted yellow or brown 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.
Other pests and diseases that cause yellow leaves on fig trees include scale, mites, and aphids.
If you’d like more information on these pests and diseases, 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.
You can check if a fig tree is still alive by pruning a small branch tip. If there’s any green inside, the tree is still alive and the leaves should grow back (as long as the tree doesn’t have any issues).
How Do You Know When a Fig Tree Is Dying?
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.
For a quick reference guide on reasons why fig trees die, I made this table below.
|Fig Tree Symptom||Issue*|
|Wilting/Curling Leaves||Under-Watered, Heat Stress, Transplant Shock|
|Yellow Leaves||Under/Over-Watered, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pests|
|Brown Leaves||Under-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Pests|
|Spotted Leaves or Fruit||Pest or Disease|
|Dropping Leaves||Under/Over-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Transplant Shock, Lack or Excess Nutrients, Pest or Disease|
|Dropping Fruit||Under-Watered, Heat/Frost Stress, Lack of Pollination, Pest or Disease|