Part 4: Pests, Diseases and remedies, Tips, Suggested Reading & Resources.
PESTS & DISEASES
Fig trees can fall prey to common backyard pests just as any other fruit tree would. It’s smart to have a strategy. Here are some of the more common pests you will encounter and a few tips on dealing with them.
- Birds - Birds have a special radar that will hone in on only the ripest and best figs. They seem to like darker figs better than lighter colored ones. Leave a dark ripe fig on the tree for an hour too long and it will be gone. Birds will become familiar with any deterrent over time and it will no longer work. It’s best to deploy several different deterrents over the course of the growing season. Remain diligent and stay on top of scaring the birds away and you’ll be rewarded when your figs start to ripen. Here are some methods to help deal with birds.
- Bird netting - Drape it over the tree(s) or build a frame to support it. Works wonder against birds and will help to keep out pesky squirrels too.
- Bird B Gone Holographic Flash Tape - Tie strips to the tops of trees. The strips twist and turn in the lightest breeze causing multi-colored flashing that scare the birds away.
- Aluminum Pie Tins, Old Compact Discs, Soda Cans - Tie to branches with fishing line. Even the lightest breeze will scare a flock of hungry birds. This is a great method but don’t let them get used to it.
- Predator Decoys - Plastic owls, rubber snakes, and hawk silhouettes. You can also blow up balloons, draw eyes on them and tie to branches.
- Predator Sounds - Broadcast in your garden. Don’t use continuously and move the speakers around the garden. I think this works best but can be a nuisance to neighbors.
- Articulating garden decorations - spinning, twirling, etc. Place them in different locations of the yard every day or so.
- Alternative food source away from the fig trees. This is a tough call because you’re attracting pesky birds to your property. Use this method on and off. Best used to support other methods.
- Chemical repellants - No chemicals are sprayed on or near our figs, but I’ve heard they work well. Use sparingly and with caution.
- Organza Bags - Cover ripening fruit with the little baggies and cinch them tight. 3” x 5” green or light blue are best. Birds will get used to these colors over the course of the season. If you have several fig trees with different ripening times, be sure to use other colors as well.
- Squirrels - Squirrels can be a nuisance in any garden and they are particularly attracted to sweet figs. They become adept at stealing the ripest fruit from fig trees and will frequent your yard more often when fruit begins to ripen. You’ll lose more ripe fruit to birds than squirrels, but squirrels are more destructive. They dig large holes in pots, frequently break branches and knock over small pots. Squirrel-proofing is difficult and costly. Here are some low to moderate cost methods of dealing with squirrels.
- Organza Bags - Cover ripening fruit. Once squirrels realize ripe fruit is inside the little baggies they will stop searching for ripe fruit on the tree and go after the baggies. Stay diligent and don’t let a ripe piece of fruit stay on a tree more than a few hours.
- Don’t feed them - Feeding attracts all kinds of creatures and it’s hard to exclude any when you’re purposely attracting them.
- Use a compost bin - If you compost food for your garden, do it in a bin and not out in the open.
- Remove bird feeders - Move them to another part of your property or squirrel-proof with a baffle.
- Motion activated sprayer - activates when a creature is near and sprays with water. Have never used this method due to space constraints. Heard it works wonders. There are many great online articles and videos.
- Trap - Many types of kill and humane traps are available. Use the type you’re comfortable with.
- Build a cage around your tree - PVC is relatively cheap and easy to work with. Cover it with netting.
- Add plants squirrels hate - Mint, hyacinth, and daffodils are all good choices.
- Ants - Ants are not only unsightly but can bring other pests along with them. Additionally, ants will sometimes crawl into and spoil your fruit. Dealing with ants swiftly, upon first sight is best. And removing ants from your trees will help to keep birds and other pests away. Fortunately, ants are not that hard to deal with. First, you must find out how the ants are getting to your trees. Are there ant nests in your pots? In the ground? In a neighbor’s yard? Follow ant trails backward to find the source. Then, disrupt natural pathways by moving hanging branches away from fences and other larger trees by rearranging pots or pruning. Spray natural remedies along fence perimeters, walkways, and the bottom holes and rim of pots. Sometimes ant problems are too big to handle alone. Store-bought pesticides will give you immediate relief but only work short-term. Commercially available traps will work just as good as any of the methods mentioned below. But if things get out of hand or you’re dealing with more than the run-of-the-mill ant, call a professional for help. Here are some natural control methods:
- Boiling water - Outside only! Locate the nest and pour boiling water directly onto it. May need multiple applications but this is very effective.
- Dishwashing liquid and oil - 1/4 cup of dishwashing liquid and one teaspoon of olive or canola oil mixed with about a quart of water will do the trick. Put it in a spray bottle and spray every ant you find. Spray along into trails as well. Pour the remainder in the nest if you know where it is.
- Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar - One part juice or vinegar and one part water in a spray bottle. Spray ants, trails and nest. Repeat until they’re gone.
- Borax and honey - Borax is a naturally occurring element, non-toxic when used properly, easy to buy and cheap. Find 20 Mule Team Borax in your local grocery store and Mix 1 Tablespoon with enough honey to form a paste. Place the paste near ant holes and nests. A disposable tongue depressor is best for this job. Ants will eat the mixture and die. They will also bring some back to the queen and it will wipe out the colony. Please keep Borax and Borax paste away from children.
- Pipe tobacco tea - Soak a pouch of pipe tobacco in a half gallon of water overnight. Use rubber gloves to wring out the tobacco and discard. Spray the tea on ants, trails, and nest. Very effective!
- White vinegar - Pour 1 quart at a time directly into the nest. Kills ants on contact.
- Peppermint oil - 3 Tablespoons mixed with a quart of water. Spray ants, trails and nest. Repeat until they’re gone. Great as a support method or maintenance. Leaves a nice odor, too.
- Cucumber - Ants hate the smell of cucumber. Place cucumber slices where you see ants. May attract other pests so don’t leave slices out overnight. Best to use this method to support another.
- Food Grade Diatomaceous earth (DE) - Easiest to find on Amazon or local big box stores. Sprinkle along ant pathways, around pots or anywhere you think ants are entering your yard/garden.
- Tanglefoot - Easy to use and organic. Create a sticky barrier around the trunk of your fig tree that ants cannot penetrate. This is the best method if branches and leaves of your fig tree are not touching anything else.
- Scale, gnats, mites and other pesky insects - Most garden insects are beneficial for your soil and the health of your fig trees. But some are bothersome, unsightly and just downright unhealthy. The best treatment for most is the most natural available. A good horticultural (dormant) oil like neem works best as an insecticide and it’s widely and easily available. Neem is a natural pesticide found in seeds from the neem tree. Go to your local big-box store and buy it pre-mixed or in concentrate form and mix with water. Spray your trees early in the morning or at dusk, never in direct sunlight. Neem treats a wide variety of insect problems including scale, aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, thrips, leafhoppers, and spider mites.
Diseases and other issues - Insects and plant diseases go hand-in-hand. Keeping the bad insects at bay will also help to control diseases, viruses and other issues that can appear. Every disease, virus, and fungus couldn’t possibly be listed but having the tools and a little know-how goes a long way to help you treat most issues. Most diseases and fungus can be treated with neem oil. Neem has the wondrous ability to be used as a fungicide as well as an insecticide. Spray it on the entire tree and use rubber gloves to rub neem into the leaves and bark if necessary. Use it liberally and spray in the early morning or at dusk, never in full sun.
- Fig Rust - Fig rust is a fungus that attacks the leaves and causes defoliation. Usually, by the time you realize there is a rust issue, it’s too late. Fig rust is not a death sentence but can cause serious issues that can quickly kill your fig tree. Fig rust travels very quickly from plant to plant. It is identified by yellow leaf spots that increase in size eventually turning brown and taking over the entire leaf. Once the leaf is damaged it will fall off. Sometimes portions or whole leaves will dry up and take on a sunburned appearance. They too will fall off. If caught quickly, fig rust can be treated with dormant or Bordeaux sprays. But the best medicine is sanitation. Always clean up fallen fig leaves and fruit. Additionally, try not to overcrowd, keep the soil on the top of your pots in good order and keep your fig trees watered and fed.
- Fig Mosaic Virus (FMV) - FMV is a viral disease specific to fig trees. Symptoms are mottled and misshapen leaves, poor and misshapen fruit development, slow and/or stunted growth. Some claim that FMV free varieties exist. Others claim to have a cure. My thoughts and opinions are that both are incorrect. Firstly, I believe FMV is of no consequence and based on my own experiences, Fig Mosaic Virus is present in each and every fig tree. Some show it more than others and I find that it appears less often in local unknown varieties than named varieties that are sold or offered for trade. I also believe there is no cure for FMV. My experience is that FMV will appear with stress. Too much or too little water, shock, premature pruning, root bound trees, damaged or sick trees; In my experience, all have displayed some type of FMV. On the other hand, with proper care and feeding, a fig tree heavily riddled with the virus will grow out of it and go on to live a long and healthy life producing lots of delicious fruit. If your tree displays signs of FMV please don’t fret. Take good care of your fig tree and it will soon grow out.
Some are philosophical. Some should go without saying. All are helpful to the fig grower.
- Know your USDA Zone. Some growers have homes and orchards in several different zones. Know all of them.
- Resource list. Compile a list of resources for trees, equipment, and growing supplies. Keep it updated, you’ll refer to it often.
- Err on the dry side. If you’re torn between, Does it need to be watered? and Maybe I should wait to water; err on the dry side. Skip the watering for another day or two, especially with young and very small trees.
- Try your best to grow organically. It’s hard to do but research and do the best you can.
- Learn how to cook with figs. Before you know it you’ll have a mountain of fresh fruit and you can only give away so much. Find a good jam recipe and buy a cookbook.
- Tag your fig trees. I can’t stress this enough. Get into a good habit right away. Use quality materials. Rule of thumb is, one tag is none, two tags are one, three tags are two.
- Buy fig trees from reliable sources.
- Join a forum or group and ask questions. Figgers are good people and love to answer a question.
- Start your fig journey by growing what grows. Find a variety growing in your neighborhood and ask the owner for cuttings.
- Don’t spend hundreds of dollars on a fancy variety until you know the basic principles of care and rooting. Collecting fig trees is very addicting and it’s easy to spend loads of hard-earned money on a fancy variety. Don’t do it! Learn the basics and get used to propagating and caring for newly rooted trees.
- Fertilize & root prune. Easy to do and your fig trees will reward you handsomely.
- Learn how to propagate and/or graft. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.
- Keep propagating your favorite varieties. Gift and give to family and friends. It’s a great practice and one day it will come back to you. It always does!
- Learn about drip irrigation. Drip irrigation will change your gardening life. It’s economical, easy to install and makes life so much easier. No specialized knowledge is required.
- Knock off any fruit set after the third week in July. The figs will not ripen before the end of the season and rob precious energy from your fig tree.
- Be careful of fig sap. It’s that milky, white discharge from pruned stems and broken leaves. Although the sap is not poisonous or particularly allergenic, it is reactive with the sun and can cause serious burns on the skin of some folks. Wear gloves, don’t touch your face. Wash with warm water and soap after coming in contact with it. Research or Google phytophotodermatitis for more information.
The New Fig Booklet by Ray Givan and Fred Born - Written by giants in the fig world. The small booklet is packed with great information.
The Fig: Its History, Culture, and Curing by Gustav Eisen - This is an older book and it may be available for free on the internet.
Grow Figs Where You Think You Can’t by Steven Biggs - Great for cold climate growers.
The Pruning Book by Lee Reich - You really don’t need a book for basic pruning, but this book will help the beginner and teaches some advanced techniques. Definitely worth having in the collection.
The Grafter's Handbook by R.J. Garner - This is the book to have if you want to learn to graft. There are several additions. The latest editions will have the most up-to-date information but older additions can be had for two or three dollars. The information does not change much so older editions will suit a beginner just fine.
Buying Fig Trees and Cuttings Online
Sex Life Of Figs: Coevolution Of A Tree & Minute Wasp - Great 2-part article.
Websites and Groups
www.CRFG.org - California Rare Fruit Growers
www.OurFigs.com - Forum dedicated to fig growers.
www.figBid.com - The safest and best resource for buying and selling fig trees and cuttings.
www.mountainfigs.net - The Most comprehensive collection of information about color, taste, and texture.
USDA - USDA interactive plant hardiness map.
Facebook: Rafed's Fig Group - A Facebook group dedicated to fig lovers. Need to be a member of Facebook and ask to join the group.
Seattle Garden & Fruit Adventures - Wonderful blog with lots of great information and resources for the fig lover.
Back to Articles
Back to Part 3 - Winterizing, Varieties & Propagation.